/ Published April 25, 2017
Managing modern irregular conflicts requires blending strategic narrative with kinetic options to generate a desired end state. Maan and Cheema’s Soft Power on Hard Problems combines several similarly focused articles to tease out common threads suggesting narrative structure options for counter-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as both ISIL and ISIS) campaigns. The text focuses on Middle-Eastern and Muslim cultural barriers which prevent Western cultures from adequately translating conflict resolution messages to broader populations. This problem is frequently referred to in the literature as complex, one which changes rapidly based on one’s approach and which viewpoint is first addressed. In these six, short articles, the editors describe communication strategies, tools for building a bottom-up narrative, and narrative messaging examples as they appear in the current conflict. These are worthwhile articles in an easy to read covering a challenging problem.
Soft power emerges from persuasion, hard power from coercion, and the intersection between the two creates the narrative battle where irregular wars are fought and won. These conflicts, and their hearts and minds component, require soft power to change generational thinking rather than simple kinetic solutions. The text concentrates where soft power may be the driving factor to change local and leadership decision calculus. Hard power remains a key warfare component, however, the text suggests proper soft power applications over the long term will increase overall efficiencies, decrease costs, and save lives.
Some common themes appear as the first and fourth chapters examine communication strategies. The first selection builds a soft power toolbox against ISIS efforts through using five lines of effort (LOE); diplomacy, resolve suffering, grievance resolution, capacity building, and kinetic targeting. LOEs are a common practice when developing planning options, and the author, Paul Cobaugh, explains how one uses them to approach a soft-power, counter-ISIS strategy. Additionally, Cobaugh describes critical soft power strategy elements such as; narrative, credibility, and relationships. The fourth article, by author Christopher Holshek, expands on the initial approach by exploring US civil-military narratives that coordinate international peace and security. This chapter builds an understanding of how military and civilian institutions work together to achieve soft power goals. Holshek’s civilian military narrative continues common strategic themes through advocating thinking globally and acting locally. Both provide a framework which could be adapted to one’s own soft power strategy.
The two middle chapters focus on how states build soft power frameworks through narrative to achieve counter-terror objectives. Author Amar Cheema specifically focuses on the Syria-Iraq problem and how both the US and Russian states have approached resolving the current crisis. The solution suggests using socioeconomic options to increase the difficultly for ISIS to achieve their financial ends. The biggest shortfall with this chapter was in concluding that US Middle-Eastern goals since Iraq’s 2003 invasion seek continual regional chaos in order to lower crude oil prices. The intent was to affect Iranian and Russian income and further reduce their strategic influence by creating an arc of Middle-East instability ranging from Lebanon through Iran, to Afghanistan. This is an interesting theory although it lacks details or textual support from those advocating the policy or the ends. The third chapter, by Erini Patsea, also discusses narratives through how meta-narratives in the Muslim religion constrain regional peace-building efforts. However, the chapter provides excellent insight into how social violence justification through religious practices degrades the communal relationships essential to creating consistent narratives. This part points to the difficulty of blending different cultural perspectives across the geographic scope necessary for irregular warfare.
The final two chapters offer narrative building examples. The fifth chapter discusses how transitioning from a selfless service to committed service narrative in the US military would help create personnel more conducive to soft power approaches. The final chapter explores women’s roles in ISIS narratives through demonstrating how, despite an outward terrorist narrative suggesting gender specific restraints, the organization still includes prominent women as recruitment figures. The author, Farhani Qazi, provides numerous examples stating how women may be convinced to advocate for ISIS due to a need for the following desires; revenge, respect, reassurance or recruitment. Women seek revenge for family members, respect for their sacrifices from the larger community, reassurance as equal partners in jihad, or to recruit other women to sustain the larger group. These motives also apply to the committed service narrative through defense or revenge for one in service, for external respect and reassurance, or to recruit towards a larger military whole. Although the motives are not expressed in the same manner, the underlying goals required to achieve a successful narrative do shine through.
The combined articles provide an interesting soft power approach but ironically lack the consistent messaging to achieve a common narrative thread. Each article mentions soft power before combining basic frameworks, building narratives, and creating message structures. A more tailored approach would have increased the reader’s understanding of both how and where to apply soft power in the Middle East. The regional focus proved limiting and several articles set in a different environment would have expanded one’s understanding about other soft power applications.
Overall, Maan and Cheema’s Soft Power on Hard Problems provides an interesting initial look to this challenging problem. The text lacks sufficient detail to be an authoritative source on ISIS, allow one to create a soft power methodology, or significantly change current narrative strategies. The work’s strength lies in demonstrating where current narratives exist and how to incorporate opposing cultural perspectives. However, to understand soft power, I recommend Joseph Nye’s The Future of Power for a general perspective, Sidney Tarrow’s War, States and Contention to understand cultural contention or even David Galula’s Counterinsurgency: Theory and Practice as a beginning in this field. Anyone working with nongovernmental approaches or counter-terrorist solutions should add this work to their reading list. The strong perspective from non-Western thinkers will broaden one’s outlook through the proposed alternative solutions. Additionally, this short volume is an easy read and well referenced.
Lt Col Mark Peters, USAF
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."