How Obama Is Losing Afghanistan

Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that war should be the predominant study of an Italian prince, and Sun Tzu said that mastery of the art of war was of vital importance to the state.  Colonel Paul Linebarger's Psychological Warfare (1954) added the same of his science: "Yet success, though incalculable, can be overwhelming; and failure, though undetectable, can be mortal."

Linebarger adds that any communication, no matter how honest or benevolent, whose purpose is to influence attitudes and beliefs, is propaganda by definition. Barack Obama's apology for the burning of Korans is the most recent example of incompetent propaganda.

The Afghan people recognize only that American troops burned Korans, and they are unaware of the circumstances of the incident in question. As stated by the refernce,

The account begins about a week before the burning, when officers at the detention center in Parwan became worried that detainees were secretly communicating through notes scribbled in library books, possibly to plot an attack.

It was not only the officers' right but more importantly their duty to be very concerned about the exchange of notes, and by individuals suspected of violent intentions, in a language they did not understand. Why did the detainees write in library books they did not own, and why did they write on Korans that are so holy that they must be handled with the utmost reverence? It is difficult to imagine, for example, a Jew writing personal notes in the margins of a Torah whether or not it belonged to him.

This raises the issue of militant Islamic perfidy, or methods of waging war that are so outrageous that they once subjected their practitioners to death on the spot. The Lieber Code of 1863 gives numerous examples of perfidy: abuses of flags of truce, use of yellow flags to designate combat-related assets as hospitals, combatants disguising themselves as noncombatants, and use of poison.

A church, synagogue, or mosque is, like a hospital, immune to attack under the laws of civilized warfare. There was actually a very disturbing scene in The Pride and the Passion (a movie based on C.S. Forester's The Gun) in which Spanish guerrillas hid a siege gun in a cathedral during a religious service. The behavior of the French occupiers, such as hanging civilians who refused to collaborate, was however no better, and perhaps all the rules had by this time gone out the door. The lesson is however that the use of a Koran to smuggle plans or information is every bit as perfidious as the use of a hospital or place of worship to house munitions or combatants, and this brings up the need for offensive doctrine in public relations.

Public Relations and Offensive Doctrine

The King hereby forbids all cavalry officers, under penalty of being cashiered, ever to allow themselves to be attacked by the enemy in any action. Prussians must always attack the enemy.

Frederick the Great issued this order with good reason, and Helmuth von Moltke added to it that, if rifle fire failed to stop an infantry assault, the Prussian infantry must countercharge with fixed bayonets rather than standing still to receive the attack. Furthermore, Moltke added,

Cavalry should everywhere live up to the glorious tradition that our cavalry never stands to await the attack of hostile cavalry but advances to meet it, even if outnumbered.

The reason in all cases is that momentum rather than numbers usually decides such an issue, and offensive doctrine is therefore paramount. It is particularly telling that Frederick won most of his battles while, as far as we know, Moltke never lost. The practice of the United States and Israel has however been to await what Moltke called the law of the opponent. This is public relations battlefield's moral equivalent of the command defect for which Frederick the Great would automatically dismiss any officer.

The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it,  evidently has no offensive doctrine on the information battlefield in Afghanistan.  All the rhetoric about radicals "perverting a great religion" appears to have been directed toward the American, not the Afghan public.  Nobody in the detention center's organization saw the potential use of this desecration of holy books as a means of winning support.  The detainees were responsible for an "insult to Islam."

Failing to fight the information war on offense can be fatal to military outcomes. Germany failed in 1915 to accuse the United Kingdom (accurately) of carrying American civilian passengers on a munitions ship, the Lusitania, possibly for the express purpose of getting them killed to draw the United States into a war. This propaganda failure played a central role in the United States' subsequent declaration of war and Germany's defeat. The German who unfortunately learned the most from his country's public relations failures was Adolf Hitler.

Linebarger's words about propaganda and psychological warfare are worth repetition: "Yet success, though incalculable, can be overwhelming; and failure, though undetectable, can be mortal." The Free World must learn from the mistakes of the past and present the dire accuracy of these words, and act accordingly to prevent future disasters.

William A. Levinson, P.E. is the author of several books on business management including content on organizational psychology, as well as manufacturing productivity and quality.