By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor
Despite their objections to the proliferation of mobile phones and social media among the Afghan population, the Taliban are increasingly adept at using them, says former ISAF spokesperson Major General Carsten Jacobson (above). Afghan Taliban tweeting ‘is quite a challenge, one that we have tried to counter’, he said at the IISS this week, adding that this was obviously not an easy task for a military organisation. (This Washington Post article has more on the subject.)
A media-savvy Taliban was just one of the challenges facing ISAF during Major General Jacobson’s time as the organisation’s spokesperson from June 2011 to May 2012. Responsible for coordinating ISAF’s message on its activities in Afghanistan, he found that the subject of the security transition from NATO to Afghan forces defined his tenure. Very soon after Jacobson took up his post, then-ISAF commander General David Petraeus (who resigned as CIA head last week) announced that the US would begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, with the goal of a full drawdown by the end of 2014.
Transition meant not just an effective transfer of administration in security and government but also in civilian matters, Jacobson said. ’Transition is the key driver of everything that happens … [it should be] an Afghan process driven from the bottom to the top … from villages to provinces.’
One of the key issues with which he had to deal were ‘green-on-blue’ attacks, where Afghan soldiers had attacked ISAF forces. After several investigations, he said, ‘we could prove that infiltration by the Taliban was not a large cause for green-on-blue attacks; that it was primarily [a series of] individual acts’. Battle fatigue, cultural conflicts, and sometimes personal or financial issues were among the causes – meaning the threat had not been eliminated.
Despite these and other obstacles, Jacobson said he was cautiously optimistic of a smooth transition. ‘The Afghans have got the chance and they have the tools … but there are risks. Afghanistan is not where it needs to be and not where it wants to be; there is a long way to go.’
With military operations increasingly subject to intense scrutiny by international, national and local media, it was important for media spokespeople to have a thorough understanding of the entire operation. Competing parties tried to get their message out, and competed for accuracy and speed. And in Afghanistan, Jacobson said, Western sources were often the least trusted.
He was the media contact for interviews following several controversial incidents, such as the Koran-burning by NATO soldiers in February 2012, and the reports of torture in Afghan-run prisons. He felt that, while the Koran-burning was a ‘stupid’ mistake, an important point was missed in the international reporting of the incident: Afghan police forces successfully contained the resulting violent demonstrations, and saved many lives. ‘It was a remarkable success of the Afghan security forces, and a very good sign for the future, which was not rightfully reported in the Western media.’
‘Staying friendly’ and ‘staying alert’ was an essential part of the job, especially when reporters had constant access to Twitter and could find things out before he did, because he was spending hours giving back-to-back interviews.
Major General Jacobson also gave a personal appraisal of the ISAF mission and the prospects for the development of a new international advisory mission. He identified the ‘chief strategic risks’ to transition as being Pakistan’s role in destabilising the country and government corruption. IEDs and civilian casualties also continue to be a ‘bitter subject’.