“…every time we get ready to pull out, you’ll find huge increases in the number of… reports of al Qaeda and ISIS.” – Keith Lembke, Senior Advisor to the Afghan Ministry of Defence.

Recently, the US Central Command reported that the withdrawal of US forces in Afghanistan may be complete by July. Shortly after that, CNN published a sensationalist story, claiming that “Al-Qaeda retains global reach under Taliban protection”. Today, during a press conference, Ahmad Zia Saraj, the head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security, stated that ‘relations between the Taliban and al-Qaeda have become stronger than ever’.

The emergence of these reports is not a coincidence according to Keith Lembke, senior consultant to the Assistent-Minister of Defense for Intelligence in Afghanistan. Lembke has recently launched a podcast about spending the last 14 years living Afghanistan.

The seasoned American military expert describes these reports as ‘Information Warfare’ on his podcast. “They [the Afghan government] use their own press against us. They know the buttons to push with the West after 20 years to get what they want.” Lembke, who is an expert on information warfare, spent the last 14 years teaching, training and advising the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF).

“The US and the government of Afghanistan actually monopolised 99 percent of the technical press, the internet and social media.”

The West Point graduate describes information as a weapon. “As a military planner, I always plan information or information warfare as a weapon into a plan, just like I would plan the use of air bombs or the use of infantry or the use of ships or any other weapon.”

Lembke reveals how information is packaged and reports are altered in order to shape people’s perceptions. “So what you do is you package information into narratives. When you change reports slightly, you shape the information. So you shape the perception…in the United States or in Europe or the people supporting our war.”

“So when the Taliban does something, they report something on Twitter…we can stop that message. And what we can do right on top of that.. is to throw out our message all over the place. Both the (Afghan) government and the US do that. A lot!”

Lembke also describes how the packaging of information is made possible in Afghanistan: “The US and the government of Afghanistan actually monopolised 99 percent of the technical press, the internet and social media. So when the Taliban does something, they report something on Twitter…we can stop that message. And what we can do right on top of that.. is to throw out our message all over the place. Both the (Afghan) government and the US do that. A lot!”

The shaping of narratives and altering of information can, however, have a blowback effect. Lembke: “The problem becomes is at some point you start believing your own shaped narratives. And after 20 years, I’ve seen that our institutions actually believe a lot of the shaped narratives that we kind of made up back in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005. And that narrative becomes institutionalised to the point where, I mean, you really can’t tell the difference between the shaped narrative and the unshaped narrative.”

“The problem is that 99 percent of the people still want to live under Sharia law. And that has some implications.”

For the last two decades, the narrative has primarily been that the US is helping Afghanistan to have a free press. Occupying forces were supposedly there to ensure that the people in Afghanistan have freedom of information and freedom of speech. Lembke explains how that wasn’t the truth: “The US and the Afghan government own the primary press…. that would be the radio stations, the TV stations and the Internet and access to the Internet.”

The monopoly over means of mass communication in Afghanistan affects how people outside Afghanistan perceive the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. “What that means is everybody outside of Afghanistan hears one thing and everybody in Afghanistan hears multiple things….And Americans are only going to hear the Department of Defence’s or the Secretary of State’s viewpoint or the Afghan government’s viewpoint.”

After spending 14 years in Afghanistan, Lembke also highlights how, in his view, the purportedly democratic government of Afghanistan by no means represents the Afghan people. “99 percent of Afghans want to live under Islamic law. There’s many polls…the fighting really suggests that… all the indicators are there, if you look at them. We like to kind of shape the narrative so it doesn’t look that way. But we’re not really fooling anybody except for ourselves and the government that represents the progressive welfare state we want Afghanistan to eventually go to.”

“They’re going to save the Afghans from this thing called tribalism and save it from Islam.”

Lembke pulls no punches and makes no secret about how he sees the current Afghan government. “That small group of elites, the intelligentsia, they went to Columbia or they went to schools in Europe…They came back and they’re educated. Their families are still in Europe or the United States, but they come back here because we invited them back. They have huge pay-checks. They came back and they became part of the government… they’re ministers or they’re generals or they’re pretty high level police or they’re advisers to Ghani, the president.”

Lembke about the ruling elite in Kabul: “these people are shaping the future in their mind. …They’re going to save the Afghans from this thing called tribalism and save it from Islam. They’re going to separate the people from those two hierarchies and they’re going to create this new progressive hierarchy in the form of a welfare state. That’s how they’ll bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan. That sounds good.”

“..the 0,01 percent of the population that the government represents, the progressives… who …have 99,9 control of the press…they have control of social media and they have control over the Internet.”

Yet Lembke is not convinced that that is even remotely possible. “The problem is that 99 percent of the people still want to live under Sharia law. And that has some implications. I mean, the implications are very simply that the 0,01 percent of the population that the government represents, the progressives who have 99,9 percent access to the press, 99,9 percent control of the press…For the most part, they have control of social media and they have control over the Internet. And so that’s all we see, is those people. That’s all we hear is from those people. We don’t hear what’s going on in the bazaars, in the mosques. And the kalays [villages] in the communities outside of those small communities of elites.”

The isolation of the ruling elite from the wider population is also a problem for the security services. Lembke assessed that “…even the Afghan security forces, they don’t go wandering around outside of their local neighbourhoods that they feel safe in. And most of those, by the way, are in Kabul, a few little places in Mazar-e-Sharif, a few places in Kandahar. In other words, it’s little neighbourhoods in the urban areas where they’re safe. Outside of those urban areas, they’re not safe. Which tells you something in itself. So they don’t get out to those places. But the Taliban do.”

Finally, Lembke reveals how the ruling elite in Afghanistan uses information warfare in order to prevent the US from pulling out of the country: “Like, for instance, every time we get ready to pull out, you’ll find huge increases in the number of ISIS and al Qaeda people or reports of al Qaeda and ISIS. And all of a sudden the numbers will expand by three or four times right before decisions are made whether the United States will leave or not. Well, it’s just funny how that always happens….And then every time we get ready to pull out because we’re like, man, you guys are corrupt. And..you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, and you’re not making any progress. You’re a waste of money. Then all of a sudden you hear reports of how great everything is and then we get ready to pull out because, well, you’re all great now. You’re good to go. You’re independent, you can do it by yourself. All of a sudden you get reports that ISIS and Al Qaeda are back. They know how to press the buttons with the press and they shape their narrative to fool us. And it works.”

Listen to the entire episode of Keith Lembke discussing Information Warfare in Afghanistan here: