Thoughts on Strategic Communications in Complex Emergencies

Major-General Jonathon Riley DSO

GOC MND (SE) Iraq - 2005

Information is power, and how one party in any conflict uses that power determines how effective its efforts will be. Information is a force-multiplier, a decision tool, a central part of a campaign: in other words, it is firepower and like many sorts of firepower, it can result in blue on blue if it is not targeted correctly. It can also be a weapon of mass effect.

It is targeted at very different audiences, who may interpret the same message, or various actions, in different ways, and often we are far from clear about the nature of those audiences and their likely reactions, with the subtlety required and with the explicit linkage between messages and actions.

Musa Qualeh, AfghanistanHowever our current Cold-War, outdated, NATO methodology separates media, information operations Info ops), psychological operations (psyops), information coordination, key leader engagement and so on because it is driven by an outdated, inflexible doctrinal constipation of thought which has no place in a complex modern campaign where insurgency is only one aspect of the problem of failed states and ungoverned space. In these sorts of emergencies, we know that the combination of terrorists or insurgents and criminals gives great longevity to wars, and can make life much more difficult for us in the military. On the other hand, it can create some marvellous opportunities for information to fracture what can be uneasy, mistrustful alliances – but this presupposes that we have the structures to identify and direct the required action. If you take this to a logical conclusion, then there are times when military and other operations should take place in support of a strategic communication campaign. Voter registration security or election security in Afghanistan and Iraq may be examples.

Let me propose that when communicating with various audiences in a complex environment, we should proceed in terms of “information about operations”, on the one hand, and “information in support of operations” on the other. I will say more about what I mean by each of those later.

Before I go into that, I want to stress that strategic communications in such a context cannot be left solely to a staff branch, no matter whether this is at the tactical, operational, or strategic level. Why? Major General Julian Thompson, who commanded 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines in the Falklands War, talks about command to the British Higher Command and Staff Course. When he does so, he tells them that in order to fulfill his responsibilities, any commander must do three essential things:

  • Find out what is going on (enemy/own forces/upwards, downwards, sideways/land/sea/air/virtual)
  • Communicate his intentions to his subordinates – and, implicitly, to his superiors
  • Communicate with the staff so that they can solve problems and maintain situational awareness

No-one, I think, would argue with those. But because of the context I described just now, and the information context that I will explore in a moment, may I suggest that these three essentials have now become four; the fourth being:

  • To explain his actions.

He will have to explain his actions to his political masters, to his allies, to his enemies, and to the uncommitted in and beyond the theatre of operations. This tends to drive the remarks made by any deployed commander in a high-profile theatre of operations straight into the strategic arena, because they will be picked up by a savvy media as well as exploited by the enemy, especially an enemy with a better tempo of media operations than we can generate.

This need to explain is highlighted throughout the commander’s principal military business in complex modern emergencies: not activity-led operations like framework security or routine Security Sector Reform, neither by sustainment or logistic support operations, but rather a relatively small number of intelligence-led operations. Some of these will be aimed simply at producing further or better intelligence; others at destroying or capturing particular objectives or people; they may be aimed at setting conditions for non-military activities, like democratic elections or reconstruction – take the Kajaki dam operation in 2008, for example. All will be in some way associated with particular decisive points in the campaign. They do not seek, therefore, simply to gain temporary advantage through violence, but rather to change the situation to advantage. These operations certainly fall into the category of those needing to be explained through information operations, requiring careful coordination of the required effects with the messages given out.

Therefore information is commanders’ business, and information about operations, must be part of any deployed commander’s intent and scheme of manoeuvre. That is, woven into the plan from the beginning and not an afterthought, and within that part of his plan that he writes himself, and with which the staff is forbidden from tampering! It must, too, be resourced properly: intellectually, conceptually, morally and physically.

Information in support of operations is probably best handled by the theatre or operational level commander, taking this responsibility away from the man with the tactical problem, and coordinating what is said by whom at the various levels of command. The same applies to control over resources – perhaps more so, since this is really our equivalent of advertising. We often have a good product, but do we advertise it in the way that Mr Toyota advertises his latest car? He gets out there and spreads the message, understanding that the opposition will exploit any reluctance to do so, and punishing him accordingly.

Why do I make this distinction between information about operations, and information in support of operations? Because there are two processes at work, which are complimentary, yet distinct, and not the same process working in two directions: first, there has to be a connection between what we say about military operations, and what we then do. It is no good, for example, saying this:

Our Purpose in Vietnam is to prevent the success of aggression. . .


Peace is built brick by brick, mortared by stubborn effort and the total energy and imagination of able and dedicated men,

Lyndon B Johnson 1

The language of peace, security and reconstruction, if what we then mostly have to do – and what people chiefly see and experience, or outside the theatre of operations they perceive – is the application of violence. We all face this same problem in Afghanistan. UNSCR 1707 of 2006 is framed in terms of providing security, law and order against violent and terrorist activity, and authorizes ISAF to take all necessary measures to fulfil its mandate. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that military force is very much in evidence in Afghanistan. However different expectations that were raised in and outside the theatre by comments like these:

Although our mission to Afghanistan is primarily reconstruction, it is a complex and dangerous mission because the terrorists will want to destroy the economy and the legitimate trade and the government that we are helping to build up . . . . Of course, our mission is not counter-terrorism.


We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot because our job is to protect the reconstruction.


Sec of State for Defence John Reid, BBC News (2006)

Sometimes it is difficult to make this connection between what we say, and what we then do, as in the examples I just quoted. If we are very lucky, it may be as simple as it was in 1991: the liberation of Kuwait, for example, was authorized by UNSCR 678 which called for:

...all necessary means to uphold and implement Resolution 660 (1990) [ie the withdrawal of Iraqi military forces from Kuwait] and all subsequent resolutions to restore international peace and security in the area 2

The language was unambiguous, the situation relatively simple, the problem obvious, and the means applied were legal, appropriate and limited to what was required. What we did, was what we said we would do. The messages were consistent and the images positive.

Hard or easy, this is the business of information in support of operations, and it is the business of the theatre commander to make certain that as far as possible, the broad thrust of military activity is in line with the message; that, or change the message. Let me illustrate this through another example. In the first weeks of 2007 the US government announced its intention to surge a large number of additional troops to Iraq, in order to bring the security situation in and around Baghdad under control. This would create the conditions for effective transition to Iraqi control – part of the required end state of the campaign, but in direct opposition to the advice given to the US government by the Iraq Study Group in its report. At roughly the same time, the British government announced that it planned to reduce troop levels in southern Iraq: the result of re-posturing, greater acceptance of responsibility by Iraqi forces, and a much lower level of violence than elsewhere. Both these positions were tenable, but on the face of it, they looked to be in direct contravention and there was the potential for a series of unhelpful interpretations. This was a perfect example of how and why there needs to be a clear and direct connection between what is said, and what is done, as well as consideration of how to advertise the product.

StrategyAt the same time, there must be a connection between what we are doing on the ground, and what we are saying about that. When we speak of military operations in modern, complex emergencies, this has a positive side – for example when dealing with military support to humanitarian projects, infrastructure repair, training and education, security sector reform and so on; or describing kinetic military operations when the application of force is legal, necessary, and appropriate. It also has a negative side: that of explaining why the application of force as a tactical effect has been necessary, legal, and appropriate when it may seem to be out of kilter with the broader context of operational or strategic effect. The prominence of civilian casualties as an issue comes to mind here. This is information about operations, the business of the commander on the ground and inseparable from other aspects of planning and executing operations. An example of how this can work was the operation by 51 Infantry Brigade to clear Musa Qualeh in December 2007. The operation itself was led by good intelligence. It was filmed throughout, and immediately afterwards the film was made public. It had an Afghan lead and an Afghan face. The insurgents were beaten, home audiences shown that the Alliance held the initiative and the uncommitted were reassured that the operation had been a necessary action using as much force as was required, but no more.

I have, I hope, established why both information about operations and information in support of operations are important; but because of the increasingly strategic nature of the battle for ideas both at home and abroad, there are one or two other areas I would like to consider.

The well-known and heart-wrenching picture of the naked, weeping young girl in the wake of a strike on a village in Vietnam, which was portrayed at the time as an American bombing of Vietnamese civilians, prompts me to mention Misinformation - false or inaccurate information – not necessarily part of deception, but resulting from one of several situations. The photo actually depicted an all-Vietnamese accident, in which the only American participants were the journalists who prepared the report and made this girl famous, and the doctors who saved her life. 3

Misinformation is the old problem that the first report is always wrong; or of partial observation; or of faulty analysis. Those of you who are devotees of the movie National Lampoon’s Animal House will recall the immortal line by Bluto: “We didn't give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbour.” The Vietnamese girl highlights the problem of misinformation in the media, sometimes the result of a failure to check simple facts, sometimes the unavoidable product of a confused situation, but it happens every day. Here, the media’s tendency to report Taliban propaganda as if it is fact while not challenging their actions– and in the case of civilian casualty allegations they are encouraged to do so by irresponsible statements from the Government and International organizations – gives examples every day. One case in point is hysteria about anti-terrorist security in Kabul – which has actually improved over the last two years. But to hear the journalists whine, you would think it is Baghdad in 2004. Had they focused on the real issues, which include the kidnap for ransom of some Afghans by others, or inter-ethnic competition to control corruption through domination of the police – then I might have more sympathy with them. However annoying, we must be clear that this is not the same as Disinformation - that is, information which is intended to mislead – i.e. it can be part of deception. It can also be part of an agenda – political, economic, media - to discredit a particular policy. The faked pictures sold to the Daily Mirror of abuse of Iraqis by soldiers of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment in 2003 are an example as are mischievous or untrue allegations of civilian casualties.

Time to change our way of doing business? We could start with the distinction thrown up by complex emergencies between information as an active function in combat, distinct from intelligence, and from elements of current information operations, which really form part of other functions in combat: Electronic Warfare (EW) as part of intelligence; computer network attack as part of firepower; Operational Security (Opsec) as part of security, and so on. If we make this distinction then things become clearer straight away. The firewall we erect between information operations and media operations seems to me to make little sense in this multi-media world of ours. In a counter-insurgency I question whether we should be using such terms as “psychological operations” and “information operations” at all; it is far too easy for trouble-makers among the insurgency and in the international media to present what we do as manipulation. If you accept the notion of connection between words and deeds, it seems to me fundamental that whatever message is being put out by IO and Psyops – or by the engagement of key leaders – has to be matched by what is seen in the media. We know that the media gets things wrong – through misinformation or disinformation – nevertheless most people believe what they see in the media and it is therefore vital that any commander does his best to ensure that whatever story is put out to the media and then by the media is true, and therefore credible. The internet too seems to have credibility beyond what it deserves, all the more dangerous because of the speed and quantity of information which it carries. It is essential to get our messages out and dictate the agenda; if we do not it will be dominated by the enemy’s version, or the media’s version. Ask anyone in occupied Europe from 1940 to 1944 about what source of information they believed and they will tell you the BBC. The news was not always good – far from it – but it was the truth. Did the deception operation before, during and after D-Day concerning where the Allies would land bother them? I do not think so. Asking that same question about trust today in the Middle East or Central Asia would probably get the answer “Al Jazeera”.

Herein lies the clue to unscrambling one of the objections to merging media, psyops and info ops: that we can use disinformation on the enemy but not on our own people. If you separate disinformation – it is really an aspect of deception – from information about or in support of operations, which has to be the truth no matter what the audience, then there really is no difficulty. We should never lie, nor cover up, because we should have no need to do so. If we are ever in that position, we are fighting the wrong war.

We also have to be fast with our messages, as well as credible: tempo matters here. Modern technology means that news gets to TV screens faster than it does through military channels, or current government controlled information outlets. Winston Churchill said that “a lie gets halfway round the world before the truth has got its pants on.” Governments are bureaucracies, and therefore centralised, and therefore slow. In democracies at least, the days are gone when governments or leadership elites could control information and thereby control populations: advances in computer and telecommunications fields have shattered any monopoly of control over information and at the same time, the merging of these once separate areas has brought the ability to reach larger audiences. This contest between speed and accuracy presents great difficulties to a military culture which emphasizes risk-taking on the basis of partial information and never surrendering the initiative through questing for certainty. But in this battle for ideas, taking place within a tight framework of international law and in the glare of real-time media, we are obliged to quest for certainty.

The mobile phone is part of the equipment of any self-respecting insurgent or terrorist, and any insurgent attack can be recorded and broadcast. I have seen images of Alliance and coalition patrols being ambushed, and of Westerners beheaded, on cell-phone screens in the most remote areas, and within a very short time of the event. The horribly mismanaged execution of Saddam Hussein is another case in point. In Afghanistan as in many parts of the world, cell-phones are commonplace, service providers having jumped straight from hand-delivered mail to cellular networks, without the need to go through the step of fixed telephone communications by cable. In the most remote areas, people may still grind their corn by water-power but they communicate by solar-powered cell-phone. Our strategic communications need to be able to exploit this, not to have to react to it and its effects.

Of course speed is relative to the media that the target audience uses – back to the business of understanding the target audiences. In many parts of Africa and central Asia, for example, it is not TV or the internet that spread information, it is radio, or handbills, or sermons, or shuras. Part of our successful information operation in Bosnia during SFOR days rested on a popular, SFOR-run, local radio network plus the free distribution of hand-held, clockwork, radios just as we use here. Whose face delivers the message is also highly important, hence the insistence in ISAF of giving media briefings in conjunction with, and in support of, Afghan government spokesmen.

This brings me finally to question of legality and from that, ROE. ROE relate to the use of soft effects in information operations, media operations and psychological operations as much as to hard effects. These are not law, but are derived from laws, although one might be forgiven for the view that the virtual realm is at present as much ungoverned space as is Somalia! The opponents of Governments and states today are not only other states, but also and more frequently non-state groupings, whose command structure, as far as they can be said to have one, operates in the virtual realm. The internet contains information on, for example, putting together IEDs, becoming a suicide bomber, how to reach Iraq or Afghanistan and join the jihad, and much else besides. We are as likely to be attacked in the virtual realm as in the physical. May I suggest that we need to have a ROE profile which matches the enemy’s modus operandi in every sphere of conflict if we are going to communicate strategically whenever and wherever we need to do so.

LB Johnson The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963 – 1969 (NY, 1971).
UN SCR 678 (1990) dated 29 November 1990.
Ronald N Timberlake The Fraud Behind the Girl in the Photo (1999).


Copyright © 2009 Jonathon Riley

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