What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

About an indirect approach to information operations

For an appearance on stage today I'll just refer to this post by John Mackinlay at the Insurgency Research Group blog, raising concerns about the amount and the nature of the media's coverage of Sunday's attack by the Taliban on the Kabul military parade.
It's surprising the Sunday attack is the one that should evoke the sort of questions about the media's role that are raised in the article. It was quite clearly "newsworthy stuff," even if the Taliban was probably counting on the bonus of the media's attention. Consider that such news and images made it even out of Grozny, Chechnya, not the most liberal context for the media, after Akhmed Kadyrov's assassination in quite similar circumstances in 2004 (source: BBC):
Otherwise these questions are relevant in that they concern the, seemingly at least, asymmetrical effort in terms of information operations in the insurgencies the West is involved in - asymmetrical because insurgents seem more adept and active at these.
Before going on, let me insert an interesting excerpt first about how the Taliban's IO/PR campaign may have gained strength. Then some of the questions/assertions, quoted from John Mackinlay's post, follow:

"According to Steve Tatham, the Taliban’s re-branding project began by sending a start up team as interns to Al Qaeda’s video production unit Al Sahab in 2006 and very soon afterwards in early 2007 their own production standards visibly improved. In April 2007 the new, media savvy Taliban began to promote hemselves as “the people’s movement” thanks to a five part series screened by Al Jazeera and compiled by their credulously enthusiastic Pakistan reporter. In June 2007 images of a Taliban suicide bombers graduation ceremony augmented this new image of themselves on the internet and in June a spokesman announced that they were henceforth the “New Taliban”.


(about the coverage of Sunday's attack then - P.M.) Why not explain the propaganda context of their images or better still embargo the use of all images when reporting a sensational terrorist incident, including the endless resuscitation of images of previous attacks?"

The questions then that seem especially important to me, having considered the above, are:
- Are the Western countries involved in counterinsurgency today committing a grave mistake by not capitalising as fast on "useful" pieces of information as the enemy is? Are they committing a mistake by not trying to restrict the spread of pieces of information "useful" to the enemy?
- Exactly what crucial target group may be affected by any asymmetry in such efforts?
The first thing I think of is of course that restrictions in any form imposed on the flow of information, either through semi-forced media self-censorship, or through official limitations, as well as obligatorily broadcast official messages to the public, these are just not compatible with democratic legitimacy and may thus be counterproductive. (In the US of course there's even the Smith-Mundt Act and the illusion that thereby the domestic audience cannot be influenced by the U.S. government - that the domestic public therefore is able to make up its mind in a Habermasian dreamworld of rational communication and debate about all sorts of matters.)
Then comes the obvious second thought that one should differentiate between different target audiences.
Some of the countries involved in the toughest part of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan do not experience a critical amount of alienation and incomprehension of the goals on the ground on the part of their public. Most importantly, that seems to be the case with the UK and the US. Perhaps a crucial factor is how people see through the constant trying by insurgents to distort their image of reality. And the at times lame reactions from public officials to events about which they could have smarter comments than what they offer, are possibly not that damaging as we automatically tend to think. It's somehow compatible with the good side's image that one doesn't look to create propaganda out of deeds all the time. Similarly to how some products are not sold nowadays through propagandistic commercials but by the help of more subtly influential techniques. Like, by making products attractive, for example.
To win loyalty to a good ideology doesn't take that much convincing. I would have been happy to hear the media mention the "offence preference mode" that insurgents, typically of a very asymmetrical conflict, capitalised on here again, just as on countless occasions before. I would have been happy to see Karzai's "mayor of Kabul" label mentioned less often in careless commentary. Yet even if the Taliban may be winning the individual information battles, unknowingly aided by some of the media, they may not stand a chance of winning the information war... Metanarratives may be quite resilient, unaffected by micro-narratives of daily events.
One could sit back in an armschair on that note. But there are many different target groups of course. There are the radicals within, for example, of course not at all solely, in the UK. Of course some sort of outreach to them is required. Bring in the moderate Muslim scholars, ask them to talk to those people, and so on. May indeed be more effective than other approaches.
Then there are the domestic audiences in currently more passive NATO member countries, where politicians scarcely try to influence the public debate about the specificities of the conflict. What should be done about them? Offer propaganda, spin, selected information, or whatever else, to them, the audiences there, throwing it at them in a concentrated effort? Again, it could be counterproductive easily. Calm talk at diplomatic events about the need for not leaving friendly, allied, democratic countries alone on the battlefield may not lead to an end to all the quarrelling over coalition burden-sharing, but may slowly transform attitudes. Somewhat. Perhaps. At least it's not counterproductive.
What about the audience in Arab countries? What about their hearts and minds? There it may be even more important to get one's message across. After all, people there often don't have access to even nearly as open a marketplace of information as people in the West do. In that case I'm not so sure of what to think. But then I'm not really an expert of public diplomacy. Surely something can be done there, too, but even there a more indirect approach to information operations is probably the way to go.
More communication through Arab media, but not forced on it. Make the information available in abundance, but don't try to hard-sell it.
The final question is what the Afghan public will take away from what happened? Those who had TV sets, or happened to be in front of one in some public place, they had live coverage of the parade. No media bias there. Just the work of cameras out there to show anything appearing in the spotlight...
Uff. Speech finished here.


Joshua Foust said...

I'm not often one for self-hyping, but I looked at that essay and found nothing new in it.


The questions you raise, however, are important. If you don't already, the blog http://mountainrunner.us is devoted to the problems of revamping U.S. public diplomacy, which is a tangential topic. The problem of media coverage is one that is insufficiently addressed in the IRG post, as it amounts to a cry for increased "good" propaganda -- which is not really the answer, I feel.

Péter MARTON said...

Yeah, I've read that post of yours and I agree with what's in there. What I wanted to raise here was the need to appreciate the virtues of an indirect approach to information operations. The Sunday attack wasn't important per itself, and neither was the post by JM important per itself in this case.
Two trends reached a critical point, which provided me with the critical impulse to write this post.
The first is sg over which I've been beating the drums ever since last November, that we increasingly see a lot of effects-based operational planning from the Taliban. And now there was yet another attack of that kind.
The second is that over at Abu Muqawama as well as on other blogs, incl. Kings of War or yes, MountainRunner, we see a call for better work by the coalition on the media and the global public relations front. And surely there can be improvements, it's a worthy project to look at that. If I'd be a public diplomacy specialist I'd read MountainRunner more regularly, so if I missed some important point in the discussion of these topics that was offered there before, sorry about that.
My main point at this stage is that I don't think there's that much room for a more direct approach at influencing the most important target audiences.

Joshua Foust said...

I absolutely agree with you on that. Most people are smart enough to recognize government propaganda, and discount it. That was one of the most depressing points in "The Emerald City" -- the deliberate attempts to propagandize the Iraqi people in the least subtle way. Naturally, it failed.

Indirect approaches can work well -- again, witness the Pentagon's use of retired generals to drum up support for the Iraq War -- but it can backfire. I've become tired of pretty obvious PR moves to promote bad ideas, while good ideas fall by the wayside. That is the more frustrating part of this topic, you know?