Diplomats and development workers love to talk about soft power, but often misunderstand two important characteristics about it. First, when Harvard Professor Joseph Nye coined the term, he did not mean for soft power to be exclusive of hard power, but rather to be executed in conjunction with hard power. Second, while American policymakers discuss our own plans for aid and development, seldom do we acknowledge how our adversaries also make use of soft power.
Case in point: While the Americans assist Afghans in agriculture (although we have recently stood down and cancelled the missions for our Agricultural Development Teams) and education, there are certain projects popular with Afghans which neither the American government nor U.S.-based NGOs conduct. An Iranian website, for example, just released a photo essay of a recent mass wedding Iran’s Imam Khomeini Relief Committee sponsored in the Western Afghan city of Herat. The Committee—whose assets are controlled by the Supreme Leader—is active not only in Afghanistan, but also in Tajikistan, Lebanon, the Comoros Islands, and Bosnia. A year ago, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Committee’s branches in Lebanon for their relationship to Hezbollah. When I lived in Tajikistan, the local branch of the Committee was conducting surveillance on the U.S. embassy, and contributed directly to the evacuation of all non-essential personnel.