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Tuesday, 16 October, 2001, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
The US war of minds
Picture from leaflet being dropped on Afghanistan by US-led forces
Power of persuasion: image from the US leaflet
By the BBC's George Eykyn

The announcements that leaflets are being dropped on Afghanistan and anti-Taleban radio messages broadcast indicate that the allies have begun using a form of warfare known as Psychological Operations, or PsyOps.

The opposition Northern Alliance claims Taleban fighters are defecting as the US-led air strikes continue.

For the attention of the noble people of Afghanistan. The forces of the United States are passing through your area. We have not come here to harm you. We have come to arrest Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and those who support him

US broadcast
The scale of this is unclear, but the coalition is doing its best to ensure that more desertions follow.

In the 21st century lexicon of war, PsyOps come under the banner of "Information Warfare".

This covers everything from unseen attacks on an enemy's computers, and sophisticated disinformation, to the most basic techniques of propaganda - PR and advertising.

Information Warfare began with the coalition's televised assembly of a vast armada of firepower around Afghanistan.

Western leaders meanwhile employed threatening rhetoric to warn the Taleban what was coming.

Using persuasion

Leaks that special forces were "already on the ground" inside Afghanistan also formed part of this phase of the campaign.

Osama Bin Laden has responded with his own propaganda and threats.

PsyOps aim to change the enemy's behaviour by persuasion.

Another of the leaflets being dropped on Afghanistan by US-led forces
Getting the message through
Failing that, PsyOps try to impair enemy soldiers' performance by sowing doubts about their commanders, and demoralising them by suggesting defeat is inevitable.

If an adversary's will to fight can be removed, it follows that lives will be saved.

PsyOps were credited with preventing the loss of thousands of lives in the Gulf War. Iraqi troops were induced to surrender in vast numbers.

PsyOps are, technically speaking, an "asymmetric" weapon. This means that, when successful, they can have a disproportionately powerful effect - the equivalent of David's stone in the fight against Goliath.

Airwaves cleared

In most forms, PsyOps are relatively inexpensive and carry little risk of making the situation worse.

The Taleban's main radio station around Kabul, Voice of Sharia, was deliberately taken off the air with cruise missiles a week ago.

This cleared the airwaves around the capital for unopposed PsyOps broadcasts.

When you see US forces and aircraft you should seek protection and remain there until we leave your area completely. Roads, streets and bridges are dangerous places. The safest place is your own homes. Don't listen to what al-Qaeda and the Taleban say.

On Sunday, monitors picked up a new twice-daily PsyOps radio broadcast into Afghanistan, carrying pro-American announcements and advice on how to handle food packages dropped by US aircraft.

Reports say wind-up radios tuned to the right frequency are being dropped with relief supplies to the Afghan refugees.

Broadcasts in Pashto or Dari are preceded and followed by lively Afghan music.

One broadcast, monitored by the BBC, stated: "The coalition countries want to prove to you and other Muslims in the world that the aim of this war is not to eliminate Islam.

"We want to bring to justice those who have shown disrespect to the name of Prophet Mohammad, may God's peace and blessing be upon him and his family, and to God Almighty and Islam."

Leaflets dropped

Television broadcasts will be of little use because the Taleban have banned TV sets.

High rates of illiteracy in Afghanistan mean the allies will need to rely heavily on sound and images rather than text.

In the Gulf War, allied planes dropped tens of millions of leaflets into the desert, reaching an estimated 98% of Iraqi troops.

Leaflets were sometimes dropped on an Iraqi position warning that it was going to be bombed in 24 hours, and urging those inside to abandon it or surrender.

In one incident hundreds of Iraqi troops, including a general, were captured without a shot being fired

The bombing was then carried out - establishing credibility. An astonishing 44% of Iraqi troops deserted.

US PsyOps teams also used powerful loudspeakers to make surrender appeals, to harass with loud noise, and to deceive.

In one incident hundreds of Iraqi troops, including a general, marooned on the island of Failaka just off Kuwait, were captured without a shot being fired.

With leaflet drops, care has to be taken to respect cultural and religious sensitivities.

Symbols of trust

In the Gulf, the allies added beards to the allied soldiers depicted, conveying trust and Arab brotherhood.

The success of PsyOps in Afghanistan is likely to be more localised than in the Gulf.

Mountainous terrain, the isolation of some Taleban units and the poor communications infrastructure will make it difficult for the effect of any individual operation to spread "down the line".

A hard core may be beyond persuasion by PsyOps, probably including Taleban special units and foreign militants trained in Bin Laden's camps.

But PsyOps teams will hope at least to demoralise them.

Factors that could work to the advantage of the PsyOps campaign:

  • The Taleban are known to be widely reviled within Afghanistan, hence the allies' message that the war is against terrorists based in the country, not against the Afghan people
  • Ordinary Afghans resent the presence of foreign terrorists on their soil
  • The Taleban have admitted a problem with desertions and defections, and they forcibly conscript many fighters.

Koran as propaganda

PsyOps teams are also likely to have scrutinised Islamic holy texts for passages that could be quoted to debunk Osama Bin Laden's calls for Muslims to kill US and British civilians, and to support the allied argument that Bin Laden has defiled a peaceful religion.

Leaflets may use photographs of the World Trade Center bombings, events which many Afghans may have only heard reported verbally.

It should be easy to defend PsyOps as a warfare technique designed to minimise loss of life.

The BBC's George Eykyn
"The American military has started broadcasting direct to the Afghan people"
See also:

16 Oct 01 | South Asia
US deploys lethal low-flying gunship
15 Oct 01 | South Asia
Eyewitness: Residents flee Kabul
15 Oct 01 | South Asia
Kabul hit by heavy daylight raids
15 Oct 01 | South Asia
UN says US 'feeding Taleban'
10 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Pakistan's fault lines
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