The coalition's campaign in Iraq has become as much a psychological as a military war.
Psychological warfare applies a series of messages and actions to persuade an audience to adopt particular policies. Not only formal allies, but also terrorists and insurgents incorporate a psychological component into their actions. Unable to defeat their foes in open battle, smaller, weaker entities often resort to terrorism or guerrilla actions to weaken enemy morale. By choosing their targets to maximize psychological impact, terrorists and insurgents seek to magnify their actions.
After coalition forces swept through Iraq, a number of Saddam Hussein loyalists, Al-Qaeda enthusiasts, pro-Iranian Shi'ites, and a collection of tribal and local gang leaders launched a savage guerrilla war against both the U.S. military and their Iraqi partners. These insurgents' diverse agendas coalesce around a desire to rid Iraq of the U.S. presence. To this end, they have adopted a number of psychological tactics from sending threats to Iraqis working with American contractors, to razing infrastructure projects, to beheading hostages, all aimed at inhibiting any cooperation with the Americans.
Such actions have had greater effect upon the Iraqi population than the American-directed billboards, television advertisements, and photo-ops. That said, the multinational Forces do have a number of effective psychological warfare tools at their disposal. Using these psychological operations to undermine the insurgency is important not only for Iraq but also for the greater battle against Islamist terror.
The Insurgents' Psychological War
The Iraqi insurgents, like many guerrilla groups, look to the Vietnam war for inspiration. The Viet Cong showed the world how small, committed groups could overcome and defeat a superpower. Subsequent guerrilla and terrorist groups have adopted these tactics to erode U.S. staying power.
The "wall of iron" strategy seeks to demonstrate the impotency of repression. In Iraq, as in much of the Muslim world and among the Tamils of Sri Lanka, this message is often delivered by suicide bombers. The "spiral of blood" tactic adopts the logic that revolutions thrive as conditions deteriorate. In Iraq, insurgents hope that rising Iraqi casualties and persistent attacks on vital infrastructure such as roads and electricity will alienate the local population and increase opposition to occupation. The "weak versus strong" tactic portrays the occupying power as a formidable force locked in uneven battle against a paltry band of insurgents and a vulnerable population. The goal of this strategy, used effectively by Iranian prime minister Muhammad Musaddiq during his struggle with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and British government and later by Palestinian polemicists like Hanan Ashrawi, seeks to isolate the enemy in the international arena and in a democracy's domestic public opinion. The "moral illegitimacy" tactic seeks to transform an adversary's self-image from that of a hero intent on rescuing an oppressed society to that of a villain bent on repression. When insurgents dress hostages in orange jump suits in an allusion to Abu Ghraib and alleged Guantánamo Bay prison abuse, they suggest moral equivalency between their actions and the coalition's. The "asset to liability" tactic seeks to convince the occupying force that any assets it acquires are more trouble than they are worth. Revelations that U.S.-trained, uniformed security service personnel are complicit in terrorist attacks play into this strategy, as have statements by political figures like former governing council member Adnan Pachachi, who maintained close ties to the pro-insurgent Association of Muslim Scholars. While many in the U.S. State Department pinned their hopes on him, at sensitive times of conflict, he aided the insurgency with his condemnation of the United States in high-profile interviews. Finally, the "swamp" tactic goads the occupying force into believing that the situation will only worsen with the length of occupation.
Should any of these psychological tactics push the occupying power to the tipping point, guerrillas will next seek to project themselves as the legitimate popular government, perhaps even establishing a shadow regime. Done too early, this can backfire. When Muqtada al-Sadr declared himself president of Iraq and appointed his own cabinet in October 2003, he undercut himself by making his powerlessness apparent. While psychological warfare tactics may be effective, their success is not predetermined. Defensive strategies and countermeasures exist although the multinational forces in Iraq have been less than effective in their application.
Throughout history, conquering armies have sought to elicit the occupied population's support. The U.S. Army's manual on psychological warfare endorses the goal of winning the hearts and minds of the local population, something the U.S. military failed to do during the Vietnam war. The Psychological Operations manual, though, limits its discussion to winning battlefield victory. It underplays if not ignores the role of psychological operations in consolidating control after victory and in the new postwar regime.
Another manual, Civil Affairs, discusses the question of how best to administer occupied areas although its main thrust is how to replace military with civil institutions as quickly as possible in order to restore normalcy in administered territory.  Army psychological operation field manuals outline the strategic, operational, tactical, and consolidation phases necessary for success. The consolidation chapters suggest that psychological operations should seek to persuade the civilian population to support U.S. military presence by showing a convergence of interests with those of the United States. This may work, but not in cases such as Iraq where some observers, both in the West and in the Middle East, regard the war as a cultural conflict along the lines of Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations theory.
While fine in theory, the courses of action recommended by these manuals are often naïve, especially as the authors avoid tactics that may impinge upon Western democratic cultural values. Liberal democracies shy away from propaganda. Many officials find it dishonest, although it need not be. Others distrust any government involvement in media. The Pentagon's ill-fated Office of Strategic Influence established in the wake of 9-11 reflected this problem. After detractors leaked the existence of the office and mischaracterized its function, the Pentagon leadership shuttered its operations. Likewise, government attempts to sponsor websites supportive of U.S. policy have fizzled in response to domestic criticism.
In Iraq, the coalition forces' first priority for psychological operations was to take control of the country's communication systems in order both to transmit information to the Iraqi people and to counter dangerous street rumors. The U.S. Air Force operated Commando Solo, an airborne facility that broadcast messages to the Iraqi public. Subsequently, coalition authorities established Al-Iraqiya television. In many ways, though, such operations were too little too late, as Iranian authorities had managed to establish their own Arabic language television several weeks before the Americans.
But, countering rumors is not enough to ensure success; rather, the multinational forces should spread their own. This was done with some success by U.S. intelligence in the run-up to the war through "black propaganda" stations like Radio Tikrit, a covert operation pretending to be operated by Saddam supporters. In the absence of a fully interest-free civilian media infrastructure, the army's psychological warfare units should utilize military and CIA media networks, mobile printing outfits, loudspeakers, and broadcasting units. Psychological operations units should utilize allied elites to test messages, something the Iraqi Media Network failed to do in the initial stages of the Iraq occupation. In one prominent example, the U.S.-managed station used the eight-pointed star motif seen often in Iraqi architecture; State Department officials did not realize that most Iraqis associated it with the Baath Party. While wartime test groups often undermine their effectiveness by seeking to gratify their examiners, they could, nonetheless, prevent blatant mistakes and miscues.
Cultural understanding is the key to successful psychological operations. While anthropologists have studied the different ethnical contexts in which different cultures operate, security specialists still tend to try a one-size-fits-all approach. During World War II, the shared cultural background allowed U.S. and European allies to wage more effective psychological operations against Germany than against Japan. In the Iraqi context, General David Petraeus' efforts to replicate Balkan-style reconciliation in Mosul backfired since Baathists interpreted his initiatives not as magnanimous but as weakness. They used the space he provided to regroup and reorganize.
To roll back the Iraqi insurgency (and Islamist challenges elsewhere), U.S. forces could apply a number of defensive measures. The "friendly approach" tactic requires maintaining an affable attitude toward the Iraqi people. The U.S. Marines did this successfully in the initial stages of the occupation, often playing soccer with neighborhood children and then losing in order to ingratiate themselves to parents. Language can be a barrier, though. Many units began to engage in civil affairs functions without adequate language ability or competent translators. Short of having a corps of bilingual soldiers, the U.S. Defense Department should take better care concerning the differences between Arabic dialects, provide soldiers with English-Arabic conversation manuals, and better train its ground forces on Iraqi and Islamic culture. Some modest steps were taken during Operation Desert Storm when the U.S. army distributed pamphlets to servicemen on local Saudi culture. A more recent example are mock Iraqi villages at U.S. military training facilities manned with Arabic-speaking Americans. As important, though, would be English conversation manuals geared to Iraqis, which would also highlight aspects of American culture. Confidence-building measures, both practical and symbolic, like positive gestures towards the Iraqis' cultural-religious heritage are also important in this context. The more positive the personal relationship between Americans and Iraqis, the less likely would individual Iraqis be to oppose the U.S. presence.
Other strategies would also immunize Iraqis against insurgent propaganda. A "point of gravity" approach demands that multinational forces impress upon the Iraqis that the coalition retains full control and that insurgents are no more than a minor irritant. The flip side of this strategy would be to convey withdrawal as leading to chaos. The point-of-gravity approach does not mandate the abandonment of democratization as a goal but would require it to progress incrementally. While such an approach may contradict the "friendly approach," the Middle East's history of paternalistic government means that sympathy and discipline are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
There are other mechanisms to make Iraqis less susceptible to insurgency. The "co-option" tactic implies incorporating both allies and adversaries into the country's administrative system. Jordan's King Hussein, for example, co-opted West Bank clergy by paying their salaries for more than two decades after Jordan lost day-to-day control over the territory. Only in 1988 did the Palestine Liberation Organization take over the local religious establishment, appointing its own people to various holy offices, in the process undercutting Jordanian influence and the moderation it brought. King Abdullah II spoke of the need to co-opt Jordan's own radical clergy in a recent interview. While the U.S. authorities sought to include Iraqis politically after liberation, there was resistance to a large Iraqi role. Both the State Department and CIA resisted early efforts to train an Iraqi security force and Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator L. Paul Bremer flaunted his veto power over Iraqi figures. Petraeus's inclusion of high-level Baathists, meanwhile, undercut the image of liberation.
The U.S. government has had slightly more success with the "Voice of America" strategy, an old Cold War tactic that exploits people's insatiable desire for information. The coalition has not been alone, however. Through the Arabic-language satellite station Al-Jazeera, Islamists have used this strategy effectively against U.S. forces, largely because interagency infighting delayed the commencement of Al-Iraqiya broadcasts. In the current context, U.S. forces should expose the insurgents' manipulative educational and propaganda practices. Rather than classify captured Iraqi documents highlighting the former Baathist government's bribes to Al-Jazeera journalists, for example, U.S. officials should publish them. While the coalition has been slow to do this, Iraqi politicians have seized upon this strategy, most recently, by publishing excerpts from the Iraqi intelligence service files showing interim defense minister Hazin ash-Shalaan to have been in the pay of the former regime. The key to the "Voice of America" strategy's success is truth, even if it is to the coalition's short-term disadvantage. A reputation for truth undercuts the insurgents' more bombastic messages. To some extent, the U.S.-funded Radio Sawa, which seeks to appeal to Arab youth with a combination of pop music and news, and Al-Hurra satellite channel are making inroads though Radio Sawa seems to be more effective in its indirect approach. Print media can also be effective if disseminated in the right way. During World War I, Britain's propaganda machine produced thousands of publications for which it charged money, assuming correctly that people would dismiss cost-free material.
The "spiral of welfare" can remedy insurgents' "spiral of blood" tactic by allocating resources to peaceful areas, rather than rewarding violence. Unfortunately, by diverting resources from the initially quiet multiethnic city of Kirkuk to placate the insurgent hotbed town of Hawija, Liane Sanders, the CPA's chief policy advisor for northern Iraq, may have exacerbated the situation in both locations. Likewise, empowering Fallujah insurgents to maintain peace in that city only exacerbated violence, increasing car bombs throughout the country by 600 percent. The impact of the "spiral of welfare" strategy can be amplified with pinpoint information operations. Publicizing improvements and delivery of humanitarian aide in a single village can have a far-reaching and long-term impact.
Another technique would be the so-called "naturalizing" strategy that broadcasts the efforts the occupying military is making to institute civilian rule. British authorities used this tactic successfully throughout the nineteenth century by establishing civil administrations throughout their empire. In Iraq, U.S. forces on police duty should wear police rather than military uniforms. While this might raise questions of international law, such questions can be addressed by designing police-like uniforms. This is not only an image issue, though, but also a larger question of atmosphere. Combat fatigues and boots are meaningless in an urban scene, and a change in design and color of helmets and clothes—though not necessarily weapons—might bring about a welcomed atmosphere. CPA administrator Bremer may have undercut the efficacy of the occupation when he proposed ruling Iraq as a modern-day McArthur. He undercut the image of civilian rule by constantly donning combat boots, a practice Iraqis both ridiculed and found offensive.
While the above strategies can ameliorate public perception of occupation, they remain insufficient to defeat the insurgency. Accordingly, it is imperative that U.S. forces go on the offensive with psychological operations.
Psychological Warfare on the Offense
As much of the anti-American propaganda disseminated before, during, and after the war in Iraq proves, radical Islam remains a key element in the Iraqi conflict. Videos of beheadings are replete with Islamic rhetoric, as are slogans broadcast from mosques in Fallujah and Najaf alike.
In order to achieve the U.S. aim of a moderate, pro-Western Iraq, U.S. authorities have been careful to avoid open conflict with traditional Islamic culture in which even the slightest criticism of Islam might provoke a passionate reaction. U.S. officials have carefully differentiated between "bad" and "good" Islam. For example, in a September 2003 visit to Baghdad, Secretary of State Colin Powell dined with traditionalist Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr, but no coalition personnel would meet with his nephew, radical Shi'ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. Likewise, in the days prior to the Iraqi election, U.S.-funded Al-Hurra television reported statements by Sheikh Muhammad Said Tantawi, the head of the influential Egyptian Al-Azhar University, urging Sunnis to vote, gently promoting sentiments that contradicted the Islamist and pro-insurgent Association of Muslim Scholars.
While U.S. officials have to respect Islam so as not to provoke a backlash that Islamist adversaries such as the Iranian or Saudi Arabian governments can exploit, an effective strategy to defeat Islamist insurgency in Iraq and elsewhere would require Washington to take several steps which may be at odds with its values. In such cases, U.S. intelligence or military personnel might more effectively operate through front organizations that enjoy plausible deniability. Working through these front organizations, the U.S. government might shatter the local population's faith in the clergy and ultimately discredit radical interpretations of Islam among segments of the Iraqi population.
These tactics fall into two broad categories. The first category seeks to undercut Islamist leaders' images, mostly by exposing their venial and corrupt nature while the second group aims to launch a profound cultural crisis, similar to that experienced in Europe during the Renaissance and industrial revolution.
A psychological campaign to discredit Islamist clergy might adopt any number of tactics. Five centuries ago, the priest Johann Tetzel (1465-1519) sold indulgences for absolution, using the proceeds to build St. Peter's basilica in Rome. In launching the Reformation, Martin Luther used Tetzel as an example of the Catholic church's corruption. Israeli officials used this "Tetzel" tactic to expose corruption within the Palestinian Authority, provoking widespread grassroots Palestinian agitation. Romanian authorities used similar tactics to deflate former regime loyalists when, following the 1989 toppling of Nicolae Ceausescu, they put the dictator's luxurious palace on display, thereby exposing his opulent and corrupt lifestyle so completely at odds with the socialist principal of moderation. While coalition forces did much the same when they broadcast videos of Saddam Hussein's palaces with gold plumbing fixtures among the highlights, they have not sought to expose the hypocrisy of some in the clerical hierarchy although the technique can be equally effective with religious officials as the target. It is the widespread belief in their religious leaders' corruption that has contributed to the disillusionment of so many Iranian youth in their leaders. The ruling Justice and Development Party came to power in Turkey based largely on its reputation as clean and honest amid a sea of corrupt political parties. But, the party's murky finances have led to a decline in the religious party's popularity. Reports of widespread corruption among the agents of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in the offices of lay Islamist politician Ibrahim Ja'afari, and among the family members of prominent cleric Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum provide ample opportunity to tarnish religious officials' halos and perhaps discredit some altogether.
Exposure of an opponent's corruption need not be limited to finances. Few leaders, and especially religious officials, can afford any slur on their private lives. The Americans exploited this tactic when revealing Saddam Hussein's sons' heinous sexual crimes. In Iraq's case, such tactics may prove more successful if used against the country's Islamist leaders. Such a strategy should be employed with subtlety, however. Newspaper articles questioning the sexuality of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spurred an indignant backlash that hurt the shah far more than it did the Islamist opposition.
The two tactics above might have corollary benefits for U.S. public affairs. When the Bush administration needs to deflect attention from various areas of operation, it might release timely media "bombs" in the shape of monetary or sexual scandals. A greater obstacle exists in the State Department and CIA's practice of classifying every Iraqi document, which tends to cover up scandals rather than expose them. The material gathered should be released in a controlled manner to serve specific psychological operation goals.
A third effective strategy exposes the insurgent or religious leaders' hypocrisy. Israeli intelligence used this to great effect when, in August 2002, they unearthed a recording made by the Palestinian security service of a telephone call between the wife of Hamas's Gaza spokesman, Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, and a Hamas activist, in which Rantisi's wife stated, in no uncertain terms, that she would never allow her son to become a shahid [martyr, in this context, suicide bomber]. Israeli officials circulated the tape throughout the West Bank and Gaza, much to the Hamas leadership's embarrassment. In the Iraqi context, such a tactic could be applied effectively in a city like Mosul where residents have noted that almost all insurgents appear to be under twenty years old. The question of why leaders are content to lead the battle from behind at very little risk to themselves or their families is a potent one that may serve to undermine their heroic status in society. Much should be made of the fact that it is working-class youth who are the insurgents' "cannon fodder."
A fourth tactic which exposes the insurgent leadership's human faults would be that used by the Turkish government against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan. Following his 1999 capture, Turkish authorities emasculated Öcalan, breaking down his cult status by broadcasting the terrorist leader begging for his life at his trial. Hoping to avoid a death sentence, Öcalan publicly recanted his terrorist past and appealed to his followers to lay down their arms. This degrading and unnerving exhibition demoralized many of his followers, while heartening his opponents.
A strategy focusing exclusively on the insurgent leadership's human flaws would likely fall short, however. In times of crisis, societies have a tendency to rally around their leaders, even if it is obvious that it was they who brought about the crisis in the first place. Toward the end of World War II, for example, German prisoners of war refused to pin responsibility for Germany's defeat on Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Likewise, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's standing in Palestinian society rose following the second intifada, despite the resulting heavy loss of life, devastating economic damage, and failure to achieve political goals. In such cases, it is necessary before attacking a leader's policies or belief systems to first destroy his reputation and standing in society, exposing all his human flaws and follies. At a later stage, this could include his actual demonization.
Three additional psychological operation strategies are more positive and seek to precipitate a cultural revolution in Iraq, which, while once among the most secular of Arab states, nevertheless, was severely isolated by thirty-five years of dictatorship and more than two decades of war and sanctions. The first strategy is inspired by Galileo (1564-1642), who on several occasions gained the upper hand over the church by juxtaposing scientific knowledge with church doctrine. As such, the U.S. embassy should use its influence to maintain secular control over Iraq's education system. The willingness on the part of some State Department officials to enable figures from the Islamist Da'wa party to take the Ministry of Education portfolio was wrong-headed although fortunately reversed. Honoring religion does not mean losing a sense of proportion, and championing accepted scientific fact or initiating a religious debate is certainly not a mark of disrespect. In practical terms, this tactic calls for raising the scientific standards in Iraqi universities. Modernization is not only an intellectual process, though; to succeed, it must incorporate elements of economic development and political education.
Two tactics integrate this mix. The "Coca-Cola" method builds upon the tactic utilized successfully by the ubiquitous Coca-Cola ads, celebrating youth, affluence, and good fortune, which appeal to a wide range of cultures. The "Coca-Cola" psychological tactic's goal is to acquaint the average Iraqi with the good life as afforded by Western civilization. This notion might be passed on indirectly by means of commercials and other visual tools to allow viewers to conclude for themselves the advantages of embracing Western values. In a country suffering from acute shortages, pictures of well-dressed families sitting down to dinner in a well-equipped kitchen can send a strong subliminal message. While many of the 9-11 hijackers came from middle class families, a large number of suicide bombers who have struck in Israel have come from underprivileged backgrounds. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Iraqi insurgents come from poorer, more dispossessed portions of the population. Hope can be an antidote.
Coalition officials might also employ the "Tartuffe" tactic. Taken from the title of one of Jean-Baptiste Molière's better-known comedies, the "Tartuffe" tactic uses humor, wit, and ridicule to make its point. The insurgents often mock the United States, its military ineptness, its gauche, hedonistic culture, and its beliefs and values. There is no reason why Washington cannot do the same. Accordingly, it should depict the insurgents and their agenda not only as vicious, frightening, and wicked but also as risible, ludicrous, and preposterous. In 1993, the Egyptian government launched a psychological operations campaign to combat its growing Islamist insurgency. A key part of the campaign was the film Al-Irhabi (The Terrorist), which satirized uneducated terrorist recruits and their Machiavellian masters. While Iraqis complained about the dullness of the U.S.-funded Al-Iraqiya television programming, Saad al-Bazzaz, a former Baathist journalist who lost favor with Saddam after the 1991 Kuwait war and founded an opposition paper in London, with far less funding, created Iraq's most successful channel, Ash-Sharqiya, by stressing satire. Likewise, National Iranian Television (NITV), a station run by Iranian exiles in California used the Tartuffe tactic to great effect. Airing programs that mocked various Shi'ite individuals, NITV won a large audience in Iran.
While sophisticated, state-of-the-art techniques have their place in psychological operations, old-fashioned methods can be just as effective. Pamphlets, cartoons, slogans, and graffiti are all powerful instruments, all the more so when they cannot be tied directly to the U.S. government.
Psychological warfare has many virtues. It can save lives by encouraging an orderly surrender. Its tactics are far cheaper than conventional warfare. Most importantly, by bolstering the army's morale while undermining that of the enemy, it can influence the outcome of the war. As insurgents rely on psychological operations to win their wars, effective countermeasures are imperative. Not only are there a number of defensive psychological operation countermeasures that can blunt the sting of the insurgency, but offensive steps can also undermine enemy morale.
Perhaps the great obstacle to a successful psychological campaign in the Middle East has been the West's reluctance to indulge in what many deride as propaganda. This reluctance, together with the tendency to equate psychological operations with psychological conditioning, dates back to the aftermath of World War II and the realization of the degree to which Joseph Goebbels' propaganda machine brainwashed German society. If used irresponsibly and recklessly, psychological operations can conflict with Western values such as freedom of thought. But it would be equally irresponsible to cast aside the benefits of psychological measures, especially in times of war. Around the world, insurgents have found the combination of low-intensity military action and political maneuvers coupled with sophisticated psychological techniques to be a winning formula. Regrettably, the West either underrates or wields halfheartedly such psychological techniques. Critics may complain that psychological warfare contradicts Western mores, but killing people, the norm in conventional warfare, is a far sharper deviation from Western values. Successful psychological operations, by persuading people to change their outlook, can at best cut wars short and at worst limit the war to one waged against a few hard-core fanatics. In both cases, it serves to prevent unnecessary loss of human life. Faced with insurgents intent on mayhem and Islamists bent on dictatorship and jihad, the West cannot afford to act like Mother Teresa. If Washington continues to pursue a timid, moral policy, it will suffer defeat at the hands of its Iraqi and Islamic opponents, initiating an even greater threat to the West and its values of freedom, individual liberty, and human rights.
Ron Schleifer lectures on information warfare and the Middle East at Bar Ilan University and at the Israeli Defense Force Tactical Command College.
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