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A powerful, credible narrative?

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — how about a powerful, credible foreign policy? — maybe that’s asking too much ]
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James P. Farwell‘s piece in the National Interest, Information Warfare: The Key to Destroying ISIS, claims:

A coalition of Shia militias, Iraqi government forces and anti-ISIS Suncni tribesman are making progress towards ejecting ISIS from Tikrit. What’s needed now is to capitalize on those defeats and complement kinetic action with a cohesive information war campaign driven by a powerful, credible narrative that demoralizes, divides, confuses, and frustrates ISIS members in order to blunt their effectiveness as fighters, and undermine their expectations, destroy their momentum, and quash any hope of victory in creating a sustainable Islamic State or caliphate.

A powerful, credible narrative?

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Let’s look at two recent efforts. The first was just “published from above” by the US Government:

PsyOps lealet

Here’s some context and commentary, from Al Jazeera’s DC office:

On March 16 an F-15E fighter jet dropped 60,000 copies of the above leaflet on Raqqa, the base of operations for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

The image shows a “Daesh Employment Office” (Daesh is a pejorative nickname for ISIL in the Arab world).

Two ISIL recruiters, one of whom appears more monster than man, feed young men into a meat grinder with “Daesh” written in blood on its side. A sign in the upper-right corner reads “Now Serving Number 6,001″.

When asked about the intended message of the leaflet, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, said “If you allow yourself to be recruited by Daesh, you will find yourself in a meat grinder.”

Warren said the leaflet was created by the Army’s Military Information Support Operations, or MISO. Until 2010 that outfit was known as “PSY-OPS” (short for “Psychological Operations”).
Experts have questioned the efficacy and tenor of the leaflet.

Faysal Itani, a Fellow at the Atlantic Center in Washington who studies the various groups fighting in Syria’s civil war, said anyone in Raqqa thinking of joining ISIL is either ideologically committed or coerced.

“Members of the first category are likely immune to leaflet propaganda, especially if distributed by an air force that has been bombing Raqqa,” Itani told DC Dispatches.

Frankly, I think that’s the wrong way to appeal to the people of Raqqa, who see worse everyday, and either don’t want or don’t need to be reminded.

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Next up is the effort of a consortium of British Imams — a magazine called Haqiqah, whose editor pitches it thus:

We’re turning the tide – though we still have a way to go, we know that by taking efforts to support and mobilise the huge online Muslim population we will eventually drown out the violent voices

Here’s a sample double-page spread:

Haqiqah

I would like to applaud the effort, but I’m afraid a 17-page magazine featuring text blocks in a typewriter face and the occasional poor color photograph is just no match for IS’ own magazine, Dabiq, whose first issue ran 50 pages, and which looked like this:

Dabiq double page

Ouch. Richard Barrett of the Soufan Group is gentle in the way he phrases his comment, but I’m afraid he’s also right on the mark:

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Okay, let’s look at some of the possible theological “alt-narratives” I’ve seen proposed.

First, there’s the idea that losing battles might “prove” that ISIS was not divinely approved and supported — but Qur’an 2:154-56 concerns those who fight fi sabil Allah, an suggests they will encounter “tests” up to and including “loss of lives” in the course of events:

And do not say about those who are killed in the way of Allah, “They are dead.” Rather, they are alive, but you perceive [it] not. And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, Who, when disaster strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah , and indeed to Him we will return.”

Furthermore, IS’ favorite eschatological hadith (I’ve quoted it before) specifies that many will be lost, both to glorious death and inglorious desertion:

The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them). When they will arrange themselves in ranks, the Romans would say: Do not stand between us and those (Muslims) who took prisoners from amongst us. Let us fight with them; and the Muslims would say: Nay, by Allah, we would never get aside from you and from our brethren that you may fight them. They will then fight and a third (part) of the army would run away, whom Allah will never forgive. A third (part of the army). which would be constituted of excellent martyrs in Allah’s eye, would be killed ani the third who would never be put to trial would win and they would be conquerors of Constantinople

Losing ground? I think the third “alt-narrative” — the narrative brought into effect by IS losing significant ground they had previously captured, is the most powerful of those currently proffered — but it depends on perspective rather than capture or loss. Blows to IS such as the loss of Tikrit, or a fortiori the possible loss of Mosul, might seem persuasive to most western eyes, but in the eyes of potential recruits they may well be counterbalanced by new oaths of allegiance such as thos of Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab to the IS caliph.

At least, though, we glimpse here that changes in military reality may impact thelogically-based beliefs.

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Taking that a step further, I’d suggest that credible behavior on our own part, rather than the fatwas of ulema — even Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, let alone those who may seem obviously compromised by complicity in power — will comprise the most effective of counter-narratives.

America supported Muslims in Afghanistan against the Russians, America supported Bosniac Muslims against the Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats — these are the kinds of action that most clearly refute the idea that the US is at war with Muslims — as it may appear to be in the cases Bacevich listed a few months back in a WaPo op-ed:

As America’s efforts to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State militants extent into Syria, Iraq War III has seamlessly morphed into Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV. That is, Syria has become at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded or occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have killed or been killed. And that’s just since 1980.

Let’s tick them off: Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria. Whew.

That could be viewed as a pretty devastating list.

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Actions — as a poet, I dread to utter these words, but they seem appropriate in this context — actions (in the form of foreign policy) just may speak louder that words .

New Article up at Pragati: Lethal Ideas & Insurgent Memories – Review of The Violent Image

Friday, October 25th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]


The Violent Image by Neville Bolt 

I have a new book review up at Pragati this morning:

Lethal ideas and insurgent memory 

….One expert who does acknowledge a paradigmatic shift and posits a powerful explanatory model for the behavior of what he terms “the new revolutionaries” is Dr Neville Bolt of the War Studies Department of King’s College, London and author of The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries. Taking a constructivist view of irregular military conflict as the means by which insurgents weave an enduring political narrative of mythic power and shape historical memory, Bolt eschews some cherished strategic tenets of realists and Clausewitzians. The ecology of social media, powered by decentralised, instant communication platforms and the breakdown of formerly autarkic or regulated polities under the corrosive effects of capitalist market expansion, have been, in Bolt’s view, strategic game changers “creating room to maneuver” in a new “cognitive battlespace” for “complex insurgencies”.  Violent “Propaganda of the Deed”, once the nihilistic signature of 19th century Anarchist-terrorist groups like the People’s Will, has reemerged in the 21stcentury’s continuous media attention environment as a critical tool for insurgents to compress time and space through “…a dramatic crisis that must be provoked”.

As a book The Violent Image sits at the very verge of war and politics where ideas become weapons and serve as a catalyst for turning grievance into physical aggression and violence. Running two hundred and sixty-nine heavily footnoted pages and an extensive bibliography that demonstrates Bolt’s impressive depth of research. While Bolt at times slips into academic style, for the most part his prose is clear, forceful and therefore useful and accessible to the practitioner or policy maker. Particularly for the latter, are Bolt’s investigations into violent action by modern terrorists as a metaphor impacting time (thus, decision cycles) across a multiplicity of audiences.  This capacity for harvesting strategic effect from terrorist events was something lacking in the 19th and early 20thcentury followers of Bakunin and Lenin (in his dalliances with terrorism); or in Bolt’s view, the anarchists “failed to evoke a coherent understanding in the population” or a “sustained message”.

Read the rest here.

 

New Book: The Violent Image by Neville Bolt

Friday, December 14th, 2012

The Violent Image by Neville Bolt 

Columbia University Press just sent me a review copy of The Violent Image, by Dr. Neville Bolt of King’s College vaunted War Studies Department.  Initially, I was amused by the colorful book jacket, but flipping through, it belies a very weighty, heavily footnoted, academic exploration of the iterative relationship between propagandistic imagery and insurgency. Even a casual perusal indicates that The Violent Image is a book many readers of ZP will  like to  get their hands on.

From the jacket:

….Neville Bolt investigates how today’s revolutionaries have rejuvenated the nineteenth century “ptopaganda of the deed” so that terrorism no longer simply goads states into overreacting, thereby losing legitimacy. Instead the deed has become a tool to highlight the underlying grievances of communities

A small sampling of some of the section titles:

Strategic Communications:the State
Strategic Communications: the Insurgent
Networks in Real and Virtual Worlds
Images as Weapons
POTD as Insurgent Concept of Operations
Anonymity and Leaderless Revolutions
The Arab Uprisings and Liberation Technology
POTD as Metaphor

Endnotes run slightly over 90 pages and the bibliography tips the scales at 50, for those interested in such things.

Looking forward to reading this and seeing how Bolt presents his case.

Pondering Transition Ops with Quesopaper

Monday, April 16th, 2012

One of the nice things about this blog is that periodically, smart folks will send me their unpublished material for feedback and private commentary. This comes in a wide variety of formats – manuscripts, articles, book chapters, powerpoint, sometimes an entire book or novel! It is flattering and almost always informative, so I try to help where I can or at least point the sender in the direction of someone more appropriate.

Recently, I was given a peek at a very intriguing paper on “Transition Operations” by Dr Rich Ledet, LTC Jeff Stewart and Mr. Pete Turner, who blogs occasionally at quesopaper.  Pete has spent a good chunk of the past ten years in a variety of positions and capacities in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he currently is with American troops in a remote rural district and it was he who passed their draft to me. They have taken a fresh look at the subject.

While I can’t give away their “secret sauce” in detail,  I particularly liked the fact that while the  focus and advice for executing transition operations is aimed at field grade officers and their civilian agency counterparts, their vision is in sync with the ideal of having policy-strategy-operations and tactics as a seamless “whole-of-government” garment. If only we could get our politicians to think in these terms, half the battle would be over.

Their paper is now headed to a professional journal; when it is published ( as I think it will be), I will definitely be linking to it here and hopefully, that will be soon.

My reason for my bringing this up – I have the permission of the authors to do so – is that the trio have put their finger on the major doctrinal problem faced by the United States military in Afghanistan – “transition operations” being a politically charged topic, laden as it is with implied foreign policy decision making by heavyweight policy makers, is treated in very scanty fashion by FM 3-24. Compared to other aspects of COIN, very little guidance is given to the the commander of the battalion or brigade in the effort to coordinate “turnover” of responsibilities and missions to their Afghan Army, police and government allies.

This at a time when the “readiness” of Afghan units and officials to accept these burdens in the midst of a war with the Taliban is questionable, variable, controversial at home and politically extremely sensitive in Afghanistan.

And at a point where, ten years after September 11, the US State Department is no more able in terms of personnel and vision or sufficiently funded by Congress, to step up their game and take the lead role in Afghanistan from the Pentagon than it was on September 10, 2001.  SECSTATEs Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton deserve great praise for making State do more with less, but State needs wholesale reform to fit the needs of the 21st century and the money and budgetary flexibility to split foreign policy tasks more equitably with the Defense Department.

State is not going to be playing a major role on the ground in our transition out of Afghanistan, which makes guidance to our majors and colonels – and in turn to their company and platoon leaders stationed there-  all the more important.

More on Strategy

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Two posts worth your attention:

Gulliver at Inkspots continues the strategy convo between myself and Jason Fritz with a major post of extended commentary:

Let’s just be up front with each other: this is a really long rant about strategy 

….I’m willing to concede that the line between civilian and military reponsibilities in strategy formation and the associated operational planning is a blurry and unstable one, and that what I’ve laid out as the normative standard isn’t always the way things play out in reality. You certainly shouldn’t take anything I’ve written above as an exculpatory argument for our elected officials. But more on this a bit later.

As for our man Carl: Jason’s choice of Clausewitz quote is simultaneously interesting and surprising to me. Committed students of the sage will recognize it from perhaps the most remarked-upon pages of On War: Book Eight, Chapter 6B. (If it were an episode of “Friends,” they’d call it The One With the Politics By Other Means.) The language Jason excerpted is from the 19th-century Graham translation; just for the purpose of clarity, let’s look at the somewhat more fluent Paret/Howard version:

In making use of war, policy evades all rigorous conclusions proceeding from the nature of war, bothers little about ultimate possibilities, and concerns itself only with immediate probabilities. Although this introduces a high degree of uncertainty into the whole business, turning it into a kind of game, each government is confident that it can outdo its opponent in skill and acumen. (606)This is a pretty difficult passage (especially as I present it here, mostly out of context) but I take it to mean that governments are little interested in ruminations on war’s escalatory momentum in the direction of its absolute form, but rather in how violence may be used to achieve concrete political goals. But the paradoxical reality is that addition of violence to politics – violence that is fueled in part by hatred and enmity, violence that is fundamental to war’s nature and sets it off as distinct from all other human activity – actually re-shapes the character of the political contest. War’s essential violence pressures the political contest to take on the character of a duel or a sporting event; without the harness of policy, war risks becoming a self-contained competition conducted according to its own rules, one where victory is not the mere accomplishment of political objectives but rather a revision of the relationship between the two competitors such that the victor is free to enact his preferences. 

The “high degree of uncertainty” that Clausewitz concedes is introduced “into the whole business” is produced by divergence between the things we do in war and the things they are meant to achieve. In limited war, our actions are conceived as violent but discrete and purposive acts of policy, while as war moves toward its absolute form our actions are increasingly divorced from discrete political objectives short of the destruction of our enemy. To put it simply, shit gets crazy in war. [….] 

In a different strategic venue, Matt Armstrong at MountainRunner analyzes  The President’s National Framework for Strategic Communication (and Public Diplomacy) for 2012 :

It should be common knowledge that the “information consequences of policy ought always be taken into account, and the information man ought always to be consulted. This statement, from 1951, is reflected in Eisenhower’s dictum of the next year that “everything we say, everything we do, and everything we fail to say or do will have its impact in other lands.” It was understood then that words and deeds needed more than just synchronization: public opinion could be leveraged to support and further the execution of foreign policy.

What was true then is more so in a modern communication environment of empowerment. The interconnected systems of Now Media, spanning offline and online mediums, democratizes influence, and undermines traditional models of identity and allegiance as demands on assimilation fade as “hyphens” become commas. What emerges is a new marketplace for loyalty that bypasses traditional barriers of time, geography, authority, hierarchy, culture, and language. Information flows much faster; at times it is instantaneous, decreasing the time allowed to digest and comprehend the information, let alone respond to it. Further, information is now persistent, allowing for time-shifted consumption and reuse, for ill or for good. People too can travel the globe with greater ease and increased speed.

It is in this evolving environment that the President issued an updated “National Framework for Strategic Communication” for 2012 (3.8mb PDF, note: the PDF has been fixed and should be once again visible to all). This report updates the 2010 report issued last March that was little more than a narrative on how the Government was organized for strategic communication. The report is required under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009.

Some highlights from the 2012 Framework: [….]


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