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Rays of Hope: Global Perception & the U. S. Military

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At the end of a long article, Knowing the Enemy, in the December 18 New Yorker, George Packer writes:

"Since September 11th, the government's traditional approach to national security has proved inadequate in one area after another. The intelligence agencies habitually rely on satellites and spies, when most of the information that matters now... is 'open source' --available to anyone with an Internet connection. Traditional diplomacy, with its emphasis on treaties and geopolitical debates, is less relevant than the ability to understand and influence foreign populations --not in their councils of state but in their villages and slums. And future enemies are unlikely to confront the world's overwhelming military power with conventional warfare; technology-assisted insurgency is proving far more effective. At the highest levels of Western governments, the failure of traditional approaches to counter the jihadist threat has had a paralyzing effect." (Article available here: http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fact/061218fa_fact2)

This is a pretty good summation of the origins and current state of despair in government circles about strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But Packer is, unexpectedly, writing about what, at long last, may be a few rays of strategic hope emanating from a new school of thought.

Packer focuses most of his article on an Australian Army Captain, David Kilcullen, currently working for the U. S. State Department, and several of his colleagues. This small group is beginning to enunciate a new approach to anti-Western and particularly anti-American terrorism and militancy. Their perspective may hold some promise. Kilcullen and his group make the argument that the conflict is now over information, who tells the story and who is listening, and almost wholly beyond the realm of conventional territorial military strategy. Increasing breadth and depth of information penetration globally has radically eroded the strategic alternatives available to conventionally minded militaries. Packer writes, "Kilcullen... calculated how many sources of information existed for a Vietnamese villager in 1966 and for an Afghan villager in 2006. He concluded that the former had ten, almost half under government control, such as Saigon radio and local officials; the latter has twenty-five (counting the internet as only one), of which just five are controlled by the government. Most of the rest --including e-mail, satellite phone, and text messaging --are independent but more easily exploited by insurgents than by the Afghan government."

Here are some more of the elements in the thinking of Kilcullen and his associates:
-Insurgency is about the sociological and psychological and not the religious; nothing we currently face is a phenomenon unique to Islam. Understanding one's adversary and his motivations is vital; conflating different adversaries and demonizing the resulting monolith into a superficial bogey-man is a fatal error.
-Think about the adversary in each situation as narrowly and particularly as possible. Kilcullen: "'Let's not talk about bin Laden's objectives --let's talk about your objectives. How do we solve that problem?'" In a global set of challenges, perfect the ability to think of each separately.
-"Know Your Turf" at the most detailed, local level possible; develop "a 'granular' knowledge of the social terrains" which make up the battlefield.
-Understand and use the power of information, because "it is on the level of influencing perceptions that these wars will be won or lost":
-Communicate your successes. When "a Pentagon spokesman announces a battle victory... no one in the area of the battlefield hears him (or would believe him anyway)." "'We're spending billions of dollars on AIDS [in Africa]... but no one in Africa has a clue.'"
-Turn mistakes into examples of excellence. In response to the Abu Ghraib scandal, Packer quotes a retired U. S. Army colonel, "'Iraqis are not shocked by torture. It would have impressed them if we had exposed it, punished it, rectified it.'"
-Hard power must be used, but very, very carefully. Kilcullen believes that the side that is unwilling "to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side" will lose to an adversary that is willing to do so; on the other hand, he believes that efforts like the Phoenix program (an American horror perpetrated in Vietnam) will fail more certainly in the modern era of global access to information than the original.
-Counter your adversary's information by covertly supporting or indeed creating persuasive institutions, networks and individuals that are indigenous to the adversary's base and that offer a different perspective from that of the adversary. One expert cites five thousand jihadist web sites, complete with hip-hop and rap videos; in response the U. S. deploys Karen Hughes to chat with her fellow moms and sponsors 'American Corners' in foreign libraries.

If the current struggle is about perceptions, which I agree it is, then Packer is being gentle with us when he asserts that we are "barely competing". Our efforts to date have been almost wholly self-defeating, we are preparing to re-double those same misguided efforts as I write, we are losing fast and big and we have almost not a glimmer about what is happening. These are the consequences of leadership that scoffs at "reality-based" thinking, of using military strategy and hardware developed to fight the Soviet Union against localized insurgencies, and of re-writing the history of the American failure in Vietnam for thirty years instead of learning the very hard (reality-based) lessons it offered. Nonetheless, in a dialogue dominated by hand-wringing and refrains citing the lack of good choices, it is thinking like Kilcullen's towards which we must look.

It is, therefore, discouraging to note that Packer emphasizes repeatedly the difficulties in changing course. As he notes toward the end of the article, Kilcullen's approach will require a "'profound shift in mind-set and attitude' --not to mention a drastic change in budgetary and bureaucratic priorities." The point is made several times, including here in the conclusion, that such changes are extremely unlikely for the duration of the Bush administration. Even then, one has to ask if the U. S. can bend itself to this kind of challenge. Packer asks Kilcullen about this and his response is one of his least persuasive. Kilcullen draws an analogy between the current conflicts and those of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; for him that was a success and he clearly believes that the parallel is strong. To me, this looks like a simplistic attempt to shove a square peg in a round hole. There are similarities, certainly. But the Soviet Union was very much a state, a dictatorship, that ultimately would be held responsible by its citizens for their welfare compared to other states. Al Qaeda and its idealogical brethren assume no responsibility, as far as I know, for anything outside the struggle itself. Various terrorist and militant organizations do build hospitals and schools, as Hamas has done in the Occupied Territories, but this seems to be more a part of the battle for perceptions than an attempt to take up the long and difficult political process of governing for the greater good. The Soviet Union failed its citizens, and its leaders paid the same price -- although in a shorter time -- as those of the Ottoman Empire, the Roman Empire and others. This sword of Damocles is not a worry for bin Laden. Another significant problem with the comparison is that the internal logic of the Soviet Union required coupling with communist economic theory, even if it was the merest marriage of convenience for many decades. Al Qaeda has not yet revealed such a fatal internal conflict. And, lastly, there is, in fact, considerable debate over whether we actually ever won the Cold War, or whether we just lost it more slowly. It is true that it was a very long conflict, and that it was made up of many, much smaller conflicts, each with its own parameters and logic. In these aspects I think the comparison holds, but as an example of strategic and tactical success I think it is decidedly weak.

I think a better analogy might be the struggle between the anarchist movement and the great empires at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The anarchists scared the established powers into fits, but they were slowly diminished in both political and military potency by dint of careful police work, great patience and rather remarkable turns of luck. Note that I did not mention war. Despite invitations to do so, none of the great powers used the provocations of terrorist activities to go to war until Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, sparking the First World War. This is, perhaps, thought provoking in light of our current efforts.

Another problem with Kilcullen's ideas is that they do not seem to provide much direction in Iraq. In Pakistan, Indonesia, and Somalia, perhaps still even in Afghanistan, one can see at least dimly the way forward to which he is pointing. In Iraq, however, the battle of perceptions is over, indeed it has been for some time. Should there be any doubt, one has only to read William Langewiesche's recent article in November's Vanity Fair, Rules of Engagement. (Available here: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2006/11/haditha200611) It is a long, articulate exploration of the massacre of twenty-four Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha by U. S. marines after one of their number was killed by an IED. By turns emotional and then precisely analytical, it is convincing that this event is, for the U. S., "what defeat looks like in this war."

Langewiesche examines one small, extremely gruesome event to find broader truths, while Packer explores military and political theory formed at a great remove from the boots on the ground, but they echo each other in eerie ways. Langewiesche notes the importance of a video, shot by locals, which ultimately makes its way into the hands of Time magazine, prompting Time to persistently question the official account of the deaths in Haditha and, ultimately, uncover what may or may not have been a war crime but was certainly a slaughter.

This is a perfect example of Kilcullen's point about the ubiquity of modern media, and its importance and dangers in counter-insurgency. Not only did a local have the means to make the video, once made it was broadcast so widely that now 'Haditha' has become a jihadist slogan around the world. In 1919 General Dyer commanded his troops to fire into an unarmed crowd of peaceful demonstrators in Amritsar, India, and the certainty of Britain's eventual departure from India was suddenly sealed. That happened more than eighty-five years ago and there is no longer the least attempt to defend Dyer, nor to deny the atrocity, nor to question the justice of the vilification that followed. But back in the day official disapprobation only developed after an official investigation revealed Dyer's utter and callous inhumanity throughout the event. The Amritsar massacre was one event in a struggle that spanned decades, yet it is widely considered the defining moment when British prejudice and self-righteousness was starkly revealed. Today mention of the Amritsar massacre still provokes anger, shock and grief in India. In the age of the video camera and the internet, every sergeant with a platoon is a potential Dyer and the battle of perceptions is fought at least twice every time something unfortunate happens: once upon the event itself, and again when, finally, official action is taken or sidestepped. Some of the marines responsible for the Haditha massacre will be court-martialed in early 2007.

Langewiesche makes a point, however, that Packer omits. Here is Langewiesche describing the Army's occupation of Anbar province, Iraq, and a particular trap into which it fell:

"Individual soldiers were brave, but the Army as an institution was averse to risk, and it was making a show of its fear by living on overprotected bases, running patrols only in armored vehicles, and overdoing its responses to the pinprick attacks by the insurgents-arresting far too many men, and answering rifle fire with tanks, rockets, artillery, and air strikes. It became so common to call down precision bombs against even individual suspected insurgents (for instance, someone spotted by drone, walking with a shovel along a road at night) that a new term was coined, based on the physical effects that could sometimes be observed on video. "Pink misting," some soldiers called it, and in their growing frustration they said it with glee.
Excessive force was employed not merely because the weapons were available but also because high technology had led Americans to expect low-casualty wars. Especially in the context of a conflict that had never been adequately explained, the U.S. military for political reasons could not afford any implication that it was squandering its soldiers' lives in Iraq. It is difficult to argue publicly that the military's caution was not a good thing. Strictly in gaming terms, however, there was a problem: by squandering innocent Iraqi lives instead, in order to save American soldiers, the Army in particular was spawning untold numbers of new enemies who would mount more frequent attacks against those same soldiers in the future. This was happening, and fast. The Army was locked into a self-defeating cycle by the very need to keep its casualties down. Meanwhile, the insurgent campaign was expanding in proportion to the number of noncombatants dishonored, brutalized, or killed. It was expanding in proportion to outrage."

This is a particularly pernicious peril and one to which we have fallen prey throughout the larger contest. (As we did in Vietnam, as well.) If we are, in fact, fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way as personified by Christopher Reeves in tights, then we can not go about the world pink-misting civilians and characters suspected on the least reasonable of causes because we can not take the political heat involved in obtaining our specific objectives by other means. Langewiesche points out this is self-destructive in gaming terms; I will add that it is immoral on the same grounds as Dyer's massacre at Amritsar. In the face of realities like this, it is hard to see where Kilcullen's immensely judicious and sensitive balance of coercion and encouragement can find a place in Iraq anymore.

Nonetheless, Packer seems right in most of his argument. This will be a long, perhaps a very long struggle. It will ultimately be decided not by who has won the right to park tanks in any particular place, but by perceptions. Not the perceptions of statesmen, television anchors and upper management executives, but the perceptions of millions and millions of people whose opinions traditionally have not mattered. I was in conversation once with a Great Political Worthy, a former governor and occasional candidate for the presidency. He was extolling the virtues of our invasion of Panama which had occurred a year or two before. I asked him about the abandonment of our promises to rebuild what had been destroyed in the course of the invasion: mostly poor and working class neighborhoods and their businesses. With a certain fond impatience he informed me that 'those people don't count'. Looking back, I can see that my shock exposed my naiveté. But now those people do count, even for Great Political Worthies, even if they do not yet know it. So what can we do in Iraq? What can move us forward in this necessary battle of perceptions? Little Packer or Langewiesche offers us seems helpful. I keep returning to the retired U. S. Army colonel, Steve Fondacaro, who Packer interviewed about the Abu Ghraib scandal. Here is a longer quotation from Packer's description of their conversation:

"'The new element of power that has emerged in the last thirty to forty years and has subsumed the rest is information,' he said. 'A revolution happened without us knowing or paying attention. Perception truly now is reality, and our enemies know it. We have to fight on the information battlefield.' I asked him what the government should have done, say, in the case of revelations of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison. 'You're talking to a radical here,' Fondacaro said. 'Immediately be the first one to tell the story. Don't let anyone else do it. That carries so much strategic weight.' He added, 'Iraqis are not shocked by torture. It would have impressed them if we had exposed it, punished it, rectified it.' But senior military leadership, he said, remains closed to this kind of thinking..."

If Fondacaro is right about how the Abu Ghraib scandal should have been handled, and I think he is, then what would a radical do about the larger issue of Iraq? It is clear to all but the meanest intelligence at this point that invading Iraq was a strategic idiocy, that the country and its citizens are, in fact, much worse off now than they were four years ago, and that we have gravely exacerbated our larger challenge with terrorism and militant extremism. In other words, we made a mistake. How can we turn this into an example of excellence? In an alternative universe, the answer might look something like this: first, recognize that any U. S. military presence in Iraq is now more of a problem than a benefit to both the average Iraqi and to us. Disengage and depart as quickly and gracefully as possible. Second, approach an institution of world standing, widely accepted integrity and with absolutely no ties of fealty to the U. S. whatsoever, perhaps something like the World Court. Claim responsibility for the mess in Iraq. Offer to pay fair reparations for damage to infrastructure, economic dislocation, and cultural pain and suffering over the course of twenty years on the condition that payments will only begin when Iraq has returned to a state of domestic tranquility and will cease at any time that this tranquility is disturbed for the duration of the disturbance. Third, start paying up.

An alternative universe, indeed. Yet much of what I am suggesting is going to happen anyway. We are going to leave Iraq. We are going to be held responsible. We may even end up paying for some of what we destroyed. Why not get credit for it? And, of course, in a battle of perceptions, victory elsewhere is meaningless if one loses faith in oneself. When we think about what we are going to do about Iraq, when we think about the great battle of perceptions, we should think finally of what we are going to see when we look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning.

 

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Owen Jones lives in Bucks County, PA, and is actively involved in participatory politics and public policy analysis.

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Rays of Hope: Global Perception & the U. S. Military