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Buchanan: Psyops in US Military Force Projection

Civil Affairs, Foreign Area Expertise and Psychological Operations in US Military Force Projection.

By Paul G. Buchanan

The central tenet for war planners in countries with the ability to project force abroad is summarised in four words: stage, thrust, seize, and hold. The US proved remarkable in accomplishing the first three phases of the invasion of Iraq. What it failed to do was adequately plan for the “hold” stage of the operation. This was as much a problem of poor military doctrine as it was of bureaucratic intransigence against ill-conceived policy formulation by political appointees with over ambitious ideological agendas.

The tactical aspect of the “hold” phase has several facets. These microcosmically replicate the larger strategic stages mentioned above. In order to hold hostile territory there must be a preparation phase to locate and neutralise the dispersed enemy after it has been conventionally defeated (the latter defined as large unit engagements across discernable fronts). That requires logistical lifelines on the full range of the combat function and more importantly, local intelligence. The latter requirement brings into play an oft-unappreciated aspect of military operations in wartime (but which has much utility in peacetime and in low intensity conflict environments): civil affairs and psychological operations. These are important features of the enterprise because having the military capacity to defeat an enemy is a function of technology and combat proficiency, but having the ability to “pacify” an occupied country, much less nation-build from the ashes of a deposed foreign regime, requires that local sentiment shift in favour of those doing the pacification and nation-building. That is no mean feat.

In the US commissioned officers primarily involved in civil affairs are known as civil affairs officers (CAOs), whether or not they are involved in psychological operations (PSYOPS). CAOs and PSYOPS personnel operate on both domestic and foreign fronts, and their missions vary in range and intensity in times of peace and war. They are often reservists activated on a necessity basis, and generally operate as part of the civil-military component of Army special forces operations (ARSOF). Peacetime operations at home and abroad emphasise the humanitarian assistance, logistical capacity, strategic acumen, professional organization and training of armed personnel. Natural disasters and national holidays offer opportunities to promote the image of the military as beneficent guardian of national security.

In countries with a war-ridden past, early influence of CAO/PSYOPS campaigns oriented towards re-writing the historical transcript of past conflicts can yield spontaneously self-reproducing national myths. Modern re-telling of the Boston Tea Party and the exploits of Paul Revere, coupled with Memorial Day commemorations of war dead known and unknown, re-calibrate as well as celebrate the sacrifices made in defense of US strategic interests. Those interests vary over time and may be both contextual and conjunctural in nature, but inevitably are cloaked in the mantle of defense of democracy and promotion of freedom and equality abroad (whether or not these have any relevance to the military conflict in question).

The combat function is paramount in the US military, but supporting the tip of the spear takes on added importance when the strategic objective is to pacify, politically re-align and militarily disengage from a foreign country. The tactical equation is one of replacing many combat troops with less numbers of civil affairs experts and psychological operators in order to pursue the “softer” side of the hold option. That is especially the case for US forces in Iraq, but also occurs in Afghanistan. It also applies more generally to all foreign armed forces involved in peacekeeping and nation building whether they do so under unilateral or multilateral aegis.

Even before the balance between combat and civil affairs operations shifts in accord with the political evolutions in occupied territory, non-combat functions are essential to strategic success. Pure military logistics—that is, supplying combat forces with moral and material resources to fight—involves a supply chain and a psychological dimension. Each has several parts, which occur from the strategic to the theatre and tactical levels To wit, the supply lines and psychological fortitude of two small units involved in armed engagement may be influenced by the strategic calculus of command at a given moment, but issues of troop morale and popular support determines the ability of national leaders to prevail in military conflicts over time.

The physical logistics of supplying an expeditionary force such as that of the US has been the subject of numerous analyses and will not be the focus here. Suffice it to say that the material logistics of the US military campaign in the “war on terror’ have seen success and failures on a number of fronts.

It is the other dimension, that which involves elements of will and morale outside of combat, which is of interest here. This is because it is now the paramount issue for US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has implications for all countries involved in the armed resolution of foreign disputes.

As the stage-managed political re-constitution of Iraq emerges amidst the debris of chaos and war, the US must sell controlled military withdrawal (defined as the staged, incremental and phased reduction of combat troops and their partial substitution with civil affairs specialists) to Iraqis and Americans alike. Electoral milestones in January and October have paved the way for universal parliamentary elections in Iraq in December 2005, which means that the US military is safeguarding the installation of a freely-elected (albeit within a host of procedural boundaries), independent Iraqi government. The trouble then lies in re-constituting a post-Baathist Iraqi political regime that can survive without US military support.

The issue is problematic because the compelling military rationale on which the invasion of Iraq was premised proved to be false (no WMD or al-Qaeda links), which made all the more important the recourse to an ideological justification for the invasion. Thus the default turn to promotion of democracy in the Arab world, using Iraq as the test case. Whether as a Plan B or a preferred alternative, its implementation required that there be specialists in post-invasion social reconstruction.

That is the terrain in which CAOs and PSYOPS specialise and operate (with regional, national and often local theatre expertise). Yet, as far as the public record of the Iraq occupation can tell, there was little if any consideration by the US political elite of the critical importance of the CAO/PSYOPS side of the military operation once Baghdad was seized.

It has now rapidly become the most important facet of the US military campaign in Iraq. At this point, another US non-combat military specialisation, the Foreign Affairs Officer (FAO), joins the acronym parade.

FAOs are Foreign Area Officers, trained to serve as military attaches and military intelligence collectors abroad. They receive area studies and language training in the regions to which they will be assigned, and over time become in-house specialists on the countries in which they serve. FAOs are the first-tier human eyes and ears of the US military presence abroad, using their cultural sensitivity and local knowledge to better understand the motivations and intent of foreign friends and foes alike.

Long considered of low priority, Middle Eastern Area Studies and Arabic language training are now growth industries in the military education system. Arab-Americans are being recruited not only as translators (which is mostly an enlisted personnel sub-speciality), but also as civil affairs and foreign area experts and psychological operators (who are in the majority commissioned officers, but which include non-commissioned officers--NCOs--as well). The intent is to gradually replace combat troops with these non-combat specialists in the measure that the Iraqi military and police assume the major burden of security operations. However, there are several problems with this plan.

With few exceptions, military intelligence and counter-intelligence in the US is doctrinally and organisationally separated and compartmentalised from civil affairs and psychological operations. CAOs, FAOs, and PSYOPS sometimes mix, but then mostly at the command rather than tactical level. Bureaucratic distance and turf disputes accentuate the differences between, rather than promote the (seemingly mythical) seamless overlap of the three non-combat functions. Given the organisational and experiential distance between the American political leadership, the military C4I structure (command, control, communications, computing and intelligence), and the tactical realities in Iraq, absence of an adequate soft-side “hold” approach means that the armed US presence remains focused primarily on suspected enemies, which includes all of the Sunni population and a variety of Shiia extremist groups. Social understanding and nuance in approaching local populations is oft nonexistent in spite of the distribution of cultural sensitivity pamphlets among troops on occupation duty.

That the situation is so is because the invasion and early stages of the Iraq occupation were orchestrated by air power advocates within the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Office of the Secretary of Defence, many of whom also operated on ideologically-driven assumptions about forced regime change that had little basis in the realities of Iraq or the Middle East in general. Their ideological mind set and faith in the so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA) meant that emphasis was placed on the shock and awe of the initial airborne assault and armoured-driven follow-up. The occupation model was based on post-war Germany and Japan in spite of the large differences in context, culture and circumstance in modern day Iraq—or Afghanistan for that matter.

Relatively little emphasis was given until recently to the much vaunted ‘hearts and minds” campaigns that are the essence of civil affairs and psychological operations, or to the local intelligence gathering potential of foreign area officers conversant in Iraqi (or at least Arab) affairs. Yet here is where tactical coordination of CAOs, FAOs and PSYOPS is critical to success of the US military campaign from staging to hold—or its simple extrication from the quagmire that “holding” Iraq has become.

The situation is similar in Afghanistan. The resurgent Taliban resistance finds shelter among the Pushtun tribes in southeastern provinces, while war lords and poppy growers dominate the north and west. US special forces troops have worked hard to cultivate local loyalties and intelligence networks, but the bulk of the US military campaign involves search and destroy missions that are more often than not provoked by ambushes rather than good local knowledge and real-time intelligence. When PSYOPs does occur it often assumes the guise of cultural provocation, as in the case of the incineration of two dead Taliban fighters by US troops in an effort to draw remaining Taliban out of a nearby village in order to engage them. The use of loudspeakers to broadcast offensive messages about the corpse burnings—including references to the Taliban as “girls” and “cowardly dogs”—coupled with the desecration of the bodies (since Islam forbids cremation), was designed to outrage the dead fighter’s comrades to the point that they would irrationally leave their entrenched positions and open themselves to return fire.

As it turns out, the US troops wanted to avoid storming the village so as to limit civilian casualties and have had success with such PSYOPS tactics before, so the potential breach of Geneva Convention protocols regarding the treatment of enemy dead was discounted in favour of the practical necessities at hand. Unfortunately for the US troops, having an embedded Australian TV reporter with them led to the global dissemination of the body-burning incident, which provoked a chorus of indignation and prompted a US military investigation. Apparently US troops believe that all embedded reporters from allied countries will report favourably on their actions and self-censor when necessary. That belies remarkable naivety about media agendas even amongst so-called “friendly” outlets—something that civil affairs and psychological operators should have taken into account before allowing reporters to accompany troops on search and destroy missions.

The main issue is that if the US military is going to have any success at extricating itself from the Afghan and Iraq campaigns, it will have to place more urgent emphasis on the softer side of the hold phase of operations in each place. Using CAOs, FAOs and PSYOPS in coordinated, if not integrated fashion in ways similar to the joint force doctrines operative in the deployment and utilisation of air, land and sea assets in combat, American forces may be able to better adapt and respond to the challenges of irregular warfare in culturally hostile and politically volatile places like these. Until it does so in a depth and scope heretofore unseen in the “war on terror,” the US military will find itself backed into a reactive defensive position that can only respond to, but which cannot influence the larger social environment in which guerrilla attacks occur. That leaves opponents in each country with the initiative because they have local hearts and minds mostly on their side or at least indifferent to the outcome.

At the moment, US forces on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq are slowly beginning the transition from hard to soft “hold” operations. But the transition is fraught with dangers and uncertainties, not the least because the soft side option remains under-resourced, under-staffed and under-appreciated by the political and military high commands. Only the special operations community—Army Special Forces in particular—are cognizant of the critical importance of CAOs, FAOs and PSYOPS in turning the local ideological tide in the US’s favour. But they are a minority within the US military command structure and are often ignored in favour of more conventional, combat-focused approaches—often with disastrous or counter-productive results.

Meanwhile, the will of the US home front to continue military campaigns with no discernable end and no significant shift in support by the locals supposedly being helped by the US military presence will inevitably erode. With US electoral cycles upcoming in 2006 and 2008, this spells trouble for the success of its military and political projects in both Afghanistan and Iraq, to say nothing of the prospects for it being able to launch further military campaigns against other “evil-doers” around the world. If ever there was a bottom line in the field of civil affairs and psychological operations, it is that the subject is very much a double-edged sword both at home and abroad. For all those who champion the virtues of using foreign armed forces in post-war peacekeeping and nation building in so-called failed or rogue states, it would be wise to be cognizant of that fact.


Paul G. Buchanan formerly advised, consulted or worked for several US security agencies under three presidents. He is now Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

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