Friday, January 05, 2007

Armed information

I think there is little doubt that in the Muslim world, and to a great degree in the West, the image of the US is tarnished, to put it mildly. At best, it is seen as a heavy-handed keeper of the status quo; at worst, as an oppressive imperial power willing to kill on a 'vast' scale just to ensure oil supplies and a military presence in the region that holds those resources.

Many (me, included) have blamed the media and kept gimlet-eyes on it to bore through the facade of objectivity and to pick out and hold up the weavils that demonstrate the opposite. They are not difficult to find, especially with regard to Israel. But it's not enough.

Not enough, I mean, to explain the losses we have suffered in the information war. So often it has seemed that what has been gained with vast expenditures of energy, time, wealth and blood can be lost in an instant, in the time it takes for some nutter to press a button on his belt. So often it has seemed that every move we make, no matter how successful in terms of military or economic targets reached, is a mere blundering that destroys more than it protects.

One of the reasons for my enthusiasm for that post on Blackfive that I linked to yesterday was that no only does he explain why it seems that way, but he goes on to analyse what we can do about it. Today I clicked on some of the links he supplies, including the one that is the source for a lot of his ideas (among which, the word 'disaggregation').

It turns out that we have an Australian army captain called David Kilcullen to thank for these insights. And two experiences that got him thinking.

The first was a visit in 1993 to a museum dedicated to the defeat of a separatist Muslim insurgency movement called Darul Islam in the sixties. He wanted to understand how the Indonesian government achieved victory (in part, by doing what the coalition is not allowed to do in Iraq). But then, as he was writing, he witnessed the rise of Jemaah Islamiya in the same region as before as well as the success of the separatist Christian movement in East Timor. The Indonesians used the tactics that had brought them success in the first war, but to no avail. Why not? What was different? Kilcullen got to thinking.

I am not going to even try to cover all the ground he does. Just a couple of examples. He concluded, as many have in the last couple of years, that this is more an information war than a military one. He recalls listening to a bin Laden tape and his list of grievances against America: Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, global warming. Global warming? “I thought, Hang on! What kind of jihadist are you?” He gives several examples of where the point of an action (such as 9/11) is not just to kill, but more importantly send a message to the 'constituency' and to the enemy (us). For example,

As soon as the recent fighting in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israeli troops ended, Hezbollah marked, with its party flags, houses that had been damaged. Kilcullen said, “That’s not a reconstruction operation—it’s an information operation. It’s influence. They’re going out there to send a couple of messages. To the Lebanese people they’re saying, ‘We’re going to take care of you.’ To all the aid agencies it’s like a dog pissing on trees: they’re saying, ‘We own this house—don’t you touch it.’ ” He went on, “When the aid agencies arrive a few days later, they have to negotiate with Hezbollah because there’s a Hezbollah flag on the house. Hezbollah says, ‘Yeah, you can sell a contract to us to fix up that house.’ It’s an information operation. They’re trying to generate influence.”
Another reason that this analysis strikes me as something more than wishful thinking is its hard-headedness. No sentimental delusions.
[W]inning hearts and minds is not a matter of making local people like you—as some American initiates to counterinsurgency whom I met in Iraq seemed to believe—but of getting them to accept that supporting your side is in their interest, which requires an element of coercion. Kilcullen met senior European officers with the NATO force in Afghanistan who seemed to be applying “a development model to counterinsurgency,” hoping that gratitude for good work would bring the Afghans over to their side. He told me, “In a counterinsurgency, the gratitude effect will last until the sun goes down and the insurgents show up and say, ‘You’re on our side, aren’t you? Otherwise, we’re going to kill you.’ If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing.” Kilcullen was describing a willingness to show local people that supporting the enemy risks harm and hardship.
There's an article from the New Yorker about Kilcullen and two pieces by the man himself: Twenty-Eight Articles - Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency (pdf) and Counterinsurgency Redux (pdf).

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