Opening Up the Psyops War

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A second front in the war on Afghanistan has begun — the psyops war. Air Force planes on Monday dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets over Afghanistan. The leaflets, printed on flimsy, dollar-sized pieces of paper, are being drafted by the Army's 4th Psychological Operations Group based at Ft. Bragg, N.C. One set of leaflets has a fairly simple message. They show an American soldier shaking hands with an Afghan in front of a mountain range. Printed in Dari on one side and Pashtu on the other (Afghanistan's two most common languages) is a simple sentence: "The Partnership of Nations is here to Help."

A second set of leaflets amounts to a programming guide for radio psyops. They have printed on them the times and frequencies Afghans can tune in their radios to receive broadcasts from Commando Solo. Sounds exotic and it is. Commando Solo is a U.S. Air Force special operations EC-130 plane flying near the Afghan border. A $70 million converted cargo aircraft, flown by the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, Commando Solo is an airborne Radio Shack. It's packed with all kinds of broadcasting gear: secure faxes and computers, cassette decks, compact disks, VHS tape players, and powerful transmitters. The hardware allows the plane's 11-man crew to jam a country's broadcasts and to substitute on any frequency radio and TV messages intended to confuse, deceive or inform. So there will be someone to listen to Commando Solo, the CIA is supplying portable radios that will be air dropped or trucked into Afghanistan.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Commando Solo's programming is fairly simple as well. "We are here to take measures against terrorists who have rooted themselves in your country," one broadcast begins. "It is not you, the honorable people of Afghanistan, who are targeted, but those who oppress you, seek to bend you to their will, and make you their slaves."

To American eyes and ears the leaflets and broadcasts may seem pretty pedestrian, nothing that would sway a U.S. audience. But the messages have been crafted for Afghans not Americans. The 4th Psyops Group has teams of Arab and Southwest Asian experts and artists who've been working around the clock crafting the words and pictures. For the Afghans, the words to be spoken have to be chosen carefully and the ones printed on paper have to be few. "Our big problem in Afghanistan is that a vast majority of the people are illiterate," says a U.S. Army colonel. The leaflets therefore have to be mostly pictures so they are understood.

A long tradition

Military psyops has always been as much art as science. American armies have used psychological operations since the Revolutionary War. Psyops leaflets were passed out to British soldiers at the battle of Bunker Hill promising free land if they defected. Over the years, it gained a reputation as a black art, the stuff of Tokyo Rose and Nazi propaganda. But today's psywarriors are like Madison Avenue advertising executives — except they wear combat fatigues and jump out of planes.

Army psyops specialists have found that their most effective weapon often is the truth. The 4th Psyops Groups, for example, launched a massive psyops campaign during the 1991 Desert Storm War that proved effective. Millions of leaflets were air dropped on Iraqi troops occupying Kuwait urging them to give up and giving them instructions on how to surrender. Commando Solo broadcast straight news to Iraqi soldiers along with a surrender hotline: a two-way frequency they could call with their field radios to reach an Arabic-speaking officer who'd give directions on how to give up safely. Military officers believe that the Desert Storm psyops campaign, paired with a month of bombing, induced tens of thousands of Iraqis to give up the minute U.S ground forces entered Kuwait.

Deadly soccer balls

In the runup to the 1994 U.S. invasion of Haiti, Commando Solo beamed pro-Jean-Bertrand Aristide radio and TV spots into Haiti to prepare people for his return. Using sophisticated market research surveys, the 4th Psyops specialists divided Haiti's population into 20 target groups to be bombarded with different types of leaflets. No detail was ignored. Psyops radio broadcasts began with the crow of a rooster, the mascot for Aristide's party. Leaflets were printed in red and blue — the colors of Haiti's flag. Orange was avoided; it was the color of Haiti's hated military buildings.

Psyops isn't a perfect art. Some schemes can backfire. The CIA, for example, bought 1,030 soccer balls, painted with crossed Haitian and American flags on each, and planned to air drop them over Port au Prince before the invasion. But State Department officials, horrified at the thought of Haitian children beaned by the balls, objected. The balls were passed out to the kids after the Americans landed. A Defense Science Board study found that during NATO's 1999 air war over Kosovo, Commando Solo broadcasts were largely ineffective. No one knows how effective tactical psyops will now be in a country as isolated and backward as Afghanistan has become. Afghans should be starved for information. The Taliban regime is unpopular among large segments of the population. But the Taliban has had an iron grip on what Afghans see and hear — and therefore a long lead in the psyops war.