Writing this in frustration over TIMES response to why they published the photo of US troops posing with body parts of dead suicide bombers in Afghanistan. Response is below:
“We considered this very carefully,” Maharaj said. “At the end of the day, our job is to publish information that our readers need to make informed decisions. We have a particular duty to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan. On balance, in this case, we felt that the public interest here was served by publishing a limited, but representative sample of these photos, along with a story explaining the circumstances under which they were taken.”
The TIMES is open to report things and they should. The point is not that they are doing their job it is that the United States and US Military specifically choose not to compete in the realm of information warfare which is critically important to the dynamic of global politics and any armed conflict, especially “low-intensity” conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US Military say the same thing about the importance of information and says (out of lack of understanding and/or lack of resources) that is competes in this realm of conflict with Public Affairs organization and integrity of its forces in the field. In my mind this is only defensive in nature and reactive to events rather than offensive (this is needed to be successful in any struggle). Defense wins championships but if you don’t have any resemblance of an offense you are never even going to make it to the playoffs!
Organizations which understand this have whole groups dedicated to offensive information operations. The Taliban has groups which do not have guns, bombs, any type of weapons that could cause bodily harm, their primary duty is to get out with the public and push a message and protest in front of media organizations. There is a reason most photos of protests (whether in Afghanistan or DC) only have a few people in them with signs. One is so readers can obviously read signs but a bigger reason is because there are not that many people there. When you saw protests in Egypt during the revolution there you saw pictures of huge crowds, thousands of people, when there are only 30 people or only a couple hundred (a small number when you are talking about millions) you take pictures up close. In fact, looking at enough pictures from the Middle East and protests there, you will see the same faces over and over again! Why? Because they are organized groups doing it, usually not the general public, but “professional” protesters.
Protesting is not all these organizations do. For example, the accidental Koran Burnings a few months ago in Afghanistan wasn’t just a simple mistake; it was an offensive information operation. Korans don’t just accidently end up in a bag that will be burned, the amount of effort put into not messing up cultural relations is critical to the US mission there. Also what are the chances that a group of workers walk by and see it? A small bag of Korans, not a Nazi book burning, but a small amount (no more than a dozen) is spotted from far away by afghan workers that they run over to stop it? Could you tell that a bible was being burned 20 meters away? No…You have people plant Korans, you have guys that are told to run over and stop it and you have media forces ready to see it and you have a prepared statement ready for release about it because you know it is going to happen. That is offensive information operations not releasing a statement that you are sorry it happened and that it won’t happen again, that is damage control and defense.
It is like any political campaign in the US, why do presidential candidates trying to get millions of votes in a campaign that has maybe 90 days to run spend a whole morning at a town hall meeting with 200 people (again a tiny number when you think of millions and the total amount of events you could have)? It is free publicity which will reach millions on local news stations which will cover the visit. Information warfare is the exact same thing and you could say that that is really what political candidates are running. You protest with thirty people in a small village in Afghanistan in front of fifty reporters and you have just sent your message to billions around the world for free.
If the United States wanted to compete in this realm of conflict they would have an entire covert organization of “troops” dressed in civilian clothes that would be on call to protest and press a certain message. Why does it have to be covert? If people know it is an organized effort they don’t want to hear it or it won’t have the effect it would if a person thought it was a group of concerned citizens. Why are the Taliban groups successful? Because the audience it is entertaining (US population) does not know it. If you don’t think it is for the US Population you have to be crazy, with 95% of the Afghan population illiterate why do you think they have signs written in English and furthermore whoever is writing the signs is a very skilled and educated person in that part of the world.
In warfare (when it comes to information and psychological operations) the relevant population is the representation of the mountain on a battlefield, it is what matters. Knowing what populations/groups matter is half the fight. Similar to political campaigns in the US focusing on ethnic groups, religious groups, or professions (blacks, Catholics, women, iron workers) is the same as an information battlefield. On a macro level it might be the US population, Afghan population, Arab population. Every time a message is sent in the US media it is a lot of times an offensive operation of Taliban or “terrorist” information warfare divisions. The information campaign for the Afghan people won’t be seen in the US but it happens every day on the streets of Kabul and Kandahar.
The media is correct that their primary mission is to tell the news and let readers decide what to do, but the United States government and military choosing not to attempt to influence this message is a strategy of failure. There are obviously morality and legal issues with the government covertly attempting to influence the US population to support a US mission but if you want to actually win you need to. This is not to say false statements and pure propaganda is a good thing. It absolutely isn’t, but influencing the media does not mean this. It is about pushing stories; it is about inviting the media on key operations, and giving the media a story (protests, events).
Bottom line: shame on the US government for not engaging in information warfare against our competitors around the world and our enemies we are currently fighting and shame on the US media for not understanding their role in the fight for US national interests. Until we understand that we are fighting in this realm of conflict we will continue to lose standing in the world and will not be successful in information operations during armed conflicts we fight in. It is important to remember, in the words of Carl von Clausewitz,” warfare is a continuation of politics by other means”, focus on the continuation, not a halt of politics.