The Guns of Baghdad

by Adam Elkus

Special to Defense and the National Interest
November 3, 2007

Snipers in Baghdad - A Threat?

For longtime observers of the Iraq war, the Department of Defense’s October war supplemental budget came as a shock. Warning that sniper attacks against Coalition (MNF) forces had “quadrupled,” DOD predicted that an insurgent tactical shift towards snipers could potentially inflict “even more casualties than IEDs." To deal with this threat, DOD asked for investment in counter-sniper technology and new tactics. However, on October 30th, DOD retracted these numbers—sniper attacks actually had fallen.

Although reliable figures on sniper casualties remain elusive, DOD statistics compiled on state that snipers have killed 48 MNF soldiers since commencement of hostilities in Iraq, a low tally compared to the 1,600 acknowledged U.S. IEDs deaths. Sniper deaths are unlikely to overtake IED casualties, as roadside bombs are easier to deploy and present less risk to the insurgent. But quibbling over numbers misses the true nature of the threat snipers pose to MNF objectives.

Obviously, neither snipers nor IEDs can inflict enough attrition on MNF forces to prevent them from operating in Iraq. The true damage of the insurgent sniper should not be measured in the damage he inflicts, but how he pumps up insurgent morale, influences regional public opinion, and negatively alters MNF strategy. Insurgent snipers, like IEDs, are weapons of strategic influence. Their usage as propaganda symbols magnifies their power, giving them far-reaching psychological effects in the information war. Failure to understand this is part and parcel of a general failure to recognize the primacy of politics in guerilla conflicts.

The Propaganda of the Deed

Snipers are evolving into increasingly effective insurgent propaganda tools. Online videos of sniper attacks, scored with rousing Arab music, are posted on YouTube and other social networking sites. One insurgent sniper video was even broadcast on CNN’s website. Such videos depict insurgents in a position of power, while Coalition forces are portrayed as vulnerable and defeated. The implications are clear, and the success of insurgent propaganda is illustrated by the following example:

One sniper named Juba, dubbed “the Baghdad sniper,” has achieved celebrity status in Iraq through YouTube videos, bootlegs, songs and Islamic websites featuring his exploits. Armed with a SVD Dragunov, Juba is videoed picking off US soldiers to the accompaniment of Iraqi music and insurgent political appeals. He has become a potent symbol of the insurgency, rallying insurgent sympathizers and boosting their recruitment. He also has become a source of fear for MNF soldiers and helped sap morale. “Juba” may be one sniper, a composite of several, or even an Internet myth. Even as several insurgents identified as “the Baghdad sniper” have been captured or killed, the “Legend of Juba” persists.

The insurgent media strategy is not without precedent. During World War II, the Soviet Union sensationalized snipers, giving their demoralized citizens hope during very difficult circumstances under Nazi attack. Propagandists turned exceptional Soviet snipers into celebrities. The most famous of the Soviet snipers was Vasily Zaitsev, whose exploits were fictionalized in the 2001 Hollywood film Enemy At the Gates. The Soviets made Zaitsev a celebrity, even fabricating a duel between him and a possibly apocryphal German master sniper named Heinz Thorvald.

The image of the powerful occupiers being hunted by the lone gunman has a dramatic appeal. It plays to the David and Goliath archetype in all human narratives. That is why sniper attacks are arguably better propaganda symbols than IED attacks, despite the latter’s higher toll. Anyone who has watched a Hollywood film can understand how the lone soldier fighting against all odds is more exciting than a set of remote-controlled detonations. Insurgent snipers do not only rally insurgent sympathizers and potential recruits by demonstrating alleged MNF weakness, but also dissuade sympathetic Iraqis from cooperation with counterinsurgents.

For the insurgents, every sniper attack is a political act, each bullet making a statement more powerful than even the most polemical op-ed column. Unfortunately, there is little response to such insurgent propaganda. The country that brought the world Hollywood and Madison Avenue does not yet have an answer to the reams of propaganda posted on websites and beamed from satellite television. This problem is not specific to insurgent sniper media, as videos of IED attacks and other generalized propaganda go generally unopposed and unanswered.

Losing the Information War

The White House’s public diplomacy strategy, spearheaded by Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes, consists of reciting a tired list of American virtues to an often hostile foreign audience. While well-intended, such platitudes will not match the brutal power of insurgent propaganda. This public diplomacy is usually almost always conducted through official channels, giving it a canned feel. Whatever public relations successes occur are usually undercut by the lack of sync between White House rhetoric and actual policy. Because of this basic disconnect, Middle Eastern audiences don’t take American-backed Arabic-language media outlets seriously.

Additionally, as a RAND Corporation study on popular support in counterinsurgency notes, the military commits “information fratricide” through the overlap of public affairs, psyops, civil affairs, and information operations. There is a lack of a common definition and strategy for public relations—only a mutually contradictory mess. As LTC Greg Wilcox noted in a [2 MB] PowerPoint presentation, information operations also lack cultural context, political relevance, and the right target audience. Blocking or jamming insurgent media serves little purpose as well, given the decentralized nature of the myriad insurgent communications apparatus.

In the end, the basic disadvantage is a lack of understanding over the nature of the war itself. Journalist Richard Halloran quotes an officer returning from Iraq as saying: “We plan kinetic campaigns and maybe consider adding a public affairs annex. Our adversaries plan information campaigns that exploit kinetic events, especially spectacular attacks and martyrdom operations. We aren’t even on the playing field, but al Qaeda seeks to dominate it because they know their war will be won by ideas.” In a global media age, MNF forces still perceive kinetic operations and public diplomacy as separate categories. They are one and the same, as the most credible spokesperson for American foreign policy will always be the soldier videotaped on CNN.

Falling into the Trap

An important aim of insurgent strategy is also to modify MNF strategy. The demoralizing feeling of being hunted, as well as the targeting of noncombatants such as medics and chaplains lowers morale and inflicts psychological damage [660 KB PPT]. The result of such targeting (along with IEDs and ambushes) is more cautious tactics and an undue emphasis on force protection, which precludes the kind of community policing strategy needed to make counterinsurgency successful. Additionally, insurgents also attempt to provoke the use of heavy firepower, particularly air strikes that destroy the target but kill or injure innocents. Insurgents purposefully desire such an outcome because it allows them to claim that they are the rightful defenders of the population against trigger-happy invaders.

Unfortunately, this strategy of provocation has been largely successful. As USA Today reports, air strikes have increased five-fold from 2006. Slate’s military affairs correspondent Fred Kaplan argues convincingly that this shift towards air power is intended to keep down casualties. Despite the official shift towards counterinsurgency, the temptation to use heavy firepower has proven too great to bear. The results may be successful on a tactical level, but compromise larger Coalition objectives.

What can be done? DOD is requesting $1.4 billion to develop a suite of counter-sniper technologies. These include DARPA “Boomerang” shot-listening microphones and C-Sniper laser-based detection systems. Additionally, advanced sniper scopes are being developed to aid in the hunting of insurgent snipers. While such technologies will have a generally favorable tactical impact, they will do little to solve the strategic problem posed by insurgent snipers.

Fighting Back

The aim of the insurgent sniper strategy is to lower morale, commit the uncommitted, and induce strategic isolation and overreaction. A reasonable operational response will eschew technological fixes and force protection. Snipers, like IEDs, are a social network problem that are best combated through the collection of human intelligence and collaboration with Iraqi civilians. This requires a discriminating focus and an emphasis on de-escalation. As the Fourth Generation Warfare Seminar notes in the new FMFM 1-A manual [236 KB PDF], Martin Van Creveld argues that the British ultimately triumphed in Northern Ireland because of their strict avoidance of unnecessary violence.

A good example of this strategy also occurred during the 2007 Boyd Conference in Quantico, VA. For his special presentation on adaptive leadership, Retired US Army Major Donald Vandergriff previewed a set of tactical decision games. Each participant had a short time to come up with a solution to increasingly difficult conflict scenarios. One such situation involved a recon mission that had come under fire by insurgents. Some participants elected to engage the insurgents or call in airstrikes. Bill Lind, however, surprised everyone by electing to withdraw. His explanation? The recon squad had accomplished its mission by locating the enemy, and there was little need to escalate a situation that might cause civilian casualties.

On a strategic level, the State Department and DOD should develop a long-term information war strategy designed to counter insurgent propaganda. This strategy should not be limited to the usual platitudes about American values. It should aggressively combat insurgent propaganda, blanketing both media outlets and the Internet with well-crafted media products. Presentations should incorporate cultural references specifically tailored to Middle Eastern (and especially Iraqi) audiences.

Given that many insurgent attacks are filmed, stabilization operations should also be tailored to a larger political message, and filmed with an eye towards public perception. Coalition forces equipped with recording equipment could quickly produce media products that could be disseminated online or to media outlets. Such products could refute false insurgent claims before they enter into the news cycle, and expose insurgent cowardice, atrocities, and humiliating defeats. Additionally, they could depict the MNF in a positive light. As LTC Wilcox notes in his presentation, other armies have employed political officers down to the company level for information operations. Yet the U.S. still lacks a unified concept of strategic communication and the means to respond to insurgent communications in a flexible, credible manner.

At the same time, however, policymakers should understand the limits of strategic communication. Even the cleverest Madison Avenue-style branding will fail if it is out of sync with the messages communicated by actual policy. It is hard to sell the message of American benevolence to someone whose house has been demolished by artillery fire. Additionally, hidebound organizations used to “staying on message” will find it hard to let go enough to gain the flexibility needed to effectively rebut the decentralized insurgent media apparatus.

Insurgent use of snipers and IEDs as tools of strategic influence will increasingly become a feature of urban low-intensity conflicts. The sprawling urban dystopias likely to be encountered in these conflicts gives an important asymmetric advantage to insurgents savvy enough to understand how to exploit it. Additionally, with ever-more advanced tools of media production available at the cheapest of prices, the insurgent information advantage remains strong. Fixing the problem requires innovative solutions, and that starts by recognizing it as one of morale, propaganda, and strategy, not technology and tactics.

Adam Elkus is a writer specializing in foreign policy and security. His work has been published in Foreign Policy in Focus, US Cavalry on Point, and Foreign Policy Forum.

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