President Obama’s speech in Cairo last week shows that he’s taking the advice of folks urging the U.S. to drop the us-versus-them “War on Terror” rhetorical frame in favor of one that reinforces the idea of a conflict within Islam about the use of violence in political conflict. For quite some time, proponents of “strategic communications” have warned that our way of talking about the conflict between the United States and violent extremism aides Al-Qaida’s efforts to radicalize Muslim populations and recruit new terrorists. By wading into the Koran in his speech, the president seems to be taking their advice. The problem, of course, is that the consequences of our own use of violence, including high numbers of civilian dead, undermine efforts to improve our relations with the Muslim world through better messaging.

In November 2007, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Support for Public Diplomacy) Dr. Michael Doran gave testimony to Congress on Countering Ideological Support to Terrorism in which he paired a wonderful ability to correctly state the problem with willful ignorance of the elephant-sized internal contradictions in the Pentagon’s approach:

The key to the CIST [ Countering Ideological Support to Terrorism] mission is influencing a primarily intra-Muslim conversation, with the goal of undermining the intellectual and perceptual underpinnings of terrorism. Much of the appeal of terrorist groups rests on a collective sense of victimization, a sense of an impending existential threat.

To counter this narrative, we must chip away at the bleak picture of helplessness and vulnerability that support it.  Our enemies foster a culture of blame to foment  anger, hatred and a sense of victimization. Then, they offer themselves and their violence as the only solution to the challenges of today.  The DoD attempts to counteract these responses by promoting a sense of individual responsibility, common human values across religious divides, empowerment, and a desire to fix current problems in a cooperative spirit rather than through a resort to violence.

Doran’s analysis here is dead-on about al-Qaida’s frame and the proper strategy for defeating them:

  • avoid playing into the “United States vs. Islam” frame,
  • avoid activities that help AQ and their allies foster anger, hatred and a sense of victimization, and
  • undermine their attempts to legitimize the use of violence as the most effective solution to their grievances.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that current U.S. policies (which, despite being under their fifth review this year, remain remarkably consistent after several outrages) could not be more perfectly tailored to fit into al-Qaida’s narrative if we tried.

Strategic communications aficionados like Doran have been pushing for some time a version of what’s hinted at above: the promotion of the message that al-Qaida is un-Islamic. Strategic communicators would assert a different interpretation of Islam, challenging both the “U.S. vs. Islam” frame with a “AQ vs. other Muslims” frame. Obama’s speech in Cairo last week included this strategy:

Indeed, none of us should tolerate these extremists.  They have killed in many countries.  They have killed people of different faiths — but more than any other, they have killed Muslims.  Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam.  The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent is as — it is as if he has killed all mankind.  (Applause.)  And the Holy Koran also says whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind.  (Applause.)  The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism — it is an important part of promoting peace.

The problem, of course, is that while haphazardly attempting to push the idea that political violence is un-Islamic and while attempting to promote messages that que up “common human values across religious divides, empowerment, and a desire to fix current problems in a cooperative spirit rather than through a resort to violence,” we continue to use vast quantities of violence, which “foment anger, hatred and a sense of victimization.” For the Pentagon and their militarized civilian enablers, the problem is always the message, always the spin, and never, ever the basic assumptions underlying the use of military force in Afghanistan.

Case in point: last August’s debacle that killed a very large number of civilians.

  1. The U.S. utilized a tactic which we know has a very high probability of killing civilians.
  2. The civilians predictably died from bombs dropped in the middle of their housing.
  3. The U.S. military faced very predictable public outrage fueled by propaganda featuring a made-for-YouTube slaughter.
  4. The takeaway for us was not that we should stop dropping huge, exploding, flesh-shredding objects on masses of human beings, but that we should do a better job publicizing how many Bad Guys we kill.

The end result of this wonderful critical reassessment of what went wrong is the apotheosis of absurdity: rather than change our policy, we started a Twitter feed to broadcast to the world how many people we killed today. Not kidding. As a punctuation mark on the omg screw u we tweeted to the Afghans when their leaders demanded we end airstrikes in civilian areas, we went ahead and did it again a few weeks ago. Add to that our love affair with robotic airstrikes in our undeclared war in Pakistan which so far have killed “780 civilians and about 50 alleged terrorists.” That’s more than 15 civilians for every one suspected legitimate target. Now stand back and wonder whether we’ll be credible messengers with the moral authority to preach to the Pashtuns about how killing non-combatants is un-Islamic.

I wonder: will they get the pamphlet describing the un-Islamic character of violence before or after we hand them rifles? After all, one of the reasons a “senior military official” (coughcoughPetraeuscoughcough) cited for General McKiernan’s sudden dismissal was his lack of vigor in starting up a “Sons of Afghanistan” program to arm locals to fight Taliban. If we’re so keen to teach the locals all about how their religion doesn’t condone violence, we should at least make sure we get the message right before we spend a few days giving them weapons training to make them more competent killers.

We are in no position whatsoever to lecture to the Pashtuns about the relationship between faith and violence. In fact, if we’d drop our neo-colonial condescension for a moment and decide to learn from them rather than assume they need our instruction, we’d find their history has quite a bit to teach us. It turns out that the Pashtuns in the Northwest Frontier Province have a rich body of experience uniting militant Islam with nonviolent methods to resist repression. If we really want to help Pashtuns contest al-Qaida’s brand of Islam, we should take a close look at their 20th century heroes: Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars, the “Servants of God.”

Next: Pashtuns, Militant Islam, and Nonviolence

  1. […] military circles, the phrase “strategic communications” is all the rage. As I wrote earlier, U.S. policymakers tend to view poor perceptions of the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan […]

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