Can This Man Outsmart the Taliban?
Former war correspondent David Ensor is shipping out for his toughest assignment yet: helping the State Department win Afghan hearts and minds.
The last time David Ensor visited Afghanistan, he was a correspondent for ABC News, covering the withdrawal of defeated Soviet troops after a nine years’ war—a Vietnam-like catastrophe that helped speed the breakup of the USSR.
Twenty years later, Ensor is poised to return—not as a journalist, but as chief civilian spokesman and, arguably, chief propagandist for a very different occupying superpower: the United States of America.
“The Afghan people have been exposed for the last 30 years to the best bullshit available—from the KGB and the CIA, from the Pakistanis, the Turks and the Iranians," Mohseni says.
The irony is doubtless not lost on him: The 58-year-old Ensor is, by most accounts, a savvy and serious analyst of recent geopolitical history. But when he arrives in Kabul in the next few weeks—with the mission of formulating and executing a so-called information strategy to combat anti-American propaganda while winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans beset by Taliban insurgents, occasionally misdirected American bombs and a corrupt, ineffectual government—he will find a country even more hostile and chaotic than the one he left.
“The scale of the challenge is such that it’s difficult to know how much even the best-prepared person is up to the task. But David is as well-qualified as anybody,” says journalist and author Michael Dobbs, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent who befriended Ensor in Poland in the early 1980s when both chronicled the anti-communist rebellion of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. “The U.S. effort in public diplomacy during the Cold War paid off spectacularly, because we were preaching to an audience that wanted to hear it. In the case of the Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan, basically these people don’t want to hear our message. But it should be possible to devise more imaginative methods for reaching the mass of the Afghan people, through the use of radio for example.”
Afghan media mogul Saad Mohseni, whose Kabul-based Moby Group spans television, radio, magazines, movies and the Internet, warns that even the shrewdest and most effective communications strategy will fail if the security apparatus doesn’t function, living conditions for ordinary people don’t improve, and American and NATO forces continue to inflict accidental civilian casualties. “These things happen,” Mohseni tells me. “But the Taliban, and also the Afghan government, will seize on civilian deaths to pound the Americans.”
Mohseni—whose media empire stands to benefit from some of the reported $150 million the State Department has budgeted for messaging and infrastructure such as radio transmitters and cell phone towers—adds that Ensor must “first gauge how the Afghan people truly feel about the international forces there, if he wants to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan nation. That means doing surveys and polls and focus groups to find out what motivates people. But ultimately the people will be moved not by a message, but by action on the ground.”
The hardscrabble country, it goes without saying, is a perilous place for American officials: Witness the Taliban-trained suicide bomber who recently wiped out the CIA’s forward base in eastern Afghanistan. Ensor, who spent three decades in broadcast journalism (at National Public Radio, ABC and ultimately CNN) and then 3½ years as a London-based PR executive for an oil-trading company, will operate from the heavily fortified American compound in Kabul, and get around using armored vehicles with bullet-proof windows and teams of bodyguards. He has committed to at least a year in country, and will coordinate his efforts with those of two-star Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, the Pentagon’s top spokesman in Kabul, and report to U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a former three-star Army general.
Ensor wasn’t the Obama administration’s first choice. Before he started discussing the position with State Department officials in November, it was offered to Asia Society executive vice president Jamie Metzl, a frequent visitor to Afghanistan and a longtime protégé of Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The 41-year-old Metzl—who has been a diplomat, a member of the National Security Council, a spy novelist and a congressional candidate—has spent a good deal of time in Afghanistan, serving as a monitor for last fall’s hotly disputed presidential election that is widely believed to have been rigged by the incumbent, Hamid Karzai. But Metzl passed when he and the State Department couldn’t come to terms on logistical issues, which I hear included the question of whether the post would carry ambassadorial rank. It doesn’t.
“This is a critical information job,” says Metzl, who effusively praises the choice of Ensor. “The U.S. government is finally recognizing that the struggle in Afghanistan is, in some ways, first and foremost an information struggle…We need to do a far better job than we’ve done in the past and bring some additional perspective to bear.”
Of course, the Taliban has a distinct home-field advantage and can use low-tech methods to great effect. One successful Taliban technique is the “night note”—that is, a message scrawled on a piece of paper and nailed to the front door of any Afghan who works with American officials and contractors. “The ‘night notes’ say things like, ‘We know who you are, we know where you live, we know what you’re doing—and if you continue to do it, you will be killed,’ ” Metzl says. “It is true,” he adds dryly, “that the U.S. can’t employ brutal coercion to get its message out.”
Mohseni, meanwhile, points out that the populace is deeply skeptical about the promises of the powers that be. “The Afghan people have been exposed for the last 30 years to the best bullshit available—from the KGB and the CIA, from the Pakistanis, the Turks and the Iranians," Mohseni says. "All these countries have been putting out their own messages, and people are very, very cynical when it comes to messaging and propaganda.”
Ensor brings with him the street cred of a well-traveled foreign correspondent, who spent years reporting from Soviet bloc countries and the Middle East, covered wars in Chechnya and the Balkans, and boasts a deep and wide knowledge of America’s national security and intelligence institutions, especially the CIA. As a Washington correspondent for CNN during the Clinton and Bush administrations, he enjoyed top-level access to government officials, especially the longtime director of the National Security Agency, General Mike Hayden. His early career at NPR also gives him a background in radio, the key mode of mass communications in Afghanistan, and his years supervising the two dozen ABC News employees in the Warsaw bureau potentially lend him relevant management experience.
“David may not be an expert on Afghanistan, but he is a quick study and knows a lot about how the media works,” says Dobbs. “And I am sure there are going to be a lot of experts working for him.”
Why would he leave his comfortable life in London, to say nothing of his wife Anita and their two children, in order to put himself in harm’s way? A mixture of career restlessness, a desire to serve his country and simple curiosity, says Dobbs. “As a journalist, you always want to know what it’s like being on the inside.”
Ensor, for now, is keeping his own counsel. “Thanks very much for your interest in my upcoming work in Kabul,” he emailed me on Sunday. “I am sorry but I am not prepared to discuss it yet. Perhaps we could talk after I have taken office, and spent a little time in Afghanistan.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.