Radio-in-a-box (RIAB)

Steve Yabsley

I’m joining Steve Yabsley’s lunchtime show tomorrow on BBC Radio Bristol. I have some prior radio experience but it’s not very positive:

“The radio‑in‑a‑box was exactly that. A rather large and cumbersome box which contained ruggedised tape and CD decks, together with sophisticated recording and broadcasting equipment. Requiring only the addition of electrical power, an antenna and a willing DJ, it contained all that was needed to set up a new radio station.

I’d been introduced to the RIAB on the PsyOps course I’d attended at the Defence Intelligence and Security Centre in Chicksands, Bedfordshire. Due to the very high rates of illiteracy in Afghanistan, or perhaps due to the very low number of Pashtu speakers amongst ISAF soldiers, radio was considered an essential communications tool by both British and American forces.

RIABs had first been used in Afghanistan in 2005 at a time when the Taliban were assessed to be winning the public relations battle. At the time ISAF had no means to counter Taliban propaganda or to communicate anti‑Taliban and anti‑al‑Qaeda messages of its own. The RIAB was the answer, enabling ISAF to broadcast its version of events to a large, often remote audience.

By the time I arrived in Helmand the RIAB was the psyopers¹ weapon of choice and a network of radio transmitters had been set up across the province using local Afghan DJs to broadcast information and host call‑in shows. The psyopers liked to call their creation ‘Radio Tamadoon’, but all the Afghans I ever met called it what it was, Radio ISAF. To complement the transmitters, wind‑up radios had been handed out to local nationals. Although I was not prepared to vouch for the reliability of the statistics, it was alleged that 92% of Helmand Province’s 1.5 million inhabitants listened to the radio every day.

Certainly thousands of radios had already been distributed and I gave away hundreds more on my FFUI² patrols, but I never saw any of the locals actually using the radios or listening to Radio ISAF. All those who eagerly accepted the free radios I handed out assured me that they tuned in every day, but I was sceptical. I’d grown used to locals telling me what they thought I wanted to hear so I took to carrying one of the wind‑ups in my pack and attempting to tune into the RIAB on my patrols. To my surprise, despite maps of the province produced by the PsyOps Group which outlined antenna reach and indicated almost total coverage in our AO, I discovered that reception outside Gereshk was patchy at best and non‑existent in many areas.

In contrast it was easy enough to tune into BFBS Radio, the English language station for UK troops, almost everywhere I travelled. BFBS was of course staffed by civilians, all of whom were professionals in the broadcasting industry, while the RIAB was staffed by soldiers, like me, with little if any prior experience.

Nonetheless, Thor and I invested a lot of time trying to improve the station programming and make it less blatantly an ISAF propaganda tool by inviting GIRoA officials, ANA commanders, Mullahs and other local dignitaries to conduct radio shows. We even had a go at healthcare and agricultural advice programming, but neither of us had any experience in running a radio station and there was no budget to produce these shows. Our efforts, while initially enthusiastic and well intentioned, were amateurish at best and we quickly ran out of goodwill and content to fill our ambitious schedule.

It was claimed that some RIAB DJs had as many as 50,000 listeners, but I guessed that poor reception and dodgy scheduling was having a negative impact on our figures and I started scanning the phone‑in reports produced after each show. Despite the statistics being bandied about by the PsyOps Group, I discovered that most of the calls we received came from the same half dozen callers. Even Sultaan, the irrepressibly optimistic District Communications Advisor became disillusioned with the RIAB and stopped turning up to host the weekly live phone‑in show that Thor and I had given him.

When I discussed my reservations with Owen, our Royal Marines Cultural Advisor and one of only a handful of fluent Pashtu speakers in Task Force Helmand, he helpfully pointed out that one of my supposedly local DJs was in fact from another part of Afghanistan where they spoke a different dialect from the Helmandis. This embarrassing oversight may have had something to do with our rather poor performance.

But there was another even more compelling reason. I’d read in an intelligence report that ownership of an ISAF radio could be injurious to human health. In the contested area in which we operated locals risked a severe beating from the Taliban if they were found to be in possession of one of the free wind‑ups we were handing out, although I’d observed that these were still eagerly accepted in all but the most hard‑line areas. All my evidence may have been circumstantial but it still pointed to an obvious conclusion. Our woeful reception and lamentable programming were quite simply not worth a beating. Although I couldn’t prove it, I rather suspected that the majority of the radios I handed out ended up, still in their original packaging, in the markets and bazaars of other more permissive districts.

Perhaps the RIAB was not quite as effective a weapon in the communications war as the PsyOps Group were claiming. It seemed perfectly possible to me that the POG were psyoping the home team by overstating the role and value of the RIAB to the counter‑insurgency.”


SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

¹Psyoper: A psychological operations practitioner

²FFUI: Find, Feel, Understand, Inform. In January 2010, Major General Michael T. Flynn USA wrote an influential paper titled Fixing Intel: A blueprint for making intelligence relevant in Afghanistan. His paper recommended sweeping changes to the way the intelligence community thinks about itself – from a focus on the enemy to a focus on the people of Afghanistan. This involved modifying the five components of the kinetic targeting approach: find, fix, finish, exploit and analyze into a non-kinetic social engineering construct: find, feel, understand, inform.

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