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Counter-Insurgency and "The Single Narrative"


by Austin Bay
May 30, 2007

"Since counterinsurgency is a competition to mobilize popular support, it pays to know how people are mobilized."

That candid declaration of common sense appeared last year in IOSPHERE, the publication of the Joint Information Operations Center, in an article written by Dr. David Kilcullen.

Kilcullen's article expanded on the sources of motivation. "In most societies," he wrote, "there are opinionmakers: local leaders ... religious figures, media personalities ... who set trends and influence public perceptions. This influence -- including the pernicious influence of the insurgents -- often takes the form of a 'single narrative.' This is a simple, unifying, easily expressed story or explanation that organizes people's experience and provides a framework for understanding events. ...

"Iraqi insurgents have one, as do al-Qaida and the Taliban. To undercut their influence, you must exploit an alternative narrative: or better yet, tap into an existing narrative that excludes the insurgents."

When it comes to counter-insurgency, Kilcullen has both classic credentials and street cred.

He worked for the State Department as chief counter-terrorism strategist. His doctoral dissertation (analyzing the political effects of insurgency and counter-insurgency on traditional Muslim societies) connects academia with the action in the alleys. It involved fieldwork with members of Dar'ul Islam, the forerunner al-Qaida's Southeast Asia offspring, Jema'ah Islamiyah. He's also a former Australian infantry officer who served in East Timor, Bougainville and the Middle East.

Kilcullen now works in Baghdad as Gen. David Petraeus' senior counter-insurgency advisor. He is one of the architects of "the surge strategy" -- the nom de guerre for the Iraqi government's and Petraeus' new combined political and military operations.

Last week, I spoke with Kilcullen via a press conference call from Baghdad. He has the accent of an Australian wine connoisseur, not a crocodile hunter, though I'm certain he can hunt crocs.

In war, the simple is difficult. Given the Internet and the glare of 24-7 news cameras, no war is more complex than contemporary irregular warfare.

But motivation ties to the will to persevere in a conflict.

After Kilcullen and I briefly discussed his 2006 article, I asked him: "What is the single narrative or alternative narrative in Iraq? Could you give an example of a narrative in a Baghdad neighborhood?"

"That's been one of the weaknesses in this business over time," he replied. "I think it is something that is improving now. We have to make certain the story, the message people are getting from Iraqi government institutions is same as the message from U.S. sources."

According to Kilcullen, the Iraqi government's central message is the Iraqi people "don't need militias to protect (them) against terrorists. The government can do that. Gain trust in the government to protect you, and move from a dependency on militias."

As for an operation designed to reinforce that message, Kilcullen said that in neighborhoods in Baghdad, "there has been a big effort to recruit and employ police in place and demonstrate presence on a 24-hour basis. This is so that they (the people in the neighborhood) feel the change (the improvement in security)."

Up until late 2006, Kilcullen suggested, the "single narrative" the United States pursued was "that as they (Iraqis) stand up, we stand down."

Unfortunately, "that message is not particularly comforting to Iraqis," he said. "The single big message (the Iraqi government and coalition are sending) now is that we are protecting the population and trying to achieve sustainable stability. We are improving security and doing it to create a sustainable space so Iraqis can do it themselves."

In the "message war," actions must align with words -- or the narrative is only so much hot air. The Iraqi government actually has a major advantage over al-Qaida and the "former regime elements" (FRE, Saddam's old supporters). All al-Qaida and the FRE offer is violence. They have no economic program, and their political program is "give power to us." Their power is a negative power.

Sectarian militias do offer local protection, but their protection often includes crime and thuggery. The Iraqi government offers prosperity, justice and peace -- the strategic payoff of democracy and integration in the global economic system. That is the strategic "single narrative," and it's appealing. But as Kilcullen said, that process begins with reliable police and local protection.

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