There has been discussion of the relative success or failure of US Information Operations in the Af-Pak region recently. Your correspondent sat with a senior Information Operations expert at the Indian Ministry of Defense, who explained the concept and the way ahead for the US.
“The first recorded use of Information Warfare that I can recall is from the Mahabharata (Hindu religious epic). Ashwatthama, the son of the commander of the Kaurava army Dronacharya was said by Yudhishthira to have been killed, when instead it was an elephant of the same name that died. Upon hearing this, Drona laid down his weapons and was killed by Dhrishtadhyuna, the son of his mortal enemy.
Information warfare requires credible information, a credible source and a clear medium. The information was that of Ashwatthama’s death, which was possible and credible and while, in itself, was not such a great blow, led to the killing of Dronacharya, the army commander. The source was Yudhishthira, renowned for his truthfulness and adherence to righteousness,” he explains.
“Fast-forward to Mao. His methods of Information Warfare came to be known as Propaganda. Now to make it more palatable and subtle the concept was renamed Psychological Operations (PsyOps) and then Perception Management,” he rattles off the terms. Smiling, he says, “Now we call the exercise ‘Shaping the Information Environment’ or simply Information Operations. Information Operations is a larger concept of which Information Warfare is a subset.”
Elaborating further, he warms up, “Information Operations depend upon several factors. The geographical reference, defined population/audience, religion, socio-economic and political aspects and taboos. These factors are understood by population terrain mapping, which is really an analysis of a people and their environment. So what becomes important for conducting an Information Operation are circles of influence on a population, which could include mediums of transmission of information, family, society, religion, leadership and village elders. This list is not exhaustive.”
“Next, one also has to figure out the kinds of media available to oneself to transmit one’s message. It could range from a leaflet to a mobile phone. The purpose of the operation has to be subtle information dominance, even though this sort of perception management can take a generation to bear fruit,” he warns.
He prescribes the message, “To do this effectively, one has to play on themes that are relevant to a population. There has to be message customization to meet local aspirations. The idea has to be to achieve a shift in attitudes from inimical to neutral to favorable. When the last is achieved, that’s when one can establish a partnership for progress in meeting aspirations.”
“And what would those aspirations be in Af-Pak? Safety, security and a better future for families and children. Those are the obvious basic things that everyone wants.”
The brasshat then looks at the US approach, opining, “The US has so far relied more on kinetic means of victory. Guns, bullets, drones, bombs and airstrikes – that sort of thing. They have to move towards softer means of success. They have not managed to convince the population of their sincerity and their interest in stabilizing the region and creating an environment where the population’s future is secure. Their dominance has to come from sincere measures for protecting the people. Otherwise, even though the Taliban may be on the run, they still evoke fear in people, which means they still dominate the population. Their message to the population is ‘If you collaborate with the US, we’ll come back and get you when they leave’.”
“And that is the challenge here,” he goes on, “The Taliban have a natural advantage, in that, many of them come from the local population, speak the language, know their ways and know how to exploit these factors. The whipping of a girl is captured on a mobile phone and the video, when circulated creates terror. That is how they dominate the mainstream. By force.”
The senior officer explains the counter for this, saying, “The US has to transmit an effective message that they are here to stay till the local population can defend itself. These messages need to be tailored very carefully for maximum impact, understanding and acceptance.”
“Look at us. We have the right to claim the best operational conduct in the world, both in terms of Counter Insurgency Operations (COIN Ops) as well as in terms of Information Operations. Nobody can deny that the people of Jammu and Kashmir know that we are here to stay. This message goes down especially well also because we have not been indiscriminate in the conduct of COIN Ops in Jammu and Kashmir. And it has taken us decades, but at least now it can be safely said that the majority of the population is neutral towards us. Now it is actually time to convince them and those across the border too of our strengths.”