U.S. also waging a war of words

Leaflets, broadcasts used in campaign for hearts and minds

War On Terrorism

October 14, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Even as bombs were raining down on Afghanistan last week, another kind of weapon was being unleashed from the skies: words.

Dropping leaflets and transmitting radio broadcasts from aircraft hovering above the country, the U.S. launched a hearts-and-minds campaign at the Afghan people, even as it was trying to destroy their country's Taliban government and the Osama bin Laden-led terrorist network that it harbors.

Although the Defense Department has not revealed the nature of its communiques to the Afghans, if history is any guide, they are probably similar to appeals made in previous wars: Come over to our side, the good and winning side.

"It's all part of what we call psychological operations, and that's as old as warfare itself," said Col. Michael R. Kershner, a former deputy commander of the Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg who teaches at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "You plant a seed, and maybe the first handbill doesn't do the job, or the second one, but by the third, he is saying, `Hmmm.' Then a neighbor tells him he heard a broadcast, and that reinforces it, and the seed is carried forth."

Psychological operations, or PSYOPS in military parlance, involve efforts to demoralize enemy troops or persuade a populace to abandon their leaders. In Afghanistan, where support for the Taliban is uneven, the leaflets and broadcasts are probably conveying the same message that the Bush administration has been giving to Americans since it began retaliation for the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Kershner said.

"I would imagine the message is: `This is a war against the terrorists and the Taliban, not the Afghan people,'" he said. "`We aren't here to take over Afghanistan; we're here to whack the Taliban.' Of course, it would probably be more subtle than that."

Less than 25 miles away from Kershner's campus is the home base of the military unit at the front lines of this war of words. The 193rd Special Operations Wing, an Air National Guard unit based at Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania, is serving as a sort of radio-station-in-the-sky as it has in numerous previous conflicts.

The unit flies six EC-130 aircraft, a transport plane outfitted with equipment that allows the crew to jam a country's broadcasts and transmit its own radio and television programming. Given the poverty and repression in Afghanistan - where hardly anyone owns a TV set and the Taliban control the media - U.S. forces have reportedly been dropping wind-up transistor radios to further ensure that the broadcasts will be heard. The radios are said to pick up one frequency, the one used by the aircraft.

Dubbed "Commando Solo," the 193rd Wing has played a role in all of the country's recent military engagements - from Southeast Asia to Grenada to Panama to the Persian Gulf to Bosnia.

The Persian Gulf war in particular is often presented as a PSYOPS success story. Many Iraqi POWs later said the leaflets and broadcasts from Commando Solo, promising them food and medicine if they surrendered, played a role in their decision to surrender.

"The Iraqis had taken anything white away from the soldiers so they couldn't surrender. We printed leaflets just on one side so the other side would be white," Kershner said. "They were instructed, just wave this handbill and you'll have safe passage. It was quite successful."

In a variety of guises, PSYOPS have played a part in a variety of military engagements. American colonists spread leaflets to eat away at the morale of British forces during the Revolutionary War. Broadcaster "Tokyo Rose" taunted American GIs during World War II. Heavy metal music was blared to smoke out Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from his hiding place and prompt his surrender in 1990.

Planting doubt about leaders

Often, the efforts seek to plant doubt about the enemy leadership, suggest that other soldiers have defected or warn that bombing is about to ensue.

"Over 13,000 Yugoslavian service members have already left the armed forces because they can no longer follow illegal orders in Milosevic's war against civilians in Kosovo," read one leaflet, with a picture of a bomber plane, that was dropped during the Balkan war in 1999. "Remain in Kosovo and face certain death, or leave your unit and equipment, and get out of Kosovo now. If you choose to stay, NATO will relentlessly attack you from every direction. The choice is yours."

The war of words is generally waged by both sides, at home and on the front lines. As testament to the importance of the talking side of this conflict, the Bush administration persuaded TV networks Thursday to stop repeated airings of a taped statement by bin Laden's al-Qaida network and to evaluate future broadcasts before allowing such statements to run.

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