That nasty word “propaganda”

Excerpted without permission from Colonel G. L. Lamborn’s piece in Small Wars Journal, entitled The People in Arms
A Practitioner’s Guide to Understanding Insurgency and Dealing with it Effectively

It should be understood that the term “propaganda” comes from the Latin word propagare,to propagate, propound or spread. It has acquired its negative flavor in the twentieth century when the word took on a sinister, evil connotation – perhaps because of its association with Nazi or Communist political causes. In the American popular mind, “propaganda” is associated with clever lies, tricks, slander, and deception. The idea of persuasion, especially persuasion based on truth, is seldom considered.

The irony is that the term “propaganda” was first coined by the Roman Catholic Church in 1622 in its Sacred Congregation for Propagating the Faith  (Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide.) The object of this body was to propound, spread, or promote Catholic doctrine to counter or block what the Roman Catholic Church viewed as the heretical (“wrong”) teaching by Lutherans, Calvinists and others in northern and central Europe. Such heretical teachings would not have disturbed the Catholic Church much, but for the fact that the spread of Lutheranism and Calvinism was seriously eroding the Church’s political position in Europe – and costing it a lot of lost revenue.

Something had to be done, and the Church’s response (apart from the Inquisition) was the development of a sophisticated campaign to prevent the spread of Protestant doctrines and, where possible, to win back souls to Rome. It must be confessed that this effort met with remarkable success – quite apart from the use of armed force.

The hypocrisy of the American people and government concerning propaganda is only too obvious. While condemning “propaganda,” American political parties and pressure groups regularly spend hundreds of millions of dollars shaping the views of the American voter and motivating him or her to support certain candidates and programs and to oppose others. By the same token, American advertising is a multi-billion dollar industry and has as its purpose the persuasion of the American consumer that one brand of toothpaste is far superior to all others and therefore only it is worthy of purchase.

If propaganda is central to the way that we form the political and economic opinions of our own citizens – and it is – then it stands to reason that such efforts could be put to productive use abroad. Domestic propaganda often is sophisticated and sometimes subtle, but much of it is effective. Elections often are decided by the effective use of persuasive techniques with groups of voters. Corporate sales rise or fall depending upon the public’s opinion of its products, and therefore the number of sales made.

A leading theorist and observer of propaganda in the twentieth century was Jacques Ellul, a former Marxist turned Catholic theologian and scholar.  Ellul’s work, Propaganda: the Formation of Men’s Attitudes is so profound that it merits reading cover-to-cover.  But two of Ellul’s central observations are useful here to illustrate how the Taliban – or any political group – can form mass opinions and put them to good use:

To the extent that man needs justifications, propaganda provides them. But whereas his ordinary justifications are fragile and may always be open to doubts, those furnished by propaganda are irrefutable and solid. The individual believes them and considers them to be eternal truths. He can throw off all sense of guilt; he loses all feeling for the harm he might do….19

The great force of propaganda lies in giving modern man all-embracing, simple explanations and massive, doctrinal causes, without which he could not live with the news. Man is doubly reassured by propaganda: first, because it tells him the reasons behind the developments which unfold, and second, because it promises a solution for all the problems that arise, which would otherwise seem insoluble. 20

In the hands of a Taliban mullah capable of quoting Scripture (whether authentic excerpts taken from the Holy Qur’an or, in many cases, “sayings” of highly dubious Scriptural authenticity) poorly educated men, especially those who are also seeking their next meal, are easily recruited and organized into a self-sustaining base of support. It is here, at the most basic level of the mosque or madrassa that the Taliban builds its power. The madrassas and mullahs are the political mobilization equivalents of Mao’s resistance schools and senior cadres.

Let us consider for a moment what was done by a “transformational” insurgency in an earlier day. Even before Mao Tse-tung had risen to leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and prominence, the Chinese were skilled organizers. A Nationalist report from 1928 had the following to say about an earlier leader’s organizational work:

The reason the Communist Party has such a deeply rooted and firm foundation at Anyuan is because in the past the Communists carried out comprehensive ‘red education’ at Anyuan. Six or seven years ago the Anyuan workers were all country bumpkins…Not one of them could stand up at a meeting and say a word, let alone deliver a speech. Still less had any of them ever heard of organizing anything. It was only after the Communist bandit Li Lisan went to Anyuan…that the knowledge of how to organize became widespread. Now workers were speaking up at public meetings and even giving lectures! The Communists at Anyuan greatly valued education but they did not mechanically evangelize Communism like a missionary cramming a religious belief into a worker’s head. At first they focused on literacy and basic knowledge. Every week they convened lectures as well as workers’ debate societies and study groups.21

Now we must look at our own efforts and those of our allies in the contemporary era. If we seek for the reasons why the Taliban seems resurgent, and is indeed slowly extending its reach into parts of Afghanistan – and Pakistan – from which it was expelled only a few years ago, it is not because of its superior weaponry. The Taliban does not, as yet, have an air force, and “command of the sea” is hardly an issue. Even its ability to use basic infantry weapons is not up to NATO standards. Yet most objective observers agree that the Taliban is gaining strength in southern Afghanistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas {FATA} of Pakistan, and in other districts of both countries. Why is this

The answer can only reside in one aspect of the insurgency – an aspect largely ignored by the regime in Kabul and myopically not even seen in Washington. The answer is that the Taliban, though a fundamentally different kind of insurgency from that of the Chinese a
half century ago, have taken a leaf out of Mao’s handbook as relates to political warfare and are playing that card as a trump. And despite its very weak hand, the Taliban is still beating Kabul and its Western allies in the political warfare game. It has been given this great opening by the obvious flaws of the Kabul regime and the mistakes of the allies.
The political warfare response from the Western – Afghan side? Deafening silence. To
revisit Jean Monnet: “People will only fight for what is inside them and what they believe, and we must give them something to believe.”


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