13 November 2009

Virtual Counterinsurgency

What seems to give the West the most trouble in counterinsurgency (COIN) is not killing bad guys, but preventing new flocks of bad guys from continuously emerging. There is often talk of “draining the swamps” and “stemming the tide,” but violent extremism continues to spread – though in some circles more easily than others. The US and Western allies seem to understand – at some level – that the informational element of the battlespace reaches beyond traditional propaganda. They sincerely wish to “win hearts and minds” and engage in well-meaning efforts to do so, but global sentiments toward the West have not substantially improved.

In the most recent issue of the journal, Small Wars & Insurgencies, David Betz from the Department of War Studies, at King's College in London (and author of the Kings of War blog) offers some insights about why we struggle so much with the virtual dimension of contemporary insurgency and counterinsurgency. Betz’s prose is much more eloquent than mine, so I will begin with his four most fundamental reasons –italicized in his words - why we’re not doing better.

First, we do not take it seriously enough and therefore the tools we try to fight with are not fit for purpose.

Betz notes here that the U.S. is not organized to function optimally in an information-dominated operational environment. The United States Information Agency (USIA) is now a thing of the past and no new single point of coordination has taken its place. The result is that efforts become fragmented and not handled with the kind of precision and care that would be commensurate with a high-priority government activity.

Second, to the extent we do engage in the virtual dimension we concentrate too much on shifting Muslim opinion on an aspect of their religious faith that we as outsiders cannot effectively voice an opinion on. This is not to say we have not a stake in the outcome of that debate. We obviously do. But the surest way to make it go against us is to get involved in it.

Betz believes the ‘war for Muslim minds’ pertaining to the proper interpretation of Jihad is not a war for outsiders (including the U.S.) to fight, and that to throw our hat in the ring probably does more harm than good.

Third, we pay almost no attention to the audience to which we have access and understand: our own population, which includes Muslims in the West whose allegiance to global Jihad is what Islamists crave more than anything.

He suggests that what Western nations seek to communicate to Muslims should seek not only to reach them who reside over there, but also to look inward. Even our best attempts are unlikely to change the minds of the most hardcore militants, so our efforts are better focused on prevention than on reforming the extremist mindset.

Fourth, our efforts at narrative construction falter because they lack vertical coherence.

The basic problem – Betz explains – is that “what we say does not always align with what we do.” He believes that the West has missed the idea that narratives have different levels, and to be persuasive, the messaging must cohere across those levels. If they do cohere, the message is more likely to “feel” true. If not, the message is unlikely to resonate at all. Betz offers a modified analysis of Ann Swindler’s view of ideology in which the levels of a narrative range from the most global – “idealized visions of the future of humanity” – to the most specific, such as individual and community norms about what people should and should not do and the consequences for those actions. The interstitial area between them is the space of the “strategic narrative” in which coherence and consistency matters more than rationality and logical precision of concepts. If we misunderstand the nature of the narrative, we lose the audience. As an example, he offers that ‘democratization’ actually lies at the global end of the continuum, but is often erroneously treated as a strategic-level message.

A thoughtful analysis.

ResearchBlogging.orgBetz, D. (2008). The virtual dimension of contemporary insurgency and counterinsurgency Small Wars & Insurgencies, 19 (4), 510-540 DOI: 10.1080/09592310802462273