Archive for May, 2008

Owning ‘the Means of Communication’ in Insurgency

12 May, 2008

Relevant to the recent discussion here on this site regarding the propaganda of the deed in contemporary insurgency is a post by Brigitte Nacos over at the CTLab site. Nacos, who has written extensively on terrorism and the media, cites the recent engagement in Lebanon to illustrate the value for insurgents today in owning ‘the means of communication’, as well as having a deed-driven message to communicate.

Once upon a time, Karl Marx assigned power to those who own the means of production. Today it’s safe to say that power is in the hands of those who either own the means of communication or otherwise manage to communicate their messages directly to their target publics. Governments and influential interest groups have always understood this, and so have terrorists. This point was once again driven home in the latest clash between the Lebanese government and its backers and Hezbollah, the terrorist organization that has actually grown into a mighty guerilla and de facto ruling force. While Hezbollah’s own al-Manar television and radio networks carried the threats and hard-line rhetoric of Hezbollah’s leader Sheik Nassan Nasrallah, the organization’s fighters silenced the Sunni majority party by taking its television station off the air and setting its newspaper offices on fire.

Read the whole post here.

UK CT & COIN Features – 12 May 2008

12 May, 2008

A round-up of today’s newspaper articles covering the UK’s involvement in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations at home and abroad.

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The Pakistan Security Research Unit

8 May, 2008

Thanks to the reader who provided the link to The Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU), it looks a useful resource for anyone with an interest in the area, or in militant Islamism.

“The Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU) was established in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK, in March 2007. It serves as an independent portal and neutral platform for interdisciplinary research on all aspects of Pakistani security, dealing with Pakistan’s impact on regional and global security, internal security issues within Pakistan, and the interplay of the two. PSRU provides information about, and critical analysis of, Pakistani security with particular emphasis on extremism/terrorism, nuclear weapons issues, and the internal stability and cohesion of the state.”

Many of the papers available looked interesting, including:

The Jihadi Terrain in Pakistan: An Introduction to the Sunni Jihadi Groups in Pakistan and Kashmir [PDF]

Insurrection in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas [PDF]

Attacks on Uzbek Militants in South Waziristan: Issues and Implications of an Internal Jihad [PDF]

UK CT & COIN Features – 8 May 2008

8 May, 2008

A round-up of today’s newspaper articles covering the UK’s involvement in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations at home and abroad.

(more…)

UK CT & COIN Features – 7 May 2008

8 May, 2008

A round-up of today’s newspaper articles covering the UK’s involvement in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations at home and abroad.

(more…)

Blogger’s Roundtable on DOD’s Minerva Consortium

8 May, 2008

Roundtable discussion with Dr Thomas Mahnken, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning

Thanks to Matt Armstrong at Mountain Runner who recommended me I just took part in a DoD bloggers roundtable (linked to above) on the Minerva Consortia which Secretary Gates recently announced. If you’re an academic interested in defence and security research this is a big thing. The gist of it is excerpted below (read the whole thing here The Minerva Consortia):

America today faces more, and more complex, challenges than at any time in its recent past. From the rise of new powers to trends in the environment, demographics, and culture to violent extremism, we will increasingly grapple with unprecedented change. To address these shared challenges, Americans, and their government, need a better understanding of the factors and causes behind them, what they mean, and what the future might bring. We in the Department of Defense propose a new initiative to help develop that understanding: government-supported research consortia that will draw upon the knowledge, ideas, and creativity of the nation’s universities. The Minerva Consortia will provide important and lasting professional contributions to a variety of disciplines, and a critical public service.

Concept

Minerva’s core approach is to encourage the formation of diverse consortia to conduct original research in a range of topic areas. Each topic or question will be framed and approached in a fashion appropriate to it and from a range of perspectives. We seek teams of scholars across universities and colleges who will tackle a question or topic across disciplines, coordinated by a lead institution. Participants need not be U.S. citizens.

Initial Topic Areas and Products

1. Chinese Military and Technology...

2. Studies of the Strategic Impact of Religious and Cultural Changes within The Islamic World

3. Iraqi Perspectives Project...

4. Studies of Terrorist Organization and Ideologies

5. Exploratory Areas for Research

Some observations:

  • The call is not exclusive to US institutions and scholars which is excellent because chances are that the problems which vex the DoD also vex their allies; that being the case,
  • compelling insights and possible solutions may be found abroad; so,
  • good for the DoD to recognize this with an international approach.

I was caught offguard by having the first question on the Roundtable. I managed to say ‘gee, good idea, we’ll send you a proposal’ which wasn’t a question as such, but an important point nonetheless. The fellow from Blackfive had a good question, I thought, about the gap between the military and academia (epitomized of late by the brouhaha over anthropologists and the Army’s human terrain system which we’ve written about here at KOW). The importance of getting the military into civilian educational settings was noted. This is another issue which is of much interest to me (see Pedagogy for the Long War). I was glad that he brought it up because I think this is a two-way street. Yes, the army needs to go Beyond the Cloister, as Petraeus put it; but universities need to think more creatively about how they can educate ‘beyond the cloister’ too. Our on-line Masters degree MA War in the Modern World is an example of how that can be done, so I was happy to get a plug in for that in the discussion. The British Army education branch has quite a good motto for our times: ‘train for certainty, educate for uncertainty.’ I think it expresses pretty much Gates’ message and intent with the Minerva programme. I welcome the initiative.

Sharon Weinberger at Wired’s Danger Room was less impressed: Pentagon’s Academic Outreach, Big Talk Little Cash Fair points, actually. The amount of money being stumped up is not huge–it is no Manhattan Project. It’s the defence department’s money being coughed up whereas arguably it should be coming from other agencies. And the appetite of universities for cash is so large (higher education is not cheap to operate, particularly to staff) that a few million is not going to go terribly far. All I’d say is a/ it’s a start, b/ other departments should be doing this, the DoD should be commended for actually doing it, and c/ if the funding is carefully targeted on issues which are otherwise extremely difficult to get funding councils to support then it could make a useful impact.

On the last point, it occurs to me that the initial topic areas are broad and what’s missing is, in my view, the biggest problem we now face: an understanding of how to conduct influence/information operations and propaganda in the 21st century. That’s the issue that is most pressing and it exists at every level of war from the grand strategic to the section level tactical. It applies ‘over there’ as well as at home. It’s a bit frustrating since Gates and Rumsfeld before him have both expressed the same frustration and incredulity about the situation they find themselves in:

Robert Gates: …public relations was invented in the United States, yet we are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals. It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the internet than America.

Donald Rumsfeld: Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today’s media age, but for the most part we, our country, our government, has not adapted. Consider that the violent extremists have established media relations committees—these are terrorists and they have media relations committees that meet and talk about strategy, not with bullets but with words. They’ve proven to be highly successful at manipulating the opinion elites of the world. They plan and design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communication to intimidate and break the collective will of free people.

The US and the UK have been fought to a standstill in two theatres by global jihadists not because they’re better at moving metal than we are but because they’re better at the purposeful shaping of the ideas and beliefs of others to warlike effect. That’s the cutting edge for insurgency research.

Insurgency, the Media and the Propaganda of the Deed

8 May, 2008

IRG member Neville Bolt, who is completing a PhD on the Propaganda of the Deed in the War Studies department at King’s, has added the following to the debate regarding the role played by the media in facilitating insurgent exploitation of the POTD strategy, and the difficult question of how best to respond.

NB: To read John Mackinlay’s original post, criticising the role played by the media in accentuating the propaganda effect of insurgent operations such as the recent Taliban attack on Karzai and the Parade in Kabul, click here. To read the perspective of BBC editor Nick Walton, who edited the World Service’s coverage of the Taliban attack for the Newshour programme, click here.

≠≠≠

Lest we forget Alastair Campbell’s TV studio-offensive that led to the culling of BBC bosses over Iraq, I would make a plea on behalf of the media which walks a permanent tightrope between critical independence and government pressure. John Mackinlay’s article highlights the dilemma for all journalists and news organisations covering Afghanistan and other conflict spots. True, many reports could apply the kind of techniques John mentions, namely the BBC’s intros to Zimbabwe stories reminding viewers of the Corporation’s prohibition from working inside the country, or its exercising a sensitivity to safeguarding the interests of minors or rape victims. Perhaps that could be a useful contextual device to begin to explain what is happening in Afghanistan. But in the end I’m not sure what the public makes of riders saying the BBC is banned from Zimbabwe. In fact it all too often appears that the organisation is cynically attempting to promote the derring-do of its intrepid staff when they do go in. I suspect these riders wear a bit thin or actually go unnoticed by most viewers after a while. To add a studio interview on the back of each report is not realistic for reasons of time. Anyway I sense this might eventually bore the audience (remember news is both information and entertainment) or come across as some kind of propaganda, whose strings are being pulled by unseen hands.

I fully endorse John’s analysis that propaganda occupies the central role in Taliban military strategy, and more generally that postmodern insurgency asserts the primacy of POTD. However, we should not always presume journalistic myopia or misunderstanding, or indeed that every reporter or analyst should share our view. I haven’t spoken to Peter Taylor specifically about the absence of the POTD angle from his BBC2 ‘Age of Terror’ series. However he has offered to come in and address the Insurgency Research Group later this year. We should explore this line with him then.

Equally we need to remind ourselves that the media, even the British media, does not act homogeneously, that television, radio, press, and net do report according to different worldviews, and indeed from divergent political and corporate agendas. Within each of these strands of journalism, and in the larger press or broadcasting groups, there remains a reasonable diversity of opinion. And that’s healthy. Journalists may appear ‘feral’, they may hunt in packs, but that doesn’t mean the wolves see eye to eye. Although BBC News did not carry the Kabul story as POTD, the Economist (3/5/08), by contrast did. Their correspondent describes it as a Taliban ‘propaganda victory’, noting that such ‘spectaculars’ without requiring much logistical input, mould public opinion.

The Western counter-narrative has to live with a permanent dilemma. The Taliban and other insurgents will continue to piggy-back on Western (and non-Western) media outlets. Indeed they will do their best to control them, shaping campaigns within a strategy of ‘political marketing’, completely cognisant of the demands of what makes a ‘good story’. Why are we so surprised? After all, our own political parties and lobby groups do that to each other every hour of every day. However censoring footage from a Taliban ‘spectacular’, crosses the line in the sand. Moreover persuading news editors to remove the violent spectacle from a news compilation (one ingredient of a ‘good story’), and merely replacing it with talking heads recounting what they witnessed, offers a new take on the myth of Sysyphus. Media outlets already exercise discretion, periodically self-censorship. But even if these images were to be self-censored and removed from our screens, we know they will get out somehow from bystanders, non-Western news networks, NATO troops or Taliban propagandists. Consequently the damage to journalistic credibility, built on fair and truthful reporting, with Western domestic and foreign audiences and readerships, risks being even more far-reaching. It’s a dilemma.

What strikes and unsettles many non-Brits about UK media reporting of Zimbabwe, for example, is its unrelenting, hostile coverage of the Mugabe regime – albeit this reporting appears valid and justified to most who have visited that country. But interestingly this is not mirrored by most international broadcast networks. It just so happens that the British media’s approach to Zimbabwe coincides with UK Government policy towards Mugabe. Through their owners’ corporate agendas, public funding rounds or state licensing regulations, our media organisations already stand too close for comfort to government. I suspect John is not suggesting independent media now begin to promote government policies. That would be a dangerous road to go down. What I believe John is really looking for is not a rider, disclaimer or scene-setter on each report, but a fundamental process of re-education, a new way of interpreting and communicating events, so that all outrages and attacks are presented through this permanent prism of POTD. So it is in the conception of the story. That means the reporter at source should interpret events through a lens other than one of political economy, or military gains and setbacks. So perhaps what is needed is for groups like IRG to engage more with the journalistic community, and edge towards this elusive prism through a continuous process of argument and persuasion. The real work needs to be done off-air, not just on.

≠≠≠

Read More:

John Mackinlay:
The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy

Nick Walton:
The Propaganda of the Deed: A Perspective from the Media

MountainRunner:
Afghanistan: Americans have the wristwatches, but who has the time?

[My] State Failure:
About an indirect approach to information operations

Registan:
Did the Taliban Master 19th Century Anarchist Theories While We Slept?

UK CT & COIN Features – 6 May 2008

6 May, 2008

A round-up of today’s newspaper articles covering the UK’s involvement in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations at home and abroad.

(more…)

UK CT & COIN Features – 5 May 2008

5 May, 2008

A round-up of today’s newspaper articles covering the UK’s involvement in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations at home and abroad.

(more…)

Images from Afghanistan #2

5 May, 2008

The Times has published the latest in a series of photo galleries from Afghanistan, in which Robert Wilson chronicles the lives of UK troops in Helmand.
.

A Lynx helicopter takes off from the military base at Musa Qala in Helmand province, leaving clouds of dust, and a soldier from the Household Cavalry, in its wake.

A Lynx helicopter takes off from the military base at
Musa Qala in Helmand province, leaving clouds of dust,
and a soldier from the Household Cavalry, in its wake.
.

The former warlord Mullah Abdul Salaam, 42, recently appointed governor of Musa Qala district after defecting from the Taliban and joining up with coalition forces. He has since proved an important ally and has been the target of several Taliban assassination plots.

The former warlord Mullah Abdul Salaam, 42,
recently appointed governor of Musa Qala district

after defecting from the Taliban and joining up with

coalition forces. He has since proved an important ally
and has been the target of several Taliban assassination plots.
.

A loadmaster strapped into a Chinook as it descends into Musa Qala. The job entails loading the helicopter and operating the rear-mounted machinegun.

A loadmaster strapped into a Chinook as it descends
into Musa Qala. The job entails loading the helicopter
and operating the rear-mounted machinegun.
.

The combat medic Jodie Kayhill, 21.

Combat medic Jodie Kayhill, 21.

View all 19 images here, or view the earlier post, Images from Afghanistan #1 here.


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