Fighting the Fight We Are In

By Ajit Maan

“Narratives are essential in mobilizing local actions to defeat violent extremists. Some leaders laugh nervously at this concept, and dismiss it with arrogant waves of the hand. Misperceptions about narrative and story as somehow being a squishy and un-warrior-like action to be out-sourced, are putting us at a severe disadvantage. It is one thing to get a narrative wrong. It is worse not to consider it a part of the campaign when your enemy is already kicking your ass with it.” 

Col. (ret) Scott Mann, Game Changers: Going Local to Defeat Violent Extremists

One way to lose an unconventional war is to address it conventionally. In fact, when we have won a kinetic victory and taken back territory, as we have against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but have not won the war, we have done something worse than not winning. We have driven our adversaries underground, across borders, and left them with only the irregular weapons that they use better than we do. Now we have to fight in a domain that they dominate.

As per their plans, our Jihadist adversaries have cost us blood and treasure, they have waited us out, they have eroded our will to fight, they have caused division in our homelands, they have used our own actions against us in a way that has won them recruits, and those recruits, made in our homelands, are what threatens us now.

We have not won.

But we have not quite lost either. There is a way forward.

First we need to get clear about the nature of the non-kinetic conflicts we are in.

The two views expressed by the new general in charge of operations in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, and by RAND’s counterterrorism guru Brian Jenkins, are representative of pervasive thought among those who appreciate the non-kinetic basis of current conflicts around the world. Jenkins expresses a common confusion between ideological and narrative warfare, and Miller overlooks the narrative foundation required for successful engagement, whether military or political. This is not because these talented professionals are completely wrong in their assertions but because they are not well versed in the nature of narrative and the way it conditions human cognition, identity, and behavior.

Jenkins recently said that despite battlefield victories against ISIS, the taking back of physical territory, and the degrading of their operational capabilities, “We have had less success in countering the narrative of the Jihadists. We are not very good at it. We are better on the battlefield than we are in ideological warfare. We haven’t dented the determination of our Jihadist foes to continue the struggle.” And he says, “Wars have become even more about perceptions. Outcomes are increasingly dependent on whose story wins.” While I agree with this general perspective the conflation between ideological and narrative warfare requires clarification.

We are engaged in narrative warfare and narrative warfare is not a battle of ideologies nor is it information warfare. Narrative Warfare is warfare over the meaning of information. Ideologies rarely motivate behavior until they are narrated. Ideas get their legs from narratives. The most influential ideas are presented in narrative form. Ideas, on the other hand, have no inherent strategy. Ideas are conscious; narratives are often not conscious. So, when it comes to conflict, much of what happens in narrative conflict is happening at a subconscious level. Narrative warfare is much more insidious than ideological conflict.

General Scott Miller has recently stated that we are not going to win in Afghanistan militarily and what is needed is a political solution.

But in order for there to be a political solution, a narrative resolution is required. That means that each side will need to be able to tell a story about the policy change that is supported by their cultural narratives and that preserves their identities. And yet the story of each player has to be consistent with the stories of the other players. That is what we have to work out at the diplomatic table.

The international spectacle of the most powerful nation on earth compromising with the Taliban didn’t need to happen had we dominated the narrative space in the first place. As Thomas Johnson, author of Taliban Narratives, insists, “The challenge for the US in Afghanistan was to develop a strategy for defeating the insurgent narrative just as decisively as the enemies capability. Unfortunately, this was never done.” And as Scott Mann warned early on, “….we are recklessly giving up narrative ownership to the extremists and other transnational threats. The extremist will fill the local space we ignore with his own version of the story– one that is extremely dangerous to us.”

The single most important part of any operation is the preliminary establishment of a narrative strategy. It is the narrative strategy that must inform/support IO and PsyOps. By “narrative strategy” I don’t mean a mission plan or an explanation about what is going to happen and why. Rather, a narrative strategy proceeds from Narrative and Internarrative Identity Analysis© of the target audiences.

Both types of analysis are critical in developing a series of stories that trigger unconscious cultural narratives (which are bound up with identity) in order to establish, alter, or effect the cognitive frame that will determine how all participants, including domestic audiences and the international community, will view threats to their stability. As Mann says, “This is a paradigm change for our intelligence community as well. They have to get well beyond the threat networks and into the world of narrative. ….not enough leaders are calling for narrative perspective as an information requirement….”

The Special Operations community has long understood the importance of Human Terrain Analysis but a significant gap in fully understanding the Human Terrain is the narrative foundation of that terrain.

Let us be clear that the power of narrative does not begin with messaging or communication. Narrative is more basic than that. Narratives provide a cognitive framework, a sort of meaning map, that will determine what meaning will be assigned to events and experiences. Strategic narratives provide a frame for incoming information. Human experience of events, and the meaning we assign to them, are determined by the narratives we live by.

To the extent the DoD includes narrative considerations, it is focused only on countering them. The current emphasis on counter narratives is misplaced and insufficient because it treats narrative as a type of messaging and ignores the identity components of narratives. Further, counter-narratives are reactive and defensive. We will not dominate by playing only defense.

I suspect US counter-insurgency strategy focuses so much on counter-narrative because it is less difficult to get our hands on an adversarial narrative and object to it (often unnecessarily and counter-productively) than it is to construct an offensive narrative. In other words, it is easier to be a critic than an artist. But counter-narratives are often counter-productive because, as we have witnessed, they are easy to get wrong and perhaps worse, they reiterate the original adversarial message.

We need an offensive narrative strategy that gets there first, shapes perceptions ahead of action, and continues to shape perceptions for years to come. If we are successful our narrative will determine how ensuing actions will be interpreted. It will preempt further insurgency by inoculating populations to insurgent narratives. Once the narrative is in place, the context for understanding future action/events/experience will have been established.

The lasting long-term effects of narrative dominance are the closest we can get to something like victory in irregular warfare. Counter narratives are not nearly enough to get us there. Narrative Warfare is warfare over the meaning of information and we need to learn how to tell our meaning. Our adversaries have demonstrated they already know how. It is not enough to catch up with them by countering their narrative. We must dominate with our own.


Ajit Maan, Ph.D. is author of Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and co-author of Introduction to Narrative Warfare. She is Affiliate Faculty, Center for the Study of  Narrative and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University, and Founder of Narrative Strategies, LLC.

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