08 June 2009

Information Ops and Attrition Warfare

Tom Ricks beat me to the punch on this story, which originated in the Washington Post (and linked to from the Small Wars Journal daily update). It discusses the difficulties of the US military in practicing information operations and psychological operations in foreign countries.

I'll begin this story with a little vignette. Last year, I participated in a month-long training exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center in order to prepare for deployment to Iraq. During the exercise, our unit needed to send someone to participate in a mock interview with the Arab media, as this is an often underlooked yet important part of our skill set in modern warfare. The decision to send me probably looked like this:

"Hey [Starbuck] likes books and politics and stuff like that. Let's send him!"

I got to escape the Louisiana summer and sit in an air-conditioned broadcasting studio for an hour with Arabic-speaking Americans, as I participated in the Iraqi equivalent of a morning radio talk show. The interview was, of course, recorded and evaluated by a public affairs officer.

I sat down in the radio booth and was treated to a number of questions from the acting Arab media. After listening to the scripted questions, it quickly dawned on me that we tend to underestimate how difficult it is to successfully get a credible message out to the people of a foreign country and have it not sound like propaganda to them.

The first question went something like this: "How has the US been able to successfully racially integrate and do you think Iraq can integrate as well as the US has?"

The problem with this question is, that, even though we've made amazing progress--we've gone from African-Americans not being able to drink from the same water fountains fifty years ago to African-Americans serving as generals and even as the President of the United States--we definitely had our share of difficulties. We've had massive race riots even as recently as the Rodney King trial, we've had bus boycotts, and we've had the Civil War. That's not exactly the message of hope the Iraqis want to hear.

I would say a better metric for predicting stability in an ethnically diverse country might be an increased standard of living across all ethnic groups. The book "War, Guns and Votes" points out that, in many nations, ethnic strife decreases as per capita income increases. The book covers a number of examples in the developing world, noting that there is a direct correlation between the stability of democracies, decreased ethnic strife, and income levels. Indeed, the author provides many case studies of African nations, and notes that increased GDP per capita seems to ease many ethnic differences.

I believe that greater per capita income will lead to greater stability in Iraq, and conversely, that an economic downturn will greatly harm security. But that's not the lesson of hope that you actually say out loud. "Hey, you'll start to live together in peace once you have money. We had this guy named John Lenon who said 'All you need is love', but really, all you need is cash".

So basically, I was left to spout half-hclichés about people being able to put aside their differences and work together and, I don't know, eat a cake made of sunshine and rainbows. As much as I'd like that to be credible, something tells me that in a country where ethnic groups have had their own independent armies, a foreigner telling people to live happily ever after by working together would get ignored, if not outright laughed at. As one Robert Greene's rules of power states: always appeal to interests, never to benevolence.

Question two went like this. Remember, this interview took place in mid-2008: "Many feel that if the Democrats win the election, the US will no longer be committed to Iraq and leave. What are your feelings about this?" (I had to fight the temptation to answer this one with my usual sarcasm)

Answering questions about continued American presence with the standard answers about "eternal commitment" might sound good if you're an American audience, but if you're an Iraqi, this doesn't play that well. While there are many in Iraq that see the benefit to the continued presence of American troops, "eternal commitment" still has undertones of a permanent presence, which isn't the message we would like to send to Iraq.

Indeed, what puzzled me about many of the questions was that the "correct" answers, even those being broadcast to the Iraqis, weren't really targeted at the Iraqis—we were simply re-broadcasting the messages that we, as Americans, liked to hear, not what the Iraqis wanted to hear from us.

Information operations are an extremely difficult for a number of different reasons. Not the least of which is that we tend to take an attrition warfare approach to winning the information battle. We often refer to information as a sort of artillery, with the idea being that if you bombard the enemy with enough images, sound bites, and news articles, they will finally yield. The truth is far more complicated than that.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded by images and sounds which are trying to influence the way we act—buy this, vote for this, watch this—it's difficult to get an authentic and convincing message to catch on. Hell, it's difficult to get a message to catch on in our own culture, let alone a completely foreign culture.

One of my recurring themes I have in this blog (I have a number of these stories canned for slow days) deals with the hokey and laughable public service announcements on the American Forces Network, which are comical at best and Orwellian at worst. It's hard enough for the US military to effectively put out convincing messages to its own troops without it looking like, well, all of those PSAs that convince us to do just the opposite of whatever they're saying. It's even that much more difficult to create a convincing argument as a complete outsider in a foreign culture, particularly when, you're a foreign army.

The Washington Post reports:

"This is so wrong," Aajeely said with a chuckle. "The people in charge of this are not professional journalists.

"They do it the same way the prior regime did its newspapers," he added, referring to publications that hewed to the narrative Saddam Hussein wanted to push.

A U.S. Army officer in Baghdad, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he could express criticism of the product, said the Iraqi soldiers at his outpost mock the publication and are more interested in the editorially independent Department of Defense newspaper, Stars and Stripes, and in the magazines soldiers get in the mail.

"They say it's childish," the officer said. "Baghdad Now makes a good fuel source at the Iraqi checkpoints."…

…"They have a very crude tone and content, and the narrator sounds like Saddam's own propagandist,"[ed. note: referring to "Comical Ali"] he said. "The Arabic used also is awkward, clearly translated from English texts most likely drafted in some office on K Street. One is struck by the extent to which the ads show Iraqis as Westernized and secularized."

One television campaign produced in 2004 under the title "We stay" showed a long line of U.S. military vehicles and helicopters fading into the horizon. A small group of Iraqi children watches as the contingent disappears. For a few seconds, they appear wary. Then they smile and start kicking a soccer ball.

An ad launched this year featured Iraqis from different regions listing the things that united them. The billboard component had a split image of a man's and a woman's faces, under the words: "Despite our differences, Iraq unites us."

Of a couple of dozen Iraqis interviewed about the ads, the overwhelming majority said they find them ineffective.

"All Iraqis know that these organizations are supported" by the U.S. government "with the aim of normalizing the occupation," said Abdul Kareem Ahmad, a lawyer in Salahuddin province. "I say to the Future Iraq organization: If those funds had been given to the poor and the widows, Iraq would have become a pioneer in social welfare. Millions of dollars go into the pockets of war profiteers who believe victory in Iraq can be won through the media using underground movies."

Noor Sabah, an engineer in Fallujah, said her friends and relatives ridicule the ads.

"These commercials are boring, poor and annoying," she said. "Everyone knows they're American -- not Iraqi-made."

The"Orientation" phase of the OODA loop comes into play in two very important ways.

First, we make errors in the orientation phase of the OODA loop by assuming, based on our own cultural traditions and experience, that Iraqis will think in the same way that we do, and will thus be swayed by the same messages we are.

Secondly, the Iraqis notice a disconnect between the observation phase and orientation phase when American information operations do not match the reality that they observe. (see the article for more specific examples) Our information operations should communicate a positive message, but it should be realistic. The appearance we want to project should match reality, otherwise we lose all credibility.

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