UK Communication Strategies for Afghanistan, 2001-2014
Thomas W. Cawkwell
London: Routledge, 2016
Hardcover. viii+198 p. ISBN 978-1472473523. £60
Reviewed by Emma L Briant
University of Essex
Cawkwell offers here a forensic analysis of changing narratives of British propaganda strategies in Afghanistan from the invasion until the war ended. It further adds to a body of evidence and scholarship critiquing the role the centrality of the United States plays in British foreign policy. Argument focuses on how the ‘transnational dilemma’ (King, 2010) between appealing to the public about the benefits of collective security makes acknowledging realistic costs of delivery difficult in strategic narratives. By appealing to collective security interests, then changing narrative and appealing to national interests, and trying to make the argument these are entirely complementary, Cawkwell argues Britain’s message on Afghanistan was undermined or ineffective. He gives an analysis of the impact this had on British communication strategies and even on shaping Britain’s strategic posture in Afghanistan.
Central questions asked here largely focus on well-trodden issues of effectiveness, though Cawkwell addresses these in an interesting and valuable way, presenting new evidence and interesting analysis. I felt a deeper theoretical engagement, unpacking the reasons behind US and NATO centrality in British policymaking, as well as other drivers to war in Afghanistan, would have strengthened this. While this is not an uncritical work, an important limitation is also imposed in choosing to adopt the language and the more limited concepts employed by practitioners (for example euphemistic concepts like ‘strategic communication’ instead of perhaps ‘propaganda’) rather than making a contribution to developing concepts that unpack the relationship between coercive and informational power. This limits the author’s ability to fully step outside of institutional framing and challenge institutional perspectives on events. Its fairly dense language makes it a book for a specialist audience and for scholars of foreign policy, NGOs and experts in the field of communication, which is a shame as it offers much insight into how the war was ‘sold’, implemented and justified via policy narratives that would be interesting to many.
The book is however a useful addition for teaching at the higher levels. Few books have given such a thorough and extended analysis of British propaganda in Afghanistan and this provides a truly valuable new study on a conflict that remains of continuing importance.
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