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Old 03-07-2012   #1
Bill Moore
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Default Strategic Narrative

http://strategic-narrative.net/about/

This site may be of interest to some. I just started looking at it, so too early to comment one way or the other.

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We live our lives embedded in a system of narratives—those stories that tell us who we are, where we came from, our roles in relations to others, and where we are going in the future. An explicit understanding of this system—and the ability to navigate and change course within it—is critical when we are seeking to achieve solutions in complex situations.

Yet it can be challenging to gain a holistic view of our own stories, those of others, and those that drive public events and perceptions, especially amid dynamic events and information overload. This site is dedicated to tools and insights that grapple with this challenge to develop successful strategies to bridge divergent narratives, engage or collaborate with others, and achieve goals.
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Old 03-08-2012   #2
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Bill,

A good catch this blogsite and I was struck by this passage:
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It is more important to try to shape behavior than it is to change people’s attitudes.
Link:http://strategic-narrative.net/blog/...ics-go-to-war/

Having spent half a day discussing 'Prevent' I was glad I'd got that comment to hand.
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Old 03-08-2012   #3
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Originally Posted by Bill Moore View Post
http://strategic-narrative.net/about/

This site may be of interest to some. I just started looking at it, so too early to comment one way or the other.
Some really interesting stuff there,good post Bill.
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Old 03-09-2012   #4
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I ordered the book "Behavioral Conflict" and will provide my assessment after I read it.

I like the ideas presented, because it ties into something I read and found interesting recently about Chinese strategy (not that they actually follow it). Basically they recommend not opposing the trend, but to ride the trend and then try to shape it instead of change it (in this case, instead of changing people's attitudes). As Bob's World stated in one of his posts, if you're going to oppose the trend, it will require constant energy (control), and once you remove that energy the trend will continue. I suspect we'll see this unfold in Afghanistan once we remove our energy from the problem.
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Old 03-13-2012   #5
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Default strategic narrative

Bill,

Thanks for having noticed Strategic Narrative. I have been checking in at and learning from the contributors at Small Wars Journal for years. I used the site a few years ago to do an informal survey of the ways that “narrative” was being used in the defense community (the results are in "Narrative as an Influence Factor in Information Operations," in the 3rd quarter 2010 IO Journal)

Your kind words, and your remarks on “going with trends” got me to sign up and actually show my face here. From my vantage (not as a member of the military but as a close observer of the role of communication in it for the last decade), this point you and others are making about “going with” instead of “forcing against” is crucially important in the information realm as well. I have said in a number of venues that the concept of “counter-narrative” is counter-productive—it simply produces potentially lethal versions of shouting matches. The beauty (and challenge) of information contained in narrative form is that it is porous.

Narratives are composite, shifting things and they will inevitably reveal open areas, points of vulnerability, or internal contradictions—gaps between what others say and what they do--into which new information that directs a story in a more favorable way can be inserted. I thought that the language of “counter-narrative” may have begun to wither but someone who works at NSC recently told me that there, at least, the concept of “counter narrative” is alive and well as a communication strategy.
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Old 03-14-2012   #6
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Amy is to shy. She has talked extensively to my NDU students. Simply put she knows her stuff.
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Old 03-14-2012   #7
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On narratives, I have long believed it is much more effective to think about "competing" narratives, rather than developing "counter" narratives.

To counter tends to lead one to taking opposing positions, whereas in my experience and study one is most likely to find best success by agreeing with much of one's opponent's narrative, and taking it out of their context and placing it into one's own.

As an example, AQ narrative had three main platforms:
Remove Western influence over the politics of the Middle East,
Remove "apostate" governments from power in the Middle East,
Unify the nations of the Middle East as a Caliphate.

We have been "countering" that narrative for 10 years with little effect, because each of those platforms contains a great deal of logic, albeit wrapped in crazy and violence.

The West could, however, compete a much more effective narrative built around the key concepts of the AQ platform:
1. Concede the point that yes, the Cold War led to an excessive degree of Western meddling over the governance of the Middle East, and that at the request of the governments of the region has remained in place long past the expiration date of the Cold War necessities. It is indeed time to re-evaluate and re-assess the role of Western Powers in the region and how they best pursue their vital interests in the region as it exists today.

2. Clarify that "apostate" governments are not the issue, but certainly there are many governments that are out of step with large segments of their populaces. Arab Spring is grim testament to this fact. The West should encourage greater dialog between the leaders of the region and their people, and the necessity of exploring appropriate vehicles to satisfy the people's evolving need for a legal voice on governance.

3. While an ideologically extreme Caliphate is inappropriate for helping the nations and people of the Middle East to engage on more equal and effective terms with other regions of the World, certainly some construct along the lines of the European Union may well be worth exploring and we support such efforts.


Once one steals the logic from their opponent's position, it often only leaves them with crazy and robs them of their influence as well.
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Old 03-15-2012   #8
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Recognizing the risk of rekindling an old argument, and recognizing as well that my qualifications on the subject of narratives are limited to several decades of observation, I'll say that for me, Bob's post above encapsulates some of the problems we have with comprehending narratives and their impact.

First, we tend to pay too much attention to the narratives proposed by various political groups, and too little to those actually adopted by audiences. Think of the US: Democrats, Republicans, candidates and factions within those groups, and a plethora of others, from the Tea Party to the radical left, all propose and set forth various narratives. Outside of a very small cluster of true believers, very few ever adopt those narratives as a whole. The actual competing narratives that prevail in society are more likely to blend elements of several of these proposed narratives.

Second, we tend to see narratives a fixed elements. They aren't. They grow and they change in response to different stimuli. The idea that we can conduct "information operations" to impose a narrative of our choice, whether competing or opposing, is hopelessly clumsy: we're better off trying to influence the inevitable evolution of the prevailing narratives in any given place. People aren't going to drop the narrative we don't like and accept the one we do. With subtle and well selected moves based primarily on actions, not words, we may be able to help a narrative evolve in a preferred direction.

Look at the steps proposed above for negation of AQ's preferred narrative:

Quote:
1. Concede the point that yes, the Cold War led to an excessive degree of Western meddling over the governance of the Middle East, and that at the request of the governments of the region has remained in place long past the expiration date of the Cold War necessities. It is indeed time to re-evaluate and re-assess the role of Western Powers in the region and how they best pursue their vital interests in the region as it exists today.

2. Clarify that "apostate" governments are not the issue, but certainly there are many governments that are out of step with large segments of their populaces. Arab Spring is grim testament to this fact. The West should encourage greater dialog between the leaders of the region and their people, and the necessity of exploring appropriate vehicles to satisfy the people's evolving need for a legal voice on governance.

3. While an ideologically extreme Caliphate is inappropriate for helping the nations and people of the Middle East to engage on more equal and effective terms with other regions of the World, certainly some construct along the lines of the European Union may well be worth exploring and we support such efforts.
Everything here revolves around statements and positions, and as such will be ineffective: very few people anywhere, including our own people, notice what we say, and even fewer believe it. Worse, much of what's said here can easily be construed as presenting a desire to interfere in governance issues in Muslim nations, which directly reinforces AQ's narrative. Of course the intention is to present a desire to unravel the pattern of Cold War meddling, but who - even in the US - will believe that?

Furthermore, in focusing on the narrative AQ presents, rather than that which has been adopted, we lead ourselves to efforts we don't need to make. We don't need to counter, or even address, the desire for a Caliphate, because it's never been taken seriously among the intended audience anyway.

AQ and its predecessor groups have presented the narrative above, certainly. The only narrative that's ever actually worked for them, though, is "expel the infidel from the land of the faithful". AQ may have wanted and tried to build influence around the campaign against "apostate" governments or the campaign for a Caliphate, but they've never succeeded in gaining traction beyond a miniscule circle with those campaigns. In actual practice, AQ has gained support and credibility only when they've opposed military forces that intervene in Muslim lands. Without that circumstance, their support and credibility withers rapidly.

We can best subvert AQ's effective narrative (as opposed to their proposed narrative) simply by not intervening in Muslim countries. If intervention is necessary it should be short, sharp, and not involve occupation or "nation building", static enterprises that provide easy fodder for attacks both violent and ideological. AQ will try to force us to intervene, as they did on 9/11, but we need to recognize those moves for what they are and resist being manipulated into counterproductive moves.

Narrative and perception are intertwined, and we have to recognize that we cannot quickly or neatly unravel patterns of perception that have evolved over decades. The West in general and the US in particular have a bad rap in the Middle East, largely deserved. There is absolutely nothing we can do to change that in any immediate sense. The effects of bad meddling cannot be undone with good meddling, no matter how well intentioned. If we take a long-term view, though, we may be able to unravel those perceptions, over a span of time. That needs to be done with actions, not words. Not intervening in support of a Mubarak or a Ben Ali was a good start. Withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan and eschewing further attempts at occupation or "nation-building" will help. Not intervening in the internal politics of Muslim nations will help. Treating Muslim governments, even those we dislike, as equals will help: that doesn't mean we have to do whatever they want, it means that we have to treat them with respect, even when we pursue different perceived interests. We have to remember that even citizens who despise their government will rally behind it if they see it being dissed by foreigners, especially of the West. Even well-intentioned attempts to influence a government toward "getting in touch with its populace" can and will be perceived as self-interested meddling.

Unfortunately, subtlety has never been among our strong points. I don't suppose that's about to change.
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Old 03-15-2012   #9
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Posted by Amy,

Quote:
Thanks for having noticed Strategic Narrative. I have been checking in at and learning from the contributors at Small Wars Journal for years. I used the site a few years ago to do an informal survey of the ways that “narrative” was being used in the defense community (the results are in "Narrative as an Influence Factor in Information Operations," in the 3rd quarter 2010 IO Journal)
Amy I hope you stick around and post often to help some of us with your insights. SWJ is a good community, but without new voices it tends to get stagnant, because the same people continue to push their pet peeve into forums where it doesn't even fit. Not sure if that qualifies as a counter narrative, or just talking over everyone

Quote:
Narratives are composite, shifting things and they will inevitably reveal open areas, points of vulnerability, or internal contradictions—gaps between what others say and what they do--into which new information that directs a story in a more favorable way can be inserted. I thought that the language of “counter-narrative” may have begun to wither but someone who works at NSC recently told me that there, at least, the concept of “counter narrative” is alive and well as a communication strategy.
Where I'm at we call it a competing narrative, but even that has the same connotation. I like your idea about finding internatal contradictions, etc., but wonder if there is a risk to doing this over time? For example, are we giving them the opportunity to evolve their message over time making it harder to undermine and therefore more dangerous?
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Old 03-15-2012   #10
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Key to remember is that narratives do not create instability. Narratives do not create stability either.

Narratives must be in step with actions to be effective, and are used to facilitate efforts to exploit unstable situations, or to help sustain stable situations.

I think Dayuhan misses the point in my comments above. WE believe the AQ narrative for some bizarre reason, even if the populaces of the region it directly applies to all place it into a context that works for them. God knows how many times I've driven a virtual icepick into my forehead listening to some intel "expert" drone on about one threat narrative or another as if it were carved in stone tablets by the very hand of God. Flashing up big maps showing the boundaries of historic Caliphates with expanding ink blots of where AQ nodes are currently engaging with dissatisfied segments of various populaces. They make it look like maps of WWII and how the German army is advancing across France or Russia, coupled with grim analysis of the dangers of the advancing hordes. Pure theatrical, clueless, yet very dangerous, rhetoric from an intel community that refuses to evolve in their thinking about the type of political instability that gives rise to these populace-based threats.

We need to not just learn how to co-opt and compete more effective narratives of our own, but we must also learn what the actual roles of narratives are in the first place.

Governments need to stop trying to "counter" those who are competing with them for the support of the people. Governments need to stop seeing these competitors as "threats" to simply defeat, as if that solves the problems that give rise to such groups to begin with. Governments need to get off their hands and COMPETE for the support of larger percentages of their total populaces. Too many have relied too long on the support of some small base of populace and either ignored or exploited the rest. Governments need to start playing to the entire house, and not just the front row and the box seats.
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Old 03-19-2012   #11
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Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
Key to remember is that narratives do not create instability. Narratives do not create stability either.
This is true, but they may give some indication of what is causing instability, and what's needed to create stability. Whether the US or any other outside power is in a position to provide what's needed is another question altogether.

There are always many narratives out there, and one danger of basing decisions on interpretation of narratives is that we all too easily choose to interpret the narratives that allow us to arrive at a preferred interpretation.

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Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
Governments need to start playing to the entire house, and not just the front row and the box seats.
Probably true, but not something we can do anything about, except to the extent that our government and our populaces are involved.

When "the entire house" is sufficiently divided, "playing to the entire house" may be all but impossible, especially when each side of the house wants control.
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Old 03-19-2012   #12
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Originally Posted by Dayuhan View Post
This is true, but they may give some indication of what is causing instability, and what's needed to create stability. Whether the US or any other outside power is in a position to provide what's needed is another question altogether.

There are always many narratives out there, and one danger of basing decisions on interpretation of narratives is that we all too easily choose to interpret the narratives that allow us to arrive at a preferred interpretation.



Probably true, but not something we can do anything about, except to the extent that our government and our populaces are involved.

When "the entire house" is sufficiently divided, "playing to the entire house" may be all but impossible, especially when each side of the house wants control.
Just like in the US? Stability does not mean government must make everyone happy, it just means that everyone must feel that they have a fair opportunity given their relative capabilities to acheive their potential in life and to express their concerns with /shape their governance IAW the expectations of their culture.

I do not think it is a healthy trend that American politics have become so very polarized in recent years, and that politicians feel the need to cater to their polar base rather than to the populace as a whole. When I look at the broad areas of "good governance" that tend to be the primary drivers of stability and instability depending on the perceptions of significant populace groups I see where there are major problems in each category even in a country as stable as the US. Every category except the last one of "Trust", with that being the perception of having "trusted, certain and legal means to influence government when one perceives problems in any of the other categories" (Sovereignty, Legitimacy, Justice, Respect). But even in the US such trust was hard-earned and far more fragile than many probably realize. In many countries in has never existed. In many of those there is a growing expectation among evolving populaces for greater influence over governance than they have perhaps ever possessed.

The narratives of the current US President and the current Republican contenders are all dangerously divisive IMO. We need a leader who is dedicated to unifying the country, rather than dividing it. One who speaks to our commonalities rather than to our differences. We too need a new narrative.

But at least we have a system, for now, where the populace sustains adequate control, to overcome the shortfalls of governance. This is the genius contained within the inefficiencies of the American system of governance. Other nations have populaces clamoring for greater control as well, and lack such adaptive mechanisms. If I had one message to share in my own personal narrative it would be:

"Listen to your people, ALL of your people. They are evolving and their expectations of governance are evolving too. Focus on the commonalities of human nature that run through your entire populace rather than on the cultural quirks of your base of power, and find the mechanisms that make sense for your country and your people, not those that make sense to the US or any other external power. Do not give the populace total control or there will be anarchy, but find that balance point and protect it. You will know when you find it, as there will be a general stability that does not rely upon the capacity of ones internal security forces to sustain it, just as you will know when one is missing the mark by the converse of that same metric."

Most countries share a common problem. Governments are made up of politicians and bureaucrats. As a rule, politicians don't take responsibility for the negative effects of their actions, and bureaucrats are dedicated to preserving the status quo of their process. We live in times where process must evolve and where politicians must stand up and admit that it is their own actions and not external factors of ideology or natural fluctuations in economic cycles that drives political instability.
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"The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)
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Old 03-19-2012   #13
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Default A picture is worth a thousand attempts...

...at putting things into words

Western vs Islamic World View conflict

Via the Nautilus Institute website which features a number of tools
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Old 03-19-2012   #14
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Interesting slide, but to me it reads like a Western perspective of what the conflicting perspectives are.

For instance, where is the flanking attacking arrow coming out of the Western Cloud? Why does it capture the political unrest in the Middle East totally in the context of "Jihad"? In fact, this looks like a product that other directorates at the HQ where I work might have produced...
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"The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)
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Old 03-19-2012   #15
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Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
Just like in the US?
No, not like the US. Even in its most polarized form the US demonstrates a basic consensus on political process and form of government. That's markedly absent in most conflict environments. What you're not accepting is the existence of factionalized environments where absolute power and the ability to suppress rivals with coercive force is the only acceptable outcome for each faction.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
If I had one message to share in my own personal narrative it would be:

"Listen to your people, ALL of your people. They are evolving and their expectations of governance are evolving too..."
How would you apply this in an environment where multiple factions have minimal irreducible demands over which they are willing to fight, and those demands are completely incompatible?

Not all problems emerge from people evolving faster than government. Often populaces are not showing any particular inclination to evolve, and remain stuck in the us/them win/lose paradigm that's kept societies conflicted for generations.

Of course our own personal narratives are fascinating to us, but no matter what their virtues they are hardly relevant to others, and we've no way of persuading or compelling others to adopt them.
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Old 03-20-2012   #16
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I am not an expert on this matter, but the appeal of AQ or Boko Haram has less to do with lofty rhetoric but the promise of better government, social services, just laws etc.

The US usually finds itself aligned with corrupt and incompetent politicians - TFG in Somalia, Karzai in Afghanistan, Saleh in Yemen and the Nigerian bunch. This association and the unalloyed support for Israel is what usually has Muslim youth up in arms against the US, not AQ. AQ merely capitalises on that.

But even if we understand this, is there anything we can do about it? The answer is no.
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Old 03-20-2012   #17
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Posted by KingJaja

Quote:
I am not an expert on this matter, but the appeal of AQ or Boko Haram has less to do with lofty rhetoric but the promise of better government, social services, just laws etc.
I agree that poor governance contributes, but also believe it is grossly over simplistic to narrow down problems to one underlying cause. There are many locations where there are poor governance and no insurgency. In the case of AQ it requires an underlying condition (normally poor governance, or a foreign occupation) and a Muslim population, because their exploiting religion as much as poor governance.

Quote:
The US usually finds itself aligned with corrupt and incompetent politicians
I don't disagree, and this is definitely a topic worth exploring in more depth, because it is often the reason we fail in our interventions, even though our intentions are good, and we clearly have overwhelming military and economic might. Sort of, kind of indicates the moral issues are more decisive than might, and narratives that attempt to justify an inept and corrupt government are almost guarunteed to fail.

We choose these relationships because they are convenient, and of course a corrupt politician can be bought and influenced by us and others. Unconventional warfare of the years has been successful in the shortrun, but often fails in the long run based on convenient relations, much like the U.S. putting Mafia members in charge of key positions of Italy to help "stabilize" it as they "liberated" Italy. To avoid this we would have to slow the train down and seek to understand before we engage, and we would also have to dump those that supported us if they turned out to be corrupt. I suspect neither will happen.

On the other hand, you need to also add to your comment that the government the U.S. ousted was just as corrupt, or that the insurgent force attempting to take over the government are just as corrupt.
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Old 03-20-2012   #18
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Bill,

I agree that folks like Saddam and Gaddafi were corrupt, but at least they could keep the peace. When the US comes into situations like this, it usually empowers a set of corrupt but weak leaders - leaders who are just as corrupt but are unable to maintain security.

Was Saddam less competent than Malaki? Was Gaddafi less competent than whoever is running Libya?

Most people tend to worry more about feeding their kids, getting them ahead in life and ensuring that justice is served. Lofty ideals like democracy never meant much to my grandmother.

It is these kinds of gaps that Al Qaeda or their imitators love to exploit.

As you know, I come from Nigeria. Actually Nigeria has two insurgencies raging on - Niger Delta and Boko Haram. Both are partly attributable to poor governance.

What you might not know (as Western news media tends to focus on one story at a time) is that there is an epidemic of kidnappings in the South East (outside the Niger Delta). There is also an organisation MASSOB - Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (does that sound familiar?) that is growing in prominence in that part of Nigeria.

For example, MASSOB was/is heavily involved in transporting and resettling South-Easterners who were displaced by the Boko Haram crisis. They are doing the social welfare bit now, they'll get to other bits in future.

Bill, I have lived in Nigeria/Africa long enough to know that poor governance leads to insurgencies over time. As recently as 1993, I went to Port Harcourt (the heart of the Niger Delta) with my dad. It was a peaceful town, but the behaviour of the police and the glaring differences between the living standards of Oil and Gas company employees and the locals pointed to trouble in future - and it came.

Someone said that COIN in Afghanistan is all about out-governing the Taliban. That should seem easy enough, but when Mullah Omar controlled large swathes of Afghanistan, his word was law. There was a judicial process that led to predictable results, crime was at a minimum and Afghanistan was a much safer place.

The same applies to Al Shabab and the Islamic courts system. For the brief period they held sway, they managed to create order out of chaos.

It is these popular memories - i.e. our local/ethnic/religious militia/organisation can provide social services, avenge wrong doing by heavy-handed security services (and the US military) and give us a sense of self-worth after decades of real or percieved marginalisation/intimidation that make these organisations so difficult to fight.

If you square this up with America's reputation for creating even more chaos out of chaos when the US Military is involved, immediately you realise there is a very SERIOUS problem.
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Old 03-20-2012   #19
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Default RUSI again...

The Language of Jihad: Narratives and Strategies of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula
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Old 03-20-2012   #20
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There is nothing "simplistic" about the nature of the relationship between any government and all of the many diverse and distinct popualces such organizaitons seek to govern. But it is a simple fact that insurgency is about discontent within such relationships between those who govern, and those who are governed. If it is about criminal profits or some other non-political goal, then it is not insurgency, no matter how much it might grow to threaten government.

I am not sure why that concept scares the holy hell out of so many. Perhaps because it drops the primary onus for the existance of insurgency, for the causation of insurgency, squarely in the lap governments everywhere. So much more convenient to blame external factors beyond one's control, like "malign actors" or "ideology" or some other "not my fault" bogey man. Or to blame local powerbrokers

Certainly when conditions of insurgency exist between some populace group and their government, all of these things emerge. Leaders will certainly emerge who are willing to break the law to seek change. Some will be truly selfless and for positive change, most will be selfish exploiters who see and opportunity to advance their own personal cause or agenda. Smart leaders will craft a narrative that speaks to their target populace, and they will craft it in terms that the state is unlikely to feel it can adopt or co-opt; with the result being the state resorting to the poor strategies of "competing" less effective messages that reinforce an approach to governance already deemed unacceptable by their target audiance.

"Poor Governance" is a very broad family of complex human emotions. At the end of the day, it is not the type of government, the state of the economy or any of a thousand other possible drivers that move a populace to insurgency. It is how that populace feels about those things and who they blame. When they feel strongly and blame government, one has the conditions for insurgency. Once one has those conditions it only takes some spark to set things in motion. It may build slowly or explode all at once, it might be very violent and look a lot like warfare, or it may be very non-violent and look like civil unrest. The key is to appreciate and treat the causation and not simply throw blame at various sticky problems and attack the symptoms. Sadly that is the approach most governments take. That is why most governments suck at COIN, because good governments generally don't have to deal with insurgency to begin with.
__________________
Robert C. Jones
Intellectus Supra Scientia
(Understanding is more important than Knowledge)

"The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)
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