Another Brick in the Wall, Part II: Response to the Urban Tourniquet

The discussion over “gated communities” continues with David Kilcullen’s description of the “Urban Tourniquet”. Kilcullen’s response to the wide-spread condemnation of the tactic, while clear in its justification, does not fully address the two key issues raised in my own commentary a few days ago: the continued failure to participate in the information campaign and the apparent failure of the wall to integrate multidisciplinary and cross-institutional efforts.

My post this weekend was going to be on on General Petraeus’ (appropriate) request to breakdown the firewall between IO and PA, a firewall reinforced by General Myers in 2004. This post unintentionally speaks to that need. This post, a reply to Kilcullen, is about information operations, public affairs, public diplomacy, and the need for an integrated narrative “to mobilize popular support” (Kilcullen’s Article 21 at bottom) both in Iraq and in the United States.

Surprisingly, Kilcullen’s response lays out a security plan without responding to the key reason of why he writes his response was needed in the first place: information operations by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The failure to get on message, and promote the advantages, emphasize the short-life span, and highlight other successful elements of the wall cannot be blamed on AQI but on the continued failure of the US to internalize what AQI has: knowledge of the value of information. Or, Information Dominance to use language befitting a field manual.

Ambassador Crocker’s response, to use but one example, never mentions any sort of participation by non-uniformed experts on the ground, let alone provide a more realistic image that Kilcullen provides. Where are the talking points? 

After the perimeter is sealed and the area cleared, physical rebuilding, confidence and legitimacy building must take place. All the little features of state-building can be given a chance to work in the small space to create what should be a positive visceral response when they hear “we are from the government and we’re here to help”. Where is that in the sanitizing process?

My Give Peace a Chance post a couple days ago could have been written in response to the wall. In some ways it was. The fear that Senator Harry Reid may actually be listened to indicates our own concern and acknowledgement that our IO and Public Diplomacy (PD) campaigns is a failure. Our mission is on the side of “right” and justice, two ideas that are easily defended but we’ve taken our own knees out with Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and other strategic failures, and yet ideas that resonate with the local public (see book review on the Arab Machiavelli here) We must stand back up to create legitimacy, to be able to effectively and convincingly discuss the way forward. This business is not a marathon with its pre-planned and known route that may be practiced over and over. It is like an ultramarathon, an event where we have the saying “If you’re feeling good, don’t worry, you’ll get over it”. Engage the people, know there will be bad things, the enemy will surge, certain actions may seem off the mark but are really founded on a just and right purpose.  

But this is not about Sen. Harry Reid, this is about how we understand information, trust, and legitimacy as currency that and influences friends and enemies. We must participate better in the information arena, the other side (insurgents, outside states, criminals, even US domestic opponents) writes the headlines, the stories, and creates the listening of the people that matter most in the age of global media: the Iraqis themselves.

Pardon my ignorance, but have the walls of Ameriya and Ghazaliya come down? Has there been a reiteration that they will, a vocal expression of their success, and demonstration of their value? How have we differentiated past, present, and future structures from images that resonate negatively with locals and allies, such as walls in Ireland and Palestine?

Kilcullen’s justifications are sound, but the tactic is still incomplete. Missing is the full spectrum participation of non-uniformed responses from State, USAID, etc. Community development is more than temporal security and creating bonds of communication, which Kilcullen alludes to in the success of previous temporary cordons. We must exercise the full force of USG, with all of its many departments and tremendous expertise, to demonstrate our real resolve, if there is one. The walled off communities should become role models of sorts, incentivising others to want the same peace and security and prosperity.

Where is the broader IO, public affairs, public diplomacy that emphasizes the new goals of the mission: stability and government legitimacy (new in the sense of a smart strategy to actually accomplish them)? Ambassador Crocker says one thing, local supporting media says another (without clarification), military spokesmen say another, and other media outlets something else. Where are the talking points? Where is the linkage being promoted in this war over information to prevent negative manipulation by friends (unintentionally) and foes alike?

After reading Kilcullen’s response, I agree with him on the value of the walls. However, I still feel the tactical solution of deploying the walls is woefully and dangerously incomplete in both depth and breadth that may be beyond the capabilities of General Petraeus, Kilcullen, McMaster, etc. These shortfalls are seemingly inherent in everything we do in Iraq. Where is State? Where are the Arab and Iraqi experts? They won’t come? And why is that? What is being done to fix that? Where is the IO and public diplomacy that speaks not their language but their culture?

The overall solution is non-military requiring socio-political-psychological-moral dimensions of deeds and words in additional to tactical military applications. The intent of the wall is right, but the message is lost because of a failure to communicate, leading to successful subversion and image manipulation by an enemy who fears our success, as Kilcullen notes. While our tactics have shifted, we are still absent from the real battlefield of trust and information. So, what are we going to do about that?


Below are the two articles from Kilcullen’s 28 that I mentioned above, including selected comments by field experts. The full articles, including many more comments, can be found on the Small Wars Journal blog.

Article 21:

Exploit a “single narrative”. Since counterinsurgency is a competition to mobilize popular support, it pays to know how people are mobilized. In most societies there are opinion-makers: local leaders, pillars of the community, religious figures, media personalities, and others who set trends and influence public perceptions.

Major McDermott helps contextualize this:

You have to try and find the common ground between what the [US Government] themes and narratives are, and what your unit’s government’s themes are. As an advisor help your unit develop their talking points and be the sanity check.

Article 25:

Fight the enemy’s strategy, not his forces. At this stage, if things are proceeding well, the insurgents will go over to the offensive. Yes, the offensive– because you have created a situation so dangerous to the insurgents, by threatening to displace them from the environment, that they have to attack you and the population to get back into the game.

Again, Major McDermott:

You have ensure that your unit and your unit’s leaders understand what the enemy strategy is and who they “win”. Then focus your unit’s actions on not feeding his strategy. I.e. don’t reinforce enemy talking points by actions you take.