The Taliban didn’t topple the Government of Afghanistan purely through kinetic operations. Complex reasons, including a corrupt, inept government whose leaders insisted on centralized control in a culture that valued decentralized power, account partly for the failure. And although he ignited a firestorm of controversy, General David Petraeus has argued that the United States needed to show more strategic patience, stronger and more consistent commitment, and work with the government to make it more effective.
But information warfare proved central to the Taliban in toppling the Kabul government. The Taliban marshaled propaganda through channels ranging from flyers to social media to help discredit and de-legitimize a struggling central government.
The success of the Ukrainians in turning back the Russian invasion has turned on its ability to do what the Afghanistan government failed to do. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s courage and resourceful leadership united and rallied his citizens to resist the Russian invasion. He used words, deeds, images, and symbols to wage information warfare. The former actor and comedian had low approval ratings prior to the war but when the war broke out, Zelenskyy measured up to the task. He showed that information is power.
Zelenskyy stayed in his offices when the invasion broke out, at great personal risk to himself and his family. He spoke to the nation every night. He has been tireless in rallying NATO and the United States to provide political support and arms — and last week, Ukraine formally applied to NATO. Above all, he has lifted up the morale and spirits of Ukrainians and united them against the invaders. The outcome of the war is undecided, but as August 2022 ended, military observers believe that the advantage is shifting toward Ukraine in what had been a stalemated war. The concept that Ukraine could hold a superpower — well, a nation previously viewed as a superpower — at bay is historic and startling.
These examples, one from an adversary, the other from an ally, point to the importance of information in a networked, globally connected world linked by nodes on the Internet. They illuminate the emerging importance of information. It used to be that information supported kinetic operations. Today, increasingly, armed conflict is employed to support the narratives that nations use to influence target audiences.
WHAT INFORMATION WARFARE LOOKS LIKE
President Vladimir Putin limited the military assets that he committed to Syria while trumpeting the fact that it was riding to the rescue of its long-time ally Assad, and positioning itself as a champion against terrorism. Officially, it mounted a communication campaign asserting as its excuse for intervention that thousands from the former Soviet Union had joined the Islamic State, and that intervention would prevent terrorist attacks inside Russia — although its own record in Chechnya manifested full-throated support for terrorist tactics. Russian information operations in Ukraine, however, have backfired, and Russia now stands accused of war crimes.
It used to be that information supported kinetic operations. Today, increasingly, armed conflict is employed to support the narratives that nations use to influence target audiences.
The primary and well-executed strategy that defines Russian activity in Syria and Ukraine is information operations. Russia makes a big show of expanding its military facilities in Syria, notably at Tartus and Hmeimim air bases in Latakia, and using them to attack terrorists. These actions seem aimed at seizing moral high ground as it works to extend its influence over the regional audience. In Ukraine, Putin has mandated that the war can only be referred to as a “special military operation.” And poorly coordinated communication has rendered its new efforts to partially mobilize new recruits a mess.
Russia is certainly not the only global power using information warfare to meet its strategic goals. China’s “Three Warfares” concept — using legal warfare, public opinion warfare, and psychological warfare, rooted in notions propounded by Sun Tzu — eschew armed conflict in favor of non-kinetic operations to achieve strategic and tactical goals. Three Warfares aims to shape public opinion domestically and internationally and to enhance political power. In other words, China avoids kinetic operations but employs its possession of a massive, modernizing military to intimidate target audiences in support of legal, psychological, and media warfare.
China, however, uses military force to bolster non-kinetic initiatives. President Xi Jinping sent 220 vessels to Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea, an area whose sovereignty is contested by the Philippines, China, and Vietnam. Ostensibly anchored due to sea conditions, the vessels were manned by military militia. China’s coast guard has used water cannons on Philippines fishing boats and urged Manila to increase its “education” of its fishermen. It placed the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile in Guangdong Province to threaten US aircraft carriers. While the missile has never been tested, the tactic has forced the United States and its allies to either deploy countermeasures or think about how far to go in endangering a carrier.
Currently, the Pentagon does not have a dedicated plan to devise and execute information operations to properly counter Russian and Chinese activities. The 2018 National Defense Strategy mentions information warfare only in passing. The Joint Staff has a well-led team in its Structured Multi-Layer Assessment cell, but instead of increasing its funding, the impetus has been to cut or eliminate its funding. The Chinese write extensively on their views about warfare but there is no US bureau that identifies, translates, and makes available what is out there on an unclassified basis; and the intelligence community cannot do this because their work is classified. Furthermore, the Department of State’s culture works against information operations even though it is supposed to be a leader in strategic communication.
HOW TO COMBAT INFORMATION WARFARE
The Pentagon needs to understand that information warfare is here to stay and must invest in capabilities to combat it and keep the United States safe. As noted above, information operations are the foundation for Chinese views on war and are important historically for Russia, which conducted them as special activities and increasingly embraces them as hybrid warfare. From 2014 until 2022, Russia put its information operations first and deployed military support to give credibility to Russian narratives.
Information warfare capabilities, however, are relatively inexpensive. You could fund almost everything necessary for the cost of one F-22 before it was updated. By contrast, some estimate that Russia spends $1.5 billion annually on its information operations. For example, the RT television network is budgeted annually at over $300 million.
China tries to keep its spending a secret but estimates of Chinese spending on international propaganda just a few years ago were estimated to be between $7 billion and $10 billion. Not everything China does works. For example, Xi’s efforts to exploit COVID-19 to boost its standing have backfired. But persistence in communication has a way of paying off and looking ahead, and the Chinese are arguably the most aggressively persistent nation in the world in pushing its narratives. Is the United States ready to push its own narratives?
James Farwell has advised the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and the Department of Defense. An associate fellow in the Centre for Strategic Communication, Department. of War Studies, King’s College, and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, his books include “Information Warfare” (Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2020) and Persuasion and Power (Washington: Georgetown U. Press, 2012). The views expressed are his own and not that of the US government, its departments, agencies, or USSOCOM.