01 April 2010

A Good Offense is a Good Defense: We Need a Counter Narrative Conference

Wow, I have not been posting! Actually, I think what is to follow cannot even be considered a full post, but more of a thought.

As I shared on Twitter, we need a conference to discuss a viable Counter Narrative, one that involves professionals of varying but interconnecting education and experience; military, academic, intelligence community, law enforcement, public affairs, media relations, investigative journalists, health practitioners, economists, security administration, international business specialists.

The American-born quantum physicist, David Bohm, who worked closely with Albert Einstein (I encourage you to please put aside his Communist tendencies and focus solely on his professional brilliance), stated in his major work entitled, Thought as a System (London, 2000, 2002); "...thought actively participates in forming our perceptions, our sense of meaning and our daily actions." The conference, I propose, can focus predominantly on formulating a "system of thought" that shapes perceptions of AQCL/affiliates. Further, our particular focus can set-forth a process of implementation characterized by an interconnected construction of actions: We must utilize all of the resources we have to support a single system of thought.

This is the catch, and that which certainly needs to be debated in a forum-style conference: The difficult task is agreeing on the meaning of who we are collectively and what we ought to do and how in reflection of our shared values/traditions. The projection of our values, of course, must comprehensively counter that of AQ/affiliates. In this sense, a good offense is a good defense, but the important aspect of the narrative is that we in fact go on the offense in terms of our religious/cultural, political, and socio-economic beliefs and practices.

For example, one panel discussion ought to highlight the perspectives already brought to the table by Malcolm Nance (An End to Al Qaeda), James Roberts (Addressing the Zawahirist Outsurgency), and both Sebastian Gorka (Countering the Enemy Narrative) and Katherine Gorka (The Language of Jihad). In many ways, each differs on how we first approach the formation of a counter narrative and then implement the strategy horizontally.

This dialogue will highlight also the importance of an overarching COIN strategy, that which reaches the population directly. So, the perspective of a prominent leader, such as Hwang Jang-Yop, a North Korea defector and current South Korea resident, on the use of an effective ideological warfare (i.e. use language of human rights along with market and diplomatic pressures) can compliment combined arms TTP's to be technically and tactically proficient.

Overall, I am speaking here primarily from a philosophical standpoint in advocating a strategic-systems approach to dismantling and disrupting AQ/affiliates. As Starbuck and I agreed this morning, "Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics." See, I told you this was more of a thought than a post. In due fashion, please share your insights, perhaps on an effective counter narrative, news on upcoming events, and/or logistical planning for an upcoming conference!


  1. The "professionals-logistics" quote is a favorite at one of the places I teach at National Defense University, but it doesn't really get it the issue of "narratives", so let me suggest a varient: "amateurs talks messages, professionals talk engagement and narratives."

  2. Professor:

    Thanks for pointing it out. I see how altering it to fit to a CN strategy emphasizes the challenge. I stated that we need to a) formulate and then b) implement. Would you say, using your language, that we need to first formulate the narrative before we engage, or first speak about how we ought to engage and then fine-tune the narrative.

    I am of the mind, as of now, that it is best to articulate a singular message but be smart in "customizing" it as a part of the COIN campaign; i.e. Iraq (Mosul) as opposed to the Afghan Tribal Belt. This is most likely a result of my post-master's studies in international business. How do you read this approach?

    One last question: In many ways, AQCL/affilates are thought to be either centralized or de-centralized, or indeed becoming more de-centralized. In formulating a strong "offense-type" CN ourselves, we have to look to exploit the scattered de-centralized messages from, say, AQAP in comparison to AQCL - if activity of this nature does actually happen. Can this entry point disrupt the global ideology of AQ, or is it best to target AQCL?

    I am now completing Kissinger's "Diplomacy" (never read it but should have). Do you recommend any current literature? Thanks in advance. I look forward to your response.

  3. Would it be developing an over-arching COIN strategy? Because I'm not convinced one exists. There are a lot of threads within the umbrella of COIN, after all, and any COIN strategy would seemingly have to be tailored to the specific incursion being discussed. So, like, an over-arching COIN strategy for Kandahar, compared to an over-arching COIN strategy for Yemen.

    Just a thought, anyway. I'm curious to see where you take this.

  4. Karaka (1 of 2):

    Ah, yes, the universal and the particular! How do we implement "universal" principles that work in "particular" georgraphic locations, at least in terms of pop-centric non-lethal aspects like CN Strategy?

    It requires, as you say, a tailored effort. A central tenet of COIN is understanding the culture/people in order to determine who the stakeholders are, how to gain support of power-brokers, and effectively train locals to work and public servants to protect.

    But COIN requires strong diplomatic efforts (and backing) of the HN government. Yemen is under-governed while dealing with 3 threats to establishing a socio-economic foundation. The U.S. is not committed to sending combat forces but providing monetary aid (i.e. USAID) and combat/national security training (i.e. biometrics).

    Will it work? Analysts and leaders alike need to continue to examine, as Kagan does at Critical Threats, what the pressures are: Once the pressures are identified (for long-term purposes) a solid "soft power" strategy can be undertaken. This is, of course, in theory.

  5. (2 of 2)

    What I add here is the all-important task of formulating a CN grounded on solid content and accurate a) "positive" propaganda (i.e. Sana'a) b) direct non-lethal engagement with (i.e. AQAP). It has to be focused on preventing Yemen from becoming a failed state.
    (Critical Threats Project: http://www.criticalthreats.org/sites/default/files/pdf_upload/CTP_Yemen_Fighting_al_Qaeda_in_a_Failing_State_Jan_12_2010.pdf.)

    You link on your blog, when dicussing KOW's thoughts on inter-related goals of COIN, to "The Difference between COIN and aid":
    "The potential benefits of such projects are assumed to be manifold, running the gamut from force protection (‘if we hand out food, the people won’t dare bite the hands that feed them’) to intelligence gathering (‘if we build them a school we will improve their lives and they will tip us of to any plans the bad guys are making’). Regardless of their actual efficacy in these respects, military ‘aid’ practice is accepted by most parties because it does ’some good’ to some people."

    The challenge, in short, is that AQAP has an image of protecting the population: A CN can alter that perspective.

    Added to the mix, now, is the announcement concerning Awlaki: Dead or Alive. What is in our CT best interest? Can it be paired with an CN engagement initiative to win hearts and minds. But, in the end, a successful COIN strategy requires boots on the ground. Yemen: no boots, probably for some (long) time.

  6. Yemen was most assuredly an idle example, but I'm appreciative of your musings on the topic.

    You know, perhaps you could host a Carnival, invite a dozen or a dozen-and-half of the bloggers inclined to such a critical rendering of the topic, and see what comes out of it. It'd be a start, anyway, towards seeing how a CN might be developed. It's pretty minimal in terms of logistics, and you could probably partner with SWJ or KOW. (I'd be happy to throw a hand in too.)

    I mean, in your lovely two-part response you've identified several queries that could be answered more fully, or at least investigated to some degree of depth. You've built a good place to start.