Everything from free radios to new schools, roads and water wells, cinema nights and tree-planting projects is being used to bind the people of Musa Qala into a new way of thinking about themselves.
Paid employment is being offered as an alternative to life as a Talib fighter. Every single project sends the key message that the Afghans are better off with the British.
Captain Christian Howard is in charge of delivering these messages and is head of psychological operations – “psyops” – at Musa Qala district centre.
“In terms of hearts and minds, you will only truly win an insurgency by bringing the people on side with what is good,” he said.
“We don’t want to change the Afghans. We want them to carry on with who they are and what they are. But we want them to be good to each other.”
The first results of a survey to discover the attitudes of the people of Musa Qala were delivered back to Army commanders last week. While they showed growing approval for building projects in the town, the people showed less support for the town’s governance. The British Army has a key role in shaping this governance, but how far the Musa Qala people link the two is unclear.
Walking through the streets of Musa Qala on Army patrol, it is apparent that the British are on a major charm offensive, albeit a heavily armed one.
The town bazaar falls strangely silent as the soldiers move through. Trading comes to a halt and the townspeople retreat under the canopies of their open-fronted shops. The stares are mainly hard and hostile, but the soldiers manage to juggle their security operation with an amiable show, waving and calling “salaam alaikum” (may peace be with you) and handing out sweets to some of the children. Some do wave and smile back.
Judging the “atmospherics” of the bazaar is a key purpose of the patrol. Today the hostility was judged to be about normal, with some signs of improvement.
Communicating with the Musa Qala people is difficult. Most have no basic literacy. Musa Qala FM has been set up to deliver news on Army activities and anti-Taliban messages. It is basically a propaganda machine, Captain Howard said, but is also one of a few tools available to reach out to the townspeople.
He wants people to get more involved, even get them requesting their favourite Islamic songs. He wants suggestions on what movies should be screened on film nights, but this is behaviour massively at odds with the core orthodox beliefs of the town, which for many years abided by the Taliban ban on entertainment.
“The films are mostly Bollywood, but watching people dancing is like watching porn to them. Musa Qala is as hardline as it gets.”
Needing another tool of communication, Captain Howard, who has a masters degree in military psychology, came up with a most British solution – a parish notice board placed in the heart of the town.
“Yes we have control of the airwaves, but not control of the bazaar where all the talking is done. I thought let’s do a newspaper’, but the thing is, everyone is pretty much illiterate.
“I have lived in villages nearly all my life and every one of them had a parish notice board.
“Obviously we don’t mention the word parish, as it is linked to Christianity, but using the board means that we can hit two senses, the visual with the board and the aural with the radio station.
“The Taliban are brilliant at creating rumours, but here we can start our own spread of information.”
A suggestion box is to be fitted to the notice board to give people the chance to offer their ideas and opinion, but it is early days. Such notions are alien to the Afghans. When the Afghan National Army first put up the board, they stuck the posters up on its roof leaving townspeople unable to read them. They did not quite grasp its purpose.
“There is nothing I would like to do more than some clever advertising, but it’s not like we are advertising alcopops. Somehow we need to achieve this psychological reach using very simple messages. It is a big challenge.”
The British Army has, however, found one fundamental emotion to mine – the Afghans’ deep respect for family life. Family is often referred to in the posters that are pinned up on the notice board. Slogans include: “My family loves Musa Qala FM.”
A poster designed shortly after a suicide bomber struck the town in April shows a picture of an injured child being comforted by a soldier and the town governor. It reads: “The Taliban tried to hurt your family.”
“We are trying to reach a deeper sense of identity and a sense of purpose. Look at the emotional environment. The only thing they really trust is the family. We need them to bring that same trust into a wider community,” Captain Howard said.
Captain Howard hopes to expand his operation with a £25,000 budget to buy laptops, Dictaphones and printers and create an “information cell”.
“How important will that be? I would say that one poster is worth 1000 bombs,” he said.
Captain Howard’s methods have merit. But Subadar Prag Tewarri’s methods should not be totally forgotten.