In the 1967 film ‘Dr Doolittle', the fictional eponymous hero attempts to learn to speak to animal language. This would open up a whole new world, he says.
‘I would converse in polar bear and python.
And I would curse in fluent kangaroo.
If people ask me "can you speak rhinoceros?"
I'd say "of courserous! Can't you?"'.
Dr Doolittle succeeds in learning to ‘speak rhinoceros'. Because of this magical skill, the animal kingdom comes to trust a human for the first time. The Doctor goes on to treat sick animals everywhere and right wrongs between animals and humans. The moral? Using the right language is the first principle of all effective communications. But nuance, tone of voice, allegory and metaphor are the stuff of genuine human verbal and written interaction. Real people don't communicate with each other using the sort of language found in grammar and linguistic guides. So how effectively is NATO ‘speaking rhinoceros'?
In April 2007, the poppy eradication programme was kicking off once again in southern Afghanistan. ISAF's mandate on the tricky poppy issue is complex and nuanced. The official line is that poppy eradication in particular, and counter narcotics in general, must be led by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GoIRA). There are many reasons for this. Of particular pertinence to ISAF troops is the understandable desire to avoid antagonizing an already volatile and exceedingly vulnerable rural population. ISAF must not be seen to be implicated in activities that harm the local population's ability to survive in a subsistence and entirely rural economy.
To date, ISAF troops have avoided becoming directly involved in hard core counter-narcotics activities. In April 2007, ISAF felt the need to reinforce this position. A campaign was mounted to explain to the locals that the poppy eradication in the region in the coming months would be carried out by the appropriate Afghan security authorities, not ISAF troops. While ISAF needed to put some distance between itself and eradication, it also needed to do so without diminishing its reputation as a trusted security enabler.
With only this limited explanation of the conundrum facing ISAF, the reader can probably see that the language and imagery communicating the required message in the right way would need to be highly nuanced. As an added complication, literacy rates amongst the target population are very low.
With such a highly sensitive issue, best practice dictates that the channels and tools for communicating the required messages should always be trusted local sources. Unfortunately, the places where poppy production is at its most intense are also the places where, for the moment, GoIRA's writ is weak or virtually non-existent. The upshot was that ISAF prepared a series of information tools including illustrated air-droppable leaflets and radio spots. Afghan staff helped prepare the materials which were tested on a representative group of locals. Based on the feedback, adjustments were made before the materials were launched at their targets. A few days later word reached ISAF HQ far to the north in Kabul. Things were looking sticky.
As a result of ISAF's information campaign, the people of Helmand Province had understood that ISAF would avoid direct involvement in poppy eradication. This was good. However, the locals had also concluded that ISAF troops would not defend Afghan counter narcotics security forces if they came under attack whilst attempting to carry out their eradication duties. This meant in effect that ISAF's messages had inadvertently given Helmand's poppy farmers the impression that attacking the Afghan police who interferred with their crop would be tolerated!
This is just one of the worst examples of many more minor and less explosive instances of ISAF and other international entities doing their best to communicate with Afghans - only to discover that they do not ‘speak rhinoceros'. The reality is that foreigners in Afghanistan can never convincingly ‘speak rhinoceros'. I believe we should stop trying.
Continue reading the full article in NATO Review.
Nicholas Lunt was NATO's civilian spokesman in Kabul in 2007. He has spent the past 20 years designing and implementing strategic communications programmes for public and private sector clients around the world.