Updated: Quit calling it Psyop!

General McKiernan, NATO ISAF Commander

NATO ISAF (The military command responsible for Afghanistan) apparently has a PSYOP problem:

KABUL (Reuters) – The U.S. general commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan has ordered a merger of the office that releases news with “Psy Ops,” which deals with propaganda, a move that goes against the alliance’s policy, three officials said. The move has worried Washington’s European NATO allies — Germany has already threatened to pull out of media operations in Afghanistan — and the officials said it could undermine the credibility of information released to the public. U.S. General David McKiernan, the commander of 50,000 troops from more than 40 nations in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), ordered the combination of the Public Affairs Office (PAO), Information Operations and Psy Ops (Psychological Operations) from December 1, said a NATO official with detailed knowledge of the move. “This will totally undermine the credibility of the information released to the press and the public,” said the official, who declined to be named [emph added].

The issue is not what people will now be doing differently at ISAF headquarters; rather, it is what they are calling it.

The word PSYOP, or Psychological Operations, connotes military deception operations and unsavory propaganda campaigns. The term itself is little more than a legacy holdover from the cold war, since the majority of PSYOP personnel work to influence the population in a counterinsurgency (more political than psychological, no?). They do this by highlighting the work done by the government to support the populace, and by denigrating the actions of the insurgents. Why would so called PSYOP personnel NOT be working closely with public affairs officers at this stage in Afghanistan? It makes no sense. The term, like the cold war, should be relegated to history, so people are less confused by the role that information plays in a military campaign.

But if the military does decide to jettison PSYOP from the lexicon, roll the units and missions into one of the terms that is already out there. The U.S. military, ever so precise with its terminology, muddied the water by providing a specific name (and in some cases separate doctrine) for all of the military disciplines involving information. Pick up a military joint terminology dictionary and immerse yourself in the confusing lexicon: public affairs, PSYOP, MILDEC (military deception), Operational Security (OPSEC), and the umbrella term that encompasses all of them, Information Operations or IO for short.

In reality, General McKiernan is concerned that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are winning the information war in Afghanistan, and he is marshalling his information resources in order to combat the Taliban influence, rather than squander them in a myriad of disjointed stovepipes.

At this stage in the war, the struggle in Afghanistan is more analogous to a political campaign (with some guns and bombs thrown in, of course) than the Normandy invasion. ISAF is contending with a resurgent Taliban, while the central government of Afghanistan remains largely ineffective outside of Kabul. Meanwhile, the Afghan people caught in the middle live daily with violence, intimidation, poverty, and despair. Nato ISAF has its work cut out for it influencing the population to resist the Taliban AND support the government. Organizing all elements within the headquarters responsible for information makes it easier for McKiernan to counter the Taliban’s message, and provide effective strategic communications as well.

General McKiernan correctly surmised that the NATO ISAF needs to be able to compete in the information domain if it is to triumph over the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups. Reorganizing his headquarters to coordinate and synchronize activities is a terrific first step; routing the taliban in that realm at every opportunity should be the next.

And get rid of PSYOP!

Post Script: General McKiernan’s staff might want to ask some of the members of President-Elect Obama’s election campaign staff for tips on organizing an effective information campaign, tracking the effectiveness of messages, countering the rivals’ messages, etc.; Obama campaign staffers just won a high stakes billion dollar election in similar terrain (minus the guns and bombs, of course), and it might prove useful to Nato ISAF. Just a thought.

UPDATE:Not really sure whether Nato ISAF changed its new structure dramatically or not, but according to this article:

The U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan has scrapped a plan to merge the office that releases news with “Psy Ops,” which deals with propaganda, to comply with alliance policy, a spokesman said on Wednesday. The original plan worried Washington’s European NATO allies. Germany had threatened to pull out of media operations in Afghanistan, officials said last week, as it could have undermined the credibility of information released to the public. “The new communications structure has started to be implemented now, but it is now completely within the framework of NATO policy regarding public affairs,” said ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Richard Blanchette.

We’ll see how much more or less effective Nato ISAF is over the coming months at fighting in the information domain. The same article detailed the command’s shortcomings in the infowar against the Taliban:

More than seven years after U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks, many Afghans are increasingly frustrated at the failure of their government and NATO troops to bring security and contain the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban, through their website, telephone text messages and frequent calls to reporters, have been particularly successful in the information war, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff Jock Stirrup admitted last week. “They’ve beaten us to the punch on numerous occasions, and by doing so they’ve magnified the sense of difficulty and diminished the sense of progress. This is down in part to their skill, and in part to our own failings,” he said in a speech.

Also: cannoneer commenters, thanks for the comments, but IO while it encompasses PSYOP, includes other tasks as well; the military is just muddying the waters with all its information ricebowls at this point, and would do well to see how other analogous large competitive organizations (ie political campaigns!) compete in the information realm.

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17 thoughts on “Updated: Quit calling it Psyop!

  1. An excellent analysis. The only reason I disagree is because I would another factor: some information must come from a highly credible source it will be discounted.

    During the campaign, for example, the Troopergate scandal was complex issue with many people providing “information.” Gov. Palin insisted that she had the power to fire Wooten whenever she wanted and for no reason at all. But, because she was the source of the information, most people did not believe her. When the legislative report said the exact same thing, then most people believed it was true.

    The content of the information was identical, but the sources providing the information was quite different and the affected how many people believed the content.

    That is why PsyOps should be separate from news. Some information must come from an objective source or people will not believe it. Even if PsyOps tells the truth 99% of the time, the fact that their M.O. includes lying means that all of their information is tainted.

    The most effective way to have news media cover stories about success in Afghanistan is to have have success in Afghanistan. Merging different IO functions into one command will not change the conditions on the ground, but it could result in censorship and loss of credibility.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Hunter.

    One of my main points (which in hindsight I realize I did not stress enough), is that Psyop needs to be dissolved as a discipline within the military, and all of the information disciplines should be absorbed into one. This enables the command to communicate its narrative to the entire audience (ie the populace, the enemy, regional actors, et al), not just select Western Media, who run their stories on page four below the fold anyway.

    I agree about your point on the credibility issue, which is why I believe that (especially in a counterinsurgency campaign) truth is your only real option. If Nato ISAF ever issues a press release that is proved false, then it will lose credibility, and it is probably impossible to recover.

    Military Deception is, for the most part, of value for a limited amount of time for a certain operation, and more applicable to a conventional war. Using deception at this stage in OEF is more a gamble than a calculated risk, since the command would almost certainly lose credibility after the fact. Not a good enough reason to stick to cold war legacy stovepipes, which inhibit the military’s ability to fight in the information age.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Hunter.

    One of my main points (which in hindsight I realize I did not stress enough), is that Psyop needs to be dissolved as a discipline within the military, and all of the information disciplines should be absorbed into one. This enables the command to communicate its narrative to the entire audience (ie the populace, the enemy, regional actors, et al), not just select Western Media, who run their stories on page four below the fold anyway.

    I agree about your point on the credibility issue, which is why I believe that (especially in a counterinsurgency campaign) truth is your only real option. If Nato ISAF ever issues a press release that is proved false, then it will lose credibility, and it is probably impossible to recover.

    Military Deception is, for the most part, of value for a limited amount of time for a certain operation, and more applicable to a conventional war. Using deception at this stage in OEF is more a gamble than a calculated risk, since the command would almost certainly lose credibility after the fact. Not a good enough reason to stick to cold war legacy stovepipes, which inhibit the military’s ability to fight in the information age.

  4. PSYOP is more important now than ever before. Terrorism is a PSYOP. So is Counter- Terrorism. We need more PSYOP assets. To dissolve PSYOP as a discipline within the military would disarm us of our non-kinetic weapons. Our enemies aren’t going to dissolve their PSYOP capabilities.

    The other elements of IO (EW, OPSEC, CNO, and MILDEC) can not do what PSYOP does, so all of the information disciplines can’t be absorbed into one.

    The Reuters hit piece is internal ISAF politics made public by the sore losers who lost the argument.

    There are doctrinal differences between NATO and the US. Always have been.

    Operation Kajaki was a highly sucessful MILDEC in OEF.

    Army IO is PSYOP.. The approved euphemism is influence operations.

  5. So just because they’re not “calling” it Psy Ops anymore that automatically translates to truthiness and transparency?

    Sorry, I’d learned many years ago not to trust anything that has to do with this stupendously dishonest administration and our military operations.

  6. Another thought: I wonder if whatever they’ll trowel out to us will in any way enhance the visibility of this war, one that’s fallen somewhere between the obituaries and the comix on the back pages.

  7. Jurassic:

    This is the decision of a Nato Command headquarters, a Nato operation, and not the Bush administration. Press reports today indicate that our Nato partners are now satisfied with the HQ arrangement, which was not the case yesterday when I initially read the report.

    It is also a decision being made by a Commanding General, not the Bush administration. To my knowledge, MNFI headquarters is not organized in this way.

    And Jurassic, where are the examples as of right now where Nato ISAF HQ has outright lied to the press? I am sure you can find where a press release contained mistakes or some retractions (Heck, even Pres-elect Obama basically retracted half of his primary rhetoric during the press secretary where he nominated H. CL as SECSTATE, right?), but outright lies?

    It is pretty easy to find good information on OEF, by the way, from a variety of sources if you are trying to keep up on current events, especially online.

    Thanks for reading/posting by the way.

  8. cannoneer commenters?

    I only left one.

    You are not the first person to decry the unwieldy lash up of disparate disciplines in IO.

    What large competitive organizations are analogous to the military?

  9. Cannoneer,

    I thought there were two of you, my apologies!

    TO answer your question, I gave an example of a national level political campaign (ie the U.S. presidential campaign); I believe that national level campaigns are probably the closest and best analogs to draw lessons to support a counterinsurgency campaign.

    Studying a state referendum issue and how it is dealt with, especially a controversial one (like Prop 8) can also provide some lessons learned.

    To a lesser extent, some major marketing campaigns for large corporations (ie Coke/Pepsi) are worthy of study as well.

  10. Cannoneer,

    For the Army specifically, I would like to see PSYOP merged together into what is now the Functional Area 30, and made into its own accession branch for officers as well as enlisted, along with virtually all of the other disciplines related directly to information as well.

    I would recommend that the Army accessed officers into the branch based on education backgrounds (ie marketing, jounalism, etc), and that the branch had a robust intermediate education program to return people to graduate school in areas that enhanced the branch. It would include some tiype of civilian internship program, like what I discuss immediately below.

    Please note that I did not at any time say that military IO should or can “model” themselves after a political campaign or coke and pepsi; instead, I said that they could draw lessons from these type campaigns, especially the Presidential elections. If I were king for a day, during election years I would select personnel going through training in FA 30 or the current PSYOP program at Bragg to observe the campaigning processes in the two presidential campaigns, and key Congressional races as well from after the conventions until the election. I think the military would be well served from the observations these people picked up, and that they could apply them when they deploy forward with Joitn Force HQs in theater.

    What say you?

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