Defeat of the insurgency and terrorism in Iraq requires not only a military approach but also a political component. Although the "surge" may stabilize parts of Iraq and reduce the level of violence while the additional troops remain in place, long-term stability requires a more holistic approach.
Frank Kitson, a retired British military officer whose writings influenced British operations in Northern Ireland, argues that the "main characteristic that distinguishes campaigns of insurgency from other forms of war is that they are primarily concerned with the struggle for men''s minds."<1> To defeat the insurgency, coalition forces must persuade the Iraqi population to reject extremism and deny safe haven to those fighting the new Iraqi political order. This will require dialogue, inducements, and the proportionate use of force to win the battle for "hearts and minds."
Effective engagement with key segments of the Iraqi population requires, in turn, a comprehensive information operations campaign. To date, it is this component that is most lacking in coalition strategy. The coalition has failed to counter enemy propaganda either by responding rapidly with effective counter messages or by proactively challenging the messages, methods, and ideology that the insurgents and extremists promote and exploit.
While terminology may vary—some officials refer to information operations as strategic communications, influence operations, psychological operations, perception management, or just propaganda—the intent to influence the hearts and minds of target audiences through the effective use of information remains constant.
In Iraq, while the coalition fumbles its information operations, the insurgents and militia groups are adept at releasing timely messages to undermine support for the Iraqi government and bolster their own perceived potency. They are quick to exploit coalition failures and excesses; they respond rapidly to defend their own actions, often by shifting blame to the authorities; and they hijack coalition successes to argue that change only occurs as a result of their violence. The slow speed of the U.S. military''s clearance process—typically it takes three to five days to approve even a simple information operations product such as a leaflet or billboard—creates an information vacuum that Iraqis fill with conspiracy theories and gossip often reflecting the exaggerations or outright lies of insurgents and extremists.
Insurgent capabilities are advanced. Violence is their most effective propaganda tool. This is not a new strategy. For example, Johann Most, a nineteenth-century German pamphleteer, described terrorism as "propaganda of the deed."<2> In Iraq, violence intimidates the uncommitted, undermines confidence in the authorities, demonstrates potency, and can provoke a disproportionate military response from both the Iraqi authorities and the coalition. For example, in response to a suicide attack or ambush, coalition forces too often respond with disproportionate force, which results in the death of innocent bystanders. The insurgents have also used violence, such as the 2006 bombing of the Askari mosque in Samarra in order to fan the flames of sectarian conflict. Both Sunni and Shi‘i groups use violence to silence critics, creating an information vacuum that they fill.
Recognizing that terrorists use violence to psychological affect, the insurgents in Iraq have adopted both an attritional and strategic approach to its application. Improvised explosive devices (IED), small ambushes, snipers, and mortar and rocket attacks inflict a steady stream of casualties that, while insignificant to coalition combat effectiveness, nevertheless, sap the confidence and morale of both Iraqi society and the coalition domestic publics. The insurgents have a strategy. They use rapid movement to keep the coalition off-balance and stage attacks to coincide with breaking events, prominent visits, or externalitical timetables. For example, attacks increased in the months of September and October in the U.S. election years 2004 and 2006 but fell from September to October 2005, an off-year in the U.S. election cycle.<3> More precisely, on June 13, 2007, Al-Qaeda in Iraq attacked the Samarra mosque a second time (the first was on February 22, 2006), to divert attention from reports of increased cooperation between Sunni tribes and the coalition. Less than two weeks later, on June 25, 2007, a terrorist bombed the lobby of the Mansour Hotel, killing a number of Sunni and Shi‘i tribal leaders discussing reconciliation.
When insurgents, terrorists, and militiamen do attack, they use multimedia to amplify their actions and convey sophisticated messages to multiple audiences. Their strategy is broad; they employ low technology strategies to permeate their themes down to the grassroots and exploit mosques both to convey their point to the faithful and to suggest religious legitimacy. Extremist graffiti provides a constant reminder of their presence. In Baghdad and Fallujah, for example, slogans scrawled on walls and houses extol the virtues of various groups and leaders and condemn the Iraqi government and/or coalition while, in Kirkuk, militiamen scrawl slogans extolling Shi‘i leader Muqtada al-Sadr on building walls in contested neighborhoods.
Messaging can be diverse. Insurgents and militiamen also utilize the arts, including paintings, poetry, and songwriting, and post flyers, distribute leaflets, author articles, and even publish their own newspapers and magazines.
The insurgents, terrorists, and militiamen are also proficient in high technology messaging. They use SMS text messaging and Iraq''s telephone system to intimidate Iraqis and even coalition members. They produce CDs and DVDs, which they distribute widely within communities that U.S. forces and the Iraqi government also seek to influence. To show their prowess, the insurgents often distribute sophisticated videos of an attack on coalition troops within hours of the operation. The Sunni insurgents even have their own television station, Al-Zawraa, which while banned by the Iraqi government, still broadcasts from Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan,<4> even as coalition pressure has forced it to switch satellite hosts several times.<5>
The insurgents, terrorists, and militiamen are adept at the art of manipulation. They need not rely only upon their own terrestrial and satellite stations but can also use foreign journalists and media outlets to ensure that their messages and actions are conveyed to the widest possible audience. By providing Western journalists with access to insurgent leaders and bomb makers,<6> they ensure their message reaches the U.S. and British heartland. They know that videos of atrocities and statements sent to Arabic satellite stations such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya will often be rebroadcast, at least in part, by Western televisions stations such as CNN or the BBC.
Perhaps the insurgents'' and militias'' most important tool, though, is the Internet. It provides not only a mass audience but also enables a quick response to Iraqi government and coalition arguments. Both the Islamic Front for Iraqi Resistance and Ansar al-Sunna, two of the largest and most deadly Sunni insurgent or terrorist groups, for example, maintain websites, which reappear in new forms almost as rapidly as the coalition or Iraqi government can shut them down. The videos these websites carry cascade across the Internet and appear quickly on mainstream websites such as LiveVideo.com and YouTube.com.
Here, U.S. authorities handicap themselves. U.S. military lawyers fear "blowback" to U.S. domestic audiences, which they interpret as a violation of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which prohibited domestic distribution of propaganda meant for foreign audiences.<7> As a result, U.S. commanders forbid coalition authorities to openly engage on the Internet. This decision has ceded this ke