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Guest Post: Developing a Narrative for Success in the Battle Against ISIS

October 29, 2014

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Col. Stephen Liszewski, U.S. Marine Corps, is a Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He most recently commanded the 11th Marine Regiment based at Camp Pendleton, California.

Victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not only a matter of military success; President Obama recently made this point to coalition military leaders. The fight against ISIS is part of a larger struggle with violent extremist ideology. To achieve victory, the United States and its coalition partners must craft and employ an effective narrative. The narrative will provide a framework for action and should concisely outline the threat, the outcomes they want to achieve, and the measures they will take to reach these goals. In order to be effective, the narrative must simultaneously address multiple audiences—the American people,

U.S. coalition partners and their domestic populations, and the members of ISIS and their potential recruits around the world.  Most importantly, the narrative must reach out to the moderate Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria.

Make no mistake, the military component is essential to this fight. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the central struggle is between opposing ideologies, and an effective narrative will be a powerful weapon to counter ISIS propaganda. It will build trust with Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria while negating ISIS’s claim to be the defenders of Islam. If properly developed, the narrative will unify the international coalition for what is shaping up to be an extended fight.

Strategists and planners can draw on lessons the U.S. military learned while building a campaign narrative in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2012. While operating in Regional Command Southwest there, I helped develop the campaign narrative used to explain the our purpose and intent to several audiences. We set several goals.

First, the narrative had to speak to American and British forces in Afghanistan and to the families of these marines, sailors, and soldiers. They had to understand the threat we faced, and the importance of our mission.

Second, our narrative also had to speak to and mobilize Afghan security forces. The Afghans knew that coalition forces were beginning to leave Helmand, and ignoring this fact would have destroyed the credibility of the U.S. narrative.  It was important that our Afghan partners knew that, after many years of American and British forces leading the fight, it was now time for the Afghans to take the lead because they were better trained and larger than the enemy.

And third, because of the nature of counterinsurgency—a competition with the enemy for the will of the local population—it was important that the narrative inform the people of Helmand of our intent to help them move forward after many dark years under the Taliban.  The enemy’s narrative characterized U.S. troops as foreign invaders; this message needed an effective counter.  Our narrative had to address the enemy and make them aware of our unwavering commitment to victory while offering the opportunity to reconcile if they would lay down their arms.

So, too, the strategic narrative for the fight against ISIS must coherently explain the challenge the coalition faces, the need for action, and the coalition’s goals and how it intends to achieve them. This must be done in plain English based on fact, not driven by emotion. As we learned in Afghanistan, the United States must simultaneously address several audiences—coalition forces and their domestic populations, Iraqi security forces, moderate opposition forces in Syria, the innocent people of Iraq and Syria, the members of ISIS and, perhaps most importantly, Muslims across the world.

Another lesson we learned in Helmand province in 2012 was the need to manage expectations in developing goals. This was a challenge for us; we had been given a tough mission and 2012 was a year of transition in Helmand Province. We knew we would not have unlimited resources to accomplish our mission.  We had to fight the temptation to establish lofty goals that sounded appealing but were not feasible with the resources on the ground. Similarly, the coalition faces a resource-constrained environment in its current struggle with ISIS. It must ensure that its message does not promise too much given the resources at its disposal.

The most important lesson we learned while developing and deploying a campaign narrative in Helmand Province was the requirement to align our words with our actions.  We took great care to ensure that the narrative we propagated was not rendered hollow by our actions, but instead helped to provide the framework and boundaries for our actions. An imprecise narrative would have tied our hands or established goals we could not achieve. When faced with difficult choices about future operations, we asked if the actions we were considering aligned with the narrative. If this was not the case, we would reconsider our plans. When actions are not aligned with the narrative, credibility and effectiveness are lost; the enemy can use this inconsistency to strengthen their competing narrative in the war of ideas.

This lesson also must be applied against ISIS. Winning the loyalty of moderate Sunnis in Iraq and Syria demands a high degree of credibility with the local population and security forces, who must believe the coalition can help deliver a better future than ISIS. Credibility will also be an important tool when the United States take on the larger challenge of countering ISIS efforts to radicalize and recruit personnel needed to grow their organization. If the United States’ actions do not align with its words, ISIS will use this to undermine the credibility of the United States and its coalition, and strengthen their recruiting efforts.

Crafting a narrative for the fight against ISIS that effectively and simultaneously communicates the coalition’s message to several different audiences will be difficult. But a narrative marshals the coalition’s thoughts and will enable an effective campaign by ensuring the desired outcome is achievable with the resources available. Once developed, a strong strategic narrative can be used to help stave off mission creep, provide clarity for the expected time needed to achieve victory, and build the credibility needed to win the larger fight against violent extremism.

More on:

Military Operations

Defense and Security

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Syria

Iraq

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