The Issue of Radio Jamming
May 13, 2009 by Kalsoom
According to Dawn, “…the [U.S.] administration is urging Congress to release $497 million of emergency economic assistance to Pakistan, hoping to make the lawmakers endorse the request as early as possible.” The UK has already pledged further aid to our country, promising £12 million for the increasing number of internally displaced persons. Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, and stated, “Frankly, I don’t really trust what I hear from a situation like that until the dust of battle has settled, but one thing is clear: 900,000 refugees have been registered with the UN in that area, and we have a major, major refugee crisis.” Dawn, in its coverage, reported, “Holbrooke told the panel during a hearing on the situation in Pakistan that senior Obama aides met at the White House on Tuesday to rush emergency assistance to Islamabad. The US, he said, had already provided over $57 million for this crisis from emergency funds.”
While it is significant that the international community is recognizing the gravity of the IDP situation, [see past CHUP post] I wanted to also highlight another part of Holbrooke’s hearing that I found extremely interesting. According to Dawn, “the White House has also discussed a proposal to counter radio broadcasts by extremist clerics in Swat and jam their transmissions. President Obama has already approved the suggestion to jam their broadcasts and to fund counter-broadcasts in Pashto and Urdu.”
Last month, the Wall Street Journal also reported on the Obama administration’s “broad effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan to prevent the Taliban from using radio stations and Web sites to intimidate civilians and plan attacks,” noting, “As part of the classified effort, American military and intelligence personnel are working to jam the unlicensed radio stations in Pakistan’s lawless regions on the Afghanistan border that Taliban fighters use to broadcast threats and decrees.”
The strategy is part of a broader counterinsurgency effort, specifically using information operations (IO) to achieve objectives, [for e.g., to decrease support and influence of the Taliban]. Radio jamming specifically pertains to the use of electronic warfare, a core element of IO, while the funding and development of counter-broadcasts fall under another IO element – psychological operations (PSYOP), [read this guide for more information on IO]. A senior U.S. official in Afghanistan told the WSJ, “The Taliban aren’t just winning the information war — we’re not even putting up that much of a fight. We need to make it harder for them to keep telling the population that they’re in control and can strike at any time.”
Last week, Dawn’s Huma Yusuf commented on the recently unveiled U.S. strategy of radio jamming. She wrote,
In the past few days, the U.S. government has made alarmist statements about ongoing military operations and the fragility of the Pakistan government. Shoot-from-the-hip comments make it easy for Pakistanis to discredit the American understanding of ground realities. But an announcement in mid-April that American military and intelligence personnel are working to jam illegal radio stations in the tribal and settled areas indicates that they’re attuned to local dynamics. After all, winning the information war is a prerequisite to winning the war against terror.
Saesneg, on his blog, linked Yusuf’s commentary to the wider phenomenon of “hate radio,” particularly during the Rwandan genocide, noting, “These stations and how they were tackled by NGOs and locals on the ground could serve as examples for how the Pakistan government and military may be able to fight the voice of the FM Mullah.” And, although the U.S. has already begun jamming stations in FATA, the FATA Secretariat has worked to produce sterile community radio stations in their place.
While I agree that this strategy is a much-needed effort, my reading into the issue raised several questions I will try to address on this forum. First, why is the U.S. seen to be spearheading this effort and not the Pakistani military? Second, was the publicity surrounding the U.S. jamming efforts in effect damaging to its strategy? Finally, what exactly should “counter-broadcasts” entail?
Let’s tackle the first question. In February, the blog Grand Truck Road included an in-depth piece entitled, “Myths About Radio Jamming.” The post debunked the Pakistani military’s claims surrounding the “impossibility” of radio jamming, ultimately concluding the Army’s reasoning – from saying they might also jam their own communications to the Taliban constantly switching frequencies – were just excuses. While this conclusion makes sense given Pakistan’s ambiguous approach to the Taliban prior to the recent offensive, I wonder if this still holds true today. Is the U.S. counterinsurgency effort an attempt to support the Pakistani military’s offensive or because Washington is tired of the excuses and is finally taking the issue into its own hands?
Second question – Was the publicity surrounding the U.S. jamming efforts in effect damaging to its strategy? This is a continuation of the previous issue. Was it smart to publicly broadcast that the U.S. was spearheading the radio jamming effort? With anti-U.S. sentiment still high, it has been vital for the Pakistani state to brand the new offensive as our war. Obviously, foreign aid is greatly needed for these efforts as well as U.S. insight into COIN, but it also seems counterintuitive to have Washington so overtly involved in military matters, [overtly being the key word here]. It is a war of ideas after all, and perception management has been vital. What do you think?
Finally, what should the FATA Secretariat’s counter-broadcasts entail? According to Yusuf (and echoed by Saesneg), the current broadcasts “come saddled with programming restrictions that make the stations largely redundant…How can such a bland, disconnected mish-mash of programming compete with the drama of an FM mullah?” She instead advised,
There is an urgent need in FATA and the settled areas to fund and facilitate local radio programming that is secular, informative and culturally sensitive. The airtime that FM mullahs expend on hate speech and sermonizing, official community radio stations should utilize for hyper-local news reports generated by residents of the tribal areas for their communities. Instead of mobilizing the youth to wage jihad, community radio stations can help communities become civically engaged.
Ultimately, radio stations need to counteract the impact of Taliban propaganda. The messaging needs to be strategic, the content needs to engage the populace. Given frightening news today that only 38% of Pakistan’s northwest remains under full government control, we can no longer afford to be ambiguous or lazy in carrying out these objectives.