When Hearts and Minds Fail: The Infamous Matchbooks

If you didn't recognize the face, what would you think the message was?

If you didn’t recognize the face, what would you think the message was?

By: Peter Sessum

The hunt for Osama bin Laden took far longer than it should have. For years everyone was wondering how the most famous man in the world stayed hidden in Afghanistan with the might and resources of the most powerful and technological advanced nation in history looking for him. Honestly, one reason was because Afghans didn’t know what he looked like and we really should have known that.

So there I was, in a village in Kandahar Province, no shit. I was part of a team conducting village assessments and decided to do some Psychological Operations (PSYOP) product testing for the green matchbooks with Osama bin Laden’s face on them.

I had a large group of men in a circle and asked them what they thought the message was. I had to stress that no idea was stupid. The closest to “beard guy is a bad guy” was one man thought that the terrorist mastermind was an Afghan that planted mines. Some genius thought that gold coins would mean something to a bunch of tribal farmers. To their credit, they were trying, we just couldn’t get the message across.

One guy walked up, looked over my shoulder and said, “Osama bin Laden.” Immediately, the light went on in everyone’s eyes. The entire group said, “Ohhh, Osama.” Someone said, “That’s what he looks like?” All knew exactly who he was and then the message of the matchbook was clear. At that moment I realized that he could be the next village over claiming his name was Mohammed and request hospitality under Pashtunwali and, if granted, they would have had to defend him even if they learned his true identity.

Afghanistan is basically 1,000 years ago with AK-47s and Toyota Corollas. Most of the country lives in mud huts without power and running water. They don’t have the access to information that the western world has. There is also a distinct lack of literacy. If I was lucky a village had a 2 percent literacy rate. A great village had five. Pass out all the handbill and matchbooks you want and they don’t mean anything.

Afghans aren’t stupid, they are a hardy people, are able to survive in an unforgiving environment and are not to be trifled with. But after three decades of war coupled with the oppressive reign of the Taliban, learning your alif baas was not a priority. (That is ABC’s for the rest of you.)

They didn’t have access to 100s of daily news programs talking about the most notorious man in history. If they had TV or Internet they would have had visuals to go with all that information. What they did have was radios so they knew who he was, they knew what he did and they for sure knew why we were looking for him, but no one knew what he looked like.

To counter that, we put out visual products. We dropped leaflets, put out posters and created cool little matchbooks with his face all over them. Again, great American idea, catastrophic failure in Afghanistan. I could walk into any post office in the western world and even if I couldn’t read the language I could spot the difference between the posters for wanted criminals and the employee of the month because the wanted poster is a western concept. If a poster has any money amount then I know it is a wanted poster and how much that person is worth to the authorities.

What is the message here? Another product fail. It only works if the population can read and literacy is not high in rural Afghanistan.

What is the message here? Another product fail. It only works if the population can read and literacy is not high in rural Afghanistan.

When I got the reaction from the product testing I felt like a broke the code. As soon as I got back to base I wrote a report about the issue and the solution. We actually had all the tools to fix the problem in place. Just about everyone smokes in Afghanistan and they would hold onto the matchbooks for a few days. Once informed of who the image represented, they might keep the empty books in their pockets. All we had to do was create a radio message, a basic PSYOP tool, release it on radio stations, another asset we had, and say the green matchbooks the picture of bin Laden and two other a-holes and he is as good as caught. We could then make red matchbooks with another terrorist leader and then yellow and blue. We could do it until we ran through the entire Afghan color palette.

Unfortunately, the report fell on deaf ears. Typical Army BS, but what can you do? Later it became comical. In a very remote village that had not seen Coalition Forces in years there was a shop that sold candy wrapped with an image of bin Laden. The people must have thought this was the most loved guy on the planet. Both the Americans and Taliban had stuff with his face on it. We missed a shot at getting his face out there a decade before he was tracked down in a house in Pakistan. But at least it is an interesting souvenir. I see a government agency put out the matchbooks in Urdu at college and job fairs. They don’t seem to be amused about the story behind the matchbooks which just makes it even funnier to me.

The lesson to be learned is that all the messages in the world won’t matter if the person doesn’t understand what you are trying to say. We were like that American tourist asking where the train station is and when the person doesn’t understand yelling “WHERE. IS. THE. TRAIN. STATION?” as if louder and slower would spark comprehension. The sheer volume of product that was uselessly disseminated was embarrassing. Not being able to get the messages out was a serious hindrance to the reconstruction efforts, but unfortunately not the biggest obstacle. For that, like everything else, you need boots on the ground. And that is a story for another day.

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