U.S. Special Forces Target Hearts and Minds

By Stew Magnuson

Most WantedZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — The convoy was about to depart a free medical clinic when two pre-teen boys who spent their days picking through garbage ran up and told authorities about the suspicious looking rice sacks with wires sticking out that lay nearby.

In the convoy of Filipino soldiers, doctors and nurses were about 30 Americans who were participating in a civil affairs mission to spread goodwill in an area that had traditionally supported Muslim separatists.

The boys had seen a poster describing roadside bombs and remembered that there were rewards for those who tipped off authorities to their whereabouts.

The convoy was halted, the bombs rendered harmless, and the boys would receive about $4,000 each and a scholarship to finish school.

The poster the boys had seen were part of an information campaign designed by a U.S. special forces military information support team, better known as psychological operations. Civil affairs teams had organized the free clinic.

These two lesser known missions — designed to win the “hearts and minds” of local populations — are being increasingly recognized as an important tool for combating terrorism.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates expounded on the use of so-called “soft power” to achieve U.S. objectives. “One of the most important lessons from our experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere has been the decisive role reconstruction, development, and governance plays in any meaningful, long-term success,” Gates said.

“It is just plain embarrassing that al Qaida is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America,” he added.

Some have touted the operation in the southern Philippines as a model of an effective civil affairs and psy-ops campaign. Shortly after Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001, U.S. special operations forces came to the area to advise and assist the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Officials here said the operation is needed in order to counter terrorist organizations such as the Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiyah, which have targeted westerners — Americans and friendly national governments.

Stabilizing the Philippines is critical to maintaining a safe and secure Southeast Asia, which is one of the United States’ strategic security objectives, officials said.

“This is a different mission than any other I’ve been on,” said Maj. Chris Polites, commander of F-company 97th civil affairs battalion, 95th brigade, based at Ft. Bragg, N.C. There is a “long-standing relationship with the Philippines, and that’s different from any other theater.”

Despite the recognition that bullets and bombs alone aren’t going to win the so-called global war on terrorism, some experts have said the Defense Department has been slow to recognize the importance of these “indirect” effects.

Authors David Tucker and Christopher J. Lamb in a recent book, “United States Special Operations Forces,” contended that civil affairs and psychological operations units are poorly understood, often underutilized, “less valued” and “neglected by Special Operations Command leadership.”

That is not the case in the Philippines where these two esoteric specialties are being given credit for much of the success.

The AFP is taking the cue and quickly beefing up its own capabilities. In October, it established the National Development Support Command, a non-combat, non-regional civil engineering operation. And mass communications graduates from Filipino universities are being recruited into the military to help the armed forces deliver its messages.

In the past, bullets were seen as the only way to battle an insurgency. Military operations simply aggravated the situation, created ill-will, and the cycle of violence continued for decades.

Capt. Abdurasad Sirajan, a former member of the Moro National Liberation Front separatist group, who joined the Philippine army after that organization entered a peace agreement in 1996, said the AFP now recognizes that it needs to engage in the battle of ideas.

Defeating extremist ideology “can’t be done by using force,” he said.

“The stigma of psy-ops is that it manipulates people, which is not true,” said Capt. Jose Taduran, who leads the military information support team, or MIST.

MIST is the kinder, gentler acronym now being used for psychological operations, which is a term senior leaders here now discourage.

“What we’re here to do is advise the AFP on how to do better information operations,” Taduran said as he displayed a table spread with posters, pamphlets, comic books, videos and school items such as book bags, pens and notebooks.

Inside a nondescript building on Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City, he leads a team hunched over computers in a windowless, air-conditioned room.

One member monitors open sources — the local media and websites. The Philippines has a lively and free press, and separatist groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have their own websites.

A group of specialists develops surveys and questionnaires. AFP personnel and others conduct surveys in villages to gauge attitudes.

The U.S. operation is spread out over several islands and the main island of Mindanao. Messages must be tailored to each community, Taduran said.

The product development team creates the posters and printed matter that are disseminated throughout the islands.

Television and radio are used as well, although these media do not always reach some impoverished communities, Taduran said. The most common forms of communication on the islands are word of mouth, radio, and text messaging.

On the radio side, the MIST team has hired a well-known radio host, Salvation Acerat, better known to local listeners as “Miss Bingo.”

She hosts about six one-hour programs each week broadcast on a government-owned and a private station.

The overall messages are these: that the armed forces of the Philippines and the national government are here to assist the local population; the extremists are hindering economic development; and unless the people help the military rid the area of terrorists, prosperity will not follow.

“Their mission is to destroy humanity. Their mission is to destroy peace and order,” she tells listeners.

There are currently three targeted groups. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is in long-standing peace negotiations with the government. However, there are militants inside the movement who are opposed to the negotiations and continue to fight.

More notorious is the Abu Sayyaf Group, which has conducted a series of kidnappings, beheadings and bombings. Also in the mix are members of the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, who are alleged to have transferred their bomb-making skills and terror tactics to the Philippines.

The MIST team is waging an aggressive operation to capture the bomb makers.

Wanted posters offering awards in the millions of dollars are hung throughout the islands. The extremist groups are also the targets of a series of television commercials.

MIST has hired a Manila-based marketing firm to produce the TV spots.

One script targets the alleged mastermind of the Bali, Indonesia bombing in 2002.

Last March 2003, the JI bombmaker Dulmatin brought the terror to our shores. Nineteen lives were lost when he bombed the Davao airport. Another bomb ripped through the wharf in Davao; 16 more lives perished. An award awaits people with information leading to Dulmatin’s arrest. Don’t let this monster destroy our beautiful Mindanao.

Another ad features a 12-year-old Muslim boy whose father died in a 2005 bombing. Tears roll down his cheeks as he grieves. A similar ad shows the picture of a girl who was killed in a bombing.

“Enough is enough. Help stop terrorism. Answer the call for peace,” a child’s voice says.

Taduran said it’s important that all the information used in the campaigns is factual. Photos on posters are not manipulated. The facts in TV and radio ads and stories of the victimized children are real, he said.

There are varying degrees of messages, from “soft” to “hard,” he explained. The hard messages are those directed toward supporters of terrorists or members of the groups themselves. These come in pamphlets and posters left behind by the Philippine forces.

Word of mouth campaigns are softer. The AFP conducts town hall meetings in villages where officials show videos touting the economic progress and development that follows once peace and security are restored.

Bumper stickers, matchbooks, backpacks and other school supplies are given out as presents with a “Helping Hands” logo.

Taduran said the campaign is dynamic, so there are always adjustments to be made and messages must be updated frequently.

The MIST team will conduct a pilot program using text messaging, which is an increasingly common form of communication.

Inside the U.S. compound at Camp Navarro, a civil affairs soldier used mapping technology to help win hearts and minds in the southern Philippines. Geospatial software was employed to analyze where to best conduct free medical clinics.

Free medical, dental and veterinary clinics — called civil action programs — are used to support the AFP in gaining access to communities. Filipino doctors, dentists and veterinarians come in to provide free care. Of utmost importance, Taduran said, is putting a Filipino face on all these operations.

Other civil action programs include school and clinic renovations, wells and water projects, and road construction.

Polites has a small team of about 32 spread throughout the region. One of the basic services it provides is civil reconnaissance.

By populating maps with people, places and things, or “nodes” in CA lingo, it gives commanders the choice of where best to apply reconstruction projects or clinics he said.

“We don’t have the capacity to fix governance problems, and that’s not really our job … But what we’re good at doing though is recognizing what the problems are,” Polites said. His team works closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has a larger budget and can pay for big ticket development projects.

Measuring success in civil affairs and psychological operations isn’t always easy.

Col. Jim Mishina, operations planner, said one indication of progress is when the extremists attempt to mimic U.S. tactics. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is now conducting its own free medical clinics. And that’s okay with him.

“Instead of buying weapons and explosive materials, they’re willing to commit dollars to providing medical aid,” Mishina said from Special Operations Command Pacific headquarters in Hawaii.

The battle of ideas goes both ways, he noted. At the beginning of operations in the island of Jolo, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front spread images of the U.S. army dating back to the colonial era when Gen. John Pershing fought a bloody campaign against the local Tausug ethnic group.

Ultimately, it is about matching words with deeds, Mishina said. Improved infrastructure and better security provided by AFP troops are some tangible benefits that please the populace. “Otherwise we’re just putting out messages,” he said.

Despite the success, Taduran echoed the complaint that psy-ops and civil affairs teams don’t receive the respect and recognition as the more glamorous commando, or “direct action” teams.

“Nobody understands us,” he said. “We get no respect because it’s complicated. Nobody wants to sit down and listen to an explanation as to why we shouldn’t just go in and kick doors.”

Polites said that attitudes are changing. “I think people are recognizing more of the necessity [that] when you’re not engaged in high intensity conflicts, that you need resources like civil affairs and MIST.”

Please email your comments to SMagnuson@ndia.org

Topics: Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.