In the past few weeks there has noticeable lack of reporting about the success of our forces in Iraq. The silence had been deafening. When the success of the surge was in doubt, newspapers, news shows and the internet treated us to a daily onslaught of reports on casualties, bombings and IED attacks. But now that the surge is clearly seen as working, few seem to be talking about it.
And that can make it fail.
In a war that most experts and our enemies agree is informational in nature, communicating battlefield success is critical to shoring up U.S. public opinion and political will and thus convincing our enemies that they are fighting a war that they cannot win.
That the surge is working is beyond dispute. All of the major measurable indicators support this conclusion, as they highlight a steady reduction in the amount of violence, increased Iraqi military capacity, and the destruction of extremist elements.
Attacks, for example, which had been steadily increasing for over two years, have been consistently declining since June of 2007. Improvised Explosive Device (IED) ambushes have also dropped during this same time period.
Additionally, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) – defined as military and police units — have increased by a number of 110 thousand during the last year. More importantly, these forces have also experienced a dramatic increase in capability as well, with many of these units conducting independent operations — an achievement that would have been unthinkable only one year ago.
Another key measurement — U.S. casualty figures — is trending lower, showing a steady reduction in both wounded and killed in action since the summer of 2007.
Civilian deaths — perhaps the most important indicator of a reduction in the overall level of violence in Iraq — are also being reported at the lowest levels in almost two years.
Lastly, many military experts agree that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has been tactically defeated and is desperately trying to reorganize, reconstitute and regenerate its forces. Operation Phantom Phoenix – the massive military offensive launched last week by coalition forces – will have the effect of smoking out pockets of AQI resistance and denying them a chance to catch their breath. Translation: AQI is still on the run and they are being denied a chance to even stop and lick their wounds.
The bottom line here is that the surge is succeeding. Yet for the most part, these stories of success are going unreported in the media.
Why this lack of reporting is so important is that war is a test of will between two sides, in which each side is trying to break the other’s will to continue the struggle.
As such, it is not enough to be measurably winning. You must also put effort into communicating your success to your citizens, your political leaders, and your enemy.
Simple enough? Our enemies think so.
Al Qaeda and its associated movements (AQAM) have realized that they are fighting an informational war and that victory for them consists in part of convincing the adherents of Islam that they are winning while convincing the U.S. at its allies that we are loosing. They are therefore waging a continuous 24/7 information operations campaign to showcase their victories, downplay (or deny) their losses, and paint a vision of their political and military future. Madison Avenue has nothing on these guys — and business schools would do well to study them.
Contrast that with the U.S. model of reporting our defeats, missteps and miscues while ignoring our victories and progress.
One gets the sense that we might pull another Vietnam and end up winning every battle and yet loosing the war.
What is needed here is not necessarily an information operations campaign ala AQAM, but just some good, honest reporting about coalition gains. That’s it. By simply stating the facts, the American citizen, his political representatives, and our enemies might just get the idea that we are winning.
Communicating victory will have two political/military effects. Tactically and operationally, it will make it less likely that Islamic extremist elements will receive needed support in terms of money, sanctuary and recruits. Ideology aside, no one likes to support or join a losing venture.
Strategically, it will increase the probability that Islamist leaders will challenge the right of Al Qaeda to wage war, as it is against Islamic law to start a jihad you cannot win. The result would be that AQAM would be declared to be "illegal warriors," conducting an illegitimate jihad.
So the takeaway lesson here is that in war — like so many other things — perception is reality. In the case of the surge, however, the reality is not being perceived. And that can lose a war.