The Magazine

Psyching Out the Taliban

The Army plans mind games at Fort Bragg.

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By MATT LABASH
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FORT BRAGG, N.C.

Despite the low-rent ambiance of Bragg Blvd.--the land of Park'n'Pawns and $1.99 fried chicken plates--Fort Bragg has always been synonymous with the Army's elite. Arriving at the home of the 82nd Airborne and Special Forces, visitors often experience the contact-buzz that comes from occupying the same ground as the Green Berets and Delta Force. But in a complex of ugly low-slung buildings resides another group of warriors, these mostly unsung--the soldiers and civilians of the 4th Psychological Operations Group.

After American bombs and Northern Alliance fighters, perhaps no one has had a greater effect on the rapid demise of the Taliban than the Army's psychological operations (PSYOPs) team. But you wouldn't know it from the way they act. Calling themselves "force multipliers" who deal in "perceptions management," they don't even have a blood-curdling nickname like the "Night Stalkers" or "Snake Eaters." While some Army regulars call them the "bullshit bombers" (for their propaganda dissemination), Maj. Ric Rohm, executive officer of the 8th PSYOP battalion, when pressed for a nickname, comes up stumped: "Umm, I guess it's just 'PSYOPer.'"

If PSYOPers themselves are an understated lot, the very term "psychological operations" tends to conjure images of black-bag artists--camouflaged Freudians practiced in the dark art of winning hearts by warping minds. But operating under the regimental motto "Persuade, Change, Influence," the brass works overtime to stand a group of visiting reporters' stereotypes on end.

Despite a John Wayne "Green Berets" poster on the wall with the dialogue bubble "Better get Psywar on that," the conference room where we are briefed is littered with mission statements, corny successories--even the serenity prayer.

Over in the nearby printing plant, the air is choked with the smell of printer cleaning solvent, as the presses have now rolled off 15 million leaflets that have been dropped in fiberglass bombs over Afghanistan. Here, Dr. David Champagne, the 4th PSYOP Group's civilian Afghanistan expert, who says he fell in love with the country as a Peace Corps "hippie," translates the latest effort: a leaflet wishing Afghans "Happy Eid" (the feast in which Muslims break their Ramadan fast). "We want them to know that we care about them as human beings," says Champagne. "They probably haven't had many happy greetings for the last six years."

With all this peace'n'love, a naive civilian--convincingly played by yours truly--might start suspecting that the real psychological operation is the one the 4th PSYOP Group is performing on the press. When my public affairs escort tells me that everything they put out has to be truthful, I finally snap: "Who cares if it is? This is war." ("Hey, I don't make the rules," he counters.) But my initial reaction is a poorly informed one. As Col. James Treadwell, the 4th PSYOP Group commander, says, "Truth is the best propaganda. If you ever get caught in a lie, you lose your credibility. That doesn't mean we have to tell the whole truth. I guess that's one difference between public affairs and psychological operations."

Obviously Col. Treadwell has never sat through a Pentagon briefing. But he's wise to uphold this time-honored propaganda tenet. PSYOPers, after all, are in the perception business. For this reason, 9th PSYOP battalion commander Lt. Col. Glenn Ayers goes so far as to say, "I do not like that 'P' word. Propaganda elicits the vision of Goebbels, who used it for nefarious reasons." Though military historian Daniel Lerner has written that the mark of a first-rate propagandist is one who "conceals his skill from the public" appearing to be "a simple man, telling the simple truth," Joseph Goebbels had no appetite for subtlety. He gave the game away with his title, "Minister of Propaganda."

With as brutal a regime as the Taliban, of course, there is no need to shade the truth. Consequently, American propaganda, in the form of leaflets and radio broadcasts beamed in from the EC-130 Commando Solo aircraft (television's not an option--since the Taliban destroyed everyone's sets), has come in four varieties:

-Informational--giving listings of American radio broadcasts, and cautioning civilians to stay clear of humanitarian food drops, since nothing spoils goodwill like killing someone with a crate of peanut butter.

-The Friendly Neighbor--smiling American family shakes hands with smiling Afghan family.

-Appeals to the Taliban Swing Voter: One leaflet shows Mullah Omar as a dog whose leash is held by Osama bin Laden, while another shows fleeing Taliban fighters running from an incinerated truck with the gentle admonition "Stop fighting for the Taliban and live."

-Sugar Daddy Appeals: $25 million to whoever assists in bin Laden's capture.