NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Psychological Warfare

October 15, 2001

Psychological operations (PsyOps) have begun in the war in Afghanistan, and will play a key role in the conflict. PsyOps has two main purposes: to demoralize the enemy and persuade them to surrender and to convince local civilians that the attackers are not the real enemy.

  • Aircraft in the Afghanistan region will operate as airborne radio stations, blocking local transmissions and broadcasting replacement propaganda programs.
  • Along with leaflets, portable radios tuned to the U.S. military propaganda frequency may also be dropped.
  • Leaflets and radio broadcasts will be used to tell civilians where food is, how to reach safety and to persuade them that they are not the target of the operation.

Experts say that one of the keys to the effectiveness of PsyOps is to make your message accurate in a cultural context. For example, analysts suggest that leaflets and broadcasts in Afghanistan are likely to focus on Islam's teaching of non-violence and peace. They may also point out inconsistencies in the enemy's actions. The Taliban are against pictures of any kind -- against video and photographs. And yet Osama Bin Laden has appeared on television and is now one of the most recognizable faces in the world.

PsyOps have been extremely successful in the past. During the Gulf War, leaflets promising humane treatment if they surrendered were dropped on Iraqi troops. Most of the soldiers who later surrendered were carrying the leaflets, army officials said at the time.

But a thorough understanding of the culture of the people targeted by PsyOps is crucial, says Hofmann, president of the U.S. Psychological Operations Veterans. Armies often attempt PsyOps without success. In Iraq Saddam Hussein tried to demoralize U.S. troops by broadcasting messages that while they were away fighting, their sweethearts were being seduced by movie stars such as Bart Simpson.

Source: Emma Young, "Psychological warfare waged in Afghanistan," New Scientist, October 10, 2001.


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