May 1, 2009  

Going soft

How can any nation cost-effectively battle jihadist networks in dozens of the most remote, austere and hazardous regions on Earth? How can any nation effectively intercede, deter or disrupt every credible jihadist threat? Are the Iraq and Afghanistan hard power interventions a model for future success in winning the global war on terror? Is the U.S. heading in the right direction? Our challenge is to field a decisive global strategy implemented by successful tactics generating a durable victory.

If the U.S. mirrors its approach and framework currently deployed in the Pashtun tribal belt in southeastern Afghanistan globally, it will fail. The primary reason for that impending and inevitable failure is mismatched U.S. tactical strengths against insurgent strategic strengths. Jihadists in Afghanistan, for example, cannot survive decisive engagement with U.S. forces. Accordingly, they’ve established bases in sanctuaries beyond U.S. reach. They avoid decisive engagements to protract the conflict until time and birthrate enhance their chances of success. They use roadside bombs, ambushes and booby-traps to wear down U.S. forces in a war of attrition. Constrained by Pakistani sovereignty, the U.S. cannot take the ground war into insurgent sanctuaries and is limited to the strategic defense in a war waged on friendly ground. With their bases beyond reach, insurgent jihadists can concentrate on bringing strategic offensive warfare into Afghanistan. The U.S. can’t win on defense.

The U.S. must go on the offense to win. It is an admission of failure to surrender the strategic offense to the enemy. Having done so, the U.S. is solely left with open-ended tactical engagement to forestall strategic defeat. Engagement, however, requires acceptance by both the U.S. and insurgents. For the U.S. to force an elusive enemy to fight requires either surrounding his forces or surprising him. Cutting off the retreat of guerrilla forces in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain is sublimely complicated. The jihadists can choose whether or not to tactically engage. They can choose whether or not that tactical engagement will be decisive. The tactical decision, as such, has been surrendered to the enemy. A limited strategic defense waged on friendly ground with open-ended tactical engagement at the discretion of the enemy cannot achieve U.S. policy goals. The U.S. can win every battle but still lose the war.

Demographics is a strategic advantage of indigenous forces. The total fertility rate, the average number of children that are born to a woman during her reproductive lifetime in the Taliban’s sanctuary of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP), is 5.1. Accordingly, the NWFP population of 17.8 million will double within 11 to 14 years. This birth rate, this regenerative capacity, trumps any casualty rate the U.S. can inflict on the Taliban in Afghanistan. We cannot exhaust the Taliban’s reservoirs through defensive war. Unless and until we change our strategy, the Taliban will field increasing numbers of fighters in Afghanistan over time. The fight is for control of the population, the Taliban’s reservoir, not terrain, not tactical engagements and not body count.

Time is not on our side. Time, within the U.S.-Afghan model, is a strategic advantage of the enemy. For the individual U.S. soldier as well as the nation, the moral purpose of the Afghan war erodes as the Sept. 11 attacks recede from memory. For the indigenous jihadist, conventional U.S. troops are foreign Christian invaders and as such are a daily means of inciting and reinforcing reactionary chauvinism. Pashtun tribal culture survived Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Soviet carpet bombing; it can outlast any U.S. direct hard power deployment. We cannot match duration based on moral purpose against an indigenous enemy. Waiting is not a viable strategy. In order to win, time must work to our advantage.

Lastly, Afghanistan merely represents one battle in a global war. The U.S. must effectively deter, disrupt, interdict or disable credible threats and cost-effectively battle jihadist networks in dozens of the most remote, austere and hazardous regions on Earth. Core U.S. strategy must include a sustained global offensive against these organizations, their shared principals and irreplaceable assets, forcing them to fight at a place and time of our choosing.

The spectrum of war-fighting includes both soft and hard power, complementary components of policy execution. To be coherent, comprehensive and efficient, foreign policy must use the full spectrum of both powers in an integrated fashion with the results of both sequenced and synchronized to achieve policy goals.


Hard power is armed force. Tactical hard power is the presence of armed force in an area of operations. Strategic hard power is the use, real or implied, of armed force and the results that use generates to achieve policy. Regardless of whether armed force is used in a kinetic role (patrols, raids, assaults) or in a non-kinetic role (provisional reconstruction, humanitarian assistance, escort duty) the presence of arms creates a foundational capability that is different and distinct from any form of soft power.

Hard power has several advantages over soft power. It can compel, it can control and it can destroy from an instrumentality external to the target. Among the advantages of tactically deployed hard power is that its characteristics of firepower, mobility, lethality, etc., are unconstrained by the indigenous society on which it operates.

Hard power also has disadvantages. The real use of hard power is irrevocably disruptive. It is an attempt to control, compel or destroy introduced into an indigenous society from a foreign source. It is distinct and different from the natural forces present within that society: culture, religion, ethnicity, ideology, social and political organization, economics, logistics, trade and finance. Its disruptive and foreign nature can engender a reaction by the indigenous society. Among other disadvantages of hard power are the costs of projecting and/or maintaining an armed physical presence on foreign soil.


Unlike hard power, soft power does not organically possess the foundational capability created through the use, real or implied, of arms. Soft power may exist in symbiosis or parasitism with hard power but, by definition, lacks armed force. Soft power can compel, control and destroy but it must do so through indigenous means. It is not necessarily disruptive and is expressed through, and is constrained by, the capacities of that society’s natural competitive forces. It is naturally unconstrained by foreign cultural mores or laws because its motive force is indigenous. Soft power may be physical or intellectually expressed. Among its advantages is the ability to generate dynamic results while being physically and kinetically inert. Constrained by the capacities of that society, soft power cannot directly use the full range and magnitude of U.S. force. Soft power is relatively unexplored compared to hard power, but against jihadism it offers the greatest potential for enhancing U.S. foreign policy execution.

Soft power acts through indigenous means expressing its effects in the predominance, range of control, depth and balance among the targeted society’s natural competitive forces. If correctly applied, it develops constituencies within indigenous society and through those constituencies it can achieve effects similar to hard power projection: to compel, control and/or destroy. These methods can match the insurgents’ natural tactical advantages of local knowledge, language, religion, ethnicity and culture as well as their strategic advantages of birth rate and permanence. Despite its reputation for fecklessness, soft power can be far more brutal and effective than hard power projection. It can be particularly effective in wresting away control of tribal populations from militant Islam because it operates from within, using natural forces. Soft power can also orchestrate the active rejection of militant Islam by tribal society destroying insurgents’ will. The fight is for control of the population, not terrain, not tactical engagements and not body count.

U.S. strategy must project power inside tribal populations to go on the strategic offense. Soft power offers unique avenues to the strategic offense and toward social control and reformulation of tribal populations.

If one end of the power spectrum is hard strategic power, the other end is incorporeal, tactical soft power. Strategic power, either soft or hard, is the use of the results of tactical engagement in a coherent and comprehensive manner to obtain a larger goal. Hence, tactical precedes strategic on the spectrum of power projection. Tactical soft power, occupying one end of the spectrum, should be the logical place to begin policy execution. Tactical soft power is versatile. It can be physical, in the form of diplomats, cash, or grain shipments, or intellectual, in the form of memes (a unit of cultural information that can be transferred from one individual to another), religion or media. Soft power offers the capability to internally sequence the methods used to penetrate indigenous targets from the intellectual to the physical. The correct application and sequencing of soft power can minimize reactionary backlash, ratchet up intensity in a consistent graduated fashion, prepare the informational and intellectual battlefield, and facilitate non-kinetic attacks both for their own return and as a method of preparing for hard power projection. An advantage of starting with tactical soft power is that it offers the ability to escalate in intensity, focus and interactivity, offering a tool for U.S. policy that is flexible, incremental, with adjustable refinement.

Soft power’s intent is to alter the predominance, range of control, depth and balance among that society’s natural competitive forces. Its effects will elevate certain constituencies within an indigenous society and diminish others. These constituencies, the result of natural competitive forces within the indigenous society, are not proxy forces whose survival is dependant upon direct foreign support and intervention. Indigenous constituencies, based on existing natural competitors, can be engines of societal reformulation away from militant Islam by inoculating that society against militant Islam or as a pathway for unleashing or amplifying forces antithetical to militant Islam. If natural competitors emerge, militant Islam must shift resources from expansion to internal policing to maintain its preeminent position as societal motivator and organizing principal. The more militant Islam is forced into policing and population control against revitalized natural competitors, the more it will generate internal strife in those populations. Instead of fighting their neighbors, they’re fighting each other. Victory in the Pashtun belt of Afghanistan and other tribal areas will ultimately require natural constituencies producing allied populations and in-place tribal paramilitaries whose lives and work are measurably superior to militant Islam’s supporters and opposed to them as a matter of politics, culture, religion and ideology.

Soft power is projected primarily through natural or traditional channels: person to person, one person to many, or through established channels that may include roads and rails for physical content, print media, radio, cell phone, TV, etc., for intellectual content. Channel capabilities — accuracy, precision, direct or indirect transmission, transference, dissemination or diffusion, flow rate, density, range, speed — will promote the use of particular content, encapsulations and heuristics in certain channels and preclude others. For example, spreading the rumor that jihadists who attended a specific training camp unknowingly carry infectious sterility may best be conveyed through natural “one to one” channels. This best provides concealed diffusion complicating detection and inoculation by insurgent forces.

Projecting soft power into a tactical area of operations requires four components: content, encapsulation, heuristics and a channel. Content is something either physical or intellectual introduced into an indigenous society. Content may be physical (grain shipments, cash, printing presses) or intellectual (messaging through media, use of religion or memes). Content achieves its result by altering the predominance, range, depth of control or balance among natural competitive forces within that society. Introducing the idea of a Pashtun cultural renaissance could, for example, create a wedge between nativist Pashtuns and Pashtun adherents of non-native absolutist Hanbali Islamic sects, such as Wahabism or Deobandism. Any cultural force that competes with militant Islam for societal adherence would stand as a threat to its absolute preeminence and therefore would require a diversion of resources from expansion to internal competition and control. Intellectual property-based content has the advantage of easily crossing borders to assist and induce natural constituencies to deliver results supporting U.S. policy while incurring minimal logistical or political costs. Soft power can intensify wedge issues in a targeted society by amplifying differences between ethnic groups, promoting sacred rivalry between religious sects, or affiliating political movements and leaders with historical tribal disasters. Hard power can arm wedge issues with weapons and Green Berets.

Content should be delivered through channels with optimum end effect. The process of harmonizing content characteristics to channel capabilities is called encapsulation. Encapsulation makes the delivery of content through a channel a planned and measurable process. Encapsulation may be physical, such as employing indigenous escorts for a grain shipment, or intellectual, such as altering a well-known nursery rhyme to carry a propaganda message. Encapsulation creates an expected value at delivery whose variance from the actual value provides for validation and verification of channel efficacy and content-channel viability. Does more than 50 percent of the grain reach its target? Does the nursery rhymes’ message disseminate through the population unchanged? The variance between expected and actual may also reveal content-channel-constituency incompatibilities. For instance, giving a battery-powered satellite-connected facsimile machine to illiterate tribesmen delivers precise, accurate content to a constituency that can’t read it. While generally slower or more circuitous than U.S. logistics, using indigenous channels does not require the expense or disruption of U.S. presence and can strengthen the channel chosen and the encapsulation used.

An initial survey of natural, traditional and established channels and their capabilities is the first step in channel selection. Constituencies within the society may prefer certain channels. Jihadists may opt for traditional one-person-to-many channels, such as imams preaching in mosques, who encapsulate their content with sacred verification and guidance (heuristics): “True believers accept this content. Those who don’t are apostates.” Merchants or traders may prefer singular, precise, high-speed, established channels like cell phones. In fact, the availability or suppression of particular channels may provide clues as to the current array and balance of natural competitive forces within a society. The Taliban banning radios, for instance, can be construed as an admission that a particular content-channel-constituency represents a strategic threat. Coherent tactical soft power projection requires that the effects and results of using different channels, encapsulations, heuristics and content support a singular strategic goal. Comprehensive tactical soft power projection precludes exception or omission of any effect or result in any channel to any constituency from the singular strategic goal.

Heuristics are the means through which targeted indigenous constituencies are guided to discover and believe the veracity and value of the introduced content. The presence of a revered local religious figure during a speech may serve to validate the contents’ religious aspects and affiliation. The symbol of a local political party on physical supplies can verify content ownership from channel introduction to delivery regardless of true ownership. Encapsulating informational content with heuristics may sometimes involve placing metrics inside the content that are intuitively understood within that society. In many cases, these metrics are derived from mythology, cultural history or shared assumptions, widely used and implicitly understood parables or particular biases. Content specifically structured to show strong similarity to the targeted tribe’s creation myth, for example, can imbue that content with fundamental cultural value and verification.

Deliverying the message

U.S. forces deploy intellectual property-based content using established broadcast channels such as TV, radio and newspapers, leaflet drops, and by distributing compact discs. These channels are mono-directional — content flows from the source to the consumer. Content, however incendiary, is passive. The message doesn’t react to the consumer. In broadcast, encapsulation precision is limited to the lowest common denominator applicable to the entire audience. Passive content sent through established broadcast channels limits delivery to transmission, a single conveyance of a unitary block of information from the source to the consumer. There are other means of delivery. Dissemination is the sowing of content within an audience by phased delivery of its separate constituent parts. Diffusion is the migration of unitary content through an audience over time. Transference is the conveyance of understanding from the source to the consumer. Each delivery method offers distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Projecting intellectual property-based soft power into captive audiences like tribes in remote, austere or hazardous regions should involve interactive communications delivered through bi-directional or multi-directional channels. Broadcast is, in effect, shouting at a mass audience. This isn’t the norm in preindustrial tribal societies and therefore carries a high risk of being ignored. Conversations are, at a minimum, bi-directional and as a participant the message is harder to ignore. Conversations, moreover, allow the source to absorb consumer reaction and incrementally improve or reposition heuristics and encapsulation, delivering content with greater veracity and value. Narrowcast, one-to-few, or even one-to-one, allows for more precise encapsulations because the audience can be tightly defined. Precise encapsulations to a tightly defined audience support higher information density per delivery because more content can be sent with less content-channel incompatibility. Innovations in cellular technology support new approaches to intellectual property-based soft power projection.

It is in the interest of the U.S. to actively adopt and deploy these soft power approaches. One such application is interactive captive audience media networking (ICAMN). This facilitates the rapid creation of U.S.-indigenous narrowcast and broadcast networks through the delivery of interactive media using voice, video and data via private provisional cell phone networks. In the tactical area of operations, ICAMN’s forward system consists of a rapidly deployable-dismantled satellite linked cell system with ultra-low cost handsets and a pictographic human-assisted user interface tailored to the targeted tribe. Outside of the tactical area of operations, in fact, anywhere in the world, ICAMN consists of call centers staffed by linguists and intelligence specialists and media network operation centers acquiring, repositioning or creating media for push or pull across the network and across the globe.

The ability of soft power to directly affect indigenous constituencies generating dynamic results while remaining kinetically inert makes it a measure of first, rather than last, resort. It encompasses both competition and conflict, and can range across the full spectrum of a society’s operative sectors including: culture, politics, ideology, religion, demography, industry and agriculture. It can have positive or negative intent and effect, enhancing or degrading selected constituencies, taking offensive or defensive roles. Because soft power can directly affect, inoculate or infect all sectors of a society, it offers greater flexibility, comprehensiveness and coherence than tactical armed force engagement. Its wide spectrum offers broader integration, more precise and complex capabilities, harnessing more of a society’s moral and material power. Soft power can highlight commonalities across indigenous constituencies, grow natural competitors and integrate both in a graduated fashion against militant Islam. It can inoculate uninfected populations against insurgent jihadists by undermining or co-opting their content, channels, encapsulations and heuristics. Soft power can introduce competing viral memes into militant Islamic dominated society, undermining its moral motive force. Soft power deployed through indigenous religious channels can match militant Islam’s sacral power, undercutting militant Islam’s appeal to piety. Soft power offers a coherent and comprehensive avenue toward achieving U.S. policy in the most remote, austere and dangerous places on earth.

DAVID KATZ is president and CEO at Daracom.