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To General Pace

Blogger's Roundtable: BGen Holmes, DDO CENTCOM

Brigadier General Holmes spoke with us earlier this week.  The transcript is here.

There were several good questions, although General Holmes was not able to answer some of the most important ones for diplomatic reasons.  That's a limitation one has to accept as a military officer -- some things belong to the civilians.

He did address two questions I thought were interesting:  one on information operations, and one on how Admiral Fallon (now CDRUSCENTCOM, formerly CDRUSPACOM) is handling military operations other than war. 

Highlights and analysis after the jump.

David Axe of Danger Room asked the question I had planned to ask.

DAVID AXE: [I]s there like an IO surge, then, to sort of accompany the new tact we're taking in Iraq?

GEN. HOLMES: Well, I think all along your information operators, if you will -- and we have to draw a line there, and I think you can particularly understand -- the military, what we would look at as operational capabilities for information operations include certain things like, you know, psychological operations and then some other things with regard to I think Internet ops and things like that, which some of those I can't get into, one, because they part of ongoing operations, and just for the operational security involved, I can't go into it.

But I can tell you the focus is to use the information battlespace against our adversary. They use it; they use it quite well. They're very agile and adept at using it. In some cases they can use it to -- they're not bound to the things -- the policies and the values that we hold with regard to truthful information. So we go into that battlespace, if you will, if you don't mind me calling it that, fully knowing that this is an enemy that is extreme, it is violent, and it's going to use information to serve its purpose. On our hand, we look at how we counter that violent information or that propaganda with truthful information.

Now, having said that, I definitely understand the lines drawn between military psychological operations and, you know, we are -- have policy and doctrine that allows us to do that, to tell "good news" stories, if you will, in the country where we have combat operations going on. And I also understand the line then drawn between our public affairs folks which, you know, are there for a certain reason.

Now, have we stepped up IO? We have quite a robust process in place to look at the information in media space; we look at cyberspace and see what we can do to engage our adversary there. MNF-I -- and I'm sure you're familiar with, you know, their strategic effects cell under the past leadership of General Bill Caldwell, and now Admiral Fox has stepped up into that role, and they're very, very prolific, very active, very agile right there in Iraq.

We're looking now at what we do to counter the Taliban as we see them in Afghanistan, particularly right now with their propaganda campaign about the collateral damage. And then we're looking all across the region so that we communicate effectively, at least from our role as the combatant commander, those priorities that the commander has laid out for us.

Now, we cannot do that in isolation from what our national policies are, what our national priorities are with regard to security and stability and setting conditions for peace. So we're interlocking, if you will, with the State Department's Office for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication under Ambassador Hughes. And we're setting the conduits up from our components and then here at Central Command, as the combatant command, with the Department of Defense in joint staff activities and then interlocking right into Ms. Hughes' office.

That may have been a long answer, but it's sort of a -- I felt like I needed to share all of that with you, so that you'd see that it's not just a huge hoopla in public -- in PR, but it's a well- focused effort to counter the enemy's use of information and that part of -- in our present asymmetric war. And information is a huge part of that.

There are lots of things to say about this answer.  The first one is that the answer to the question actually asked appears to be that no, there is no IO Surge.  Doubtless the Surge units do have IO capabilities, of course, so there probably are more information operators in the area; but it's not part of the plan.

The second thing to say is that the "wall" between IO and PA continues to be a problem.  This is something we talked about extensively at the First MilBlogs Conference in 2006 (see "The PAO Conversation").  The wall between PA and IO is meant to protect the credibility of the US military's public affairs.  Because IO uses information to achieve particular results, IO activity is seen as manipulative.  The military believes that no one will trust them if they are seen as actively manipulating the US public, so therefore they insist on a separation of IO considerations from PA activity.

The problem this creates is that the enemy manipulates information freely, both through outright lies and through framing information.  The US military has experts in predicting these enemy IO, and countering them -- they're our IO guys.  But the main way in which the military is allowed to talk to the world is through PA, which has to be totally separate. 

What is needed is a unified effort, so that the guys putting out information for the military are:

A)  Predicting enemy IO, and creating conditions in the information battlespace that will frustrate those enemy IO;

B)  Countering enemy IO that are already ongoing;

C)  Ideally, within appropriate limits, countering the political spin that is coming in from opposition groups within the West.

I've long argued that the supposed benefit of separating IO and PA is an illusion.  In spite of the "high wall," the people who are supposed to trust the military PA refuse to believe that the information PA provides is honest or free of manipulation.  For example, consider this letter to the editor from a journalism professor:

There is an interview now available on the Web, attributed to AP, which allows DDO CENTCOM Holmes to spout every brass-hard line of propaganda the US maintains about its armada in the Persian Gulf region.

Since the piece is unattributed, I don't know where to direct my criticism. However, if the interviewer were one of my students, I would chastise him or her for allowing that sort of boilerplate to go by without question. How can Holmes maintain with a straight face that the carrier groups (including the Bataan and soon the Nimitz), in the context of US military and logistic aid to Baluchi insurgents and a massive buildup of land-based air weaponry, merely represent a comfort to "our allies?" The US has, historically, undertaken war efforts while maintaining a falsely defensive posture in the press. The logistical weight of the current buildup is too expensive to be a mere feint--surely the AP reporter knows that.

Or is that not so? Do AP reporters read history? Could it me that the interviewer is not versed in military affairs and technology? Or does he or she wish to be the General's friend?

Why no questions?

Theresa Mitchell

We're getting no benefit of the doubt from these folks, General.  They assume everything you say to the press is not just a form of IO, but outright propaganda.  The fact that military regulations and US Federal law forbid using the press in that way means absolutely nothing to them; if they know it to be true at all, they assume you just flaunt the law.

If we do not derive the benefit from the wall that we are supposed to, we might as well have the advantages that would come from unifying our information efforts.  Let's get these guys together, so we can start fighting the information war like a real war, using every tool the DOD has at its fingertips.

Another highlight:  I asked about Admiral Fallon's efforts within the region.  The background for this question is here, where we looked at how PACOM (where Fallon was at the time) was handling diplomacy better than State.  Ambassador Hughes' office, mentioned in Gen. Holmes' answer above, came in for some criticism in passing.  In the quote below, the black words are mine; blue words belong to Major M. Wegner.

I think the military leadership believes that it will be doing this alone, without the help of our other institutions.

Consider ADM Fallon's work at PACOM as an example of what I mean. PACOM's doing an excellent job, in my opinion:

* It's addressing GWOT concerns in Thailand with a very light hand, so as to assist the Thais without creating an obvious US footprint that would be a flashpoint;

* It has managed to do more to win Islamic hearts and minds in Indonesia than the whole rest of the US government put together (indeed, compare the Indonesia tsunami aid with State's visit by Karen Armstrong, which was probably of negative utility);

* It has managed to coordinate with Singapore and Australia as regional partners, so that our interests are protected and advanced without an obvious US hand to cause objection:

* The Sings are handling our interests in the Malacca Strait region, allowing Malaysia and Indonesia to take an apparent leadership role -- thus bolstering the standing of two relatively moderate Islamic countries with the worldwide Islamic community, reducing the demands on the US Navy, and creating a functioning subregional partnership for counterterrorism.

* The Australians are looking out for us in Asian regional forums in which the US is only an observer, or not even an observer, and taking on flashpoints like East Timor that could otherwise derail the US/Indonesian partnership, which is important for GWOT reasons.

(And the Philippines …looks like we're doing OK there, and that's a very politically sensitive area for us (both internally to the Philippines and for us regionally)

And all that while handling the larger mission of containing China and North Korea !

It's amazing how much of that is being done by PACOM, and how little by State, whose job it is to do diplomacy. State has missions going on constantly in the region, but they seem often to be counterproductive (the pressure on Indonesia to prosecute Abu Bakar Bashir, for example -- yeah, he's a bad guy, but the pressure led to a serious overreach on charges, with the result that he served a laughably short sentence and is now in the clear) or explosive (Dr. Rice's visit to Indonesia probably occasioned more protests than progress, whereas the military's interactions with Indonesia seem rarely if ever to draw notice, yet achieve concrete results).

State seems swallowed up in infighting -- infighting which has spilled out, as you've surely seen, into the press as State bureaucrats now support, now undermine Executive policy. I think the CIA is similarly divided, though it's less transparent -- the DO seems to be doing good work, but the DI seems to be engaged in more infighting of this type (though again, that's an impression that is based on less than perfect knowledge of their activities).

Meanwhile, so much of our soft power has become tied up with the UN -- which I read as being on balance actively hostile to US interests and willing to help advance Islamism as a counterweight to the US -- that effort's of PACOM's type are the best option that we can reasonably expect to execute in the current environment. Until there is a major shift in Western political attitudes, I don't think it's going to get better.

Soft power = non-military? If so, another major soft power we have is food. Including food aid, we were the #1 donor to Afghanistan , by far, in 1999. I don't think USAID was directly linked to UN projects (and restrictions), but I may be wrong. Food is a powerful diplomatic tool. But it wouldn't surprise me if it's not synchronized with other diplomatic tools.

I think the military leadership has realized it can't count on the other parts of the government to function as they ought to, or to support the mission, or even to agree on the mission. The leadership seems to be looking at ways it can go it alone if it has to -- which, for now, it very well may. My concern here remains the limits of military power. I think long term solutions to these regions require resources the military cannot provide. At best, we (the military) can help influence short-term conditions while longer-term ones take effect.

That's not to say that's the best way, or the way it ought to be -- but I think it may very well be the way it is.

Agree. These other instruments of national power need to get their collective acts together, and the nation needs better synchronization of these instruments. The question is how? I wonder if MACOMs can provide the staffing basis for these other instruments to augment? MACOM-level is fairly far removed (definitely one of the 'echelons above reality'). This synchronization probably needs to happen all the way down to Corps level, maybe even division. Just a thought.

With all that in mind, here was the Q/A from this week's exchange:

GRIM:  I wanted to ask you a question about one of your pillars that you had mentioned at the beginning of the call, the one about strengthening relationships with states and organizations in the region that contribute to stability and commerce. Admiral Fallon was very effective of that kind of military-to-military and military-to-state diplomacy when he was at PACOM. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about what he's doing not in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with other states in the region in that regard.

GEN. HOLMES: Certainly. One, I think most immediately here in these first 90 days he's engaging the military and the leaders in the more moderate states and clearly with the aim of, you know, increasing the prospects for long-term stability. That's his message. Long-term security. And he works to strengthen those relationships.

I think if you look at primary focus with the GCC to try and influence the states and organizations like that, to work and contribute to regional stability, reaching out -- as even General Abizaid had relied so much on -- reaching out to the moderate states and their militaries and creating that dialogue with their leadership. So I more along that same lines. Renewed or continued interest in our theater security cooperation strategy.

I'm trying to think if there are other visits. I think the key is very vocal support and advocacy that we're committed as a partner in the region, and clearly -- and I say this -- it's not to put a stamp of Made in the USA on the region. Or, do it like we do it in the U.S. military with your militaries.

I think the good news, at least from my perspective, is that we're past that and now sending a message of partnering with very, very important allies, particularly against these violent and extreme enemies, and that understanding, it's not just a U.S.-only show, when it comes to diplomacy or when it comes to a military engagement.

So I think the encouraging thing we see is dialogue, with the U.S. being a partner in that dialogue, for regional actors to bring their powers to bear in the region, and not expecting -- and as we look at the military, we send a message to say, how can we partner with your capabilities, with some large states, some small states? They all are a member of the team, and what they bring to the fight is very important. And I think we've seen that here recently with some countries in the -- down around the Horn of Africa, just like that, as they are engaged with routing out terrorists, finding them and, you know, killing or capturing these folks.

Q Can you talk -- just maybe give us a few examples of some sort of sub-state-level or non-government organizations in the CENTCOM region that CENTCOM thinks are important and wants to reach out towards?

GEN. HOLMES: Well, you know, if I -- I think the area that we're talking about is the Horn of Africa. And I think it's very important that we engage there. And the foot in the door there, honestly, is humanitarian operations.

I think we cannot understate the importance of the immediate needs of people. When they are without governments, they still need those certain basics of life that we've got to provide. So -- and we have -- (inaudible) -- Horn of Africa, the joint task force, HOA, 1,300 U.S. personnel. That works closely with the embassies in the Horn of Africa region to focus humanitarian mission. Ultimately that is what I would call a softer instrument of military power, which then over time builds capacity with regard to combating terrorism and other challenges.

So that is very clearly a focus, and it's a very effective use of the full range of military capacity. And I think, as we look at the region, you will see Central Command saying, look, use all of my instruments of power; don't just look at me for my kinetics. And I couldn't underscore that enough.

Now when it comes to combating terrorism, you know, we've fully said that it's the intent that we're going to go find and fix ourselves on bad actors, terrorists.

And if we can work with a regional partner, we desire to do that because it's very important as we look at these countries, or even these ungoverned spaces, that we support and partner so that they take the lead in killing or capturing some of these individuals that are on our international lists as HVIs, or high valued individuals. So just to continue down that, we look at -- I can't underscore the importance in my mind of that area in the Horn of Africa.

GRIM: Thank you very much.

That was a good answer, and it's not surprising that Adm. Fallon has them thinking along the lines of humanitarian aid.  He was CDRUSPACOM when the 2004 "Christmas" Tsunami hit (actually, it was on St. Steven's Day).  Anyone who saw the operational benefits the US derived from rendering aid in Indonesia (especially Aceh) would have understood the point.  It's good that Fallon has brought that experience to CENTCOM.

Gen. Holmes answered several more questions on the call; I won't reprint the others here, as this post is quite long enough already.  Anyone hungry for more, though, should scan the transcript for his comments about taking the fight to the Taliban in Afghanistan.  They were inspiring and thoughtful, though the information provided is not new.