Friday, December 11, 2009

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

- Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”

Clearly, no one at the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee has read Sun Tzu. How else to explain the panel’s proposed drastic cuts in the Department of Defense’s budget for Information Operations - aka IO?

“Loose lips sink ships” is perhaps the best known “information operation,” successfully deployed during World War II to effectively communicate the need to stay mum.

Today’s war against radical extremism requires similarly artful, nuanced, Tzu-like communications efforts - what is called Strategic Communications (StratCom), which Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke considers the sine qua non of victory, of which IO is a critical component.

StratCom and IO are all about winning what Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, head of the American-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, calls “the important battle of perception” so essential to retaining “the continued support of the Afghan population” he dubs the “operational center of gravity.” Gen. McChrystal defined the role of communications and information in great detail in his “Initial Assessment.”

Given IO’s importance, the House panel’s attempted raid is confounding, and brings to mind Inspector Jacques Clouseau - that stumblebum French Surete police inspector of “Pink Panther” fame, who conducts investigations gone seriously awry given his own incompetence.

The panel slashed half a billion from the Pentagon’s request for IO programs in Afghanistan and Iraq, while holding the remaining $488,000 in abeyance until the department can justify what it’s doing with the money - going back to 2005. (Senate Appropriations later cut only $58.8 million.) This, though U.S. Military combat commanders, from Gen. David H. Petraeus on down, stress IO programs were a key factor in winning popular support in Iraq.

While the Pentagon admits $626.6 million would be sufficient for IO in 2010, given increasing coordination of the evolving role of Strategic Communications in the “indirect warfare” we faced in Iraq, and now face in Afghanistan, the proposed cuts and freeze go beyond the pale.

Clearly, the panel is clueless regarding the new war we’re fighting, in which the “confidence and trust” of the population is built more through offense, especially carefully deployed StratCom, than standard military operations.

As Gen. McChrystal writes, “Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population.”

It’s the “Three Cups of Tea” approach of Greg Mortenson, who has made his life’s work building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which top brass like Adm. Eric Olson, head of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), find compelling. The admiral has hosted Mr. Mortenson twice at SOCOM Headquarters.

As for measuring its impact, let’s just say it scores high on the common-sense scale - something Madison Avenue has long recognized, reaping billions for its insights.

All this notwithstanding, the House panel expressed concern over “not only the significant amount of [IO] funding … but, more importantly, about the Department’s assumption of this mission … [noting] much of what is being produced appears to be United States Military, and more alarmingly, non-military propaganda, public relations, and behavioral modification messaging.”

Exacerbating this alleged transgression, the panel reports, are “supposed efforts to minimize target audience knowledge of United States Government sponsorship of certain production materials.”

Accordingly, Section 8021 of its bill mandates that: “Funds appropriated by this Act for the Defense Media Activity shall not be used for any national or international political or psychological activities.”

But as Gen. Martin Dempsey, chief of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, tasked with defining the scope of IO - and whom a well-placed source reports “gets it” - has said: “We have a phrase - ‘to defeat a network you have to be a network. ‘” The enemy’s network is using IO. For instance, insurgents stage attacks they subsequently claim were initiated by the U.S. military and its Afghan security partners - that can only be neutralized by exposing, through IO, the adversary pre-event not post-event.

Those are the stakes in this new theater of war, fought largely on human terrain - in which Gen. McChrystal, leading the way in the absence of civilian Strategic Communications leadership, highlights “the need for significant change [in] the way we think and operate” - lest we find ourselves outmaneuvered by the enemy’s Tzu-like communications networks as the enemy seeks to deplete our will to win.

This is a theater of war in which our very future is as stake, as encapsulated in “World at Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism,” submitted to President George W. Bush in December 2008.

The clock is ticking. Let’s not entrust our future to the House’s Inspector Clouseaus. Fortunately, the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee isn’t likely to let that happen.

And, hopefully, beyond Capitol Hill, as a nation we will understand “loose lips sink nations.”

Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based writer.

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