Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

Middle East

Odds are even in the 'information' war
By Ehsan Ahrari

In this information age, the American occupying forces in Iraq have come face to face with a terrible reality: insurgents of that country have become at least as savvy in conducting information warfare - which includes "perception management" through disinformation, propaganda, and even deception - as the US military in the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqis, Arabs and Muslims.

For the uninitiated, the US military prides itself in being quite sophisticated - in terms of developing both new technologies and new tactics - at information warfare. Now the Pentagon is considering a new strategy to enhance its effectiveness. The essence of that strategy is to combine public-affairs activities with those of information warfare. However, this situation is causing considerable angst in Washington, for the US military is not supposed to conduct information operations if information contained therein is also available to the American people. A basic rule of the game thus far has been that only foreign audiences can be targeted for perception management.

But in an increasingly shrinking and highly interconnected infosphere, such distinctions are fast disappearing. A housewife in Ames, Iowa, or Hoboken, New Jersey, with a few clicks of a mouse, can reach the website of any newspaper in the Middle East that might be carrying a story planted by the US military as part of its information operations. American politicians are likely to get quite upset at the prospects of the military conducting propaganda campaigns that would also wrongly influence the thinking of the American people. The concern inside Washington is how to remain believable at home and abroad at the same time. A paradox here is that the requirements of believability for the domestic and foreign audiences are markedly different.

The Pentagon is currently conducting a high-level debate about how far it can and should go in managing or manipulating information to sway public opinion abroad. Whatever it decides to do, the fact that such a development is given high visibility inside the United States places the credibility of the government on shaky ground.

To be sure, there is nothing new about the US government conducting information campaigns or planting false stories in the international media, or distributing lies. In the Cold War years, such practices were frequent, though as a totalitarian system, the Soviet Union practiced it more frequently than the democratic United States. What is different now is that the information age has leveled the playing field and intensified the competition to win the hearts and minds of a whole lot of people. What also dismays the United States is that the number of Arab and Muslim participants in this information warfare is rising. It is also important to note that even the ability of the US military to come up with new technologies or develop new techniques to conduct information warfare does not seem to matter much anymore. The Iraqi insurgents and other Islamists quickly maneuver not only to acquire cutting-edge technology, but also to copycat the latest information-warfare-related tactics of the US military in Iraq and elsewhere.

As if the presence of the Arab television network al-Jazeera was not enough of a headache for the US, there emerged al-Manar, a television channel that broadcasts the perspectives of the Lebanese Hezbollah, a Muslim militant group. Al-Manar's website contains the following statement: "Al-Manar is the first Arab establishment to stage an effective psychological warfare [emphasis added] against the Zionist enemy. Political, cultural and social affairs are of special importance to the station's programs. Most important is the struggle with the Zionist enemy. In its course of work, al-Manar focuses on live talk shows and dialogue programs in which it makes sure to bring out different thoughts and beliefs, in addition to the participation of the viewers in the dialogues." Al-Manar was given world-class publicity last week when French Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin labeled it "anti-Semitic" and incompatible with French values. He announced that he would seek to suspend it legally. Then, this Monday, militant Palestinian group Hamas released a video showing the actual digging of a tunnel in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory. Hamas later blew up that tunnel, killing four Israeli soldiers and injuring others. The video also contained scenes of the actual explosion and the last handshake of two suicide bombers who blew themselves up in that explosion. The Musab al-Zarqawi group of insurgents has also been releasing videos showing the slaughter of hostages and a number of other terrorist acts in Iraq.

The problem for the US military is how to keep separate public-affairs campaigns, which are based on nothing but truth, and information operations, which are in essence propaganda campaigns. In fact, the crossing of the Rubicon has already taken place, when General George W Casey Jr, the ranking US commander in Iraq, last summer approved the combining of the command's day-to-day public-affairs operations with combat psychological and information operations into a "single communication office". That development is still not free of controversy and concern, however. General Richard B Myers, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed his unease about "the risks of mingling the military public affairs too closely with information operations", since it has the potential of compromising the credibility of the US force commanders. However, the driving force on this issue in Iraq is the need for flexibility to combat the insurgency, whose strength and potency do not seem to be subsiding.

More evidence of Iraqi insurgents' capabilities to conduct nuanced and frequent propaganda campaigns is that pressure at the top levels in the Pentagon is increasing to create a "director of central information". The director of this proposed organization "would have the responsibility for budgeting and 'authoritative control of messages' across all government that deal with national security and foreign policy".

So the battle is on for the swaying of hearts and minds of the Muslim masses. Its chief focus for now is the Middle East, but Pakistan and Afghanistan are very much on the radar screen of the Pentagon, since al-Qaeda has remained quite busy in conducting its own information operations against the US presence in Afghanistan and deriding the pro-American activities of the regime of President General Pervez Musharraf, and even making two attempts to assassinate him last December.

In this continuing battle of propaganda, the greatest disadvantage for the United States is that the intended targets - the masses in the world of Islam - are becoming increasingly sophisticated. They also are aware that the United States as well as the Islamists are dishing out information that contains only elements of truth. But they are likely to be more receptive to the propaganda from the Islamist side than to that coming from the Americans. That standard statement about how human beings process information helps to explain the situation here. We believe or reject "fact" or "fiction" on the basis of whether it fits or does not fit into our own respective frames of reference; whether such information/disinformation complements or contradicts our fears, fancies, aspirations and nightmares. Regarding all these variables, the United States continues to face an uphill battle in the world of Islam, its technological sophistication and its psychological prolificacy about inventing new psychological-warfare techniques notwithstanding.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

Dec 16, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

What happened to hearts?
(Nov 20, '04)

Helping women balance family life, jihad
(Sep 15, '04)

Iraq: Washington spinning out of control
(Mar 13, '04)

Detecting disinformation, without radar
(Apr 3, '03)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong