Shaping Coalition Forces' Strategic Narrative in Support of Village Stability Operations

Shaping Coalition Forces' Strategic Narrative in Support of Village Stability Operations

by Scott Mann

Download The Full Article: Shaping Coalition Forces' Strategic Narrative in Support of Village Stability Operations

This article is designed to provide strategists and tacticians with comprehensive recommendations for weaving a strategic narrative and supporting plans to achieve a tipping point in the Afghan Counterinsurgency Campaign by leveraging the power of information to amplify the bottom up effects of Village Stability Operations ( VSO) and Afghan Local Police (ALP).

(VSO and ALP are growing in scope and scale within the Afghanistan Civil Military Campaign. Village Stability Operations have the potential to reverse the Afghan insurgency's political momentum, but VSO requires an accompanying strategic narrative to coalesce and coherently amplify the numerous localized victories Afghans have achieved, and continue to achieve against insurgents. While Coalition Forces (CF) and GIRoA strategy has evolved to support local Afghans through VSO and ALP, advancing the CF strategic narrative in line with VSO and ALP has not been given equal weight. As a result, VSO and ALP successes are difficult to reconcile with the current narrative of GIRoA being the sole entity responsible for providing security, development, and governance for Afghans. Indeed, VSO and ALP victories may even result in highlighting GIRoA's governance gaps when local Afghans defeat insurgents on their own initiative.

CF and GIRoA can recapture the political momentum by building a strategic narrative that amplifies the cumulative effects of VSO and that better aligns GIRoA's intent and capabilities with the successes of its citizens and villages. A VSO strategic narrative emphasizes three key points: (1) Afghans standing up for themselves, (2) against a criminal insurgency, and (3) with support from GIRoA and CF. Tangible evidence of Afghans standing up for themselves with GIRoA support can, when cumulatively captured and broadcast as part of a broader narrative, render the insurgency irrelevant to the people. The combined effect of this strategy is to reduce insurgent actions to the behavior of criminals and thieves, and ultimately irrelevant to the Afghan people. This formulation, then, has strategic impact on the three key audiences of Afghan citizens, the insurgency, and the key COIN stakeholders with the intent of generating momentum through a narrative that is linked to on-the-ground actions and deeds.

Despite the potentially momentum changing effects of a strategic bottom up narrative, current VSO activities are still largely unrecognized by many key audience segments. Indeed, most VSO successes remain localized in nature and are not amplified beyond the District Level. Although a strong case can be made for closely protecting VSO activities across the country, this article makes the argument that a positive shift in COIN momentum through the use of a Strategic Narrative is worth the risk to force and mission as long as responsible measures are employed to mitigate these risks.

Download The Full Article: Shaping Coalition Forces' Strategic Narrative in Support of Village Stability Operations

Lieutenant Colonel Scott Mann is a Special Forces Officer assigned to United States Special Operations Command. He has conducted three tours in Afghanistan. Most recently,in 2010,he served as the Program Manager for Village Stability Operations and Afghan Local Police in Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command - Afghanistan and as the Director of the first ever Village Stability Coordination Center in Regional Command South. Lieutenant Colonel Mann is currently the VSO Representative in USSOCOM.

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LC-

I don't think it is "negative" dialogue to point out possible issues with logic and then offer alternative ideas.

I don't agree with your logic: that strategic narratives are that powerful or that outsiders (or anyone for that matter) can "empower" populations. I'm not saying you ARE wrong, but I think there's a powerful argument against that logic (therefore, to state up-front that ... perceptions drive reality and that strategic narratives drive perceptions.. is a non-starter for me because I don't think that is true. Are you saying to have a "positive" dialogue you have to agree with logic you think is wrong?).

The bottom line for me is that I think we tend to over-state what "narratives" and other communication can do for us. I believe (and I could be wrong) that people tend to believe a certain way and over time those things become more solid for them- on average. I think putting any hope or much effort into trying to change that is mostly fruitless.

But, regardless of what I think, the IC and GIRoA stance right now seems to be pretty entrenched. If you think a strategic narrative will change their stance, then I hope you're right- but if you are relying on that then- and I don't know how to put this in "positive" dialogue terms- I wish you well: I have strong doubts based on my experience ANYTHING will change their stances on bottom-up efforts- even hard-to-ignore positive metrics. I tend to think it is against their collective bureaucratic and schizophrenic worldviews.

If that kind of comment kills support in DC for VSO/ALP (and I doubt that will), then maybe our efforts there were resting on shaky foundations to begin with.

This article and the comments responding to it are frustrating because they--I am focusing on the comments here--make little effort to focus on areas of agreement and thus avoid an important opportunity to influence the larger debate in important ways. Following the Western polemical tradition of searching for truth by exposing falsehood, Manns critics ignore his central message and its strategic significance and focus instead on issues he has not fully developed, a common problem in article-length narratives, and on other minor objections. Instead of saying "Is there anything good here?" and then trying to build on it, they bury his argument in minor concerns. When they are done, little or nothing remains to inform the larger debate, which is unfortunate because there is much of value in his argument.

To understand my concern, it is necessary to restate Mann's central argument, which advocates a strategic narrative with three key points: "(1) Afghans standing up for themselves, (2) against a criminal insurgency, and (3) with support from GIRoA support can, when cumulatively captured and broadcast as part of a broader narrative, render the insurgency irrelevant to the people." He argues that this position would have strategic impact on the three key audiences of "Afghan citizens, the insurgency, and the key COIN stakeholders". He states the current problem as follows: "Despite the potentially momentum changing effects of a strategic bottom up narrative, current VSO activities are still largely unrecognized by many key audience segments. Indeed, most VSO successes remain localized in nature and are not amplified beyond the District level."

While some of his critics points are important, they do not defeat his basic argument about the importance of strategic narratives, which I believe is powerfully true (I have myself wrote an article in the SWJ on this subject from a slightly different angle a few months ago). The dialogue format would be more useful if his critics concerns were addressed as part of the strategy he proposes. Here are some of the more important concerns:

"The . . . GIRoA isnt necessarily in favor of empowering entities at the local level." (intheknow)

". . . [T]he 'strategic narrative that gets traction is that VSO/ALP undermines GIRoA legitimacy and pits tribes against other tribes." (intheknow)

"What and how we do [sic] is 'the message, whether we plan it or not. . . . [T]he problem is that VSO itself is inconsistent with the larger message of our overall operations in Afghanistan. . . . VSO is a small voice of what we see ourselves as, but it cannot overcome the much louder voice of who we actually are." (Robert C. Jones)

intheknow also added a general, supporting observation about the difficulty of elevating tactical victories into operational/strategic progress:

"[W]hat NATO needs are better operational/strategic planners and leaders--that we get the tactical level right."

CASTING DIALOGUE IN POSITIVE TERMS

Casting Dialogue in Positive Terms

If this dialogue had been cast in positive rather than negative terms, the exchange would have been very different: issues would be clearer, and there would be at least a chance that the really important points could come into serious discussion at high policy levels and could come to influence both institutional structures and policy.

In positive terms, the exchange would have started with an endorsement of Manns basic point: that perceptions drive reality and that strategic narratives drive perceptions. Before getting to the content of the narrative he proposes, embracing this fundamental point about the strategic importance of perceptions and narratives would have clarified a key issue that troubled two of his critics: the relationship between what we say and what we do.

Both Grant Martin and Robert C. Jones think what we do is more important than what we say. This objection misunderstands the whole issue of perception and a strategic narrative; and this misunderstanding, which is widely shared, itself says a lot about why the point about strategic narratives is not influencing policy as it should.

Jones reveals the problem in his statement, quoted above: "What and how we do is [sic] 'the message, whether we plan it or not." He then writes: "The words are merely [italics added] to highlight our own take on the same. When our words and our take are inconsistent with the perceptions of those who are impacted by our operations we lose both influence and credibility." If our words (the narrative) "merely" state our objectives without influencing what we do, they are of course feckless, empty gestures; and there is little reason to wonder why they have no effect on any reality, including policy. If, on the other hand, one really takes the primal point about perceptions seriously, then the narrative will drive the entire range of issues relating to actions and also to the institutional structures necessary to carry them out.

If words and deeds conflict, it is because the words (strategic narrative) are not playing the essential strategic role they need to play. If the narrative is driving policy, there will be no conflict.

Here we return to Manns argument about what the narrative should be. His focus is on "Afghans standing up for themselves". This is the essential point; everything else is subsidiary to it. Why is the idea of Afghans standing up for themselves so fundamentally important? The reason is because as a narrative it conflicts fundamentally with the most important assumptions of COIN, as it is currently practiced, including the primal, underlying assumption in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

WHY "STANDING UP" IS SO IMPORTANT

"Afghans standing up for themselves" affirms a powerful, active role in COIN for the populace of a country. This elemental point returns us to the importance of empowering rather than helping people. The earliest, recent authority I am aware of on this point may be found in the celebrated article written in early 2006 by GEN Petraeus in Military Review. The article explores the fourteen basic principles of COIN. (From this point for a few paragraphs I am reprinting a discussion of the central importance of empowerment from my SWJ article, "Civil Society and Counterinsurgency - II: Recruiting Armies of Citizens for COIN". )

To explain his first principle, Petraeus quotes T. E. Lawrence, writing in 1917: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands," Lawrence writes. "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. . . . [T]he work . . . may take them longer and it may not be as good as you think, but if it is theirs, it will be better."

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this insight, which really affirms two separate ideas. The central point is about ownership. Ownership can come both from what they do and also from also allowing them to decide what to do. If the issue is building a well, local people are empowered by letting them build the well even if it is not perfect. This gives them ownership of the well. But they get even more ownership, and they are even more empowered, if they get to participate in the decision to build the well.

Lawrences insight about ownership and empowerment is important to build social capital in communities to be helped, and it is also important for sustaining the value of the well: when people have ownership, they will maintain it; when they do not, they will often not maintain it, and it will break down and lose its value--a very widely (and sadly) observed point by people who do this work. Without maintenance the value of the well beyond the short-term is zero.

Most people embrace Lawrences insight, but only abstractly. His insight, in truth, conflicts--fundamentally--with almost universal philanthropic and donor practices and norms.

To focus on ownership rather than the well is to focus on the psychology of the recipient of help rather than on the help itself. The help (a well) is about the present; the internal state of the recipient is about the future. Although the word "sustainability" has come to have almost transcendental importance in the donor/philanthropic vocabulary, sustainability, which is about the future, conflicts with another mantra of philanthropy, which is results. That is why despite near-universal and ritual embrace of Lawrences insight about ownership, people tend quickly to forget it when they are doing the "really serious work" of making and implementing plans. "Really serious work" is about objectives and measurable results. Ownership is about sustainability and the future. Contrary to Petraeuss and Lawrences point, the nearly universal understanding of the best of philanthropy has nothing to do with the subjective state of people one is trying to help; it has only to do with "real things"--objective things--like schools and hospitals and wells. It is about the present, not about the future.

When we are helping people, the focus is on us, the helpers: we decide what to do, and we do it. When we are empowering, the focus is on those we are empowering. The impulse to help comes from the common belief that the poor have only needs, no resources. This idea runs throughout the armys Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which, however important its bold, strategic changes in outlining a new role for the military in counterinsurgency warfare, nevertheless holds to a view of people as a passive force, who need protection and government services, but who cannot play any active role in supporting COIN. This is a serious shortcoming both in the Field Manual and much of what we are doing in the field. Scott Manns narrative is most important for revealing how profoundly wrong both are.

If sustainability and the future are the real objectives, they need to come through ownership and empowerment. They come from accepting an imperfect present for a powerfully sustaining future. This insight of Petraeus and Lawrence is essential not only for development; it is also the ultimate mechanism for recruiting the populace of a country to become active participants in COIN.

The failure to understand the importance of empowerment and how to promote it is a great problem we face in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places. Until we learn this lesson, we face the nightmare possibility of insurgencies in many countries. In the wake of the Arab Spring this year (which has, in fact, occurred since I first wrote about this), this nightmare scenario could very well already be upon us.

Lawrence expresses the essence of how to promote empowerment and its central importance in COIN. The idea is that how something is done is more important than what is done. It is process over substance. This is the essential idea underlying empowerment, which occurs when people do things for themselves--when they own what they do. It is also important to add: empowerment is even stronger when people get to decide what to do for themselves. While we should be empowering rather than helping, much of what we are doing is helping rather than empowering--helping and disempowering. We need to be helping and empowering. But Lawrences statement, which Petraeus quotes to express his first principle of COIN, clearly puts empowering first.

In terms of conflict between what we are saying and what we are doing, this is a cripplingly powerful example of it. Scott Manns principal emphasis on empowerment ("Afghans standing up for themselves") should be the central principal of our strategic narrative and therefore of our policy (driven by the narrative). Although we say it is, it clearly is not.

With an empowerment intervention model, civil society organizations (CSOs) can mobilize citizens to become active agents in taking responsibility for advancing progress, including security. Real experiences have shown that CSOs can empower people as citizens and bring them together to reform schools, do community projects, and even encourage people to change their private behavior, including allowing girls to attend school. Although most of these experiences have occurred in places that do not have Afghanistans severe security issues, notable cases exist where CSOs have successfully taken on the challenge of security against terrorists representing violent forms of radical Islam.

Empowerment is important for another reason, and it has to do with cost. As long as we assume the overwhelming burden of resisting insurgencies, we will not be able to do very much of it. This is especially true when policy is driven by a focus on helping rather than empowering. Usually one faces a trade-off between what we should be doing and what we can afford. In this case, we cant afford what we should not be doing anyway! By changing what we do to what we should be doing, we will be able to afford much more; and we will do much more good.

Empowering brings massive new resources into both development and COIN in the form of people. When the focus is on helping, we leave people out. In the search for new mechanisms to recruit help for COIN, the greatest underutilized pool of potential, underutilized resources is the people of countries threatened by insurgencies themselves.

OTHER ISSUES

intheknow raises an important point about the challenge of working in a tribal society when he notes that GIRoA feels no great enthusiasm for local empowerment, and it will therefore tend to resist Scott Manns emphasis on it. At another place, he also expresses concern that VSO/ALP, at least in its current form, undermines the central governments legitimacy and pits tribes against each other.

This is a situation where conceptual clarity is everything. "Empowerment" can and does mean different things in different contexts. In a tribal society, with its powerful antagonism toward outsiders, empowerment cannot have positive effects unless the form it takes includes strong commitment to engage people and increase social trust among them. In Afghanistan, this means promoting trust both between tribes and also between local communities and the government (which people also see as an "outsider"). Commitment to such engagement is essential for empowerment as a central principal of a strategic narrative. In fact, such engagement, along lines exhibited in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and India, should perhaps itself be part of the strategic narrative that guides our policies in all tribal societies, including Afghanistan.

The greatest challenge in converting insight into policy is the negative cast of our intellectual discourse. This negative perspective comes from the philosophy of science and its focus on "falsifiability". In the search for "errors", we often entirely ignore essential and powerful truths, which, to be realized in the world, require active, committed, and positive engagement. Such engagement is important to guide us to understand what is really important and what is not--and then inspire us to search for ways, which are often very complex, to serve them.

If dialogue, in a form such as the SWJ, focusing always on the negative, has so little understanding of what is really important, we can hardly be surprised that really good ideas never find their way to senior policymaking levels, where they might influence what we are doing in very large ways.

[Some of this comment is reprinted from my SWJ article, "Civil Society and Counterinsurgency - II: Recruiting Armies of Citizens for COIN", posted 11/24/10]

What and how we do IS "the message," whether we plan it or not. The words are merely to highlight our own take on the same. When our words and our take are inconsistent with the perceptions of those who are impacted by our operations we lose both influence and credibility.

During the peak of OIF that one operation was the primary US Stratcom to the world. At the time all of our messaging was wildly inconsistent with what everyone was seeing in the form and nature of our engagement. This created a massive drain on US influence. We are getting into a similar situation in Afghanistan.

VSO is in large, consistent with our messaging; the problem is that VSO itself is inconsistent with the larger message of our overall operations in Afghanistan, so it is subsumed and trumped by the larger message of clearing operations in Helmand and Kandahar, drone strikes in Pakistan, Ranger night raids across the land, and the commitment to sustaining the troubled Karzai regime in power. VSO is a small voice of who we see ourselves as, but it cannot overcome the much louder voice of who we actually are.

I wonder if we tend to have an exaggerated view of what messaging can do for us. In my experience it doesn't matter what we say as much as what we do and it doesn't matter what we do as much as what people's worldview already is.

ALP and VSO have political baggage and the worldviews of GIRoA, many of our European allies, and most NGOs I've run into hold that supporting local efforts is not good for the future of Afghanistan- an Afghanistan they see very differently than SOF and many COIN "proponents" (at least local-level proponents) see.

I think one problem we have- way before we try to offer a strategic narrative- would be to attempt to align the direction of the International Community to be more in-line with what SOF advocates (VSO, ALP, and other localized solutions). Unfortunately, their view of "the solution" over there is centralized, top-down, and Western-style systems. ALP and VSO represent a threat to this "solution frame" and many view them as short-term "stop-gap" solutions only that will go away once the ANSF is big enough to take the helm.

Lt Col. Mann

Looks like an interesting paper. But I cant seem to download it. Any chance the pdf can be emailed to me: jason@jasonthomas.net.au

Thanks

Jason

While VSO and ALP have had some success in the past under SOF, it remains to be seen whether that will continue as it expands and CF takeover some of the programs (or at least ALP).

The main issue with the "strategic narrative" piece is that GIRoA isn't necessarily in favor of empowering entities at the local level.

Although the narrative plays well locally, at the higher levels it is problematic:

- "Afghans standing up for themselves" isn't something that many couple VSO/ALP with- especially in Europe and in Kabul.

- "against a criminal insurgency" is problematic due to the popular concept that many insurgents are just "wayward cousins".

- "with support from GIRoA and CF" is problematic due to support from CF contradicting the first point- Afghans standing up for themselves; and because a general lack of support for VSO/ALP at the upper levels of GIRoA.

- "Tangible evidence of Afghans standing up for themselves with GIRoA support can, when cumulatively captured and broadcast as part of a broader narrative, render the insurgency irrelevant to the people." Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, the "strategic narrative" that gets traction is that VSO/ALP undermines GIRoA legitimacy and pits tribes against other tribes. I have serious doubts that any NATO IO/PAO/STRATCOM efforts can overcome that narrative even with "tangible evidence" "as part of a broader narrative". Surely, though, even if they were able to do so- it wouldn't necessarily "render the insurgency irrelevant"... ??? That, to me, seems like a simplistic view of the insurgency.

While I have great admiration for the efforts of SF teams conducting VSO and ALP missions, I tend to view them just like most action in Afghanistan: tactical victories that we are unable to turn into operational/strategic progress.

One smart colonel said recently that what NATO needs are better operational/strategic planners and leaders- that we get the tactical level right. Above the rank of captain we are soup (his thought, not mine).