In the past information, influence or non-kinetic psychological aspects of conflict had a supporting function to the physical, kinetic aspects; today it is seen as central. Militaries have done ‘influence’ for years, but there is a dominant view that in the current information environment all actions, deeds and words are scrutinised in a way that was not the case in previous epochs. Tactical level incidents have the potential to create negative strategic effects, vulnerabilities which adversaries exploit. The information environment is a significant shaper of the conflict space, acting as a force enabler or multiplier. As contemporary adversaries seem to understand, information can be an effective tool in the hands of the weak, even acting as a force equaliser, as a principal means of affecting the strategic centre of gravity: the will to fight.
The inherent political and psychological nature of fighting and countering insurgency means that information and strategic communications aspects are critical. Bard O’Neill argues insurgency is a political legitimacy crisis, ‘a struggle between non-ruling group and ruling authorities in which the non-ruling group consciously uses political resources … and violence to destroy, reformulate or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics’. The identification and remedy of the sources of insurgent discontent and persuading the people that they would gain more by supporting the ruling authorities than they could obtain from the insurgents becomes pivotal to achieving success. The information campaign therefore becomes central to countering insurgency. None of this is new. My examination of how the British government used an information campaign to support its counter-insurgency efforts and to reach a solution to the problem of Palestine can offer insights that may be relevant today.
Historical examples and analogies should always be used with care, yet this case study offers insights into the challenges of conducting a strategic information campaign to support both a political process and counter-insurgency in the context of an international struggle for legitimacy that was on the front page of newspapers during this period.
Britain had been granted the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922 which allowed Britain to fulfil her strategic aims of access to the Suez Canal, the creation of a land bridge from the Mediterranean to Iraqi oilfields and to prevent French ambitions drifting south from their position in Syria and Lebanon. Britain was responsible for creating ‘such political, administrative, and economic condition as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home … and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion’. As Mandatory power in inter-war Palestine, Britain strove to accomplish institution building and attempted to square the circle between two communities who each believed Palestine belonged to them. Britain was accused of being pro-Arab and pro-Jew simultaneously and faced growing inter-communal violence, which culminated in the Arab Revolt (1936-9) against Jewish immigration and land purchases. By the end of the Second World War the Palestine Mandate had become costly politically, militarily and economically. In the 1944 US election both Republican and Democratic candidates supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The impact of the Holocaust and the refugee situation in Europe also gained the support of international opinion for a Jewish state. Within Palestine, British security forces had to deal with an increasingly perilous situation: a Jewish uprising against the British and widespread inter-communal violence.
In Palestine the competing strategic narratives pitted the victims of the Holocaust who had no alternative than to take up an insurgency against the country that stood in the path of saving the remnant of European Jewry, versus a Britain which was doing its best to achieve a political settlement in the interests of all the inhabitants of Palestine and in accordance with its international responsibilities.
Between 1945 and 1948 the British government tried to implement a long-term policy over Palestine which would preserve British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, while influencing day-to-day decisions over the future of the Mandate. The government favoured an agreed solution to create an independent Palestine as a unitary state, which would guarantee British military facilities and maintain Arab goodwill, on which Britain’s general position in the Middle East was predicated. But there was no clear plan. Instead there were broad policy assumptions – that any settlement leading to independence had to be agreed, and agreed not just between Britain and the Arabs and Jews living in Palestine, but also a settlement that would be supported by the United States and states in the Middle East.
Domestic and International Opinion
Domestic opinion in Britain had to be convinced not to oppose the government’s efforts to reach a solution and that the sacrifices were worth it, but the main target audiences of British information efforts were abroad. British policy in Palestine had to reconcile the differing objectives and opinions of three constituencies: Arab, Jewish and American. Optimally, the information campaign sought to persuade each constituency to consider compromise rather than rigidly holding to its goals. Failing that, it tried to maintain Anglo-Arab and Anglo-American friendship by a damage limitation exercise. The prosecution of counter-insurgency on the ground therefore involved the security forces trying to hold the ring until a political settlement could be achieved.
The Political aim
Most counter-insurgency doctrine stresses the primacy of the political aim. In Palestine the British had a clear political aim: a settlement that was compatible with wider British strategic interests, the preservation of the Anglo-American relationship, and Britain’s position in the Middle East. This was not a clear political aim in narrative terms that could be articulated in a way that could have undermined the insurgency. Britain consistently presented herself as the ‘neutral’ arbiter and honest broker in dealing with this unwanted international responsibility. In reality Britain pursued its own national self-interest. It was not just having a clear political aim, but having one that was credible, that could be translated into a meaningful outcome and set of activities on the ground.
The government was conscious of the ingredients of a successful information campaign and attempted to conduct one, albeit with mixed results. Officials correctly understood both the insurgents’ aims and how they would exploit British vulnerabilities. British persuasion efforts urged the merits of compromise – that Palestine alone was not the answer to the problem of Jewish Displaced Persons, that Britain had responsibilities to two communities in Palestine, not just one, and that there should be a peaceful settlement of the issue rather than terrorist violence or criminal illegal immigration.
The problem was of the policy, not the information campaign. The tempo of the events on the ground was greater than the British ability to deal with them in a way that would ensure the British version of events dominated in the perceptions of what was occurring. Thus the British information effort was often on the defensive, reacting to events rather than proactively controlling how they would be received.
In terms of the battle for the dominant strategic narrative, Zionist ‘legitimacy’ beat the British honest broker. The insurgents made any British attempt to hold on to Palestine morally and economically unacceptable and it was impossible for the British to look good in the process.
Target audiences and agendas
Countering insurgency requires an end state that can be clearly articulated to all audiences and that can also be translated into a campaign on the ground. As Palestine shows us, this is made almost impossible if both or all the protagonists are of equal importance and have what are in effect zero-sum aims.
In Palestine the British identified key target audiences correctly. The regional audience was crucial. It was believed that British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East depended on the maintenance of Arab goodwill and the compatibility of British and Arab interests, particularly in the context of growing Arab nationalism across the region.
The Jewish audience in Palestine represented a population of nearly 600,000 and the active membership of insurgent underground organisations was approximately 45,000 in the Haganah, 1500 in the Irgun, and 300 in the Lehi. These numbers belie the real challenge that faced Britain. While the British information campaign sought to marginalise the insurgent extremists and build an alternative moderate majority, in practice for most of this period the distinction did not exist. This is not to say that all Jews supported the terror campaign, and indeed at times it was seen as counter-productive by the Jewish Agency. However, the British never really understood the nature of political Zionism and the general support for illegal immigration, the one thing that united the Jewish community. Again, the audience was correctly identified, but its agenda was misunderstood.
British public opinion was a less critical audience and no British election would ever be decided in the merits of the Government’s handling of Palestine. Where British press, public and parliamentary opinion did play an important role was as pressure on Britain to withdraw from Palestine because expectations raised by the information campaign were not met and the sacrifices made were questioned.
Again it was correctly identified that the US was the most important audience because it was the power broker with the power to either help or hinder Zionist aims. Britain tried to persuade the US to use its influence to get the Zionists to compromise. But Britain was vulnerable to American policy as she was dependent upon American economic aid.
If an insurgency is primarily a battle for legitimacy, an information campaign can only work if the legitimacy of the counter-insurgents can be successfully demonstrated and defended. This is why tactical mistakes such as acting outside the law or civilian casualties are own goals and a free gift to the insurgent’s information campaign, reinforcing perceptions of illegitimacy. Today it is recognised that a counter-terrorist strategy needs to be holistic, addressing both the causes and the symptoms of terrorism. But how do you address very real grievances without ‘delegitimising’ your own counter-insurgency strategy? In Palestine, denying Jews a state was not perceived to be internationally legitimate.
Information campaigns, influence and narratives are not new areas of activity. But they are difficult areas and even more challenging today because of the proliferation and immediacy of the media, sources of information and opinion. The limits of the information and strategic narratives need to be understood. A strategic narrative is not a substitute for policy. It will not succeed unless it is credible and supported by action and political will. While strong enough to withstand a temporary setback, it is not a panacea or an alternative to a strategy which is ill-conceived.
The target audiences for the counter-insurgent’s information efforts need to be thought through carefully, identifying whose perceptions count in the battle for legitimacy and who can materially affect the success or failure of the insurgency. An information campaign needs to be coherent, ideally a simple and credible ‘truth’ or ‘truths’ based on facts that can be transmitted and reinforced to all target audiences. It should support the wider political process, which in turn should reinforce the government’s credibility and reputation as the legal government, while the campaign should also undermine the insurgents by representing them as a criminal minority. Moreover, the campaign should persuade the wider international community that the state’s political aims are legitimate; its methods are both legal and moral; and that it is intent on promoting a political settlement that addresses the expectations of the moderate majority. This is the ideal, but information alone cannot deliver success. As the case study of Palestine shows, it is also easier said than done.
For more detail see the author’s, ‘Palestine 1945-48: Policy, Propaganda and the Limits of Influence’, in Greg Kennedy & Chris Tuck, British Propaganda and Wars of Empire: Influencing Friend and Foe 1900-2010 (Ashgate, 2014), pp.71-95
Image: British paratroopers enforce curfew in Tel Aviv following the King David Hotel bombing, July 1946 via wikimedia commons.