Much has been written about counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies and tactics being used in Afghanistan and Iraq – or rather not. Back in my army days in Kandahar in 2007-2008, I remember  commanders endlessy bragging about how “we totally nail that COIN thing,” keeping on gargling out quotes from the likes of COIN scholar David Galula, a French army officer who fought in the Algeria Independence War and is considered the leading COIN theoretician. (Galula was cited as an inspiration to David Petraeus’ “Surge” strategy in Iraq, which helped make that war a little less of a fiasco than it eventually became.)

Except we weren’t. At all. This is the last of a three-part series of articles that addresses serious issues about the way US, Canadian and other NATO countries conducted what they thought were COIN operations, and suggests new approaches that, in current and future conflicts, may improve efficiency and minimize civilian deaths so that wars can no longer be, in the words of my former PSYOPS platoon commander, “about buying time.”

Part 3: PSYOPS

Like I previously mentioned, fighting an unconventional enemy with conventional means is an accelerated pathway to a strategic defeat against an enemy that, despite possessing far less firepower and equipment, makes up for these shortcomings with deep cultural knowledge and fighting on its own ground. They stem from the very population that Western countries claim to be helping and, therefore, know people’s vulnerabilities, sensibilities and everything that makes them tick.

They can effortlessly influence civilians and gain their support, fuel their hate of the “foreigners” and showcase their tactical victories, such as a successful yet carefully-edited suicide bombing of a NATO convoy, for sale on DVD at Panjwayi’s bazaar. They can strike local leaders with fear if they support NATO forces or official governements by posting “night letters” – death threats – on their doors.

Enter Psychological Operations, aka PSYOP in the US and PSYOPS in Canada.

Akin to their civilian marketing-public relations-advertising firm counterpart, Psychological Operations specialists aim to influence the actions and behaviours of a pre-selected “target audience” and lead them to act according to specific desired effects, using a broad range of tools and tactics. They can distribute flyers to encourage locals to report IEDs to the troops in exchange for money. They can put up political ads on billboards alongside the highway to increase popular support for the official government.

They’re cultural experts, keeping an updated list of influential local leaders and advising field commanders with their communications with them. They can use social networks to bolster voter participation in elections. They can spread false rumours about a meeting between local officials and NATO senior officers and, in cooperation with intelligence and reconnaissance assets, study enemy patterns and pinpoint their locations. They can also take more offensive action on combat operations, deterring enemy fighters with lousdpeaker messages that can also be aimed at minimizing civilian deaths by telling people to stay in their homes.

Psychological Operations in asset with a wide array of potential effects that can support almost all operations within the conflict spectrum: combat, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and special operations.

Yet, in Afghanistan, PSYOPS were considered a “support” asset to combat operations and always remained in the background – something which, while consistent with the “fighting an unconventional enemy with conventional means” mindset, was a colossal strategic failure. In fairness, the brass never really grasped PSYOPS’ true potential – hell, some PSYOPS officers didn’t even know about thier own job!

One prime example: In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Canadian Forces deployed a small contingent to help with the disaster relief efforts. We insisted that sending a PSYOPS platoon that was then preparing for deployment to Afghanistan was ideal, as they would demonstrate their capabilities to a still-skeptical brass, while allowing the operators to train in a live, yet non-hostile, environment. Our company commanding officer denied the request, arguing that “PSYOPS is useless in a disaster relief context.” Yes, because operators distributing flyers telling victims about available resources and broadcasting radio messages telling people the locations of the food and water distribution points were definitely not within our capabilities.

But then again, COIN was grossly misunderstood in Afghanistan. If NATO aims at starting to achieve total victory against insurgencies like the Taliban, they need to understand that fighting an unconventional enemy calls for unconventional means, no matter how some eager high-ranking Air Force officer wants to carpet-bomb the place, or that the brass feels compelled to justify the recent purchase of multi-million dollar M777 guns.

While there’s no denying these assets had proven themselves effective at time and saved the lives of soldiers caught in tight spots, their use must be carefully regulated. And there’s also an argument that successful and coherent COIN-inspired operations, including the extensive use of PSYOPS, naturally decrease the need for fiewpower as insurgent operations and support decrease.

Maybe, one day, we’ll stop “buying time.”