Psychological Operations and the Afghanistan Withdrawal

Why we need to be bringing to light -- and ridicule -- our enemy’s private fears.

It has been a bad month in Afghanistan.  First there was the inadvertent burning of the Koran by U.S. troops.  Although the Korans had initially been desecrated by Taliban prisoners—an act forbidden in Islam—this fact was lost on the Afghans.  In their self-righteous vengeance, Afghans killed numerous Americans, most notably two U.S. Army officers that were shot in the back of the head inside the Afghan Interior Ministry.  These murders prompted NATO—which had shamelessly agreed to prosecute the Americans involved in the Koran burning—to withdraw its personnel from all Afghan ministries.  Even hawkish conservative stalwarts were beginning to say “the hell with the place.”

Then Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales purportedly massacred 17 Afghan civilians, a cold-blooded act that threatens to change the entire dynamics of the war.  Subsequently, about 200 U.S. Marines were told to leave their weapons outside the tent during a visit from Defense Secretary Panetta.  This was a symbolic moment that spoke volumes about the disarray of our strategy.  Trust is indispensable in war, and it is being undermined in every corner.  The timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan—slated for either 2013 or 2014, depending on who is asked—may now be expedited due to these developments.

Yet all is not lost in Afghanistan.  While the United States might not “win” the decade-long war, it is almost impossible to lose.  In a sense, there is nothing to win: Afghan culture is an embarrassment to the human condition.  Even the “good guys” will kill people over a book and then sell their daughters to a septuagenarian.  But there is nothing to lose, either.  Lest we forget, the U.S. routed al-Qaeda and the Taliban more than ten years ago, by December 2001, with the use of just 5,200 troops.  The ensuing failure of Afghan civil society is not a U.S. military defeat.

In World War II, General Douglas MacArthur famously said, “We are not retreating—we are advancing in another direction.”  As we begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, U.S. leaders should speak in a comparable manner.  What we need is a public psychological operations strategy—or what the military now calls “Military Information Support Operations,” or MISO—coupled with tangible displays of military superiority.

Win or lose, Afghanistan was always going to be at the whims of Pakistan.  Thus, the U.S. has a Pakistan problem, not a Taliban problem.  It’s Hamid Karzai with the Taliban problem.  The Taliban are bad actors, no doubt, but they’re essentially a hobnob militia.  The head of the snake is Pakistan, which covertly supports al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and every major terrorist group in South Asia.  We must be clear: our eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan does not portend an American flight from South Asian politics.  In fact, if we are wise, it might strengthen our leverage.

We must intensify our drone campaign throughout the “Af-Pak” theater—and talk about it openly, too.  Predator drones work.  They have killed thousands of top-tier terrorists and have not hurt our popularity throughout the region (we are already unpopular).  The drones have, however, undermined among the indigenous population the popularity of the Taliban.  If someone in your village were liable to get bombed at any moment, at some point you would want to kick him out your village.

Our air campaign has struck fear into the hearts of the enemy.  Terror chieftain Ustadh Ahmad Farooq was quoted as saying: “There were many areas where we once had freedom, but now they have been lost.  We are the ones that are losing people; we are the ones facing shortages of resources.  Our land is shrinking and drones are flying in the sky.”  American leaders should be citing quotes like this publicly.  Bringing to light the enemy’s private fears is effective psychological warfare.

Although there are some slippery-slope arguments against the use of Predator drones, we should not doubt their efficacy.  The conventional wisdom once suggested that the more we bombed, the more we would “inflame” hatred against us.  But just the opposite is true.  The more air supremacy we display over our al-Qaeda and Taliban adversaries, the more they doubt themselves and their actions.  The truth is this: when our Islamist enemies have been irrefutably whipped on the battlefield, they are not enraged, but rather humbled, and are more prone to second-guess the divine sanction of their cause.  Allah doesn’t like losers, you see.  This was Osama bin Laden’s old “strong horse” logic: a neutral man will not gravitate to a weak horse.

The Taliban’s boasts that they can fight forever must be countered with visible exhibitions of U.S. dominance.  Good-natured humor would help, too.  President Reagan used humor with devastating effect against the Soviets.  Today, American politicians will go to great lengths to embarrass and humiliate their political opponents, but refrain from mocking our undying enemies.  This is unfortunate, as our enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan are largely incompetent and worthy of ridicule.

This worked in Iraq.  The U.S. military released a video of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi unable to work his weapon, shattering his image as a military mastermind.  The terrorists’ cause would be greatly damaged should our national leaders use similar tactics on a more consistent basis.  It would be nice to hear a U.S. official or general officer speak of the Taliban’s widespread pedophilic treatment of young Afghan boys, or make the Seinfeldian observation that al-Qaeda spends too much time working out on the monkey bars.  This, above all, will drive the enemy nuts: they do not want to be laughed at.

Advocates of the current strategy argue that our abandonment of the nation-building project will result in al-Qaeda and the Taliban reestablishing their bases throughout Afghanistan (from which they would plot more attacks).  There are three counterpoints to this argument.  First, the 9/11 attacks were planned in apartments in Hamburg, Germany, not in Afghan training camps.  Second, the enemy has long goaded us into making this a war of attrition— M16s vs. AK-47s—and we have unfortunately obliged.  But we do not have to fight the war on their terms.  There are smarter, more cost-effective ways to fight our nation’s enemies than “teaching toothless villagers how to brush their teeth,” in the words of Col. Ralph Peters.

Third, the U.S. has aerial technologies today that did not exist in 2001 when the war began.  Should the terrorists be dumb enough to coalescence into specified, observable camps, we would simply be able to target them that much quicker.  We should openly encourage them—dare them, even—to reestablish those training camps.  Hell, maybe they’ll even hold parades like Hezbollah.  They’d last ten minutes.  It’s unsettling that more senior officials do not share this confidence.  Such a “worst-case” scenario would be indistinguishable from Yemen or Somalia, for which we successfully use a fly-swatter strategy (Predator drones, Special Forces, and aid to indigenous allies).  Let’s stop pretending like Afghanistan is the Gates of Vienna.  It’s not.  It’s Mars.  Our strategic focus should be on Iran and Pakistan.

We should show more assurance and less worry regarding the outcome in Afghanistan.  The entire theater should be inundated with fliers from the sky, translated into Pashto, Arabic, and Farsi.  They should contain a photograph of the Wright brothers, and they should read: “This was human aviation in 1901.  More than a century has passed and you still cannot get off the ground.  We will be overhead forever.”  As we “retreat” in the coming years, the point must be made that we are, in fact, advancing in another direction—that we can continue the fight, at low cost, on our terms, indefinitely.

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