Not many predicted that on the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 we would be mourning the fall of Afghanistan. And now we are thinking about “lessons learned.” But we have not learned, and don’t even know enough to ask, about what warfare strategy the tactic (the tower hits) served.
Narrative Warfare attacks the identity layers and the sense-making apparatus of the target audience. A comprehensive Narrative Strategy has both offensive and defensive components and enlists tactics like the weaponization of adversarial narratives such that the target audience is being attacked from the inside. That is how we were hit on 9/11. Our identity layers as Americans were hit hard and we needed a way to understand such a horrific attack. The way we understood it was to contextualize it in our understanding (our meaning map: our narrative) of modern warfare as primarily kinetic. And away we went with our hardware.
The foundation of any gray zone effort ought to be a comprehensive Narrative Strategy designed for multi-layered influence. Let’s not confuse Narrative Strategies with StratComm because Narrative Warfare and the weaponized narratives that support it don’t necessarily “communicate” anything. All they need to do is trigger what is already there or trigger and then manipulate if necessary.
What is already there that weaponized narratives trigger? Identity. Why trigger identity? Because nothing is as motivating as an identity attack.
“The most effective weapons in warfare have always been the ones that target the cognitive space because they are the most enduring.”
Why use narrative to conduct an identity attack? Because it is through narrative that we construct ourselves. Our foundational cultural narratives tell us who we are supposed to be in the context in which we were born and then we each take it from there by living stories that reflect our narrative environment and our place in it. The telling of our stories does not merely reflect our identities; it co-creates the teller in the process of the telling.
Deeper, while the stories we tell about ourselves are conscious, the narrative foundation of those stories is less than conscious; it operates at the level of assumption. That is where weaponized narratives attack –- at the level of less-than-conscious assumption. Weaponized narrative represents a deep threat to national and international cooperation — a threat that our advanced kinetic capacity cannot address. When narratives are weaponized, they can undermine stability by shaking the faith in governance and the rule of law.
All conflict has a narrative basis and requires a narrative strategy to reach the foundational narrative layers of our adversaries if we are to go on the offense. Those foundational levels are usually less than conscious unless the TA has been trained. Because they are less than conscious, weaponized narrative attacks go undetected. A comprehensive long-term offensive narrative strategy will render our adversary’s narratives obsolete, and our defense components will render our own narrative impenetrable.
We have mis-identified parts for the whole; just as terrorism is only one aspect of psychological warfare, so, too, psychological warfare is only one aspect of Narrative Warfare. Narrative Identity Theory is the basis of Narrative Warfare. Psychological, Information, Influence, and Stability Operations are all aspects of Narrative Warfare. They fall under its domain.
The most effective weapons in warfare have always been the ones that target the cognitive space because they are the most enduring.
Kautilya in India in the 4th century B.C. refers to the psychologically based tactics and strategies of those before him, suggesting that the strategies may have been employed as early as 650 B.C. Hits in the cognitive space were prescribed by Sun Tzu, practiced by Genghis Khan’s armies, employed by Xerxes, by Hannibal more than 200 years before the birth of Christ. But hits in the cognitive space do more than produce a win before the bullets fly. It is a mistake to assume that narrative is only a non-kinetic strategy that belongs in the soft power toolbox. Narrative underlies any conflict, even the most kinetically oriented.
Many, including myself, have argued that a terrorist tactic should not be confused with an “act of war” as terrorists are not recognized nation states and cannot legitimately declare war against a sovereign nation. We were wrong. We were focused on a limited modern conception of war. Our fight didn’t end when we got Osama bin Laden, and it won’t end as we have left Afghanistan. We are in the thick of it right now and we had better wrap our heads around what sort of warfare is being waged against us so that we can begin to form a defense and an offense.
Success in influence will look different and the optics will be less spectacular than any sort of end-point victory that the American public expects. In fact, effective influence doesn’t show itself. What we may see are influence tactics but we don’t see effective influence. If we did, it wouldn’t be effective.
We can achieve our strategic goals by enlisting narratives that shape environments and affect behaviors. We need to lead with a comprehensive strategic narrative that speaks to the identity of its audience.
Our adversaries understand this concept, have embraced it, and have incorporated strategic narratives across their operations. AQAP, ISIS, the Taliban al-Qaeda, and groups on the homeland, effectively disseminate their brand and reinforce their ideologies through broad information operations to control the strategic narrative.
Ten years ago we did what we went to Afghanistan to do: we rooted out bin Laden. That goal was comprehensible to, and supported by, American public sentiment. But that goal was based on a more complex strategic need: to cripple al-Qaeda’s capabilities, stabilize the region, and keep mass casualty attacks from threatening the homeland. And those goals rested on something we are not doing well: influence.
Announcing that we lost Afghanistan is a mistake that rests on the faulty assumption that there is an end point to influence. We may have lost that particular battle in that particular place but the war for influence remains ongoing and we are not even defending ourselves much less dominating. We have the capacity; we just need a certain type of intelligence, and clarity, on what to use and where to aim.