Poison Pen Pals - October 15, 2001
The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has reversed a month-long ban on Western journalists. He is now inviting TV crews from CNN and other news organizations to pay a visit to Karam, a village in Afghanistan. Has he suddenly developed a desire to fraternize with Western journalists? No, Omar has decided to use an age-old combat device, commonly known as propaganda.
Propaganda in war has two simple goals: solidify resolve and demoralize the enemy.
Reporters will be escorted to Karam, cameras in hand, to see the approximately 200 civilians who were allegedly killed by a rogue U.S. weapon. Pictures of dead civilians, preferably women and children, are worth a thousand rioters.
The U.S. has acknowledged that a bomb accidentally hit a residential area. But sources have stated it is conceivable that the Taliban would move bodies to a bomb site from elsewhere for propaganda purposes. For a regime that routinely murders its own people, relocation of dead bodies would by no means be a stretch.
Terrorist networks view any damage to the American way of life as an achievement in the quest to eradicate the "Great Satan." Public fear that translates into economic harm is hoped to be part of the equation. The steady stream of scuttlebutt from Osama's buddies is intended to fuel apprehension in the public. And, of course, various reports of anthrax outbreaks work in tandem with Osama's scariest home videos.
Less than 20 cases of anthrax occurred between 1900 and 1978. Now, in a post-September 11th world, anthrax has been sent via mail to several conspicuous media and corporate locations.
As to those who are responsible for these contemptible and cowardly acts, two possibilities come to mind. First, and most plausible, is that the terrorists themselves or their affiliates are responsible. The choice of targets, the origin of letters (Florida and Malaysia) and the timing circumstantially point in the terrorists' direction. Second, is that a twisted copycat placed the organisms in the mail. Although this explanation is less likely, the September 11th attack may have served to stir the sick imagination of a criminal mind.
The explanation of the source of the slow-drip terrorism is less important that the fact that the attacks play into the crimson hands of our enemies. Remember the second goal of wartime propaganda, to demoralize the enemy. That means all of us.
Osama bin Laden and the Taliban know the power to be had in circulating information that brings about particular public opinion. The successful first phase of bombing destroyed many of their traditional military capabilities. Bin Laden and followers think that one of their best remaining weapons is to use the media to further inflame an already agitated Muslim population.
During the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein tried to make everyone believe that his invasion of Kuwait was really an effort to assist the Palestinians. Osama appears to be reading the same handbook.
In a recently released video, bin Laden states that "America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine." Apparently bin Laden wants to tie Al Qaeda's actions to Palestinian issues.
But Osama bin Laden was not exactly famous for his sympathy to the plight of Palestinians before. Rather, he appears to be using carefully chosen rhetoric for the same purposes that Saddam Hussein did - to rouse the ire of Muslims.
The U.S. and her allies must continue to keep the public opinion factor in mind. This means that the propaganda must be countered. To this end, humanitarian efforts being conducted are helpful, as is the distinguishing of terrorists from Muslim people in general.
But Bin Laden is going to continue to define our enemy as all Muslims. So we must continue to assure Muslims that this is not our intent. There are profound reasons to do so. Military, intelligence and diplomatic cooperation from Muslim countries in the region is essential. Rivalries that already exist in the Muslim world may have to be exploited to our strategic advantage. The war on terrorism is, after all, a "different kind of war," and that basic reality complicates any approach. We will adjust as the campaign unfolds.
Muslim nations that are part of our overall effort have a major role to play in dispensing favorable information. They can and must carry the truth to the Muslim world about Western values. They can and must condemn the virulent strain of Islam that terrorists promote.
For the time being, the endgame in Afghanistan is the collapse of the Taliban. Ideally, we can arrange for this outcome to happen in conjunction with the Northern Alliance, the perception being that Muslims helped to bring down an illegitimate Muslim government and stability was brought to the Middle East with the assistance of those who actually live there.