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Veteran PAO Discusses Communication Efforts in Afghanistan During Recent SGL

Article By: Amanda D. Stein

Rear Adm. Greg Smith served as the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Information before assuming his current role as Deputy Chief of Staff for Communication in Afghanistan. He visited NPS, July 12, to discuss the current communication efforts in Afghanistan.
 In a country where communication is largely by word-of-mouth, and radio is the dominant media outlet, the U.S. military in Afghanistan has had to place renewed emphasis on using information to empower local community leaders.

During a Secretary of the Navy Guest Lecture on July 12, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a thirty-year Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. military and current Deputy Chief of Staff for Communication in Afghanistan, gave an overview of efforts in the Middle East nation, and the progress being made in communication.  

Smith has acted as a leader in communication for the past four years in the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He served as the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Information from 2006-2007, and later as Director of Communication for United States Central Command.

He spoke about the current challenges facing the communication efforts in Afghanistan, and the value of information in a country with a 28 percent literacy rate. With the average age of the people in the mid twenties, many of the citizens of Afghanistan have only ever known their country at war.

Smith noted that the value of communication comes in a number of ways, from giving the people a voice to helping uncover the impact of insurgent activity on the local communities. Operating in a country largely dependent on word-of-mouth communication presents a unique set of challenges for the U.S. military leaders hoping to earn the trust of local leaders and disseminate accurate information while countering hostile propaganda.

Smith explained how far communication efforts have come since the beginning of the war, and the growth that continues daily as the U.S. military leaders utilize the power of information to encourage the Afghan people to stabilize their country.

He noted the growth that the country has seen in communication networks, and the growing trust that the Afghans have in the ability of their government to improve security in their country. One aspect of improving communication that Smith touched on was spreading word of the success of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan over the insurgency.

He referred to a comment made by a former Taliban commander, Mullah Bostan. “I stood alongside the Taliban for a very long period of time,” Bostan said. “After some time with them, I noticed that their actions contradict Islam. They were threatening teachers and destroying the country. Hence, I have chosen the government because what Taliban are presently doing gives nothing to our country and people.”

Smith expressed that the Afghan people have the power to decide when and how the insurgency ends, and that the spread of information between villages, and the growing trust amongst elder leaders within the communities, is pivotal to driving out Taliban activity. He showed maps of insurgent activity, the majority of which he said is concentrated in 13 primary districts, and gave examples of villages once overrun by Taliban control, now deciding to stand up for themselves.

“[The Afghan people] continue to change the game, one village, one road, one bridge at a time,” explained Smith. “By themselves, largely, or aided by partnerships backed by the government.”

Those efforts include regaining local areas that have been largely controlled by insurgents. He explained the counter-insurgency strategy as it applies to directly attacking the insurgents and the resources that sustain them.

“When it comes to rebuilding the nation, we aren’t there to put every kid back in school. But at the same time, we do have the responsibility to change the dynamics in Afghanistan, which would encourage the insurgency to become less capable.”

He noted the many changes that his career has seen in the past five years, including frequent trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, often for stays much longer than anticipated as U.S. military leadership worked on developing a solid network for communication efforts. But he encouraged the men and women of the armed forces to do their job to the best of their ability, whether they expect to be in theater for six months or over a year. He recalled a remark from retired Gen. Stanley McCrystal, former Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, on the value of seeing a job through to the end.

“General McCrystal used to say, in one of the most telling points of leadership I’ve ever heard in my life, if you were to go to war knowing you would not come home until you finished the job, how would you approach your job differently?”

Posted July 15, 2011

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