Gringo Lost

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Archive for the ‘Strategic Communications’ Category

Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom

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Just so everyone knows, that headline doesn’t belong to me. It’s from the cover of [reportedly] al Qaeda’s new English-language magazine “Inspire,” which the group is using to recruit and propagandize Westerners. Bear in mind, this rag doesn’t have to reach a wide readership to be effective. Instead, it only has to find the mind of a lone self-starter such as Fort Hood attacker Nidal Hasan or attempted Time Square bomber Faizal Shahzad.

The magazine is available online for downloading but I didn’t want to post a link from my website for two reasons. 1) I’d rather not propagate this kind of message. And 2) speculation is the document has become a cyber-battleground between jihadists and cyber-attackers using the platform to infect terrorist networks with trojan viruses. But for those interested, supposedly the magazine includes an interview with Abu Basir (formerly Nasir al-Wuhayshi), a leader of AQ in the Arabian Peninsula. And a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri. Stimulating reading, I’m sure (sarcasm).


Written by gringolost

July 3, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Two posts on an overloaded national security strategy and China’s angering behavior

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In back-to-back posts, Professor Dan Drezner talks about strategy. In the first case, Drezner talks about President Obama’s National Security Strategy, which last month was released and meant to detail everything that the president thought was a national security risk and, consequently, the actions his administration could take to reduce those risks.

Drezner’s assessment of the document is that it is “mostly harmless,” if maybe a bit contradictory on nuclear policy with a stated aim at retrenchment (which requires a strong deterrent) and nuclear disarmament (which nuclear weapons provide the best/cheapest deterrent). Drezner also points out the deficiencies in President Obama’s plan to get America’s fiscal house in order, saying that it is short on actions that could improve American economic strength.

These criticisms aside, the National Security Strategy has some other major flaws. Principally, it includes too much. There are sections covering the economy, environment, “international science partnerships”, and promoting democracy abroad. These things are well and good, but their placement on a national security document waters down its purpose: to identify security threats and formulate plans to address those threats.

In his second post, Drezner writes about how China’s behavior over the past nine months – angering officials at international conferences and not placating to the interests of others – is stupidly endangering their own strategic interests. In a way, I agree with Professor Drezner in that strategic communications are important and China needs to do them better. But, in the end, does how you talk to another country matter if you hold the hard sources of power?

Drezner states:

China’s strategy here is of a piece with their behavior over the past nine months or so, which, intentionally or not, could be characterized as “Pissing Off as Many Countries As Possible.”


This is a long and distinguished list of countries to alienate [Drezner identified numerous].  It certainly signals a shift, intended or not, from the “peaceful rising” approach of the past decade or so.  It also appears to be bad strategy — simultaneously angering the countries that could form a balancing coalition is not an exercise in smart power.  And as I’ve said before, China has badly overestimated how it can translate its financial capabilities into foreign policy leverage.

Here I disagree. Only on the grounds that China’s actions simply exist in the realm of international opinion. What they are doing does not alter global hard power dynamics. The soft power aspect is important but not as much as Drezner implies.

China is making poor strategic communications. Arguably this is a bad move but large powers often say things that anger other countries. While maybe an idealist would want a friendlier dialog, a realist would know that it doesn’t matter so much.

America’s disappearing strategy

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Strategy is like magic. Both the magician and strategist use art and science to wow their audience by seemingly pulling off the implausible. It’s not the rabbit emerging from the hat that is magic, it’s the process making it happen that is magic. The same goes for strategy. So when President Obama makes “Disrupting, Dismantling, and Defeating Al-Qa’ida and its Violent Extremist Affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Around the World” a key component of this year’s National Security Strategy (NSS), he is missing the point. That is a goal, not a strategy.

Of course, it is intriguing that the U.S. would even feign interest in publishing its national security strategy for the entire world to see but that’s not the point. The point is no matter which document you read, whether the Quadrennial Defense Review, this year’s NSS, the NSPD (for G.W. Bush) or PPD (for Obama), there is hardly any coherent plan in any of these so-called “grand strategy” documents. All these documents get strategy wrong. They fail to recognize how strategy is more than just stating a goal; it is establishing preferences, prioritizing interests, and employing the available means in a coherent plan to achieve those interests.

Going back to the previous example, the NSS aims to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa’ida … through a comprehensive strategy that denies them safe haven, strengthens front-line partners, secures our homeland, pursues justice through durable legal approaches, and counters a bankrupt agenda of extremism and murder with an agenda of hope and opportunity.” These statements are hyperbole more than strategy. The U.S. should strengthen partners and secure the homeland anyway, regardless of any al Qa’ida threat.

A better strategy against al Qa’ida would recognize that the organization has morphed into an ideological program that can be adopted by self-starters who want to carry out homegrown terrorism. America’s strategy has to distinguish between what it wants to do and what it can do against these types of organizations. Fighting a global amorphous threat requires infinite reach and infinite resources. Without these, the U.S. must prioritize and seek defenses where it knows it can protect. Extending itself in distant theaters only exposes America to greater security risk.

In addition to violent extremism, there are two other areas where the NSS falls woefully short: Iran and North Korea. Admittedly, these challenges are hard. But if the U.S. wants Iran to “live up to its international responsibilities” it must recognize that Iran has different perceptions of these responsibilities. As well, the U.S. must recognize that Iran has sufficient leverage over American policy in the region that it can avoid certain amounts of coercion. The U.S. should make a sober assessment of itself to see exactly what it can coerce Iran to do. Trying to alter Iran’s behavior beyond America’s capability to do so is really just wasting time. The same goes for North Korea and the developing problems on that peninsula. The U.S. is severely handicapped in what it can make North Korea do. The U.S. must reassess its position in that region as well.

Lastly, the national security strategy should include only those things which are absolutely imperative. Needlessly adding peripheral interests complicates planning. Thus, while interests such as countering nuclear proliferation, combating terrorism, and securing cyberspace are all a must. It is less true that growing America’s space capabilities, opening foreign markets to trade, or cutting carbon emissions are essential to national security. To be sure, these are all valuable goals but they do nothing but add complexity to the already difficult task. Likening it to magic, the objective of strategy is to draw in the audience with one hand while the other performs the important functions which make the trick work. By overloading America’s national security strategy it can ruin the trick.

Al Qaeda’s strategic communications

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Apparently, the German elections sparked an al Qaeda propoganda campaign because last week numerous videos and messages came from the group in a concerted effort to sway German public opinion.  First there was Osama bin Laden’s message to Germany, warning the government there to pull out from Afghanistan before “the dust of war clears” and America abandons NATO’s mission. 

Reportedly bin Laden continued:

“You are aware that oppression topples those who commit it and injustice has unhealthy consequences for the unjust, and that one of the greatest forms of injustice is to kill people without right, yet this is exactly what your governments and soldiers are committing under the umbrella of the NATO alliance in Afghanistan.”

This message coincides with statements by fun-loving Taliban threatening to bomb Oktoberfest

Additionally, an al Qaeda cell in Germany appealed to the government to form an implicit mutual security agreement, which would require German troops to leave Afghanistan in return for safety from attacks at home.

Speaking for the group, Bekkay Harrach said:

“Allah commands us in Quran — al Anfal Surah, Verse 60 — to prepare what is possible of power against our enemy.  But, if the enemy is responsive and found a peaceful solution by which to protect human souls, then Allah commands us to be kind and forgiving.”

“If the Germans took the side of peace now, the mujahideen will also take peaceful means, and with the withdrawal of the last German soldier from Afghanistan, the mujahid in Germany will be pulled out.  This is a promise from al-Qaeda.”

These statements follow recent Zawahiri messages to Pakistan, eulogizing Baitullah Mehsud and calling Pakistan’s army a bunch of “non-Muslim”  “collaborators” plundering the country of its wealth.  Then calling President Obama a “fraud” to the Muslim world.

The NATO – U.S. strategic communications process has adopted the mantra “first with the truth” implying that no message would be filtered and the ongoing operations will now be depicted to the public as they are.  Here the basic rational is honesty is the best policy.  Now, it is said that terrorists and rebel groups rely on “propoganda of the deed,” but these messages seem more like a bad adaption to NATO-U.S. principles, in what could be called “first with the threat.”

Written by gringolost

September 28, 2009 at 5:30 pm

The Utility of Media in War Amongst the Afghans

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Let’s recall Rupert Smith’s paradigmatic shift from traditional/industrial war to “war amongst the people” to General Stanley McChrystal’s just released initial assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. In his brief, Gen. McChrystal does not shy away from the role media plays in the conflict against Afghanistan’s insurgencies.  (Likewise, Smith makes explicit his thoughts on planning for media before undertaking war, and then using the media to shape perceptions of the battlefield.)

Here is a brief summary of what McChrystal said about media:

Appendix D of the report covers the use of media and strategic communications (StratCom).  According to McChrystal, “[t]he information domain is a battlespace, and it is one in which ISAF must take aggressive actions to win the important battle of perception.”  This explicit media manipulation may dishearten some but is likely critical for any chance of success to occur within an operating environment like Afghanistan.  With that being said, the disadvantages ISAF has regarding message delivery are still exceptionally high.

As the report notes, “[t]he use of traditional communications to disseminate messages must be better exploited using both modern technology and more orthodox methods such as word of mouth. These messages should be delivered by authoritative figures within the AFG [Afghan] community, both rural and urban, so that they are credible. This will include religious leaders, maliks, and tribal elders.”  But this task may be more difficult then it seems, considering the lack of legitimacy afforded to the Afghan government and the strength of the insurgents message of defiance to foreign occupiers. Add to this, ISAF’s deficient ability to speak local languages and dialects.

McChrystal’s stated StratCom objectives include efforts to discredit and diminish insurgents’ capability to “influence attitudes and behaviour (sic)” of the Afghan population.  Additionally, McChrystal would like to advance security and stability by developing a “sense of ownership” between the Afghan government and its populace.  But before this occurs, McChrystal notes that the operational culture of ISAF must reflect “unity of command” and “unity of effort” from the international community.  These are all tasks which are easier said than done.

In this increasingly controversial war, presumably General McChrystal is cognizant of the limitations that strategic media has on world opinion.  While he states that “coherent and rapid messaging” are necessary to promote the “single ISAF ‘brand’ to multiple internal and external stakeholders,” he must also be weary of feigning opinion if operational difficulties are underplayed or misrepresented.

My opinion is that McChrystal’s use of StratCom suffers from increasingly diminishing returns if it is used to propogate a message that is losing traction amongst its intended audience.  Although to his credit, McChrystal’s assessment is bluntly honest in its request for resources and statements about needing to revise “operational, tactical and strategic guidance.”

Significant portions of this blog post were re-posted at Fletcher Reflections (albiet with a different title).