The psychological element of counterinsurgency warfare can be the most persuasive
T. E. Lawrence was not the first irregular warfare theorist, but he was the first practitioner to note that the cognitive domain is crucial in such conflicts. In “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” he emphasized the psychological power of ideas. The salience of the cognitive, or informational, element of modern conflict is clearly rising in importance — but clearly not in the way that the advocates of network-centric warfare thought it was. Winning hearts and minds may be the dominant portion of the battle space, and what British insurgency expert John MacKinlay calls the “virtual dimension” of the battle space may be the central front.
Ideas and grievances are the seeds of most irregular wars, and modern information technology has given anyone with access to a computer the ability to spread a message globally at a fraction of what it used to cost, and at the speed of light. Given that most so-called small wars are ultimately won or lost in the political and psychological dimension, the importance of communications and information dissemination is vital. This “new” portion of the battle space is being expanded to a more global scale thanks to the ubiquitous and diffuse nature of modern communication techniques. The velocity of information flows and the power of imagery can now be transmitted instantly. This can generate significant support for one’s cause throughout the international system or through a network of sympathizers and supporters. It can be a force multiplier to the side that can employ the informational domain to secure and sustain a positional advantage in the cognitive or psychological dimension.
The informational component of war is increasing in impact. Modern 24/7 news cycles and graphic imagery, combined with the worldwide networks, produce even faster and higher response cycles from audiences around the globe and offer powerful new tools. Advanced methods and ever lower costs allow many insurgent or terrorist groups to communicate directly to their target audiences. The number of Web sites devoted to jihadist literature or themes has exploded exponentially since Sept. 11. As Bruce Hoffman, the Georgetown University professor and terrorism expert, notes, modern irregular warriors have wider tool kits today, which are not limited to “simply the guns and bombs that they always have [used], but now include the mini-cam and videotape, editing suite and attendant production facilities; professionally produced and mass-marketed CD-ROMs and DVDs; and, most critically, the laptop and desktop computers, CD burners and e-mail accounts, and Internet and World Wide Web access.”
In addition to being a source of power to antagonists, advanced information technology extends the potential support base of the adversary to a global dimension. This extended support base can provide financial, material or personnel support to the cause. Of particular relevance to future wars, the availability of modern information technology radically changes the manner by which potential adversaries acquire and disseminate strategic intelligence, garner resources and conduct their planning and rehearsals, even their recruiting.
Given that irregular wars are won or lost in what is now sometimes called the “virtual dimension,” communications and information dissemination are vital factors. Yet the U.S. government and the Pentagon have not mastered them. The decision to withdraw the Marines from Fallujah in April 2004 highlights the powerful effect of modern communications and near real-time dissemination to local, regional and global audiences.
This is not necessarily a new factor. Long ago, the impact of modern communications was recognized by Marine veterans of irregular wars. The Marine Corps’ “Small Wars Manual” noted that revolutions could be rapidly fanned by “modern” communications. But in the past, only the state and major media outlets could obtain mass coverage and influence large populations.
Today, many small groups have mastered armed theater and promoted propaganda of the deed to arouse support and foment discord on a global scale. There is a plethora of outlets in the Middle East and an exponentially growing number of Web sites and bloggers promoting a radical vision. These outlets constantly bombarded the residents of Iraq with pictures, videos, DVDs and sermons. Ironically, in Iraq and in the long war, we are facing a fundamentalist movement that is exploiting modern and Western technologies to re-establish an anti-Western social and political system.
Given that persuasion and popular opinion can be a center of gravity or a critical vulnerability in the conduct of irregular contests, this development may become crucial to the successful prosecution of irregular wars and become the focal point for transformational efforts within the Defense Department or the U.S. government. While the U.S. military has focused on its technological supremacy and computer software, the adversary has exploited the same technology to influence the most important software: the thinking and emotions of its target audience. While the U.S. military has a demonstrated capacity to dominate conventional military operations with its technological supremacy and computer software, its performance in Iraq suggests it is handicapped by that techno-lust. At the strategic level, the American government can be accused of unilaterally disarming itself in today’s long war against religious extremism.
Adapting Classical Theory
Classical counterinsurgency (COIN) theory stresses the isolation of the guerrilla from the population. Isolation, in the physical sense, is a common security measure during insurgencies and rebellions. Creating a means of physically isolating a threat or at least negating his ability to easily enter and plunder one’s own population has been a component of strategy since Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of the Roman fortification line between England and Scotland.
But isolation does not have to be limited to the physical dimension. Insurgents and opponents should also be psychologically separated from external and internal sources of support. Here the counter-irregular force uses both military force and information operations to demoralize the active or armed elements, but more importantly to de-legitimize their underlying ideology or political movement.
Isolation in the ideological or political sense is also critical to neutralizing the insurgent’s message or appeal, as well as reducing potential forms of intelligence gathering, recruiting or funding. The classic experts in irregular warfare, including Lawrence, Mao and David Galula, have pointed to the importance of information as a weapon. Lawrence observed that “the printing press is the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern commander.” Today, it may be the video camera or the DVD copier. However, its mastery has proven elusive. Looking back on his experiences as a French officer in Algeria, Galula observed, “If there was a field in which we were definitely and infinitely more stupid than our opponents, it was propaganda.” This is a poignant comment given the paucity of effective informational activities in Iraq. It has taken almost four years for the Pentagon’s leadership to understand its shortcomings here. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged, “If I were grading, I would say we probably deserve a ‘D’ or a ‘D-plus’ as a country as to how well we’re doing in the battle of ideas that’s taking place in the world today.”
Ralph Peters addressed some of the shortcomings of the new Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual in the January and February issues. He overlooked a glaring shortfall in the field manual, which devotes just three pages to the issue of media and information operations. Given the critical importance of the information dimension in COIN, this is completely inadequate. I do not concur with my colleague that the media is a combatant per se, although some foreign and domestic media outlets assuredly deserve this title. From my perspective, the information domain is a part of the battle space, and we have to compete in this dimension as effectively as we do in the physical realm. The fact that we’ve abandoned this spectrum of the contest is as responsible for our shortcomings in Iraq as our squeamishness about killing insurgents. The new manual’s deficiency is compounded by the short shrift given the subject in the otherwise impressive learning bibliography in the appendices. Of 60-odd classical books and articles devoted to COIN, only a single reference is dedicated to information operations. Clearly, this is inadequate, and I do not think any other existing doctrinal publication can make up for this rather lean discussion.
Winning the battle of ideas
Information operations (IO) in conventional warfare involve those actions taken by the military to directly or indirectly affect the enemy’s information and information systems. In major combat operations, the focus of IO is on the key decision-makers and the decision-making process — to degrade, influence or paralyze their ability to understand the situation or respond effectively. In conventional campaigns, the essence of IO is influencing enemy decision-making processes while enhancing and protecting one’s own. But in dealing with an insurgency, a greater preponderance of the decision-making involves the perceptions of the civilian population and their collective decision-making process to support the host nation’s government.
The overall objective is to compete in the informational battle and win the battle of ideas and the politico-military struggle for power. The IO capabilities and supporting related activities enable or support military operations that create opportunities for decisive battles. These capabilities, when synchronized, counter the opponent and subversive activity while seizing and maintaining the initiative with a steady broadcast of information.
The American military has myopically focused on information warfare and its cousin, network-centric warfare, to enhance traditional functions and has missed the larger strategic influence of cyber-tools. It has conceptualized IO as comprised of five major pillars: computer network attack, computer network defense, electronic warfare, deception and psychological operations. This framework and the way it was introduced in an age of supposed revolutionary change warped its utility for more irregular scenarios. The U.S. military has repeated the most frequent mistake of military innovation, attempting to laminate new technology on top of old processes and underestimating the imagination of our enemies. Recent scholarship has persuasively compared the ongoing cyber-mobilization of Muslims around the world to the French Revolution and the levée en masse.
Modern cyber-mobilization benefits from numerous parallels to the French Revolution. These include a democratization of communications, an increase in public access, sharp cost reductions in both production and distribution of media, and an exploitation of images to create and reinforce a mobilizing ideology or narrative. Today’s computer- and media-saturated audience has an astonishing array of choices that also have clear analogues to France’s rising: Blogs are today’s revolutionary pamphlets, Web sites are the new dailies and listservs are today’s broadsides.
Like the levée en masse, the evolving character of communications is altering the patterns of popular mobilization, including both the means of participation and the ends for which wars are fought. It is enabling the recruiting, training, convincing and motivating of individuals. “Today’s mobilization may not be producing masses of soldiers, sweeping across the European continent,” a modern Grand Armee, but it has produced a globally distributed uprising, says Oxford University academic director of studies and terrorism expert Audrey Cronin. This has profound implications for human conflict in this century. Cronin warns, “Western nations will persist in ignoring the fundamental changes in popular mobilization at their peril.”
In future scenarios, U.S. forces must exploit technical capabilities to block or limit the irregular forces’ capacity to “maneuver” in this portion of the battle space. The American security community must re-conceptualize its understanding of IO. The current concept and the resulting capability mix are too oriented on computer network attacks and electronic warfare. Such capabilities are not irrelevant in irregular conflict and will increasingly be exploited to better assure our own systems against penetration, as we simultaneously attempt to infiltrate the irregular network’s own internal networks. However, the most relevant source and form of software in irregular warfare is the intricate software of the human brain. Our emphasis must increasingly focus not on the technical means of information dissemination but on the culturally relevant content we are issuing to affect the strategic and operational portions of the battle space. To do this, we will need to better integrate, if not totally rethink, our strategic communications, public diplomacy, command information and public affairs capabilities.
We will also have to expand our thinking in terms of the strategic and operational aspects of IO. Like Lawrence, we must discriminate between distinct audiences in our rear and on our flanks, and the deep battle for public opinion in the international community. Lawrence understood the full range of his psychological element of war. He noted that he had to “arrange the minds of the enemy, so far as we could reach them, then those other minds of the nation supporting us, then the minds of the enemy nation, and of the neutrals looking on; circle beyond circle.” Our efforts will have to serve the same ever-expanding circle, and include the American people, who remain both a center of gravity for any significant U.S. interventions, and a critical vulnerability if we ignore the requirement for extended public support. The administration has not yet successfully mounted a sustained campaign to “arrange the minds” of the American people and explain its actions in Iraq and the overall Long War. The last election represented a significant shift in attitudes and perceptions about the war. Here, the failure to properly absorb the lessons of Vietnam are coming back to haunt America’s military.
the Marines get it
Unlike the other services, the Marines did not consider IO to be the complete domain of a specialist community. Senior Marine leaders understood the role of the psychological dimension of their counterinsurgency plans. The role of deploying “a bodyguard of truth” around everything was important to the campaign plan and all subsequent operations. Information operations are “how you dry up the swamp that’s festering this plague,” Lt. Gen. James Mattis said.
Unlike the zealots of bytes and info technology, the Marines did not perceive that IO was a capability largely tied to information technology or computer network attack. They saw it, naturally, as a supporting arm, with all Marines participating. Many Marines see IO broadly defined as a key supporting arm or form of “fires” in any counterinsurgency. Like any supporting arm, the Marines did recognize that the capability had to be integrated into the overall scheme of maneuver and serve the commander’s overall intent.
Instead of asserting that “only IO personnel do IO,” Marine leaders stressed the importance of every Marine in the role of information dissemination. Because of this, they also believed that a commander’s themes needed to be pushed down to every man in their area to ensure congruence between all actions and all words in support of the commander’s intent. Thus, every Marine was to be a rifleman, an intelligence collector and an IO disseminator. The Marines understood that actions would speak louder and with more credibility than just leaflets, broadcasts and posters. Thus, every patrol and every council meeting was an opportunity to influence the population and ensure that the key themes of the American support to Iraq were consistently and frequently communicated. This message was generally defined by senior commanders as their principal IO theme per Marine doctrine.
However, such tactical fusion will not resolve the larger problem of connecting the strategy to strategic IO themes and supporting operational and tactical actions. Regrettably, the processes that the U.S. government put into effect to manage the strategic end of the counterinsurgency’s informational component never seemed to click. Universally, operational commanders could not identify key strategic themes from Washington or gain any additional support for operational and tactical information activities. Equally frustrating were the long production and approval cycles for IO products, completely out of sync with the need to rapidly counter gossip, misinformation and outright distortions coming from the insurgents.
But because the Marine Corps has no organic psychological operations units and no organic equipment for disseminating products or broadcasts, the ability to apply well-designed IO campaigns was limited. “We spent a lot of time reacting to what the insurgents were putting out,” one Marine IO officer said, “rather than being proactive and better supporting the scheme of maneuver because we had limited resources.”
Because of the paucity of organic capability, the Marines relied on Army augmentation for this capability, and they were satisfied with their capabilities and performance. What assets they did have were provided by Army units and were too often limited to leaflets and loudspeakers. Interviews indicated general satisfaction with the ability of Marine staffs to incorporate an information component into their plans and operations. But at least one commander during the transition phase found himself limited in trying to communicate within a fairly large city to a large and varied population because the assets available to Marines were limited to loudspeakers and leaflets. Among the requirements identified for enhancing IO was the need for a satellite TV outlet that could show how successful the coalition has been at killing and capturing the resistance, with the goal of portraying resistance against the coalition as hopeless. Several commentators want a satellite-based Iraqi forum to counter al-Jazeera.
Because they have few, if any, school-trained information officers, the Marines found it necessary to create and fill billets at major headquarters and down to the battalion level to fill this role. This billet was deemed key to operations in this environment. Too often it was regarded as a collateral duty. Furthermore, the battalions often did not have dedicated assets or attachments providing direct support. Some officers bemoaned the lack of attention to this critical tool. “IO at the tactical level in the Marine Corps is not properly staffed,” one Marine veteran from Iraq said. “There are not enough people to do it, it’s paid lip service and it’s extremely important.”
The Marines recognize the importance of this aspect of conflict, however, and the need to expand their capabilities. A portion of its planned 27,000 Marine end-strength increase will create a unique IO capability for the Corps. The Marine’s fundamental war-fighting philosophy understands the importance of maneuver, in every dimension of the battle space.
Munitions of the Mind
Given the importance of perceptions and the salience of the psychological dimension in IW, U.S. capabilities must be sharpened. We must be as effective at deploying “munitions of the mind” as we are conventional munitions. Commanders must have access to mass media outlets or whatever medium the local populace normally uses to obtain information. This might include civilian radio broadcasting facilities, local TV, newspaper, Internet networks or simple DVD/CD production capabilities. The key is to communicate to as many people as possible as quickly as possible in order to influence the situation — with a consistent message and in a culturally effective manner. Furthermore, conceptual distinctions between bureaucracies and existing occupational fields like public affairs and psychological operations need to be rethought. As journalist Robert Kaplan put it:
“Because the battles in counterinsurgency are small-scale and often clandestine … it becomes a matter of perceptions and victory is awarded to those who weave the most compelling narrative. Truly, the world of post-modern, 21st-century conflict, civilian and military public affairs officers must become war fighters by another name.”
At the same time, our war fighters must also know how to translate the results of their effective employment of combined arms into more than just physical results. Ultimately, we have to transition the impact of kinetic operations into a credible narrative that undercuts the bad guys and promotes our story. Some commanders, such as Gens. David Petraeus and Jim Mattis, get it.
The ideological aspects of irregular warfare will continue to influence the conduct of operations. As in Lawrence’s day, when “antique arms were the most honored,” we will depend on what he referred to as the metaphysical weapon for the means of victory. We will learn to maneuver in both the physical environment and the virtual dimension to achieve a positional advantage. We will be as effective and precise with our mental munitions as we are with close-air support. As in most irregular and protracted conflicts, the contest for the support of the population is the central or decisive front in the campaign, requiring us to recognize that perception may matter as much as factual results in the physical battlefield. Modern counterinsurgencies involve killing, but they are inherently wars of ideas and images.
Frank G. Hoffman is a former Marine officer and a research fellow at the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities.