Sowing Seeds of Doubt
By TOM ZELLER
Just as the skies over Afghanistan have yielded cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs and peanut butter in recent days, so too will the confetti of persuasion flutter to the ground and - it is hoped - be picked up by anxious Afghans questioning their own convictions. Early last week, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said the American military had already begun its efforts to undermine the Taliban's grip on Afghanistan by using psychological operations, the Orwellian-sounding subset of military activities that fashions volleys against an enemy with, among other things, radio broadcasts, loudspeakers and television signals.
The most common bit of ammunition, however, has long been the paper leaflet. As far back as 1806, the British Navy used kites to carry notes into France, and balloons were used to float messages behind enemy lines during the Siege of Paris in 1848. More than 140 years later, the Fourth Psychological Operation (Psyops) Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., part of the United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, has prepared its latest campaign for Afghanistan. It will include leaflet drops. By Friday, the Pentagon had not yet released the content of the new leaflets, but the themes, experts say, are fairly straightforward.
"It's a lot like being an F.B.I. profiler," said retired Maj. Edward Rouse, a former member of the Fourth Psyops Group who participated in the psychological campaign in Iraq 10 years ago. "The only difference is the profiler usually targets an individual. We target a group or an organization or a country, studying what motivates them, their strengths, their weaknesses. And then we try to craft a message that is likely to appeal to that profile."
Or put another way: psychological operations are all about effective marketing. Before anything is dropped, broadcast or otherwise delivered, messages are tested on focus groups composed of native speakers, experts on the target country or even current prisoners from the opposing force. The insights gained can be, in a word, fruitful. Major Rouse recalled one leaflet that was made to look like currency on one side and bore an illustration of a group of Iraqi soldiers enjoying a feast on the other. The leaflet suggested that if soldiers surrendered, they would enjoy safety, protection and lots of food. When shown to a group of captured Iraqi soldiers, one suggested that bananas be added to the scene.
"It turned out that bananas were considered very hard to get," Major Rouse said. "So we added bananas."
As in other conflicts, the campaign in Afghanistan will have to take into consideration things like literacy rates, religious leanings, poverty and a fractious political climate. Low literacy rates, for instance, would recommend illustrated leaflets over ones with large amounts of text.
"There will certainly be leaflets telling the people that we are not at war with them, but only with the terrorists who hide in the country," said Herbert A. Friedman, a retired Special Forces sergeant major and a lecturer on psychological operations. "Certainly there will be religious leaflets with phrases from the Koran that speak of peace and not killing one's neighbors. There will be photographs of dead women and children and the question 'Is this what Allah teaches?'"
Hitting just the right note can make a difference. The North Vietnamese had some success in demoralizing American troops with leaflets that made use of the antiwar campaign in the States. And thousands of Iraqi troops surrendered clutching "free passage" leaflets dropped in the desert.
"The thing that makes Psyops work is credibility," Major Rouse said. "It has to make sense."
Which would have been good advice for Iraqi leaflet-makers during the Persian Gulf war. A batch of leaflets found in an abandoned bunker, apparently intended for insecure American G.I.'s, warned that their wives and girlfriends were being seduced back home by the likes of Tom Cruise, Tom Selleck and Bart Simpson.
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