Special Operations: Hidden Victory


July 7, 2010: The war in Afghanistan has seen much use of psychological (psywar) warfare. This is the war of information and ideas. This effort came in many forms, and most of it comes from U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command).

The most obvious psywar  effort was leaflet drops and radio broadcasts. But the Special Forces troops also were trained to use psychology in dealing with Afghans. So too with the SOCOM Civil Affairs troops who began operating in the country by the end of 2001. The Special Forces were trained to work in a foreign culture, and were also well trained soldiers. The Special Forces impressed the Northern Alliance by accurately bringing down bombs from warplanes far above. The Afghans in the Northern Alliance had never seen anything like this before. When they fought the Russians in the 1980s, they never encountered smart bombs (which the Russians didn't have at the time.) Moreover, when the Special Forces got involved in ground fighting, they further impressed the Afghans with their combat skills.

Each Special Forces A Team also had a medic who was very good at treating wounds, and many of the illnesses Afghans might have. To top it off, the Special Forces were humble about all this and just kept saying that they were in Afghanistan to catch the terrorists that had killed so many Americans on September 11, 2001. The Afghans could understand revenge, and they respected capable warriors who could also treat sick and wounded Afghans. The Civil Affairs soldiers who showed up later were just there to help civilians live better. This enhanced the idea among Afghans that, while the Americans might be foreigners, they were basically good and could be trusted and tolerated.

 This psychological warfare effort had several targets.

- Hurting the morale of the enemy by reminding them how deadly American weapons and troops were.

- Winning the support of the Afghan people. This was done in several ways, from supplying food and medical care, to warning them to stay away from mines, and American bombing targets.

- Destroying terrorist activities in Afghanistan. This meant gaining enough good will among Afghans so that people would report sightings of al Qaeda or Taliban fighters and their assets (weapons and munitions caches, in particular).

- Keeping the peace. Once the Taliban were out of power, a lot of psychological warfare efforts went into getting Afghans to stop fighting each other and to form a workable new government.

All this went well in most of Afghanistan. However, in Pushtun tribal areas along the Pakistani border, and the Taliban "capital" of Kandahar, the locals were less sympathetic to the foreigners. Pro-Taliban tribesmen helped al Qaeda and Taliban leaders escape to Pakistan, and assisted Taliban efforts to make a comeback five years later.

The Special Forces reported (as journalists and refugees had been doing for years,) that most Afghans were not happy with the Taliban or al Qaeda, and one leaflet said, "Do you enjoy being ruled by the Taliban? Are you proud to live a life of fear? Are you happy to see the place your family has owned for generations a terrorist training site?"

Another leaflet had pictures of al Qaeda fighters, who are mostly Arabs, in the cross hairs of a sniper rifle. The text read, "Drive out the foreign terrorists." This leaflet, and several others, played upon the unpopularity of the foreigners who made up nearly all of al Qaeda, and most of the Taliban themselves (many of whom were Pakistani Pushtuns.) To emphasize the point, another leaflet shows the picture of Taliban religious police whipping a woman in a burqa (who may have shown a bit of ankle). The text said; "Is this the future you want for your women and children?" These messages still resonate throughout most of Afghanistan.

By November 8th, 2001, 16 million leaflets had been dropped, and the Taliban were taking notice. They announced in late October that loyal Afghans were burning the leaflets and radios. Nevertheless, the leaflets and radio broadcasts did have the intended effect, as was discovered by Special Forces units that ran into better informed Afghan civilians in late 2001.

When the Taliban collapsed at the end of November, 2001, the leaflet and broadcasting campaign changed as well. There were more efforts to catch Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. For example, leaflets mentioned the $25 million reward for Osama bin Laden (and lesser rewards for his henchmen.) Others warned Afghans about the danger of mines and unexploded bombs. Still further ones and broadcasts told of food and other aid arriving now that the Taliban were gone. There were even anti-drug efforts, reminding Afghans of the damage heroin does to neighboring Islamic populations. That didn't work very well, as Afghans simply made too much money off of the drug trade. Somewhat more successful were the leaflets imploring Afghans to stop fighting each other over local issues and urging unity and the formation of a new national government.

Successful psychological warfare efforts are rarely noticed, much less fully appreciated. There's a tendency to attribute success to something else such as bigger, or smarter, bombs. But in Afghanistan, the psychological warfare efforts did have a noticeable effect. And that was no accident. Less successful leafleting and broadcast operations during the Gulf War were noted. Back in 1991, a lot of the leaflets and broadcast scripts were written by Americans with little, or no, knowledge of local conditions. The failure of that campaign was noted and the Afghanistan operations was conducted using people with a better sense of what pitch would succeed.

The success of the psychological warfare effort helped make most of Afghanistan peaceful. This gets little attention, but it very important to the Afghans who live in these areas. Even in southern areas (Helmand and Kandahar), where the Taliban are a powerful force, most Afghans would rather the Taliban and al Qaeda be gone. Actually, most al Qaeda, at least the foreign ones, are gone, in part because psychological warfare efforts make Afghans aware that they had powerful friends who also hated al Qaeda.

The effective soldier knows how to use words and ideas as well as weapons.



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