At the core of any good Communications Strategy is a narrative strategy (NS) that not only explains what we are doing but does so in a manner that tailored to all of the target audiences (TAs) involved, be it for home, partner/coalition audiences or any of the regional and local audiences caught up in the conflicts. I cannot stress enough that understanding a nation’s intentions is far more than soundbites of information expressed in press conferences.
For audiences outside the West in particular, storytelling or narrative is the preferred method of communicating everything from local history to current events. If we do not develop and execute a comprehensive NS that dominates the media on all levels, we will fail to communicate effectively. Without aggressively employing an effective NS we will continue to be in a reactive mode to adversaries like ISIS who fully understand and employ an effective NS to recruit, radicalize, and exploit their actions.
While NS is currently a “buzzword” in policy circles, I have found that few truly understand the concepts.
Narrative (or rather lack of) is in my opinion one of the three most tragically flawed aspects of our (if one actually exists) US communication strategy followed by social media (collection, analysis, and dissemination) and a whole of government information entity/agency.
As an Information Operations Officer, I learned the hard way that any Information Campaign devoid of Strategy, planning, resources, and a compelling narrative was much like the old camp race where runners tie their legs together and race. Yes, you can get to the finish line but you will work harder, go slower, and likely experience more than one spectacular mishap en-route. In yearly deployments to Afghanistan 2009-2013, I slowly through trial and error realized increasingly improved results in IO campaigns as my skills with narrative improved. I now have had the good fortune to have become acquainted with some extraordinary experts regarding Narrative whom can speak professionally about the reasons that Narrative is an imperative and how it works. Dr. Ajit Maan, Dr. Patrick Christian and Alan Malcher, MA in particular have become invaluable allies and mentors in regard to narrative.
As narrative pertains to our strategy, the bottom line, as noted by Dr. Maan, is simply that we need a compelling narrative (story) to explain the meaning of our intentions and actions. The President, in an Oval Office address last fall, was trying in a very short period of time to deliver the meaning of how we are or will engage the world regarding ISIS, or as I and many others prefer to call them, DAESH. Additionally, addressing DAESH in a region that is a veritable minefield of complex underlying grievances is even more difficult to explain. Fourteen years into this conflict regarding extremism we still struggle to easily explain just what we are trying to do and why.
Part of the reason that this is so difficult is that the components of clearly viewing our challenges are rife with social, cultural and geo-political nuances. The same words in English do not necessarily translate well to those speaking different languages in different areas of the world. This is true for both our adversaries and our Allies. Not only do words matter, but so does culture. Another but equally demanding reason for clearly and regularly communicating our narrative is that even for people fully immersed in the crisis we now face, the issues are so complex that we must make every effort to keep everyone, allies and adversaries alike, fully understanding of our intent and actions.
Storytelling outside the West is often culturally one of the most important and convincing methods of effective communication. In our case, we must use our narrative much in the same manner as did Aesop or Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). We must use our story/narrative to make a point(s) in a manner that will keep the attention of the audience. So what is the “moral of our story”? What are the points we must compellingly make? How do we hold onto to our audiences? How do we help everyone understand such a complex problem set? These are some of the most important questions in developing our narrative.
Before we wade further into our specific narrative we must know also acknowledge another critical point. Even though we must have an over-arching narrative we must also develop multiple supporting Narratives that speak to Western, international, regional, and local audiences.
Dr. Maan calls these interactive narratives and I defer to her expert opinion for further refinement of this concept. Supporting or interactive narratives are all related to the overarching narrative. They tell much the same or very similar story but in a contextually nuanced manner that captures/holds the attention of different but related audiences. The same story and words will not speak the same meaning to different audiences in large part because we live in the West and regional/local indigenous audiences see the world through vastly different eyes. This point demands that the communicator of our narrative by all accounts should be the best culturally attuned messenger. For example, POTUS may well communicate our narrative overview to US and Western audiences but someone “on the ground” in, say Syria or Iraq, and at the local level may well be a mayor, tribal chieftain or a Special Operations Forces team leader. How do these different messengers make the narrative understood?
The Narrative at the POTUS or Secretary of State level may sound something like the following:
The US, in pursuit of our own and our friends’ security and interests, is in a conflict with extremists usurping legitimate Islam as a tool of power. It is not only security that compels us to act but we, as a significant and responsible Global partner and acting on our inherent American values, have a moral duty to act in defense of the helpless. Much like our partners, we realize that these evil-doers have nothing to do with Islam nor do their barbaric actions reflect the tenets of Islam. The terrors they inflict on innocents are continuing to do immeasurable harm to decent citizens regardless of faith, ethnicity, culture, or region. They are evil, plain and simple, and as partners of the civilized world we intend to pursue justice and stability in the interest of all civilized States and their citizens. We intend to continually increase our ongoing support for degrading the immense human suffering, support stability by way of supporting safe mechanisms for hearing grievances, aggressively pursue diplomacy as a key component of grievance resolution and most of all, pursue security by relentlessly targeting all extremist leadership and support of extremist organizations. We do not care where these evil doers hide; we will find them, destroy them and effectively build capacity for all responsible partners that support our efforts. We realize that this effort will not be accomplished quickly or without the pain of financial and human sacrifice. It is though, our moral responsibility to act and support all those that share our concerns.
A supporting/interactive narrative at the regional level might be communicated by some forward Military commanders, regional diplomats, or high profile US citizens coordinating humanitarian aid (HA) such as USAID or recognized NGOs. It will by default speak to the narrative spoken by POTUS but be nuanced to “connect” to a regional audience. It may sound something like:
We Americans and Allied partners, along with our regional partners are continually cementing all available regional partnerships in pursuit of eradicating the evil of an extremist and wholly discredited movement that is attempting to hijack one of the world’s great religions for their own evil purposes. Here in the region, we daily see both the grave results of evil as well as the true courage of responsible partners banding together for the most noble of causes, the eradication of evil and the relief of human suffering. The reasons we support these partnerships is complex but two of the most important reasons are; First, we and the responsible people and states of the region, can no longer stand by while evil destroys the lives of innocent people and secondly, everyone, not just those in the region, suffer from the effects of catastrophic instability.
Every day, the partnership between Western and regional partners grows stronger and the physical strength and emotional draw of DAESH weakens. This is always the case when good and decent states and citizens band together against evil. It is easy to see the corollaries between today’s anti-extremist efforts here in the Levant and the coalition of global powers that eradicated the evil of Nazi led evil ideology during the Second World War honorable and decent citizens regardless of race, culture or citizenship are today combining their courageous efforts to once again destroy evil.
We also regularly see that even with the destruction of evil and states that support it that there will be much work to be done in building a stable regional foundation that will prevent further attempts of evil-doers to establish a foothold for their selfish interests. We have no illusions that this will be easy and know all too well how many challenges there are regarding grievances, some spanning millennia.
Part of our combined efforts in building an enduring foundation of stability will be to support any and all responsible mechanisms that provide for hearing and resolving grievances. We also realize that no mechanism will or could ever exist without security which means pursuing increased capacity of responsible regional partners must be part of the overall effort. Included in our capacity building much of the focus will be on resources that guarantee security so that the most critical of our goals can be met, which is to mitigate the inestimable human suffering that has been visited upon innocents regardless of religion, culture or statehood. DAESH, despite their illegitimate claims of statehood has failed at the first requirement of being a state, the care and protection of all its citizens.
Although many of the partners operating here in the region hail from Western cultures, we clearly and irrevocably support our local partners in their undeniably correct assertions regarding the failed attempts of DAESH to represent any legitimate aspect of Islam. We of the West, though not qualified to argue the religious aspects of Islam, support unflinchingly the qualified condemnations of DAESH by the respected and recognized Religious authorities from around the Globe and especially here in the region. Again, and let us be clear, no respected religious authority regardless of sect recognizes DAESH as anything but evil-doers usurping Islam for their own selfish and barbaric reasons. These are not the words of the West but our trusted and respected Muslim partners that hail from region.
Finally, the eventual and certain outcome of the anti-extremist coalition will be; the destruction of Extremist capability, degradation of their evil and hypocritical ideology and a stable Levant that has for the first time in decades. a real chance at a bright and prosperous future on the world stage.
These two narrative examples must be supported with interactive narratives at the local level that speaks to each TA be it tribal, local, village, or otherwise. The key here is language, cultural nuance and appropriate trusted communicators. This local level of narrative has tremendous advantages because much of the narrative communication can be accomplished F2F (face to face) by trusted communicators whether Special Operations Forces, coalition partners, and trusted populace leadership.
The bottom line to interactive narrative is that each and every version must relate to the overarching and be delivered by the right messengers using the right language(s) and observing the most culturally nuanced approach. As you can see from the two examples above, both speak in different but supporting manners to key lines of effort described in the strategy outlined in earlier segments of my articles. They may not say so in the clearly delineated manner of Western military planning but there is little doubt as to the meaning.
Finally, in regard to narrative, we must tell our story often, at every level and with the best culturally nuanced communicator. When notable actions or events occur, we must repeat a version of our narrative that addresses the action/event and clearly articulate why that particular event/action speaks to our overarching narrative. An important note here is that by way of years of experience messaging in support of operations, I found that there was no message that resonated as clearly as one that was connected to a visible action by the intended TA. For example; It was always much easier to “sell” reintegration in Afghanistan after successful targeting of Taliban leadership. When “local” Taliban saw demonstrable success against their leadership they were far more receptive to coming off the battlefield by way of Reintegration than before their leaders were targeted.
As a brief summary note to the narrative discussion I would like to add that the bottom line to narrative in a comprehensive strategy is that no one, ally, foe or affected populations need be confused as to our intent. We must tell our story, tell it often, tell it to everyone in the most culturally nuanced way possible and we must highlight our actions regularly that are demonstrative of our intent and as communicated in our narrative.
Evolving Communications to keep up with evolving situations and the critical need for the currently absent clearinghouse for US Communications
These topics are not difficult because it’s not that people don’t understand that things change but because communications of the complexity that we are discussing here require a C2 (Command and Control) structure that enables rapid and effective communications to meet those changes.
To put it bluntly, the USG does not at this time own the capacity to C2 messaging. There has been a “food fight” of sorts for years within the USG over types of messages, message primacy, release authority, legal authorities, and so on and so on. Like all bureaucracies, these battles are often about budget, hierarchy, and even finally about content. Yes, I know that I am stirring the hornet’s nest with this comment but much like the children’s story, someone has to “tell the Emperor that he’s wearing no clothes.” The point is not to stir up trouble or pursue an agenda but to put the facts on the table so that they can become part of the solution rather than remaining the problem.
Here is the problem and there is no way around it: as an IO Officer at the tactical level, having messaging approved that would impact things at the Strategic level had no less than a ten levels of approval authority. Considering I was involved in daily operations that meant that I had little to no ability to rapidly message to local TAs in the immediate aftermath of an event that had Strategic implications. Sure, there were “work arounds” but to speak with the authority and support of the USG, there was virtually no way to do so quickly. These ten or so levels I mention were only in the military “chain of command” and if we add the different levels of Agencies and entities of the USG outside the military then who knows how many levels.
As we can see from recent events such as Turkey shooting down a Russian aircraft, an event can have strategic implications very quickly. We all know here in the US that old news is irrelevant. When there is so much on the line as there is almost daily or even hourly in the Levant, we can hardly afford to be irrelevant. Sure, it is great that DoS or CENTCOM can speak from an officially sanctioned podium but how does that help everyone below that level? Like politics, the most important influence is often local.
Communications in today’s day and age operate in real time. Social media often puts the audience in an event rather than viewing an event and as we saw in Benghazi for example, the event evolved very quickly. Benghazi is also an example of why we need not only messaging capability to impact/influence events and TAs but also to provide analysis in real-time as to what is going on. This requires a variety of SM tools common to marketers but far less so in the USG. For example, real time monitoring/ analysis on the ground can tell us what is going on, real time analysis can tell us what it means and what can or should be said. It then can help us disseminate through the most connected paths to the most important TAs and then finally, there are tools that can help us reassess, analyze and adjust a message for effectiveness according to a changing environment on the ground.
Wow, this last scenario is a head-scratcher when considering the possibilities and ramifications. This capability in order to be effective would have to exist in an OC (Operational Center) so that all relevant decision-makers would have access to information and be able to make real time decisions about responses. The OC would also have to have the ability to develop and coordinated dissemination of follow-on Strategic Communications and all other types of communication required to support our CS on a daily basis. Right now a small amount of what we described sits in the State Department, COCOM (Combatant Command) Headquarters, Regional Commands, and Country Teams. These entities, whether across the street or half way around the world from each other, are so disjointed that it makes for a version of the kids’ game playing telephone. By the time messaging is coordinated it is either so distorted or is overcome by other events.
In the aftermath of 9-11 we built, staffed, and operated NCTC (the National Counter Terrorism Center) that fuses intelligence capabilities from the disparate elements of the IC (Intelligence Community). This is a fairly good model for what can and in my opinion, should be done in the Communication world of the USG. As discussed in the earlier Strategy papers, the Non-Kinetic application of power is the key to winning America’s emerging and present conflicts in the coming decades. This begs the question, why don’t we have and entity to manage the myriad of components that make up the Non-Kinetic, of which Information is a key element?
Considering the complexity of what we have been discussing now for weeks it only stands to reason that in order to be truly effective we need an entity that has significant resources such as trained personnel, the best communication tools to include analysis tools and product/message design capability “in house.” Of course there is more to this but these are some of the key shortcomings. Of note, the President just made public a new TF (Task Force) to deal with CVE (Countering Violent Extremism). Considering the news release mention of a $5M budget to start with, I would submit that this is but a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. Heck, just look at how much time, energy and resources are put into a Super Bowl commercial and you can see the obvious shortcomings. Even if we spent $500M it would still be a drop in the bucket compared to what forces on the ground cost and as we agreed on earlier, those forces can defeat a soldier but do very little to defeat an idea as dangerous as what DAESH for example feeds on.
As we discussed earlier, the key to mitigating adversarial influence in Afghanistan after a Kinetic event or in day to day support for our overall strategy was to own the Information space. We did not get this right all of the time but when we did, it demonstrated beyond challenge the power of well-orchestrated Information Operations. Considering that in the Levant we currently have far more kinetic events than BOG (boots on the ground) I can hardly see how we can either mitigate adversarial influence or exploit a success without a greatly streamlined C2 structure for Communications. Kinetic, as we discussed in the Strategy portion is but one of 5 LOEs (Lines of Effort). From personal experience, although less exciting than the Kinetic, the Non-Kinetic has far more to with eroding Extremism and its underlying grievances than the Kinetic. Unless we develop and support a C2 Communications structure that has the capability to operate at the speed of modern events we run the risk of being irrelevant in all 5 LOEs.
Why sometimes the right message is an action and not words
There is an old adage in IO that is still occasionally relevant and important. Sometimes, albeit not often, staying quiet and letting our actions speak for us is the right answer and the only answer. As that some of the reasons for no or delayed response cannot be discussed in this forum there is an example that is worth mentioning here.
This example would be when/if we are publically challenged by extremist propaganda to respond to something they’ve said, I would recommend silence followed by a swift and publically verifiable Kinetic action. After that action, our messaging afterwards should merely be that our response to DAESH is demonstrated by our resolve and our action. In this case, graphics/ photos of the Kinetic action should be employed. The last thing we need to do is to get into a “back and forth” public “tit for tat” with Extremist propaganda. This would feed their ego, legitimacy and implied dominance of the Information Battlespace.
The school-yard comparison to this example is one that nearly everyone can relate to. When taunted on the playground by a bellicose and persistent bully, often the best response is to just wait until there is an audience and then punch them squarely in the nose, turn and walk away. The punch/action is the message and says more than any amount of “tit for tat” verbal jousting ever could.
Here is where we come full circle in a Communication Strategy. If we agree that DAESH is a movement and a movement requires as much non-kinetic effort as does the Kinetic then by default, we must not run the risk of being irrelevant by failing to communicate effectively about what we’re doing and why. This is a monumental effort to be sure, but again, I think we no longer have any choice but to “get busy.”
Each topic covered hopefully will provide the reader with better insight into the complexity of the key components of a communication strategy to support our overall strategy. Developing the “no kidding” CS with a list of capabilities, messengers, messages, and timing is a monstrous task. At some point and with continued interest we can maybe tackle this piece. The challenge though is that we require input from relevant staffs, agencies, and entities to get a grasp on just what is available. This is tough to do from the outside, but we could apply a bit of imagination based on everyone’s input that is interested. Again, this point is just another reason why the USG must have a centralized entity to manage this task as well as build the completed CS.
The points I’ve covered in the preceding pages are insights garnered after nearly a decade of effort as an IO Officer for the US Army. They are my opinions although to be sure, I have been mentored and influenced along the way by some of the brightest and most experienced of experts. My hat is off to them and their contributions are most heartily appreciated. The lessons and opinions included here also have come as an honest review of earlier tactics that either failed or achieved less than possible due to gaps that we have discussed in this paper.
If anyone was expecting a silver bullet I’m sorry if this paper did not live up to that standard. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no silver bullet and success will only come by adopting the common sense and significant expenditure of labor, resources and investment. I wish I could give you better news but like all effective communications, truth equals credibility and real answers.
The bottom line though is that we must start regularly communicating effectively about our intent and degrading the “brand” of our adversaries, be it Extremist or those they are aligned with. We must either recreate an Agency to harness and execute our strategy or dramatically streamline the C2 between the myriad of “players” involved in our strategy. Talking about it and/or think tanking a strategy is not an option at this point. We are in crisis mode whether we like it or not. If we get this effort right the system or tool will be available for any crisis we meet in the coming years and decades. The hard lesson of our countless Irregular Warfare challenges is that influence is every bit as important as a tank or an F-16.
My final word here is to once again thank everyone, readers and contributors alike. A special “thank you” goes to my colleagues at the Narrative Strategies blog and HRI (Human Resource International) for their steadfast support, encouragement and friendship.
All my best and please never hesitate to reach out if there is any way I can help anyone to implement or expand the ideas discussed in this series.
Previously Written Articles
Communication Strategy Part 4
Communication Strategy Part 3
Communication Strategy Part 2
Communication Strategy Part I
Syria/ Levant Non-Kinetic Strategy Part III
Applying Soft Power to the current crisis in Syria, Iraq and the Levant, Part III
Soft Power Discussion Part II
Soft Power Part I
Hello again all and thank you for returning for Part 4. Today’s part in the series will address points 5 and 6 of our “read-ahead” which addresses the essential “5 W’s” of who, what, when, why, and with what medium that must be considered when preparing and executing messaging that supports our current battle with extremism in the Levant. Again, each of these parts of the series are part and parcel of a complete white paper but due to length is broken up here. The “installment” approach is to make it a bit easier to fit the substantial reading into everyone’s busy schedule. As with all papers in this series, the links to previous postings are included to help everyone keep the weekly posts in context with the whole effort.
Thank you to all for again tagging along as we sort out what I believe to be pragmatic and helpful recommendations for communicating our intent, execution, and future efforts to combat extremism and its impact on one of the world’s most strategically important regions.
1. Who or what are we talking to?
This topic is very much aligned with the last one in part 3 but there are a couple of points to be made. Tailoring a message or series of messages to individuals as opposed to groups that those individuals are aligned with or impacted by are two different things. The message may be similar, but the emotional “hooks” are often quite different. For example; when messaging rural, tribal centric Sunnis in western Iraq, it may be of critical importance to “individualize” a message to the members of a tribe or sub-tribe by discussing the strength of numbers required to combat DAESH intrusions into their tribal territory or basic needs such as security, food and shelter etc. When speaking to the leadership of those tribes which likely have an alliance network with other tribes, the same message about security may be in the form of assisting in acquiring more support at the Provincial or State level. Both messages are about security, empowerment and survival but the words and emotional “hooks” are different.
The same line of thinking applies when messaging at the Operational and Strategic level. Individual States and their contributing forces and resources have their own unique interests even though they may be committed to a common goal or objective. Again, an example; Messages that speak to Turkish involvement/ contributions to the anti-DAESH fight are all too different than those that would help explain events to Western EU partners. Much like we discussed in the Narrative portion, the intent of the messages may be the same but the messenger, nuance and influential factors will often differ. These subtle nuances are at the heart of what must be considered each and every time messaging is prepared for execution. I’ve found in past efforts to execute a sort of mini checklist before ‘going to print” or “on air”. The description I use for this checklist albeit simple is not all inclusive but will most certainly provide at least a 90% solution when considering any effort that involves influence by way of messaging. The next part of our discussion revolves around my mini checklist or as I prefer, the 5Ws of messaging.
2. The 5 W’s of messaging
I have no doubt that for those of you still reading after the first article or two are coming to the understanding of just how interwoven all of the discussed points are. This is a critical understanding and you’re to be congratulated. A CS (Communication Strategy) is by default a dimensional effort as opposed to a linear one. Most people are “hard-wired” to think linear. Military campaigns are also often conceived in linear fashion. This is one reason that IO (Information Operations) planning does not always mesh well with a military or a National Security Strategy Campaign plan. Yes, it’s there in the annex but it’s very hard to integrate dimensional with linear efforts. This is not a criticism of anyone because in my opinion/ experience, most folks are just “wired” the way they are as either linear or dimensional. Some people have the ability to see and act in both but they tend to be the exception. The bottom line here is that those executing any plan or strategy must give full appreciation to both the Linear and Dimensional aspects of a plan rather than focusing on the type of “wiring” they may have.
The 5Ws of a CS are about as dimensional as can be. The application of any Communication strategy can be executed in nearly as many ways as can be imagined. That is why at this stage of our discussion it’s important to see this strategy as a guideline, not a road map. Road maps are linear and usually don’t allow us to see or understand the variety of nuances in the topography along the route. Based on earlier points, you can all now imagine just how many types of messengers are required and the number of messages to be delivered by that list of messengers. If you also factor in the regions, TAs (target audiences), their plethora of indigenous languages/ cultures and diversity of communication mediums the complexity often seems insurmountable.
As events change, the messengers and messages must also evolve. Of importance also are how many mediums there are to use as dissemination platforms and especially which ones are available or resonate best within different TAs. This short paragraph is illustrative of how daunting it is to effectively execute a CS in such a challenging area of the world. The fact that it is daunting, hard to explain to the uninitiated and requisite of so many assets, authorities etc.… is one reason that we just may not have had an effective CS since the end of the Cold War when we actually had a US agency to manage the effort. Near the end of this paper, this topic will reappear but for now, let’s get back to the 5 Ws.
Much of the 5 Ws discussion is covered in earlier points regarding cultural nuance, relating observables to messages etc. A few words though need to be added and especially in regard to “when” and “with what medium” do we message.
Once we have the right messengers and messages we must know when to use them so that they effectively influence the right TA and also of importance, at the same time do no harm to partners that sows “dissention in the ranks” between us and our Allies. Often times the “when” to message is situational dependent. By example, Our Narrative and interactive, supporting narratives must be expressed regularly so that there are no misconceptions about our intent and our actions. Some people call this “white noise” but I don’t believe this to be true. Much like propaganda, the truth also needs regular and clear dissemination in order to become part of the emotional foundation of our TAs. Throughout this discussion the recurring theme of how complicated this crisis is demonstrates conclusively that we must be steadfast in intent but make a far greater effort to communicate clearly regarding the oft times confusing and misleading intricacies. In the following examples I will occasionally highlight in bold and italics to indicate some of the 5 Ws in order to illustrate my points.
The issue at the forefront of US political discussion right now re; Islam and Muslims is a very good example of the first “W”, or what. There is no doubt that many of our regional TAs sense a “war on Islam”. Extremists are very forthright in “selling” their narrative regarding this cornerstone issue. The hate regularly displayed in the US and Western press towards Muslims also increases the risk of undermining the very Allies we need as our credible messengers to erode the ideology of the Extremists. In fact, the shrill tone of Islamophobia, (the what), plays so neatly into the Extremist narrative it’s almost as if they were in some way orchestrating the cacophony of Western Islamophobia. As that our narrative is the vehicle for explaining the sometimes subtle but critical differences in fighting DAESH but not Islam we must make every effort to employ our narrative or salient parts of it far more regularly (the “when”), with surgical precision and deprive Islamists of this windfall of propaganda. This point alone justifies regularly explaining, by way of our Narrative, what we’re really up to and why. Again, I cannot emphasis enough that everything we message must in some fashion be tied to our overarching narrative.
Another item on the “when” list is any and all instances that highlight the hypocrisy of DAESH and their fighters. Evidence of rampant hypocrisy is regularly visible online and in SM but the ability of the US and its partners to expeditiously (when) turn these instances into a valuable influence weapon and amplify them appropriately does not currently exist. We need the ability, along with regional partners to analyze and disseminate in a manner that does the most good. This includes technical tools within SM (Social Media) that help to identify the most appropriate material. (Social Media is an example of “with what medium”) We also must have the best analytical tools available that will not only identify the material but also analyze the most effective dissemination paths (connectivity analysis) that enhances the viral potential of our messaging. Klout scores, connectivity analysis and network analysis are just three of a variety of technical applications needed but not yet effectively employed.
Wrapping DAESH and their minions of foreign fighters in shame due to evil and hypocritical behaviors (what) is a well-established tactic for influencing behavior of recruits, potential recruits and fighters (who) that are already disenfranchised. Shame that is conferred on recruits by SM publically “outs” fighters to their families and support networks at home for evil and un-Islamic behavior. Shaming (again, shaming is the “what” of our actions) when coupled with degradation of morale due to leadership decimated by kinetic means is a powerful combination of punches to the gut of DAESH.
Ideology is both DAESH’s strength and its vulnerability. Every day, respected clerics (who) across the Sectarian spectrum of Islam condemn DAESH fighters and actions as un-Islamic. Sadly, Western Media does nearly nothing to improve the dissemination of these invaluable condemnations. When we talk about degrading online recruitment, it is my belief that robust, regular (when) and nuanced amplification of the condemnations by respected clerics in Global Media would pay measureable dividends in diminishing recruitment (why).
It is important here to note that these condemnations and refutations are most effective if they cross sectarian and regional lines. In other words, it may be good for a Jordanian Sunni cleric (who) to issue a Fatwa (what) against DAESH but if he does so with a Sufi, Shia and other Sunnis regardless of Fiqh (School of Jurisprudence) then the impact is far more effective and unifying.
The current polarization of US politics does a great deal of harm to this important effort. Considering our most significant vulnerability in the States and Western Europe comes from home-grown terror plots it would seem like a “no brainer” for both sides to go “all in” with this support but somehow the point is lost on most media. Homegrown terrorists (who) are difficult to identify therefore even harder to influence. However, if the news online is full of counter-DAESH condemnation by credible voices from within Islam (who) we have a far better chance of the right message finding its way to the vulnerable regardless of whether it is initiated as part of a cohesive strategy (why). It’s not about control and who gets credit for discouraging recruitment. We also may never know who or what had the proper impact but at least, by encouraging and supporting amplification we increase our chances of success. No contribution should be ignored.
Aggressive messaging must also be introduced immediately (when) after successful kinetic activity that kills leadership, destroys logistics or helps reacquire territory lost to DAESH. This diminishes morale in the ranks of fighters (why). These successes must be highlighted/ amplified each and every time they occur (when). This again is a “no brainer” but as with other messaging, the US and our Allies require the mechanisms for robust dissemination and we currently do not have these robust tools/ weapons. In the case of targeted leadership, I would also recommend converting the language of “martyred” as is seen in postings by Jihadists and replacing it with language that confers no honor such as saying “so and so was killed before he could commit another evil and heinous atrocity”. (why). It is also recommended that a summary of barbaric acts attributed to these leaders is part of the story as a way to delegitimize and dishonor them. This is even more important for Western fighters as that the attendant shame of being a terrorist diminishes the “call to honor” in prospective recruits (why). As with the discussion above under the heading of “Culture”, each and every community that foreign fighters hail from have their own nuanced view of honor and shame. As with a campaign I used to great effect in Afghanistan playing on organic Pashtun concepts related to Honor and Shame, these cultural overtones are powerful influence tools and behavioral modification messages.
As long as we’re on the topic of honor, shame and legitimacy, we might as well take on the issue of what we’re going to call the Extremists. As you’ve no doubt noticed, I have used DAESH or Extremist throughout this paper. In my opinion, this is a very important issue. DAESH for a variety of reasons is unpopular with the Extremists. Why it matters to us in messaging is two-fold; first, it denies them the term “State” when spoken or written outside of Arabic speaking audiences. For those of you familiar with the term/ concept “branding”, calling them DAESH outside of their home turf degrades their brand. Degrade the brand, degrade some of what is enticing to potential and fledgling recruits. As that the Caliphate and Statehood is the desired end-state of the Extremists, denying legitimacy is important. Secondly, they don’t like it and frankly, that is enough. There is merit in agitating their media effort as that it distracts and diverts attention from their overt, dishonest and barbaric propaganda. Simply put, the more attention and energy they divert away from supporting their ideology the better off we are. There are other reasons in military applications to “provoke Extremist media” but I’ve chosen to highlight these two points as that they support our overall concept of a Communication Strategy. This entire paragraph speaks to the “why” of using select words”, such as DAESH instead of IS, ISIL, ISIS, etc. Much in the same vein, when describing a specific individual, “killer”, “thug”, or “evil-doer” will work quite effectively rather than “ISIS Jihadist” or other such terminology.
In much the same vein as using the word DAESH, we also must avoid using the term “Radical Islamic Terror”. I realize this is a politically sensitive topic but again, adding the word “Islamic” to any description of the Extremists only helps the DAESH narrative regarding a war between Islam and everyone else. Finally, the word “Extremist” by itself is in my opinion an excellent choice. It confers no affiliation to Islam and recognizes all fighters as being outside the realm of normal and decent citizenship regardless of State affiliation. There is even a subtle inference of madness to the word and in the case of DAESH, it works. For many of the same reasons we drop the word “Islamic” when we reference DAESH’s terrorism we must also stop using the term Caliphate. The point again is to detach DAESH or the Extremists from any sense of legitimacy. The “Caliphate” in reality represents to many the “golden age of Islam” for many potential recruits and by continuing to broadcast that the Extremists are pursuing/ establishing a Caliphate then we are helping them market to the Muslim Community or Umman the powerful allure of a reacquisition of glory. Words matter!
As we wrap up this portion of our CS discussion I’d like to highlight a couple of the important aspects. As we begin to communicate more clearly and regularly whether in regard to narrative (s) or in regard to an event we must apply Journalism 101 standards and ask ourselves if all the 5 Ws are included in our messaging. Have we identified the TA (s), the messengers, the facts we want to convey, what do we want to achieve with the message, speech or graphic, are we messaging at the “right” time, why we are communicating and have we stayed true to all or part of our narrative?
These questions are easily managed. Learning to fly a few decades ago taught me the lesson and value of a checklist as the key to ensuring thorough review. Recreational flying has long diminished for me but the lesson of checklists has endured. For professionals involved in Communications the lesson applies still, regardless of talent, aptitude and experience. We all get busy and it’s very easy to overlook something of importance, sometimes critically so.
The checklist is of most importance in event-driven messaging. (this is an important “when”) While we often have days, weeks and sometimes months to develop messaging that is planned, such as a policy speech or an announcement about a Diplomatic milestone. Much of the type of messaging occurring at the local and regional level is driven by events such as a bombing, rescue, successful targeting of an Extremist leader, etc. These event-driven messages or series of messages often turn in minutes, hours and days. In the heat of intense activity, it is very easy to overlook some basics. These crisis events are often the most emotional for locals, therefore affording us to the perfect opportunity to “drive a point home” or create/ expand an emotional attachment in an area or TA previously uncertain. Wouldn’t it be a shame to “waste” an opportunity because we did not check off a handful of items in our message”?
As we close out this topic I’ll make a short and impassioned plea for going “all in” in regard to SM (social media) and face to face communications. Outside the traditional mediums of radio, TV, newspapers etc., most professionals operating in or interfacing with the Levant will make it clear that SM has become a “game-changer”. More appropriate professionals than me can attest to the reasons, extent and prognosis for the future re; SM but I’m good with just agreeing. The recent announcements re; CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) online and in SM by the President is a small step in the right direction, but it’s small, even for a baby step. There are innumerable variables concerning this discussion but if we don’t go “all in” with the determination, sophistication and dedication that folks like Google, Amazon and Facebook have, we will have ceded the primary medium to the Extremists. This means, we will continue in this fight well into our children’s lifetime if not longer. Extremism is an idea and the primary medium of the idea as of now, is SM.
The other significant gap we have in communications is at the ground level. In my years of experience, nothing sells like face to face communication by experienced communicators especially in a region so dependent on face to face communication as a trusted vehicle. If we are to operate in the Middle East, we need to win using the local rules and dynamics and not expect to effective, exclusively using Western approaches to be understood and trusted. We’ll touch on this topic again in our closing portions in a couple of weeks.
Finally, I’ll just thank everyone again for continuing to show interest and share with their friends and colleagues. It’s true that I’m biased but I do believe that improving how we communicate with people outside the West is critical to how we meet our National Security challenges in the coming years. Your shares, inputs and valuable critiques have helped us effectively reach far more people than I expected. I have every confidence that it is you, the readers and your “connections” that with continued input and shares will help us finally make the requisite inroads into communication Policy challenges that will make the difference.
Welcome back to Part 3 of our series regarding what is important in a CS (Communication Strategy) to support Operations in Syria and the Levant.
I would like to inject a hearty thank you to what seems to be an ever growing number of readers. It’s encouraging to see so much interest in what we’ve been discussing.
Moving forward, I would like to again note that each portion of this Series includes links to the previous papers. Those papers include, recommended Strategy, Lines of Effort and Communication Strategy discussions. I admit, it is an intimidating amount of reading for busy people and I apologize for that. The problem is, the problems we’re facing regarding Extremism and associated Terrorist activity is complex to say the least. The attached reading, though what I consider abbreviated is really just scratching the surface of our challenges. I am hoping though that those of you reading them will see them as helpful in charting a course going forward.
The links follow this paragraph and precede Part 3. Parts 1&2 were an Overview of a Communication Strategy and focused on the all-important characteristics of Narrative and Credibility. As we move forward, many of the aspects of the first two topics will recur. Just like building a house though, each topic becomes foundational and part of the framework as the house rises and begins to take shape. We will have to briefly discuss the foundation and the frame though in order to be coherent in the current topics. I promise though to be judicious in how much backtracking that we do.
Today’s portion was third on our list in the “pre-read” paper and talks about the relationship between actions or as in IO (Information Operations) observables and messaging.
3. Relationship of actions/observables to Communications
As that we’ve already made reference to the relationship between actions/observables to credibility and a resonating message, let me just add a couple more notes.
In the last topic we discussed the relationship between observables and messaging. From a cultural perspective, there are different nuances that should be observed depending on the TA. The one thing that is universal though is that folks tend to be willing to hear messages far more when they are coupled with actions. For example, every time there is a mass shooting in the States, pro and anti-gun lobbies go into crisis mode. Everyone wants to talk about guns. As we grow further from the event, interest lags and it’s much more difficult to leverage the emotional “hooks” of the event to achieve an action. This particular dynamic is no different outside the West and in fact, as discussed earlier the dynamic is probably more acute.
What is important in the above example as it pertains to our Strategy is that observables on the topic of Extremism and its impact on multiple TAs (Target Audiences) occur nearly every day and all across the region. These are opportunities to sustain messaging that supports the LOEs in our strategy and as regularly reinforced by way of our Narrative. As that this CS (Communication Strategy) is in support of a recommended Operational Strategy there are also 5 recommended LOEs (Lines of Effort) which were discussed in the Strategy Papers. Because we are correlating the CS to the Operational Strategy I’d like to give everyone some examples of what I mean by associating observables to messaging for each of our LOEs.
Here again for reference are the 5 identified LOEs to our recommended Strategy;
LOE 1: Diplomacy
The US, its partners and even our less than complicit and unofficial ‘semi” Allies like Iran and Russia are regularly involved in some type of diplomatic effort regarding Syria, Iraq and the Levant. Although DoS and some media often talk about these efforts and the challenges, we must find a way to amplify the aspects of these efforts that relate to our Strategy re-balancing the region. Again, our narrative should be explaining the “why” of these diplomatic actions but if we don’t regularly amplify the tenets of the talks that speak to our Strategy then we’re allowing the emotional connection between TAs and our Narrative to lag. When attention lags, an effort to re-educate must be advanced after a sustained period of non-discussion. The re-education takes time and resources that are better applied to progress rather than a “two steps forward/ one step back” method. One of the most significant downsides to this lag is that the perceptions of those most affected in the region begin to believe they are being left to fend for themselves. This “feeling” of being left alone, erodes the credibility that we discussed in the last topic.
Continued engagement sustains emotional engagement in the TA which, when properly messaged encourages TAs to engage decision-makers to move towards our objectives. In this case, we must “connect” our messaging/ narrative to our overall objective of “rebalancing the region”. A quick note here about “rebalancing” the region; I’m not talking about rebalance or “sphere of influence” discussions in the classic Diplomatic sense but merely pursuing the objective of balance in the sense that we achieve a more stable atmosphere in the Levant where State and non-State actors back away from a war footing and the acute fear of activity by those they see as adversaries. In a sense, this definition of “re-balancing” is a sustainable de-escalation of hostile agendas.
A large part of messaging before, during and after Diplomatic activity is to explain in common terms what was intended, what happened and what to expect next. Diplomatic activities, like every other field has a very specific language that is more often than not misunderstood by people on the outside. Local audiences, especially those experiencing conflict related suffering want to know, in the most immediate terms how will this impact my life today. E.g. Will the shooting stop today? Will the aid come to my village today? Was DAESH driven out of the village of my family? Etc. etc... Those at the Strategic and Regional level also have different concerns. Messaging about Diplomatic activities is just like any other type of messaging in that it must relate to a specific TA.
Every Diplomatic event has the potential to either give hope or degrade hope in an affected population. As that this is a very emotional issue for those on the sharp end of the conflict related suffering, every effort must be made in order to help all TAs to better understand just what each Diplomatic headline means. Some of this understanding must be in the nature of “expectation management” as that typically, Diplomacy is a very long and protracted affair. Relating messages about achievements and/or hindrances to a Diplomatic event must also be tied religiously to our overarching Narrative. Remember, narrative tells the “why” of our story and most assuredly, everyone suffering wants to know why, when will it stop, who is doing what in order to make it stop and can they expect relative stability any time soon.
LOE 2: Relieve Suffering
Every day in the Levant, the EU and the US there are heroic efforts ongoing that are focused on mitigating the overwhelming humanitarian issues resulting from the sustained conflict in the Levant. The heroes are both Government and Private and they are providing countless observables every day across the conflict zone. As one of the most important LOEs in our strategy we must focus the attention of those affected on just how much is being done, highlighting the gaps and illustrating just what is going on to address those gaps. If we are to build credibility and stake out the moral high ground requisite to erode the DAESH narrative, then messaging re; relief is essential.
Again, I’m not suggesting that we are in a perpetual state of messaging “look at me and what I’m doing” but there is a way to repeatedly message at the Strategic, Operational, and most importantly, the Tactical level about what is being provided, what will be provided and critically, that it is being provided regardless of ethnicity, religion, Sectarian affiliation or otherwise. It’s one thing to say “we care,” but quite another to say it while standing next to a pallet of food, water, medical supplies and tents.
Particular interest in messaging at the Tactical level should be accomplished in areas where recent targeting of DAESH/ Extremist leadership has occurred. There are a variety of reasons, some classified but essentially, HA shown delivered in areas that provide Coalition Military forces greater access to previously dominated by DAESH is a clear sign to both those affected and DAESH that progress is being made and victory is imminent for anti DAESH fighters.
Messaging success with a picture in a recently reclaimed area also denies DAESH or our adversaries the opportunity to say that they still hold the turf. DAESH may use dishonest graphics but nothing sells like the truth and it’s hard to deny a picture that shows a local “power-broker” like a Cleric, tribal Elder, or Mayor standing in front of an aid pallet in the town square.
LOE 3: Grievance Resolution
For those of you that have been looking at the ME (Middle East) for more than a couple of years it is all too apparent that the number of conflicts and grievances are seemingly endless. While we are currently focused on DAESH, Syria, Iraq, and the Shia/Sunni divide, these are but a few of the large scale grievances. There are also things like Tribal/cultural/ethnic issues across the region, the Israeli/Palestinian issue, water rights in nearly every country, income inequality, Sectarian issues, Geo-political issues like oil and trade. These are just a few.
Every affected community in the Levant is normally saddled with multiple unresolved grievances and are no doubt agitated to the point of action at their lack of ability to have these addressed. The bottom line is that even with a Syrian resolution, the “pots will continue simmering” as that most of the citizens of the Levant believe that the outside world only cares about what is affecting it at the moment and in their eyes it is likely refugees and terrorism.
It is likely that this LOE is the most difficult to associate to an observable. That does not mean that it should not be high on our list of priorities. Any event such as a budding alliance between anti-DAESH groups or the settlement over road or water access that is achieved by way of mediation should be aggressively marketed and couched in the terms of “grievance resolution” by way of non-violent means. Although this is a tough one, we also must in our Strategy orchestrate the building and sustainment of conflict resolution professionals/organizations that facilitate collective resistance. The truth is, and it’s not pretty is that there are very few professionals trained and experienced in resolving conflicts grounded in non-Western indigenous populations.
As a quick “shout out”, I’d like to recommend following Dr. Patrick Christian on LinkedIn who is renowned for his work and research in this all too critical field. He can be found also at NarrativeStrategies.com as one of the charter members of the collaborators.
The bottom line here is that we must have more observables to this critical component of building a sustainable anti DAESH coalition.
LOE 4: Capacity building
All too often, CB (Capacity Building) is seen exclusively as being military centric and also, all too often that is because CP is military centric. In a long term fight with civilian populaces as a COG (Center of Gravity) we must find a way to build reliable non-military capacity in affected countries and regions that will be advantageous to empowering a stable populace.
In support of this LOE we must consider building capacity for beleaguered and affected countries/regions across the spectrum of Governance. This applies especially to those aspects that affect quality of life issues for the populace. Extremism may be a virus built on ideology but chaos, grievances and failed states are the Petri dishes that empower a virus to become an epidemic. There may be no cure or vaccine for this epidemic but we can certainly erode the catastrophic impacts on the populaces that enable anger, fear and discontent to grow to into extremist violence.
Affected populations looking for a “way out” of their circumstances are by default limited of hope. If they can’t see or hear prospects for improvement they have little to no choice but to tackle their problems by way of the easiest most accessible means. All too often extremists like DAESH, HAMAS and HEZBOLLAH have used this dynamic to their advantage. That is why; the observable/ messaging piece of this LOE is of critical importance.
Every day, there are countless acts of aid rendered across the Levant. Those acts provide the observables. These acts, when applicable must be coordinated to build a stable foundation for Capacity Building. The acts that contribute to basic needs such as security, food, water, shelter etc.… speak to stabilization but what’s missing is the “so what”. It’s not enough to just say or suggest we’re meeting basic needs but to tie these efforts to the stability requisite to the sustainable capacity of host nations to manage and support their citizens. Education, governance, infrastructure maintenance and civil structure are all non-military aspects of CB. These things occur, but are we messaging or explaining the “why” of these actions?
Here again, a sub-narrative comes into play as we tie the observables to our narrative in a manner that speaks to the long term goal. For example;
This year, in refugee camps around the region “so and so” (the US, Allies, NGOs, partner nations and entities)”, along with basic needs, provided education, occupational/ professional training, classes in governance and civil structure to affected populations yearning to go home. The intent is two-fold:
1. to help these innocent citizens acquire the knowledge and strength to one day in the near future return home as capable citizens that are better prepared to support and build a stable state and most importantly,
2. to mitigate the inestimable suffering imposed on these citizens by DAESH and their former oppressive Governments.
While it is our moral responsibility to render aid to the suffering, we also acknowledge that it is everyone’s best interest in the long run to achieve stability and with populaces better prepared to support long term stability.
This is but one example of messaging, with the point being that it explains why we are building capacity, towards what goal and ties whichever action/ observable to our Narrative. When it comes to Capacity Building and supporting messaging, virtually no act or effort should be without the full support of media, Public Affairs and put into context/reinforced by Department of State. The bottom line here is that tying observables to our Narrative must be messaged and at least partially interpreted regularly, eloquently and clearly to deny our adversaries their interpretation of our actions. It is also important here to note that when local citizens see investment in “what comes after”, they will start to believe more fervently in seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. This is an emotionally charged advantage not to be overlooked. If we want to empower a populace, few things solidify hope better than visible signs of investment in their future.
LOE5: Kinetic Targeting/ Security
Messaging to correlate kinetic activity (Kinetic targeting) to our Narrative is the one aspect we do fairly well at this juncture. We’ve had a lot of practice. Still, no successful mission whether killing DAESH leadership, degradation of DAESH infrastructure and DAESH fighters being demoralized, abused and their revelations of DAESH hypocrisy should ever go un-reported. We do regularly report on deaths, number of sorties etc.… but the one area of messaging the Kinetic/Security piece that needs refinement and amplification is the “why” of our kinetic efforts.
The relationship of targeting efforts and associated inroads into DAESH held areas as observables to messaging cannot be oversold. These successes, much like the previously discussed CB become “beacons of hope” to those affected populations raptly listening for any and all positive news regarding an end to their intensely personal crisis. These messages must accurately portray kinetic successes but not “over sell.” This also builds our credibility. There are few things worse for those suffering than to have their hopes dashed by overly zealous expressions of optimism. Success is being made, DAESH (as a military/state) is being diminished but what matters most to refugees is that they still cannot yet go home safely.
We will discuss later the means of “selling” kinetic success but just to introduce an important thought, this is one of the areas that SM (social media) offers enormous advantage. For example: showing the airstrike that decimates DAESH leadership and logistics in a particular village in SM with a short “so what” post is invaluable. Pointing out the dishonesty of DAESH when they deny their losses (as they often do), is important as that it erodes the credibility of their successive messaging or posts. Pointing out in posts that they are barely holding on to an area by way of SM also builds morale in opposing forces and sways momentum. DAESH fighters and especially leadership thrive on SM and the best way to “beat them at their own game” in regards to kinetic success is to show a picture/graphic in SM of their losses, infighting (demonstrable by executions in their ranks) and defeats at the hands of local opposition fighters. Destroy their narrative and their morale and you degrade DAESH.
There is an important but uncomfortable note to this topic. The US military and associated USG entities that have the capacity to relate these targeting observables to messaging are relatively meager in comparison to what our adversaries have. The Presidents new TF (Task Force) is still nascent and by all accounts far less resourced than required. If there is more development to this point by the end of this series of papers, we’ll certainly revisit this topic. What we’re discussing is great but if we don’t have the capacity to act on our recommendations then it’s all for naught.
4. Cultural nuance as it pertains to a variety of Target audiences
It is virtually impossible to emphasize this point enough. Hands down, culturally attuned and delivered messaging has been the US’s most significant deficit these past few years, or more specifically in the post 9-11 era. The whole point of messaging is to make yourself understood. How many of us have used “machine” translation on Google or similar platforms? For those that have, a simple conversion of word meanings does little to help us “get the point”. It may “get you in the ballpark”, but with near certainty, the actual intent as well as the attention of the reader is lost. Often, a mistranslated passage may even offend or denigrate a reader. This can be on an epic scale or just enough to render a message unworthy of consideration. Either way, the deficit of language and its attendant culture contributes enormously to the regular misunderstanding of our intent. As noted in our last paper, failure at cultural nuance also speaks directly to a failure at credibility. This does not just mean the message itself but the “right” messenger is also “the weakest link”.
Even when the messenger and those messaged are from the same country, speaking the same language, culture plays a critical role in credibility. As that I’ve had a difficult time explaining this concept to US persons before, I generally will default to an analogy:
Simply explained in US terms, a political message developed in say, rural Mississippi with all the nuance of the rural Deep South will likely fall flat when delivered to someone in Lower Manhattan and especially if delivered by a messenger with a heavy Southern accent. It’s not that one or the other is necessarily smarter or more well informed, it’s just that the lens they see the world through is vastly different.
Advertisers understand this implicitly when designing an ad campaign for a Nationally marketed product yet when the US Government attempts to message through DoD, DoS, or other entity resources this very basic concept all too often falls to the wayside. The bottom line here is that we need different TAs to understand us. Yes, we may be saying the same thing to all of the TAs but their filter or lens is different and requires a different approach. This simply means that we need present the appropriate culturally attuned message creator the intent and let them prepare the message which must, absolutely must be delivered by the most carefully aligned cultural messenger. This just does not apply to words, but to graphics, timing and dissemination methods. I can think of way too many times that Communications gurus in Afghanistan wanted TV commercials to message rural Afghans. The absurdity of this thought is so apparent that it hardly needs explaining.
As that we are mostly discussing Muslim audiences when talking about the Levant, other aspects of cultural nuance that are relevant in the region are ethnicity, sectarian affiliation, statehood, tribal alignment... Just putting a “Muslim” messenger in an ad does not meet the requirement to be effective. Can you imagine an Iraqi Kurdish fighter messaging a Hezbollah affiliated populace? Yes, absurdity strikes again. As an example of this failure:
While posted to the Eastern Afghan border and asked for a product from the unit in Afghanistan responsible for graphics, I had asked for a product that included a picture of a rural Afghan Tribal Elder and family. When, I was sent the prototype for approval it prominently displayed a Gulf Arab family complete with a man wearing a long white robe, red checkered headdress and clean shaven. His wife was wearing a relatively shorter Western style skirt and his children, both male and female in western dress. Their excuse for such an epic fail was that they had a picture of a Muslim family. For those familiar with rural Pashtuns in Eastern Afghanistan, it is hard to imagine a more catastrophic mistake.
The bottom line here is that any communication strategy must adhere to the SOF (Special Operations Forces) imperative of “knowing your environment.” In a country of immigrants replete with citizens from virtually every culture on the planet we still seem incapable of connecting with the best cultural experts. Pepsi and Coke go to war in ads all the time and I can assure you they appreciate the nuance of messaging appropriately in their battle for market share. At war, lives are at stake, not merely the bottom line of sales. We can ill afford to continue talking at our audiences rather than actually relating to our audiences.
In Syria alone, there are 22 or 23 significant ethnic groups with dozens more sub categories. When you consider that with foreign fighters from all over the planet populating the ranks of DAESH and their ilk the subtle differences in culture are daunting. If we add Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and the rest of the complex societies in the region to the mix we have another whole set of problems in making ourselves understood.
Again, I must restate that the problems we are facing in the region are beyond complex and we are struggling to make ourselves understood by both Allies and adversaries. There is no amount of effort we can afford to spare to effectively communicate about what we’re up to and why. So far in this series we’ve discussed Narrative, Credibility, relating observables to messaging and culture. Hopefully, I am demonstrating by now just how interrelated these issues are. In fact, they are in many ways like a chain. No matter how strong independent links are, if there is a weak or failed link, the chain cannot do its job. This is not a mission for the uninitiated or inexperienced. We no longer have the luxury of failing to employ professionals any more than we can afford to send Military Academy Cadets to do the job of Special Operations Operators.
We are in fact making very good progress Kinetically against Extremists. Sometime in the relatively near future we may even recover all of the turf taken by regional extremists. The question becomes “what then?”. How do we sustain the peace? How do we communicate in support of our stability LOEs? How do we keep the “idea” of Extremism from once again sparking a large scale conflict? Yes, I know these are tough questions and are somewhat rhetorical. The answer is we cannot do any of these things if we cannot effectively communicate with all pertinent TAs. All of what we’ve so far discussed are integral parts of communicating with the region. I guess the only real question is, “can we afford to not communicate effectively and are we willing to invest in “getting it right”? This is the bottom line to why we must adopt a robust new strategy.
This concludes this week’s part of the CS discussion. Thank you again everyone for continuing down this path with me. As always, here’s the reminder to please feel free to add input, challenge my thoughts or even critique. All comments are welcome.
Welcome back everyone to the next portion of our discussion of a recommended CS (Communication Strategy) for our previously discussed strategy against Extremists in Syria and the Levant. In previous discussions, we have looked at “leading with the NK (Non-Kinetic) and supporting the effort by way of a robust and aggressive CS. The last published portion of the overall discussion was the first part to the CS and focused on Narrative. Per the past discussion, narrative is the core of any comprehensive CS. Virtually everything revolves around it and it’s supporting or interactive Narratives. Today’s portion of the overall CS speaks to credibility. Second to narrative, there is virtually no other component of a successful strategy that matters as much as Credibility.
As always, the links to the previous discussions follow this paragraph and include links to the Strategy discussion as well as the CS Part I discussion posted the week before the Christmas/ Holiday break.
Credibility, is the second most essential element to any Communication effort after Narrative and yet the hardest element to achieve. The bottom line here is that without credibility, no message, no matter how well-crafted and executed is worth the effort. Like all messaging efforts, there is no “magic or silver bullet”. What can make a mundane but important message better, or an excellent message priceless is being credible. All that is really required is using common (or as I tend to believe, uncommon sense) sense.
An important note regarding credibility once again harkens to the nearly diametrically opposing ways that populations in the West and outside the West see a message. In the 4 decades of my adulthood I have spent nearly all of it largely interacting with folks from the Middle East and South Asia. Whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish I have noted a phenomenon that I was not raised with in the US Midwest. My observation, though not based on scientific knowledge nor applying 100% of the time has successfully guided my actions, negotiations and interactions with persons not hailing from the West. This phenomenon is that folks outside the West tend to judge a message by instinctively comparing it to the messenger’s actions. We in the West, all too often will take words on face value, pick them apart for meaning and discount the actions/ observables associated. This is not, in my experience the case outside the West. It took me a few years of doing business with Middle Eastern clients and later as an IO Officer to come to and employ this all important nuance. This nuance, though subtle, goes directly to the heart of the matter of credibility. In the previous topic re; narrative I noted the connection of message to “observable” and what I’m describing here speaks directly to that point.
Here in the West, I often, when reading the news, first look to who the author is, who do they write for and judge whether or not I will read an article and whether or not to assign some level of value to its content. In the ME (Middle East), folks tend to listen and then judge your credibility based on your historic actions and what you are actively doing at the moment. They then do precisely as I do when reading Western news, and then decide if or to what extent that they will assign credibility.
What this means to our CS is as basic as it can possibly be, if we say something in a message, we’d darn sure better be reinforcing it with an action or as is often used in IO, an observable. For example, if we say we mean to reduce human suffering, then we need to point directly at the enormous of amount of HA (Humanitarian Assistance) we are providing, more specifically at the HA we are providing that matters to whichever TA we are talking to at the moment. We often are willing to stand back and not call attention to our HA efforts because in the West, we consider it more polite, preferring a modicum of humility. I’m not suggesting that in the West this is the wrong approach but in the ME, I would suggest that we “get over” our concerns of being immodest in order to gain credibility for our message. This does not mean we jump up and down saying “look at me, look at me” but when discussing our commitment to alleviate human suffering we call attention to just how much we are doing. As this pertains to Narrative, we must also explain the “why” of our HA efforts. We’re not simply pursuing credit; we are building credibility towards a specific message.
Let’s quickly look at another aspect of relating an observable to messaging. How for example we could more effectively message about the successful targeting of 2nd and 3rd tier leaderships in let’s say… Ar Raqqa? Just like in the narrative discussion, what and how we say something matters depending on the TA. At the Strategic/ International level saying that we’ve killed a certain number of influential DAESH leadership in Ar Raqqa because they are evil-doers and their actions do irreparable harm to all. would support our overarching Narrative. The regional level messaging should say something more along the line of; we’ve killed a number of DAESH leaders that have caused immeasurable chaos and destruction to the regions of Syria neighboring Turkey and Iraq which have impeded cooperation by partners in the fight against Extremist Evil. Eliminating DAESH leadership gives all parties in the region an opportunity to achieve the stability that is beneficial to all save the evil-doers. At the local level, we would have a far better chance of resonating with the local audience if we said something like; The US/ Coalition airstrikes recently witnessed by so many of Ar Raqqa’s beleaguered citizens, killed the evil doers that have been killing, torturing and oppressing so many of Raqqa’s sons, husbands, wives and friends for the past 4 years. The point that counter’s the extremist message effectively is that we’re not saying we killed Muslims but killed evil doers, in order to protect people of all faiths/ Sects from the Evil of DAESH.
What you can see by the above examples is that the message needs to provide a reason for the TA to connect with the message. I know that when I listen to the 6 o’clock news, my interest will be heightened if I hear a story that’s on a street near where I live or it potentially impacts someone I know. The part of the message that captures the attention of the TA must be an emotional “hook” that makes the message personal to the audience. Truly understanding a TA so that the message and messenger can regularly speak to that emotional “hook” also builds credibility.
Regularly messaging any TA with reliable information tied to an observable builds credibility. Like the old saying regarding trust though, “it takes a long time to build trust, and only a second to destroy it”. The same adage holds true with TAs and messaging. This simply means that we must regularly message in conjunction with observables so that our TA in a region that perceives information differently from us actually starts reliably associating credibility to our messages.
This last point has been a real challenge for the US in the past. We are often so consumed by getting to the actual truth surrounding an observable that the ensuing delay offers the enemy the opportunity to “be first” in media. Remember, our adversaries also experience observables and in a messaging vacuum by us, they will fill the vacuum with their own message. There is absolutely nothing wrong with prefacing our “official statement with the following; “at this time, this is what we know to be true. If, as things develop that alter our perspective, we will be forthright with the details”. We must be first and absolutely as truthful as we know at the moment. Over the course of time, repeated and regularly truthful statements build our credibility and decreases DAESH’s even if it means being honest about a mistake.
We learned the lessons of the last paragraph by way of years of experience in Afghanistan. The SOP (standard operating procedure) we developed there proved intrinsically that this system works. Before this SOP was developed, we regularly were subjected to Taliban claims of civilian casualties because they got the first word in the media. The result was a halt to Operations which gave the Taliban a chance to recoup and degraded our credibility with the Afghan populace. Once we started publishing the results of night raids at the crack of dawn and offering “corrections” when we found out otherwise, resonating claims by the Taliban dropped to historic lows. The bottom line here is that by being first and being as honest as possible, we slowly acquired credibility.
The connection between credibility and regularly correlating the “why” of the raid as stated in our narrative also cannot be overlooked. Part of every morning’s statements about raids also included the “so what” of the raids. For example; each raid’s announcement sounded something like; “last night’s raid in Khowst province resulted in the kill/ capture of X number of Taliban leaders that have been terrorizing the innocent and decent citizens of Khowst Province”. This subtle note regarding the differentiation between Taliban and innocent civilians effectively contributed to eroding the Taliban narrative of “occupiers/ infidels oppressing Muslim/ Afghan citizens."
There is no reason to believe that the successful tactics described above regarding credibility, especially as it pertains to supporting a successful Narrative would be any different in the Levant. Is it a bit more difficult due to the larger land mass, more diverse TAs and more complex geo-political environment? Yes, it is, but we have the resources and access to the best messengers to mitigate the impact of these additional challenges. What we’re missing is a comprehensive coordinating strategy and supporting dissemination mechanisms to achieve the same results.
Finally, in this brief overview of credibility as a key component of a successful CS, I would like to add an important note suggested by a trusted colleague. This note pertains to being honest, especially when we’ve been in error as a mechanism for building trust and credibility. As part of our narrative I believe it to be wise to acknowledge our part in the destabilization of the Levant. For the informed, there is little doubt that the 2003 invasion of Iraq set some of the fallen dominoes in motion. I’m in no way suggesting that all that has occurred regarding instability or extremism, DAESH style is due to US actions. Most folks in the region, regardless of religion, ethnicity, culture or otherwise believe this to be true as well. There is a saying in IO that “it’s always easier to message something that the TA already believes to be true”. In this case, we are playing to this perceived truth and in doing so will start to rebuild some of the credibility we’ve already ceded.
To summarize the key points to this portion of our CS discussion regarding credibility I would highlight 5 key take-aways;
This concludes Pt II of this series. Although there are 9 parts, I’ll likely be weaving parts 3-5 together in the next post. You will see as we go that so much of the same material will pop up regularly. Therefore, as we build, it will not be necessary to rehash everything over again. Before concluding, I want to mention again that there are no “silver bullets” to this strategy and much of seems like very basic common sense. In fact, many of you are probably thinking “what’s the big deal” with this paper. This is another corollary to my first career as a Custom builder. Even in the most complex custom project the basic components are often the most mundane ordinary materials. It’s the vision and execution of employing those common and mundane materials in a custom manner that becomes a successful creation.
The custom CS to support our objectives in the Levant are much the same as the custom building project. We have the common sense and the resources/ materials but we need vision, execution and tools (dissemination capability) if we are to achieve our custom end state.
Looking forward to your continued interest, comments, suggestions and even critiques.
All best for everyone’s 2016
I started this paper a couple of weeks ago. As I began writing, it became readily apparent that this subject was going to require more than one effort. In fact, after sharing with a dear colleague, her suggestion was to break up the following 25-plus pages into installments. This paper, an addition to our overall Strategy for the Levant and its extremist/geo-political challenges is an overview of some of the salient points to an anti-Extremist communication strategy as well as some recommendations to the overall Levant situation. Today’s edition is also more focused on an overview and the 1st topic (Narrative) of the 9 topics noted in the read ahead sent out in November. Addressing the rest of the strategy will be accomplished by way of installments posted every few days after the Holiday break. As with the first papers about this topic I’ve included links to the 4 papers that have preceded this one for reference. They are here below. As always, many thanks for your continued interest and participation. What follows is part 1 of 8.
Hello everyone and welcome back to the CS (Communication Strategy) portion of our Syria/Levant Strategy discussion. It is appropriate that today is December 7th as that it is a day in US history that as President Roosevelt so eloquently stated, “Lives in infamy.” This simple quote is etched irrevocably into American History largely because it became the cornerstone of his now famous speech to Congress as he asked for a Declaration of War against Japan after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
His eloquent and passionate speech encompassing that quote became much of the Narrative that would evolve but never shed its key elements throughout the course of WW II. The Narrative, as the all important core of a communication strategy has been largely ignored in our current conflicts stemming from Extremists usurping Islam for their own selfish, immoral and barbaric reasons. A failed Communication Strategy has been, in my opinion why we are still largely flailing against these evil-doers more than any other single reason. Extremism is about individuals acting on extreme ideas—and despite Trillions of dollars—lives and resources expended we are still nowhere near eroding the “idea” of Radical Islam or as I prefer, Extremism. The bottom line here is that we must stop clinging to the belief that bombs and bullets are the whole solution and invest as fully in a Comprehensive Strategy as we do in the Kinetic effort. Even a comprehensive strategy is potentially less effective without an energetic and properly executed communication strategy.
As I listened with keen interest last night to the President’s Oval Office speech, my beliefs regarding communications, or rather effective communications were confirmed. Ineffective communications are still at the heart of our failings. What I heard as I listened intently was, as recommended in our earlier discussions, a more comprehensive approach but still woefully short of all that is needed. Part of the reason I did not hear all that I had wished for was not that a talented communicator was delivering the message but that the complexity of the problem is very hard to communicate. The bottom line here is three-fold.
First, in a beltway mentality so often out of touch with the reality of the world outside it, the obsession with the bi-lateral approach of Diplomacy and military options are the dominant voices.
Second, Western countries, our primary partners, are still, after centuries of misunderstanding the region, miles from actually “getting” the Middle East and the myriad of complex issues that underlie virtually all of the challenges regarding today’s version of the conflict.
Third, America and much of the West has developed a near addiction with the “sound-bite” method of news/information delivery. This is a tragic “at odds” methodology that may serve a US/Western re-election campaign or the “bottom line” of a News Agency but is an epic fail when communicating the complexities of the multi-dimensional problems regarding effective degradation of Extremist activity and State actors maneuvering for power in a part of the world “wired” 180 degrees apart from the West.
Now, as we move on to the CS (Communication Strategy) portion of what we’ve been considering as a comprehensive strategy, I’d like to first point out some of the key elements of a recommended Communication Strategy.
As I’ve noted in earlier parts of this discussion, I recently retired from the Army as an IO (Information Operations) practitioner. This does not mean that I have any prestigious background in Journalism or Communications. It does mean that among other aspects of IO, I am a professional at identifying appropriate messages, how to employ them towards achieving specific objectives and in identifying the appropriate professionals/ resources for accomplishing those objectives. I have also been fortunate to have developed and sustain relationships with some of what I consider the finest experts in contributing fields, like journalism, narrative and media analysis. Like many folks my age one of the most valuable life lessons I have learned is just how much I don’t know and the importance of listening to those that do. Much of what we’ll discuss in the following pages is based precisely on the opinions and expertise of these experts and on my past 9-plus years of experience.
The following discussion is also based on the strategy papers on Syria and the Levant that have preceded this one. The links are included here below so that everyone can easily refer back to them. In the past papers we’ve identified our overall objective as a “Rebalanced and sustainably stable Levant” which is achieved by way of 5 specific LOEs (lines of effort) listed below. This part of our discussion is about how we communicate in support of those LOEs. In the “read-ahead” to this paper I identified a few topics that I felt requisite to developing a communication strategy and they were;
1. Narrative, Narrative and more Narrative!
3. Relationship of actions/ observables to Communications
4. Cultural nuance as it pertains to a variety of Target audiences
5. Who or what are we talking to?
6. The 5 W’s of messaging
8. Why sometimes the “right message” is an action and not words
9. The critical need for the currently absent “clearinghouse” for US Communications
As noted above the 9 points/outline topics are included for this discussion and should further interest be expressed, we’ll potentially develop a “point by point” paper that details a phased strategy laying out the 5 Ws of what is discussed in this paper. There are lots of caveats to this discussion but “first things first”. Today we’ll hit the highlights of what I consider the 9 cornerstones of our Syria/Levant Communication Strategy.
Just so that we are all on the same page going forward; the overall objective of the Syria/ Levant Strategy and its associated LOEs (Lines of Effort) are as follow;
Rebalancing the Geo-Socio-Political issues in the Levant in pursuit of sustainable Stability
Narrative, Narrative and more Narrative!
Narrative (or rather lack of) is in my opinion, one of the three most tragically flawed aspects of our (if one actually exists) US Communication strategy followed by social media (collection, analysis and dissemination) and a whole of Government Information Entity/Agency.
As a an IO Officer, I learned the hard way that any Information Campaign devoid of Strategy, planning, resources and a compelling Narrative was much like the old camp race where runners tie their legs together and race. Yes, you can get to the finish line but you will work harder, go slower and likely experience more than one spectacular mishap en-route. In yearly deployments to Afghanistan 2009-2013, I slowly through trial and error realized increasingly improved results in IO campaigns as my skills with narrative improved. I now have had the good fortune to have become acquainted with 3 extraordinary experts regarding Narrative whom can speak professionally about the reasons that Narrative is an imperative and how it works. Dr. Ajit Maan, Dr. Patrick Christian and Alan Malcher, MA have become invaluable allies and mentors in regard to Narrative. So that I do not misquote or misrepresent their professional opinions, I’m including a link here to Dr. Maan’s Narrative Strategies’ blog where some excellent posts by all of the above can speak far more eloquently to many of the specifics regarding this essential Communication tool.
As Narrative pertains to our strategy, the bottom line, as noted by Dr. Maan is simply that we need a compelling narrative (story) to explain the meaning of our intentions and actions. As noted in my opening, the President in his recent Oval Office address was trying in a very short period of time to deliver the meaning of how we are or will engage the world regarding ISIS, or as I and many others prefer to call them, DAESH. Additionally, addressing DAESH in a region that is a veritable minefield of complex underlying grievances is even more difficult to explain. Fourteen years into this conflict regarding Extremism we still struggle to easily explain just what we’re trying to do and why.
Part of the reason that this is so difficult is that the components of clearly viewing our challenges are rife with social, cultural and geo-political nuances. The same words in English do not necessarily translate well to those speaking different languages in different areas of the world. This is true for both our adversaries and our Allies. Not only do “words matter” but so does culture. Another but equally demanding reason for clearly and regularly communicating our narrative is that even for people fully immersed in the crisis we now face, the issues are so complex that we must make every effort to keep everyone, Allies and adversaries alike, fully understanding of our intent and actions.
Storytelling outside the West is often culturally, one of the most important and convincing methods of effective communication. Even in the West, getting a good story onto the New York Times “best seller” list is also an art-form. Just having a name, resume’ and a track record are not enough. A good story must stand alone on its own merit. In our case, we must use our Narrative much in the same manner as did Aesop or Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). We must use our story/narrative to make a point(s) in a manner that will keep the attention of the audience. So what is the “moral of our story?” What are the points we must compellingly make? How do we hold onto to our audiences? How do we help everyone understand such a complex problem set? These are some of the most important questions in developing our narrative.
Before we wade further into our specific narrative we must know also acknowledge another critical point. Even though we must have an over-arching narrative we must also develop multiple supporting Narratives that speak to Western, International, Regional and local audiences. Dr. Maan calls these interactive narratives and I defer to her expert opinion for further refinement of this concept. Supporting or interactive narratives are all related to the overarching narrative. They tell much the same or very similar story but in a contextually nuanced manner that captures/holds the attention of different but related audiences. The same story and words will not speak the same meaning to different audiences in large part because we live in the West and regional/ local indigenous audiences see the world through vastly different eyes. This point demands that the communicator of our narrative by all accounts should be the best culturally attuned messenger. For example, POTUS may well communicate our narrative overview to US and Western audiences but someone “on the ground” in let’s say Syria or Iraq and at the local level may well be a Mayor, tribal Chieftain, or a SOF (Special Operations Forces) team leader. How do these different messengers make the narrative understood?
For example, the narrative at the POTUS or Secretary of State level may sound something like the following (also note the underlined portions as that they are directly related to the 5 LOEs we developed in our plan):
The US, in pursuit of our own and our friends’ security and interests is in a conflict with Extremists usurping legitimate Islam as a tool of power. It is not only security that compels us to act but we, as a significant and responsible Global partner and acting on our inherent American values have a moral duty to act in defense of the helpless. Much like our partners, we realize that these evil-doers have nothing to do with Islam nor do their barbaric actions reflect the tenets of Islam. The terrors they inflict on innocents are continuing to do immeasurable harm to decent citizens regardless of faith, ethnicity, culture or region. They are evil, plain and simple and as partners of the civilized world we intend to pursue justice and stability in the interest of all civilized States and their citizens. We intend to continually increase our ongoing support for degrading the immense human suffering, support stability by way of supporting safe mechanisms for hearing grievances, aggressively pursue diplomacy as a key component of grievance resolution and most of all, pursue security by relentlessly targeting all Extremist leadership and support of Extremist organizations. We do not care where these evil doers hide; we will find them, destroy them and effectively build capacity for all responsible partners that support our efforts. We realize that this effort will not be accomplished quickly or without the pain of financial and human sacrifice. It is though, our moral responsibility to act and support all those that share our concerns.
A supporting/interactive narrative at the Regional level might be communicated by a forward Military commanders, regional diplomats or high profile US citizens coordinating HA (humanitarian aid) such as USAID or recognized NGOs. It will by default speak to the narrative spoken by POTUS but be nuanced to “connect” to a regional audience. It may sound something like (again, please note the underlined portions that relate to our 5 LOEs):
We Americans and Allied partners, along with our regional partners are continually cementing all available regional partnerships in pursuit of eradicating the evil of an extremist and wholly discredited movement that is attempting to hijack one of the world’s great religions for their own evil purposes. Here in the region, we daily see both the grave results of evil as well as the true courage of responsible partners banding together for the most noble of causes, the eradication of evil and the relief of human suffering. The reasons we support these partnerships is complex but two of the most important reasons are; first, we and the responsible people and states of the region can no longer stand by while evil destroys the lives of innocent people and secondly, everyone, not just those in the region suffer from the effects of catastrophic instability. Again, the comparison to World War II is relevant; no one in the world is safe from the effects of allowing the evil of DAESH or their ilk to flourish.
Every day, the partnership between Western and regional partners grows stronger and the physical strength and emotional draw of DAESH weakens. This is always the case when good and decent States and citizens band together against evil. It is easy to see the corollaries between today’s anti-Extremist efforts here in the Levant and the coalition of global powers that eradicated the evil of Nazi led evil ideology during the Second World War Honorable and decent citizens regardless of race, culture or citizenship are today combining their courageous efforts to once again destroy evil.
We also regularly see that even with the destruction of evil and States that support it that there will be much work to be done in building a stable regional foundation that will prevent further attempts of evil-doers to establish a foothold for their selfish interests. We have no illusions that this will be easy and know all too well how many challenges there are regarding grievances, some spanning millennia.
Part of our combined efforts in building an enduring foundation of stability will be to support any and all responsible mechanisms that provide for hearing and resolving grievances. We also realize that no mechanism will or could ever exist without security which means pursuing increased capacity of responsible regional partners must be part of the overall effort. Included in our capacity building much of the focus will be on resources that guarantee security so that the most critical of our goals can be met, which is to mitigate the inestimable human suffering that has been visited upon innocents regardless of religion, culture or Statehood. DAESH, despite their illegitimate claims of statehood has failed at the first requirement of being a State, the care and protection of all its citizens.
Although many of the partners operating here in the region hail from Western cultures, we clearly and irrevocably support our local partners in their undeniably correct assertions regarding the failed attempts of DAESH to represent any legitimate aspect of Islam. We of the West, though not qualified to argue the religious aspects of Islam support unflinchingly the qualified condemnations of DAESH by the respected and recognized Religious authorities from around the Globe and especially here in the region. Again, and let us be clear, no respected religious authority regardless of Sect, recognizes DAESH as anything but evil-doers usurping Islam for their own selfish and barbaric reasons. These are not the words of the West but our trusted and respected Muslim partners that hail from region.
Finally, the eventual and certain outcome of the anti-extremist coalition will be; the destruction of Extremist capability, degradation of their evil and hypocritical ideology and a stable Levant that has for the first time in decades. a real chance at a bright and prosperous future on the world stage.
These two narrative examples must be supported with interactive narratives at the local level that speaks to each TA (target audience) be it tribal, local, village or otherwise. The key here is language, cultural nuance and appropriate trusted communicators. This local level of narrative has tremendous advantages because much of the narrative communication can be accomplished F2F (face to face) by trusted communicators whether SOF (Special Operations Forces), Coalition partners, trusted populace leadership etc…
The bottom line to interactive narrative is that each and every version must relate to the overarching and be delivered by the right messengers using the right language(s) and observing the most culturally nuanced approach. As you can see from the two examples above, both speak in different but supporting manners to the LOEs described in the strategy outlined in Parts I-III. They may not say so in the clearly delineated manner of Western Military Planning but there is little doubt as to the meaning.
Finally, in regard to narrative, we must tell our story often, at every level and with the best culturally nuanced communicator. When notable actions or events occur, we must repeat a version of our narrative that addresses the action/event and clearly articulate why that particular event/action speaks to our overarching narrative. An important note here is that by way of years of experience messaging in support of Operations, I found that there was no message that resonated as clearly as one that was connected to a visible action by the intended TA. For example: It was always much easier to “sell” Reintegration in Afghanistan after successful targeting of Taliban leadership. When “local” Taliban saw demonstrable success against their leadership they were far more receptive to coming off the battlefield by way of Reintegration than before their leaders were targeted.
As a brief summary note to the Narrative discussion I would like to add that the bottom line to Narrative in a comprehensive strategy is that no one, Ally, foe or affected populations need be confused as to our intent. We must tell our story, tell it often, tell it to everyone in the most culturally nuanced way possible and we must highlight our actions regularly that are demonstrative of our intent and as communicated in our Narrative.
This wraps up Part I of the Communication Strategy overview and discussion of Narrative in support of that strategy.
I would like to begin this article by extending a hearty thank you to Dr. Maan for the opportunity to participate here at Narrative Strategies. It is a high honor indeed to be invited to contribute alongside the likes of Dr. Ajit Maan, Dr. Patrick Christian, and Alan Malcher, MA whom I consider to be the defacto experts regarding applying Narrative as a tool of both conflict resolution and as the unifying element of a National strategy.
I have struggled to decide what to contribute to this blog but have settled on some lessons I’ve learned actually employing Narrative as a tool of IO (Information Operations) during my yearly Deployments to Afghanistan 2009-2013. The point being, that as I began my IO career with the Army, Narrative as a tool of IO was nearly completely overlooked and not actually taught at any of the schools or courses I attended. From personal experience, inclusive of early, less successful results in IO planning, I learned the intrinsic value and requirement for Narrative as the foundation of any IO strategy.
To lay the groundwork for this piece, I must explain a few basics for those not intimately familiar with US Military Operations. First, as we discuss narrative as applied to US Military Operations it is important to note that the US Military operates at three basic levels; Strategic, Operational and Tactical. For this piece I’ll speak briefly to the Operational—essentially one AO, (Area of Operations with Afghanistan being the example) and mostly, Tactical, referring to a specific (generally much smaller than and a piece of the Operational)—area. I also will carefully avoid all classified references, only speaking about the role narrative played in some planned IO strategies.
My first Afghan deployment was spent working across the spectrum of Strategic, Operational, and Tactical levels. I was posted to Bagram Airfield but had responsibilities planning and executing IO campaigns for several areas of the country where Operations were ongoing and also for the country as a whole. My primary focuses though were the East, South, and Northern areas.
While there were some successes in this initial campaign regarding influence on all 3 levels, overall we, The US Military, failed to actually “touch a nerve” with Afghan “locals” or adequately explain what exactly the US or the nascent government in Kabul was trying to do. We could explain or highlight specific acts in disparate Provinces, stave off negative Taliban IO and highlight successes but ultimately, we were in a reactive mode simply feeding the Public Affairs “news cycle”. Our desired effects of empowering a “toddler” government and in influencing rank and file Afghans to both have confidence in and/or join that government I would have to admit were relative failures.
As that no one much likes to achieve anything less than resounding success from a tough endeavor, it is also true that if you do not carefully critique your efforts you’re doomed to suffer the same results the next time around. In the 7 months before my next deployment and in between recurring training, I dug deep into the data and lessons of the previous Afghan “vacation”. The answer to improving performance was not merely in improving processes for the things that succeeded but also in identifying the demonstrable gaps in what we had failed to achieve. The answers, though simple to see in hindsight were far more difficult to master in the short time-frame prior to deploying again. As with any task, prioritizing to achieve what is most important first when constrained by time left but two tasks to focus on. The highest priority tasks that best identified our “gaps” were Narrative and in depth Cultural understanding.
At first glance two topics appear unrelated but truth be told, one does not exist without the other. I and my colleagues had all but failed in one of the first imperatives of the Special Operations world; we had failed to adequately understand our environment. Secondly, we had failed to tell a story (narrative) to a “story telling” culture that explained what we were doing, why it mattered to local folks and tied it together at all three levels of Operations.
First let’s look at the Narrative gap. IO campaigns built primarily on reacting to events by default cede the initiative to the enemy. The best that can be achieved is the “bad guys” do as little harm with their IO campaign as possible. The little proactive work we’d done was largely centered around “getting ahead of predictable events, such as Ramadan attacks, imminent operations in a specific area etc… Additionally, merely feeding the “Public Affairs cycle” explaining Operations to primarily Western audiences with western terminology often times left Afghan audiences confused.
With the above said, we began our next tour with the intent to build an over arching Narrative for all of Afghanistan. Building the narrative is an excellent opportunity to highlight the connection between understanding local culture and telling a story that resonates with a TA (target audience). As we settled into a “deep dive” on Afghan culture it became all too apparent that Afghanistan, the region, the International community and select areas in Afghanistan all have significantly different cultures. Afghanistan alone is a complex fabric of culture, religion and ethnicities. For example, the US military much like the US government had spent much time post 9-11 learning about Islam. In the execution of messaging, just talking about Islam in Afghanistan is as productive as trying to discuss Christianity in the West. There are just too many sects, cultures and local customs to actually “touch” an audience. The bottom line here is that generic is just plain ineffective to most audiences and resulting in “talking at” rather than “talking with” the selected TA.
It is also important to add another note regarding the link between Narrative and Culture as it pertains to Afghanistan. Narrative, in many respects is a story. Story telling in Afghanistan, regardless of ethnicity but especially among Pashtuns is an art form and one of the most significant threads of the cultural fabric. Not only is Narrative critical to any IO strategy but in Afghanistan, telling a story is a powerful tool.
As that most of my second deployment was at the Tactical level in far eastern Afghanistan—Khowst Province to be exact—I focused my pre-deployment education on rural Pashtuns as that it is they that dominate the region. Rural Pashtuns live by an honor code called Pashtunwali (the way of the Pashtun) that they see as nearly synonymous with Islam. For experts, there are distinct differences but another cogent point is that to a rural Pashtun, those differences are immaterial. Now that I understood this important fact, I knew what would shape my narrative.
As that Pashtunwali was the filter rural Pashtuns viewed life by, then I determined that the central tenet of my narrative would revolve around the issue of Honor, Pashtunwali’s core or in some cases, the absence of honor. The name of both my IO campaign and my narrative then became “Honor and Shame”.
“Honor and Shame” was actioned under the umbrella of a narrative that highlighted the all important tenets of Pashtunwali which regulates daily life by a complex code designed to maintain the honor of individuals, their families and their tribe, sub-tribe, clan and sub-clan or Khels. While all of the caveats of Pashtunwali were not necessarily productive in supporting a national government in Kabul, they were productive in stabilizing resistance to a form of the Taliban trolling the valleys of Eastern Afghanistan. For example, by reinforcing the power of the “first among equals” at the tribal level meant that any act committed by the Taliban, HIG or the Haqqani group that usurped local tribal governance was highlighted as “shameful”. Shame is a powerful coercive weapon when properly utilized against those beholden to the constraints of Pashtunwali. Conversely, highlighting the “honor” of individuals that protected their tribes/ clans/ Khels against dishonorable Taliban fighters ignoring Pashtunwali only served to empower the code itself. The defacto outcome was that strengthened, traditional tribal structure became a stalwart defence against the Taliban and denied Taliban fighters safe haven in more villages and valleys than prior to employing an “honor and shame” strategy.
This employment of a culturally attuned narrative strategy my second tour in Khowst province demonstrated beyond a doubt for me that culture determined how well messaging was received and of it’s critical role in employing a successful narrative. “Honor and Shame” was a sub narrative to the overarching Operational and Strategic Narratives employed at the National and International level. As I often explained to my Commander, regardless of what we call local success, stabilized local governance supports the National Government; therefore, if our narrative succeeds we are supporting whatever is being said in broad brush strokes in Kabul.
With this powerful new non-kinetic weapon proven, I vowed to employ it in similar fashion in following tours. As luck would have it, my following tours were again at the Tactical level and focused on northern Afghanistan. Repeat tours in the same location provided me the opportunity to see long term results rather than a single application such as I’d experienced in Khowst.
In pre-deployment training for my following tours I again dove deeply into understanding Northern Afghanistan and its significantly different cultural make-up that I’d seen in the East and South. While I’d hoped to use a similar approach regarding “honor and shame”, I quickly learned that the complexities of the North would require a different approach and therefore a different narrative.
In 2011, the North was far more stabilized than the rest of the country. Mazar-i-Sharif or MES as it’s known in military circles was doing well, growing and economically self sufficient. The hinterlands of the North from the Iranian border to the mountainous regions in the far northeast and outside MES and Kunduz still was very much at war from a disparate enemy mostly comprised of IMU (Islamic Mujahidin of Uzbekistan) and Taliban (both Tajik and Pashtun). Their pragmatic alliance was often held together by sheer force of IMU leadership due to deep cultural differences. This period also was in the time frame where Reintegration was on the rise in the north, especially among Tajik and Pashtun fighters tired of war, and mostly on the losing end of fighting.
Generally speaking, IMU fighters are ideologues and not as open to reintegration as their Tajik and Pashtun colleagues. As previously noted, there is also no love lost between these disparate elements. Again, analysis provided me with what was to become the core of my Northern Narrative. As always, one of the first rules of warfare is to “divide and conqueror”. The natural divisions between the three main components of the northern resistance, exacerbated by the weariness of being on the losing end of a long war were rife with opportunity to further split the insurgency and encourage more Reintegration. It is import here to note that Reintegration or at least the theory of negotiated conflict resolution is a natural course for Pashtuns by way of a Jirga/Pashtunwali system. This will become important as we go further into the Northern IO strategy.
“Criminals and Terrorists” became my Northern IO strategy for the ensuing campaigns. Yes, it’s an odd name for a strategy but the logic, based on cultural and situational analysis is sound. In the complex north there is a generalized secularism that does not exist in the East and South. Even in Uzbek communities there is an aversion to the heinous terrorist acts nearly always attributable to IMU fighters. These fighters, although preferring to be called insurgents are commonly seen by locals as terrorists and therefore deprived of any honor or respect. While most people in the North see the Taliban as insurgents there is at least a reluctant view of them as at least somewhat behaving as soldiers rather than terrorists.
The core of the narrative and my strategy then focused on both proactively and responsively labeling all IMU fighters as “terrorists” in media and personal engagement while labeling both Tajik and Pashtun Taliban as “criminals”. This is the “divide and conqueror” I spoke of earlier. This allowed for some specific positive developments in the northern “battle-space”.
One, it contributed to increasing the natural rift between Tajik, Pashtun and Uzbek fighters. Since “terrorists” and especially IMU terrorists don’t or very rarely Reintegrate, it “cut them out of the herd” or segregated them further from the Tajik/ Pashtun fighters oft times brutally dominated by IMU commanders.
Secondly, Pashtun and Tajik fighters splintered further over domestic issues in the villages and valley where Tajiks were often more favored by government assistance than Pashtun villages. Tajik Taliban stealing the paltry government assistance to Pashtun villages and homes to Pashtun fighter’s families also exploited the natural divisions. When using media to highlight these acts, it triggered the natural dishonor dynamic of Pashtuns demanding that they restore their honor, taken so publically by their Tajik colleagues. Pashtuns in the north have a much checkered history but this is another story entirely.
Third, and as noted above, reintegration is a natural method of conflict resolution for Pashtuns operating within the bounds of Pashtunwali. Using a narrative and IO efforts to label all non-IMU fighters as “criminals” rather than “terrorists” opened the door to Reintegration by Pashtun fighters as well as some Tajik fighters. As here in the States, we see often see a rehabilitative opportunity with criminals but none with terrorists. So long as all fighters were labeled as terrorists, the Reintegration door was wedged firmly closed to non IMU fighters. In the north with most of the population sadly all too familiar with IMU terror against citizens they were all too ready to “buy in” to the IMU being permanently labeled as terrorists.
As to the use of the labeling systems as a narrative, native media with guidance was all too ready to support the campaign. The advantage lay in using what locals perceived as true, responsible and honorable. The IO effort mostly lay in “shaping” local media to run with the concept and providing them with the facts of increased Reintegration by “criminal” Pashtun fighters, exploitation by Tajik fighters and condemnation of IMU “terrorists”. Military successes against IMU “terrorists” were highly publicized and generated increased support to Afghan National Forces (who received most of the credit). With the local media onboard as our “credible messengers”, delivering and amplifying the “truth” albeit shaped by our focus 2001-13 provided ample validation of the value of culturally shaped and delivered Narrative.
The bottom line to this brief recounting of select strategies is two-fold. 1. Narrative becomes the baseline for all actions taken under its umbrella. When discussing narrative to the uninitiated, I often will use the analogy of sports. Many of my friends love sports and so it is easy for them to understand that regardless of how much they like, for example, baseball and football, it would be hard to get their attention about football if they were deeply involved in the World Series”. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s just that it’s not their current focus. Narrative when applied to IO really means that you’re ensuring that you are discussing what you want the TA to understand at a time and in a manner that the TA is invested in.
I willingly concede that there is so much more to Narrative Strategy than my last sentence. The purpose of this article though was to link cultural understanding to the application of an effective Narrative strategy in real world experience. As Dr. Maan, Dr. Christian and Alan Malcher, MA have already and will discuss further at this blog, the intricacies of Narrative are often the difference between success and failure. I’ve learned these few lessons by trial and error in a real world environment. My sole regret is that I didn’t encounter this blog and its associated team of experts much sooner.
Many thanks again to Dr. Maan for the opportunity to contribute to this discussion.
Paul Cobaugh is a recently retired US Army Warrant Officer. Paul spent the past decade working for the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in the CA (Civil Affairs) and IO (Information Operations) fields. His experience includes 7 deployments with most of the time spent in Iraq and Afghanistan.