WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military can’t win credibility in the Muslim world through new public relations strategies and instead must pursue actions that build trust, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, took aim at burgeoning “strategic communication” efforts inside the armed forces in which officials plan how to present their operations and ideas to the public.
“We need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate,” Mullen said in an article for Joint Force Quarterly, a U.S. military journal, released by his office on Friday.
As they fight insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military officers have attached increasing importance to communications efforts.
Top officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates have lamented that a country which leads the world in marketing and media has been out-communicated by al Qaeda leaders in caves.
But, in a blunt assessment, Mullen argued this was not America’s main problem in the Muslim world.
“Our biggest problem isn’t caves; it’s credibility. Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises,” he wrote.
He said the United States was not even at “Year Zero” yet when it came to establishing real trust in places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“There’s a very long way to go,” he wrote. “The Muslim community is a subtle world we don’t fully — and don’t always attempt to — understand.”
He said the Taliban’s “utter brutality” and disregard for human life had not waned but the movement had achieved some success in Afghanistan because it offered concrete solutions to problems, not just rhetoric.
“Got a governance problem? The Taliban is getting pretty effective at it. They’ve set up functional courts in some locations, assess and collect taxes, and even allow people to file complaints against local Talib leaders.”
America’s enemies were always looking to exploit gaps between U.S. rhetoric and reality, such as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq, Mullen said.
“Most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all,” he said. “They are policy and execution problems.”
Editing by Phil Stewart