In a dingy brick building at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, a printing press last week churned out what amounts to 2 million holiday greeting cards: reams of flimsy leaflets that'll soon flutter over Afghanistan, wishing villagers below a happy end to Ramadan "from the people of America." Near the print plant, a giant satellite dish beams a radio program with anti-Taliban messages to an air base in Oman, where crewmen rush a compact disk of the program to Commando Solo, a converted Air Force EC-130 plane packed with broadcasting gear. Commando Solo flies over Afghanistan, blanketing the country with the radio show for ten hours a day.
While B-52s rain terror from the skies, an elaborate psychological operation is fighting for the hearts and minds of Afghans, trying to turn them against Osama bin Laden. Command central for this war is the 4th Psychological Operation Group at Ft. Bragg, an eclectic organization like no other in the U.S. Army, made up of 1,200 special ops soldiers, academics, linguists and marketing experts, whose weapons are words and images. Since the U.S. bombing began Oct. 7, Air Force planes have dumped 18 million of the psywarriors' leaflets on Afghanistan, and Commando Solo has broadcast more than 800 hours of their radio shows.
American armies have used psyops since the Revolutionary War (leaflets were passed out to British soldiers at the battle of Bunker Hill promising free land if they defected). It has a reputation as a black art, the stuff of Tokyo Rose and Nazi propaganda, but today's psywarriors act more like Madison Avenue ad executives except they wear combat fatigues and jump out of planes. Four psyops specialists, for example, parachuted in with Army Rangers who raided a Taliban compound and air base Oct. 19; they heralded the arrival of U.S. forces by spreading leaflets with the picture of a New York firefighter raising an American flag.
Psywarriors have found that "the truth is the best propaganda," says Col. James Treadwell, the 4th Group's commander. Otherwise, "you lose credibility," he explains, and the audience tunes out. Leaflets have explained how to use relief food packets and warned civilians to stay away from combat zones. Commando Solo's broadcasts mix world news stories with sales pitches. A recent show, for example, reported on United Nations efforts to organize Taliban opposition groups and ended with the plea: "this must happen for there to finally be peace in Afghanistan."
But the truth can be used selectively. To get Iraqi soldiers to listen to its program during the 1991 Desert Storm War, Commando Solo broadcast the targets U.S. warplanes would strike each day. To win its market share in Afghanistan, bombers knocked out Radio Sharia, the Taliban station, and Commando Solo began broadcasting on a frequency near Sharia's. The CIA sent in radios for villages and Commando Solo played popular Afghan music the Taliban had banned from the airwaves.
A team of 35 civilian analysts, two-thirds of which are Ph.D.'s, spends weeks crafting the 4th Psyop's messages. "It's vastly more difficult to influence a hostile foreign audience than it is to introduce a soft drink into the market," says Robert Jenks, who heads the group's research arm. Leaflets have to be kept simple and visual because of Afghanistan's high illiteracy rate.
The analysts nixed an idea to drop ones showing the World Trade Center being struck; Afghans wouldn't relate to skyscrapers they'd never seen. Instead, many of the leaflets play on Afghan xenophobia, portraying bin Laden's terrorists as foreign invaders like the Soviets. On the front of one, for example, there's a drawing of Taliban chief Mohammed Omar's face on an Afghan Kuchi dog being held on a leash by bin Laden. Printed on it in Dari and Pashto, the country's two languages: "Who really runs the Taliban?" On the back, with the inscription "Expel the foreign rulers and live in peace," bin Laden moves pawns with Taliban faces on a chessboard. (Chess, which the Taliban also banned, was once enormously popular in Afghanistan).
Not all psywar schemes have worked. During the 1993 intervention in Somalia, a leaflet urging support for peacekeepers mistranslated "United Nations" so Somalis thought it said "Slave Nations." A Pentagon study concluded that Commando Solo's broadcasts during NATO's 1999 air war over Kosovo were largely ineffective. In Desert Storm, psyops soldiers held focus groups among Iraqi POWs to determine what messages resonated. Afghanistan is still too unsettled for the 4th Group to survey prisoners or civilians on whether they've been swayed by the pitch. "I think we're making a difference," says Treadwell. The proof will be the war's end and in an enduring peace.