Friday, 8 May 2009

Decoding media’s war against a Military


Unreported face of war: Major Mark Bieger found this little girl after the car bomb that attacked our guys while kids were crowding around. The soldiers here have been angry and sad for two days. They are angry because the terrorists could just as easily have waited a block or two and attacked the patrol away from the kids. Instead, the suicide bomber drove his car and hit the Stryker when about twenty children were jumping up and down and waving at the soldiers. Major Bieger rushed this little girl to our hospital. He wanted her to have American surgeons and not to go to the Iraqi hospital. She didn’t make it. I snapped this picture when Major Bieger ran to take her away. He kept stopping to talk with her and hug her.

-Michael Yon a former Green Beret.


Fourth Generation warfare (4GW) in the 21st century in simplest of terms is warfare between a legitimate armed force and a non-state violent actor. The essence of 4GW is its protracted nature of violence, use of asymmetry attempting to attain parity politically as well as psychologically. Since the first bullets fired in 1981 in Jaffna the Tigers fought a protracted 4GW campaign against the Sri Lankan Government Military morally, mentally as well as physically to carve out a mono-ethnic separatist state. With unconventional tactics; physically they withstood the Government forces, Psychologically they played a mental game with the Southern polity, that whatever their goals of eliminating the Tiger’s writ over their perceived Tamil Eelam was a distant dream and morally they justified their cause using past alleged grievances and allegations of discrimination. Their limitations to fight symmetrically in conventional military operations meant terrorism was an integral part of their doctrine. It didn’t matter how many they managed to kill, what mattered was how much of an influence they made with each indiscriminate terrorism strikes. It was their version of a force multiplier aimed at the will and resilience of the Southern polity. In short goals of 4GW for the LTTE were clear; survive the military onslaught, avoid defeat thereby postpone any decisive action, expand support and grind the Southerners economically as well as politically to alter the power balance in their favour.

The tendency of the non-state violent actor to seek its own resources in its conflict is another characteristic of 4GW. This is particularly important in the absence of any overt state sponsors or alliances for the insurgents. It is in this context the insurgents or the non-state violent actors may seek International Non Governmental Organisations (INGO) and the International Media to its advantage. Because unlike a legitimate Government, a non-state violent actor does not have any obligations to its populace. If the Maoists had its obligations to its people the Tigers had its obligations towards its Diaspora to show that its donations were well spent in destruction of the ‘Sinhalese’ regime. For the local Tamil population under its writ, it had no obligation for its welfare. They were more focussed on violence and coercion of its own people.

It is because of this obligation and legitimate responsibility of the Government over its population the insurgents will choose to manipulate the media as part of its 4GW doctrine. By bringing about much publicity as possible to a conflict, pressure is brought about to cease hostilities. Because the international community has more leverage and access over a legitimate State over an insurgent, pressure does not fall equally on the two belligerent factions. Democratically elected states are expected to hold high ethical standards hence are more susceptible to international pressure than its adversary. As mentioned above a characteristic of 4GW is that a non-state actor does not have any international alliances or overt support of a particular state. It does not have ethical or legal constraints. Hence no country holds any leverage against the insurgents as it does against the Government. No Government can survive with little or no outside support. Media coverage allows the insurgents to reach out to the world in far distant lands to achieve this objective to hold the Government to higher ethical standards and thereby force it to practice restraint which almost always is advantageous to the insurgent. It is also an indispensable tool for its terrorism. The number it kills is not it goal, but the number its terrorism has affected is its ultimate goal. Only the media can propagate the terrorism to a wider audience and multiply the influence.

Furthermore, media coverage gives this illegitimate non-state actors a state of legitimacy by according them a ‘victim’ status. Insurgents thrive with a victim tag attached to them. It brings them level pegging with the Government because the International audience to which the media plays loves the ‘victim’. The audience will be more willing to listen to the ‘victim’, it will be more willing to help the ‘victim’.

The insurgents in Iraq as well as the Tigers over the years have been experts in using this non-lethal form of information warfare exceptionally well in its asymmetric war with legitimate states. In the Middle East the insurgents have coerced the media to drive hostility towards the US Government. For example the Al-Zawarra television channel owned by a Sunni using Nilesat (based in Egypt) was carrying out Sunni insurgent propaganda including footage of IEDs and suicide strikes against US military convoys and installations leading a steady volley of disinformation campaign against the Iraqi and US Governments.

The role played by Al-Zawarra as well as the popular Qatar based Al-Jazeera Network was well documented in the 'Rethinking Insurgency’ paper released by the US Government in June 2007;

In Iraq, for instance, Al Zawaraa television, which is owned by a Sunni member of Iraq’s Parliament living in Damascus and distributed by Nilesat, an Egyptian government- owned company, is considered the semiofficial voice of the Sunni insurgents, broadcasting propaganda videos they produce, including those showing bloody attacks.105 It has signed a distribution deal with several European companies to broadcast it there and in the United States. The wildly popular Qatar based news network Al Jazeera, while less overtly linked to the insurgents than Al Zawaraa, contributed to the rebel information campaign through a steady barrage of criticism of the United States and the Iraqi government (at least until expelled in 2004). Whether one believes that Al Jazeera offered a “balanced” perspective (as it claimed) or supported the insurgents, it complicated counterinsurgent information operations and provided the insurgents publicity (and hence legitimacy) they would not otherwise have had. This also helped them adjust and refine their operations.

Hand-in-hand with the media, willing to help the ‘victim’ will be the INGOs. With Governments under pressure due to unprecedented media exposure (verified or unverified) it will be forced at some point to let in International Aid agencies (INGOs) to alleviate the suffering of the people under insurgent control. Like the media which legitimised the insurgents by making it the ‘victim’ the INGOs will consider the insurgent to be in the same level pegging field to gain access to areas not under Government writ and to carry out its humanitarian operations. By signing treaties with the non-state actor as well as the Government it will give them a legitimate status which the insurgents will use in their media campaign as they did during the tsunami catastrophe in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Furthermore the humanitarian operations will be used by the insurgents to ‘win’ their own people by claiming credit to what the INGOs have undertook. In addition as witnessed by the hoard of equipment captured from the fleeing Tigers, the INGOs have been an invaluable source of heavy equipment and other contraband such as fuel, cement, steel, fertiliser etc. Any control over INGOs are deemed unethical and adds more pressure on the warring parties, however as above the leverage holds the Government more responsible than the insurgents giving the insurgents a culture of impunity.

The same US Government paper highlights the role of INGOs in insurgency:

Humanitarian organizations are almost always critical of military operations, whether by rebels or the government. The British relief group, Oxfam, for instance, often demands that the government of Uganda cease military operations against the brutal “Lord’s Resistance Army.” Some observers even claim that humanitarian assistance organizations prolong conflicts once such groups develop a vested organizational interest in them. Without humanitarian crises, humanitarian relief organizations would have no raison d'etre. Equally, the provision of humanitarian assistance relieves insurgents from the burden of caring for the population in areas they control and provides lootable or taxable income flows.

Such INGOs will also play an integral part as informants for the media. Like the insurgents the INGOs too thrive in publicity. More exposure they get through the media more publicity they get and the more gets to know who they are internationally which equates to more funding. The media and the INGOs may use selective stories, partial facts, narrow sources of experts perhaps even just one sole source to ram home its story of the ‘victimised’ insurgents facing a ‘demonised’ Government.

The actions of the INGOs also means it will vehemently oppose conflict thus protracting the conflict. This is one of the main goals of a non-state actor waging 4GW. Protracted conflict is equally threatening as an insurgent victory. Because the conflict itself becomes the insurgents’ main source of income in addition to the sense of identification it brings forth to its cadre. Before the insurgency as in the case of the Tigers, they were either tuition masters, barbers or desk clerks in foreign missions. But with the insurgency, the power of the gun made that no one into someone. It provided them with a livelihood at the expense of the majority.

It is in this context that one should decode the International media’s role in the Sri Lankan conflict. Information is the currency of victory. And it is a currency that is worth all the trouble for. It is the last straw the drowning Tigers will ever clutch at any cost.