The following morning I relayed this conversation and my disquiet to Colonel James. His annoyance and frustration were palpable and I took the opportunity to suggest that we might get around the DST’s objections to military involvement by recruiting Sultaan to the cause. As the District Communications Advisor he might reasonably be expected to communicate the election as far and wide across the district as possible and we, in turn, could hardly refuse his request for assistance in this endeavour. Colonel James hesitated for just a moment before giving me the green light to proceed on this basis. I saluted smartly and exited his office before he had the opportunity to reconsider.
Later the same day I briefed Sultaan. He initially appeared sceptical but, with typical enthusiasm, quickly embraced the novel idea of performing a task that matched his job description. It seemed that, to him, it was an equally novel idea to hold an election in which we were actually going to encourage people to vote. This was not how democracy was generally conducted in this part of the world but it sounded like it might be fun and Sultaan was always up for a laugh – or in his case a bit of a giggle.
Knowing by this time that we had only a dozen or so listeners to the RIAB we decided not to rely on the radio to communicate our election campaign. Instead we opted for a combination of posters and leaflets.
Conventional ISAF wisdom dictated that high rates of illiteracy in Helmand rendered print campaigns ineffective, but I was less certain. It was my personal experience that the majority of locals who came to speak to me at the regular walk ins and shuras I conducted would bring a handwritten list of demands with them which they would pass to my interpreter. I concluded that it was routine practice to engage the services of a scribe and reckoned the process probably worked equally well in reverse. If we handed out flyers they would be taken to the local scribe for an explanation. I was further encouraged in my thinking by the frequency with which the Taliban used posters of their own to communicate with locals in the more hard line areas of our AO such as the Yakchal bazaar. Needless to say I was never able to convince the PsyOps Group of this line of reasoning. It seemed they had already invested too much in the RIAB to question its efficacy.
By 22.00 that evening, using Sultaan’s laptop, we had created a poster showing a line of brightly coloured amorphous figures queuing patiently behind a ballot box with their voting papers. To this we added a headline, a few lines of explanatory copy and in the top left corner a GIRoA logo. It was never going to win a D&AD Yellow Pencil, the prestigious UK Design and Art Direction award for excellence in the creative, design and advertising industries, but Sultaan was pleased with our efforts and by the next morning he had secured the approval of Salim Rodi the District Governor.
We now had an approved artwork, but no means with which to print it.
Gereshk DCC Election 8 May 2012