Friday, January 15, 2016

Quotable: Eric Olson on “winning the war of ideas”

Wednesday, January 13th 2016
“[Hillary] Clinton’s belief in the importance of the long game is summed up neatly in her observation that ‘we are in a contest of ideas against an ideology of hate, and we have to win,’” wrote retired Army Major General Eric T. Olson in an essay, “Wars of Ideas: From the Taliban to the Islamic State” that appeared on the War on the Rocks website on January 6, 2016.  The body of the article draws on his experience as commander of the 25th Infantry Division in Afghanistan in 2003-2004.  Here are some of his comments:

  • . . . is it really possible to fight against an idea? If so, how? How do we tell if we are winning a war of ideas?

  • . . . the Taliban’s “big idea” . . . was aimed directly at the fledgling Afghan central government. In their narrative, the government’s halting steps to hit its stride were signs of hopeless incompetence, willful neglect, and rapacious corruption. The international coalition was essentially a foreign mercenary force invited into the country to ensure that those in power would stay there. The Taliban had been effective in preaching this story to the Afghan people, the net effect being that the government in Kabul was viewed by many in the population as being just as foreign — and threatening — as the occupying armies that were supporting it.

  • Fighting this idea would involve three major mutually reinforcing efforts: building the capacity of Afghan government institutions to provide for their people, supporting projects to improve the quality of life of the Afghan population, and ultimately convincing the majority of Afghans that their government and national institutions offered a preferable alternative vision of the future.

  • At the outset, it was clear to us that this approach to winning the war of ideas would involve a prolonged undertaking requiring the active participation of a wide array of U.S., coalition, and Afghan organizations.

Simplicity is a Lie

  • . . . it is dangerous to oversimplify. Throughout the war in Afghanistan, we have regularly made the mistake of assuming that armed resistance has been the result of some coherent, uniform set of precepts that can be defined as “Taliban ideology,” which is often conflated with Sharia or Islamic fundamentalism. But the causes of that insurgency are far more complex.

  • It is far more accurate to describe what drives the Taliban insurgency in terms of what they are against (in their view, a corrupt, overreaching, foreign governing authority in areas that have been traditionally ruled by local authorities) than what they are actually for. Similarly, it is a mistake to believe we have done all of the thinking that needs to be done about the Islamic State’s “idea” and conclude that it can be summed up as some notion of a “caliphate.”

  • . . . there was a recent poll done on a small group of current and former ISIL fighters to determine why they had joined the group. About half of the responses collected could be tied to the idea of a caliphate (e.g., “jihad” or “Muslim belonging”). But the other half reported unrelated reasons (e.g., money, desire to protect Sunnis who are being attacked in Syria and Iraq).

The Human Terrain is Decisive

  • In the classic conception of war, battles are often fought over terrain that will lend advantage to one side over its enemy. In the war of ideas, the perception of populations is the critical terrain. In Afghanistan our war of ideas hinged on understanding the “human terrain.”

  • Some of our most successful kinetic operations in Afghanistan were based on gains that came because of the support of the local, non-combatant population (e.g., intelligence acquired, material or fighting support lent, other cooperation secured).

  • Analyzing the terrain of perception to support a successful fight against ISIL’s idea is probably a more complex proposition. But it must start with a clear understanding of target populations and how their perceptions are being formed.

  • Currently, ISIL appears to be shaping its messages to focus on the perceptions of three major groups — to encourage potential recruits and add to the stream of incoming foreign fighters; to inspire hardcore jihadis to either continue the fight in Syria and Iraq or to take action abroad; and to appeal to “fence-sitters” in ISIL-occupied territories whose cooperation (or at least tolerance) is required for the group to maintain control in occupied areas.

  • A successful war of ideas waged against ISIL will most likely mean accepting battle in all three of these “areas of operation” and developing tailored countervailing messages for each that are backed up by convincing actions.

Bind Moral and Geographical Factors Together

  • In warfare it is important to understand the relationship between what might be described in Clausewitzian terms as “moral” versus “geographical” factors. Winning the war of ideas is inextricably tied to establishing the superiority of “the spirit and other moral qualities of an army” over those of the enemy.

  • There is certainly a connection between seizing and holding physical terrain (“commanding positions, mountains, rivers, woods and roads” to which Clausewitz might now add “cities”) and prevailing in the moral domain.

  • . . . it is a mistake to assume that the destruction of ISIL’s idea will inevitably follow as its currently occupied territories are taken back. A counter-ISIL strategy that is based on the assumption that a lasting victory can be won by recapturing cities that they currently hold ignores the broad appeal of the idea of ISIL to a wide array of fighters: those die-hard jihadis who are actually seeking an apocalyptic last battle; the citizens of a city like Mosul who are loyal to the Islamic State’s forces who are there because they prefer ISIL rule to the alternative that they believe the Iraqi central government offers; Sunnis who have joined the group exactly because they see such attacks on ISIL and its territories as part of a larger campaign against their particular way of practicing Islam.

  • The central idea of the Taliban held strong appeal to many Afghans who had grown weary of the malfeasance, fecklessness, and occasional brutality of the government in Kabul despite the fact that for many years the Taliban failed to exercise physical control over any major city or district in that country.

Fighting the War of Ideas in 2016

  • In the coming year, it is very likely that there will be more good news coming out of Iraq and Syria about victories on the ground against the Islamic State.

  • But it is also more likely than not that if these gains are achieved without due regard to how to fight the idea of the Islamic State, they will be far more hard-won, more time-consuming, and costlier than they need to be. And it is virtually certain that until the idea of the Islamic State is defeated, the group’s hold in the region and globally is unlikely to be loosened in any meaningful or lasting way.

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