The UK's foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence from Professor Philip M. Taylor, University of Leeds


[The author is Professor of International Communications at the University of Leeds. The author of 14 books relating to the history and impact of propaganda, military-media relations and military information operations, he has lectured all over the world, especially to military educational establishments, on aspects of his thirty-five years of research in these fields.]

Summary: The conduct of Strategic Communications (SC) has become an indispensable requirement of democratic foreign policy in the 21st century Information Age. Different nations organise their overseas information activities in different ways but most identify the three essential components as being Public Diplomacy (usually conducted by Foreign Offices or State Departments, sometimes through proxy organisations like the British Council or BBC World Service), Information Operations (usually conducted by Defence Departments or Ministries, mostly through specialised military in support of military operations) and Public Affairs (cross-governmental cultivation of relationship with the media). This memorandum will concentrate on military information or "influence" activities, although the successful conduct of SC requires all three components to be fully co-ordinated - an aspiration that is harder to achieve in practice than in theory.

Military Information Operations: Regardless of specific successes or failures of "influence activities" in support of tactical and operational military campaigns in the AfPak conflict (which can be discussed in detail later if required), this memorandum will focus on more general institutional, organisational, doctrinal, cultural and even strategic shortcomings when democratic nations like the UK - either singly or in coalition - undertake military operations in the 21st century information age. These can be summarised as follows:


Historically, since the Boer War, most democracies have understood the necessity of conducting propaganda and counter propaganda against hostile combatants in times of conflict ("psychological warfare"). The British, through the experience of Crewe House in World War One and of the Political Warfare Executive in World War Two, have a reputation for deploying "munitions of the mind" to considerable effect, especially on battlefields, utilising ever more sophisticated media for the dissemination of messages designed to undermine adversary morale. This became more complex with the extension of battlefields into "battle spaces" in the post 1945 period, especially when civilian target audiences also became significant in colonial low intensity conflicts, counter-insurgencies and, more recently, counter-terrorism campaigns. The obliteration of dividing lines between soldier and civilian, first through Total War and now through the "War on Terror", has been encapsulated by the phrase "struggle for hearts and minds". But it is no longer so clear cut who friends and potential enemies are, or even where they are located. This, combined with the obliteration in the age of the internet of traditional lines between domestic and foreign audiences, and even between friend and foe, has created significant problems for the focussing of any official targeted messaging operations. Seepage across the traditional boundaries is inevitable and, with it, increased nervousness about what can and cannot be said at any given time.

2.  Internal Agonising about the Meaning and Definition of "Influence Activities".

Because of the historical acquisition of pejorative meaning surrounding the word "propaganda", democracies have done everything they can to distance themselves from this otherwise useful word. Instead, propaganda has become something which only the enemy does whereas democracies engage in something else, such as "information operations" or "strategic communications". This is most vividly illustrated by the Pentagon's decision earlier in 2010 to change the well established military phrase "psychological operations" with MISO or "Military Information Support Operations". The British tried a similar exercise in euphemism when in 1998 the 15 UK PSYOPS Group briefly changed its name to the 15th Information Support Group. The fear of being accused of conducting propaganda may be due to an understandable fear of being accused of telling lies (the popular association with the word) but it does reflect as astonishing failure on the part of professional military persuaders to explain what precisely it is that they do in this field, which has a time-honoured democratic tradition of "truth telling" and "credible truths" (although for various reasons it rarely tells "the whole truth"). The most effective form of targeted information activities, military or otherwise, was recognised by Edward R. Murrow when, back in the 1960s within the context of the Cold War, he argued that "truth is the best propaganda". However, far too much time is wasted upon internal disputes about the relationship of influence activities to other communications strategies, especially "Media Operations" or Public Affairs.

3.  Military Culture of Secrecy vs. Proactive Information Activities.

This nervousness and the resultant euphemism business is evident both at home and abroad within the democratic system. But it is exacerbated by the military traditions which have done so much to protect that system, particularly a culture of operational security and a fear that information released by military and other sources (including to and via the media) may prove of value to adversaries. The resultant default psychological position is to err on the side of caution and withhold information whereas the realities of our globalised information age (an age of Google Earth, Twitter, social network sites and citizen journalists that include soldier bloggers) require organisations to compete in terms of information and message output. It is not so much an issue of telling "our truth" to counter "their lies" but more a battle of competing credibilities in which silence or reticence is no longer appropriate. This is an age in which it is near impossible to keep secrets, or at least not for long (witness the recent Wikileaks controversy), and in which information vacuums will be filled by misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories that can take root amongst a global audience as credible "facts"- unless they are countered or discredited quickly and authoritatively.

4.  Information is no longer merely a "Support" tool.

There is an additional disadvantage epitomised by the euphemism "Information Support". The problem is not with the first word but with the second. Western democratic militaries are, for obvious historical and strategic reasons, steeped in the business, training and culture of war-fighting. The main focus is on kinetic operations. But in a war of ideas - for that is surely what the "struggle against violent extremism" really is - the key weapon is information. Terrorists understand this because they know they cannot achieve their political objectives by military means. For them, information is the central tool with violence serving as a militaristic means to an informational end. The generation of fear amongst vulnerable publics in open societies, together with messages designed to foster recruitment amongst those resentful of perceived western "hypocrisies", is the dual purpose of terrorist "strategic communication". Terrorist acts and propaganda are thus symbiotic in their relationship; if anything, the kinetic act of violence is designed to support the two-prong messaging in an asymmetric conflict. For western militaries, it is the other way around. For them, information is a support tool. For terrorists, it is the primary weapon.

5.  Bureaucratic Infighting.

A legacy of the previous ideological struggle that was the Cold War, too often are informational responsibilities locked into historical bureaucratic silos within governmental departments that are anachronistic for the internet age. Decision-making is reactive, slow, hierarchical and is subject to political sensitivities. A problem that is perhaps more acute in Washington than in London, the solution has been sought through co-ordination and inter-departmental co-operation rather than by the creation of a high level central information agency which takes charge of the "information war" in its own right.

6.  Coalition Operations.

All the above are compounded within the context of coalition military operations. Different nations within NATO bring different interpretations of what can and cannot be done in the informational realm for legal, cultural, historical and doctrinal reasons (despite the existence of agreed NATO documents relating to Information Operations, cyber operations and other aspects of this activity). Rotation of commands within ISAF and its areas of responsibility create further difficulties and often the emphasis which any given deployment places upon the informational realm can even be traced back to the personalities of different Commanders. This has been a structural problem throughout the campaign in Afghanistan where different members of ISAF, for example, have had different rules of engagement imposed upon them (usually for domestic political reasons) but which have hardly been conducive to some of the essential requirements of any sustained "hearts and minds" campaign, namely consistency and continuity.

7.  The Limits of Military Information Operations.

A simple fact remains. Regardless of the strategic objective in any given military campaign (including peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention and even counter-insurgency) the information and influence strategies employed by the military cannot, by themselves succeed. They tend to be too short-term, too tied to the military objective and its rules of engagement, and too narrow in their tactical and operational objectives. What is really required is strategic thinking beyond the area of operation - and this requires a fully integrated use of the other tools of Strategic Communication, especially Public Diplomacy (a long-term influence activity based upon principles of trust-building, mutual understanding and co-operation) and Public Affairs (where relations with the domestic and foreign media are treated holistically as if no such boundaries existed). Without these other tools, any military influence campaign can only have short-term objectives and can only have tactical and operational effects. In reality, the need is for a long-term informational and influence strategy that attempts to ensure that any future military deployments are unnecessary.

5 October 2010

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