Battles Can Be Won With Kinetics, but Wars Are Won With Influence
Our tactics in the battles against Daesh in Raqqa and Mosul appear to be on the verge of success. But tactical success in battle will not win the war without a strategy. And that strategy will not be successful if it depends solely upon kinetic force.
It is imperative to prevent another ISIS-like organization from springing up again after its battleground defeat, so even if it was possible to kill every last fighting jihadi, we need a plan to prevent future jihadists. We will only win if we attack our adversaries center of gravity (COG) – and it cannot be attacked by kinetic or military means.
Bullets and drones will not prevent recruitment. Bullets and drones cannot kill ideas and movements. Worse yet, bullets and drones validate and empower movements by legitimizing them as serious enough for the US to take on militarily. Bullets and drones will not inoculate populations from getting infiltrated by extremist networks, nor prevent an individual from carrying out an attack on the homeland. But bullets and drones can protect the soft power initiatives that can do all of that.
Leading with soft power, secured by hard power, is the framework of a winning strategy. Moreover, the single most powerful weapon in our Soft Power tool box is narrative. Why? Because without narrative you do not have influence. Diplomacy, humanitarian aid, stability operations, community engagement, all rely upon influence for success.
What we need going forward:
- Phase Four Operations – Governance and Stability in the areas we push Daesh out of is not going to be easy but will be less difficult to do in Mosul than in Raqqa. If we do not step up to this difficult challenge, and if our strategy does not involve post-conflict stability, we will not win this war, and our children will be fighting battles with adversaries that spring up out of the fertile ground of unstable environments that we have left behind. We have got to stop the “defeat then cut and run” policy we seem intent on continuing. We need to lead with the narrative and build our operations to support it. That is what it means to be “on the same page” and segments of our population are not on the same page. Our narrative needs to reach from the bottom up – micro to macro:
* A Meta-Narrative that influences how the international community regards a situation – one that encourages a perspective that is consistent with coalition interests.
* Strategic (Master) Narrative that describes what we are doing, why we are doing it, how it will help the situation, and how the TA – national/international community should respond and how they will benefit from such a response.
* Operational Narratives that connect and synchronize the micro and macro narratives in action.
* Tactical (personal/micro) level Narratives that address the concerns of local populations, domestic audiences, and soldiers on the ground.
2. From the perspective of our own self-interests, we also cannot leave the inhabitants of these areas vulnerable to Iranian and Syrian forces that surround them.
3. Stabilize the Homeland – We, at home, are vulnerable to exploitation, and we have been demonstrating that vulnerability to the world. We need to get our house in order. Putting effort into stabilizing micro communities while ignoring the hostile environment they are contextualized within will prove to be minimally successful. We need to focus simultaneously on the macro American community while stabilizing micro pockets. And the first step in that direction is to win back our very contested national narratives – narratives based on constitutional principles. That involves all of us. That is not someone else’s job.
4. Recruitment - We ought to lead counter-recruitment efforts, both at home and abroad, with our own national narrative. Counter-recruitment should not depend upon counter-messaging. There are only rare instances in which we ought to “counter” a hostile message. Doing so legitimates the message even while denying its accuracy or truth value. We ought to lead with our own narrative and let our adversaries counter that.
5. Perform a judo trick with their narrative, both their COG and their biggest weakness. If we consider only our adversaries COG militarily, then it makes sense to attack them kinetically where they are weakest. However, this enemy is not a person or a group of people, and they do not care who gets killed. Any individual our military plans to knock off because he is the “number two guy in ISIS” already has replacements in line before his demise. The leaders of these organizations are not that important; these groups are not like snakes – cutting off the head will not stop the movement. The overarching title of the jihadi narrative is “Islam is Under Attack” (keep in mind this is the title of the narrative, not the narrative itself. The narrative itself gets filled in with people’s experience – experience that is consistent with the title). The judo trick here should be, “Yes, Islam is under attack, and look who is doing the attacking.”
Ajit Maan, Ph.D. is a Narrative Strategist and a specialist in radicalization processes. Her doctorate is in Philosophy. Dr. Maan is also the Founder and President of Narrative Strategies, Partner and Director of Narrative and Engagement at WeSolve, Affiliate Faculty of the Center for Narrative Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, and Affiliate Faculty in the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program, Union Institute and University. She is the author of Inter-narrative Identity and Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies.