Conflict & Justice

Lost in Psy-Ops

Today’s Washington Post carries a story that is not for the faint of heart. Titled “Petraeus's comments on coalition attack reportedly offend Karzai government” it cites the Commander of U.S. and NATO forces dismissing any suggestion that U.S. troops may have killed or injured civilians in a four-day battle in Kunar province, proffering instead the explanation that pro-Taliban parents may have harmed or even murdered their own children to up the totals.

(For the full article, go to:

Burns observed on the hands and feet of children brought from the war zone were similarly pooh-poohed. A Rear Admiral offered the helpful insight that Afghan parents increasingly discipline their children by dipping their hands or feet into boiling water.

By all accounts President Hamid Karzai was upset by the comments. I expect he is not the only one.

Remarks like this belong in the realm of “psy-ops” – or “psychological operations,” for which there is a growing appetite inside the U.S. government. The military, of course, has long espoused the use of psychological warfare.

The late Richard Holbrooke, speaking in Kabul in early 2009, was fairly blunt: “You’ve all heard of ‘stratcom’” he said, “it used to be called ‘psy-ops,’ and before that, ‘propaganda.’” Holbrooke then indicated that the U.S. government was about to unroll a $150-million ‘stratcom initiative.’

But psy-ops, surely, is most often aimed at the enemy?

The U.S. Department of Defense defines psychological warfare as “the planned use of propaganda and other psychological action having the primary purpose of influencing the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of hostile foreign groups in such a way as to support the achievement of national objectives.”

Well, the “hostile foreign groups” in this case, i.e., the Taliban, presumably know whether or not they harmed their own offspring. Such reports may make them angry, or may make them laugh uproariously at the clumsiness of U.S. propaganda, but are unlikely to demoralize them or diminish their capacity to fight. If anything, they might seek revenge for the insult to their honor. The issue of civilian casualties unarguably damages the image of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. It is logical that General David Petraeus and his cohorts would seek to minimize the blowback. But such tactics are unlikely to resound with the Afghans. Everyone I spoke to was sickened by Petraeus’ reported remarks.

No, such “information” is aimed squarely at the U.S. public, whose support for the war in Afghanistan has been flagging of late. What better way to stiffen the resolve at home than by painting the Taliban as fiends who will stop at nothing – not even murdering their own children – if it will help their cause?

But how will such tactics play out in the near future? The consensus from the military as well as from the diplomats indicates that there is no way to win this war through guns alone. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton so eloquently put it in her speech at the Asia Society last Friday, “We will never kill enough insurgents to win this war outright.”

So some sort of negotiated settlement will ultimately become necessary – with the very people we are demonizing now.

How will the Obama administration, or any subsequent government, sell a peace settlement with monsters like this? Will the American public agree to negotiate with child-maiming ogres?

It may be time for a shift in psy-ops.