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The Information Campaign and Countering Insurgency: Lessons from Palestine 1945-1948

Commentary, 21 September 2009
Information, Middle East and North Africa
The recent emphasis on explaining to the wider public the aims and objectives of the campaign in Afghanistan is not a new phenomenon. The 'information campaign' has always been an essential pillar to the wider political and military strategy. However, the historic difficulties of forging a credible and successful 'story' in support of counter-insurgency operations are forcibly demonstrated by the British experience in Palestine in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The recent emphasis on explaining to the wider public the aims and objectives of the campaign in Afghanistan is not a new phenomenon. The 'information campaign' has always been an essential pillar to the wider political and military strategy. However, the historic difficulties of forging a credible and successful 'story' in support of counter-insurgency operations are forcibly demonstrated by the British experience in Palestine in the aftermath of the Second World War. 

Members of the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organisation c1947

By Dr Kate Utting, for RUSI.org

With Britain engaged in costly and controversial operations in Afghanistan and the reasons for apparent failure increasingly debated, a beleaguered Prime Minister attempted recently to answer the critics, reinvigorate the British mission and lay out the rationale for British involvement together with a strategy for success.  Brown stated 'Our aim in 2009 is the same as in 2001. We are in Afghanistan as a result of a hard-headed assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain'.[1] According to his strategic narrative, it is 'right' to stay in Afghanistan where the international effort to defeat terrorism is a common good; where a safer Afghanistan means a safer Britain, and where the timeline for military withdrawal is predicated on a progressive 'Afghanisation' of security provision through a partnering strategy.[2] Does this narrative provide Britain with a war-winning story in a strategic environment in which, as the 'soft power'[3] advocate Joseph Nye has argued, 'It is not whose army wins, but whose story wins'?[4]

The information campaign

Addressing the challenges of the global war on terrorism, David Kilcullen has called for the development of a capacity for strategic information warfare and an integrating function that 'draws together all the components of what we say and what we do'. Kilcullen notes that '... for Al-Qa'ida the "main effort" is information; for us, information is a "supporting effort"'.[5] The emphasis on the relationship between the physical and psychological aspects of contemporary operations highlights the importance of the role of strategic narratives. These are 'compelling story lines which can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can be drawn ... designed or nurtured with the intention of structuring the responses of others to developing events'. A successful narrative can help achieve strategic aims and 'link certain events while disentangling others, distinguish good news from bad tidings, and explain who is winning and who is losing'.[6]

The inherent political and psychological nature of fighting and countering insurgency means that information and strategic communications aspects are critical.  Insurgency is a political legitimacy crisis of some kind, 'a struggle between non-ruling group and ruling authorities in which the non-ruling group consciously uses political resources ... and violence to destroy, reformulate or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics'.[7]  The identification and remedy of the sources of insurgent discontent and persuading the people 'that they had far more to gain by backing the government than they could ever hope to obtain from the insurgents'[8] is pivotal to success.  The information campaign becomes central to countering insurgency.  None of this is new. This examination of how the British government used an information strategy to support its counter-insurgency efforts and to reach a solution to the problem of Palestine can offer useful enduring lessons that are still relevant in today's environment.[9]

Palestine 1945-48: Background 

While it is important to remember that historical examples and analogies should be used with care,[10] the case of Britain's policy towards Palestine between 1945 and 1948 offers insights into the challenges of conducting a strategic information campaign to support both a political process and counter-insurgency in the context of an international struggle for legitimacy. 

Britain had been granted the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922.  The Mandate allowed Britain to fulfil her strategic aims of access to the Suez Canal, the creation of a land bridge from the Mediterranean to the Iraqi oilfields and to prevent French ambitions drifting south from their position in Syria and Lebanon.  Under the terms of the Mandate, Britain was responsible for creating 'such political, administrative, and economic condition as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home ... and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion'.  As Mandatory power in inter-war Palestine, Britain strove to accomplish institution building and attempted to square the circle between two communities who each believed Palestine belonged to them.  Britain was accused of being pro-Arab and pro-Jew simultaneously and faced growing inter-communal violence, which culminated in the Arab Revolt (1936-9) against Jewish immigration and land purchases.  Notwithstanding the Mandate's strategic importance, by the end of the Second World War the Palestine mandate had become costly politically, militarily and economically.  In the 1944 US election both Republican and Democratic candidates supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The impact of the Holocaust and the refugee situation in Europe also gained the support of international opinion for a Jewish state.  Within Palestine, British security forces had to deal with an increasingly perilous situation: a Jewish uprising against the British and widespread inter-communal violence. 

In Palestine the competing strategic narratives pitted the victims of the Holocaust who had no alternative than to take up an insurgency against the country that stood in the path of saving the remnant of European Jewry, versus a Britain which was doing its best to achieve a political settlement in the interests of all the inhabitants of Palestine and in accordance with its international responsibilities.

Between 1945 and 1948 the British government tried to implement a long-term policy over Palestine which would preserve British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, while influencing day-to-day decisions over the future of the Mandate. The government favoured an agreed solution to create an independent Palestine as a unitary state, which would guarantee British military facilities and maintain Arab goodwill, on which Britain's general position in the Middle East was predicated. But there was no clear plan. Instead there were broad policy assumptions - that any settlement leading to independence had to be agreed, and agreed not just between Britain and the Arabs and Jews living in Palestine, but also a settlement that would be supported by the United States  and states in the Middle East. The attempt to find a solution by negotiation that would satisfy British strategic requirements was pursued through an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry until October 1946, and also a London Conference of interested parties - primarily Arab states and the Jewish Agency. This was succeeded by a wider international initiative following reference of Palestine to the UN General Assembly in February 1947.

Domestic and International Opinion

Domestic opinion in Britain had to be convinced not to oppose the government's efforts to reach a solution and that the sacrifices were worth it. However, the main targets of British propaganda [11] were audiences abroad. British policy in Palestine had to reconcile the differing objectives and opinions of three constituencies: Arab, Jewish and American. Optimally, propaganda sought to persuade each constituency to consider compromise rather than rigidly holding to its goals. Failing that, Britain's propaganda tried to maintain Anglo-Arab and Anglo-American friendship by a damage limitation exercise. The prosecution of counter-insurgency on the ground therefore involved the security forces trying to hold the ring until a settlement could be achieved, including an effort to ensure that the insurgency and counter-insurgency actions did not undermine the diplomatic process.  Palestine presented Britain with a multifaceted problem. It could not be dealt with as a simple counter-insurgency problem, with propaganda supporting a hearts and minds campaign, because policy had wide international complications and competing strategic aims that needed to be balanced. 

Palestine was different from other successful British counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1940s and 1950s. What made Palestine different was the Holocaust.  This affected the situation by adding the problem of post-war mass immigration to escape the Displaced Persons camps in Europe. Furthermore, insurgent propaganda effectively exploited international public opinion, which viewed Zionist aspirations with a mixture of guilt and sympathy, and, most significantly in view of the counter-insurgency campaign, with legitimacy. Britain was portrayed as continuing Nazi persecution.

The prosecution of the counter-insurgency campaign also took place against the background of the perceived challenge of the Soviet Union to Britain's position in the Middle East.  The US supported Britain in its role as the protector of Western interests in the region as part of post-war burden-sharing, but on the specific issue of Palestine American Presidents were influenced by humanitarianism combined with the perception that the 'Jewish vote' could be electorally decisive.

Clarity of the Political Aim and the Conduct of the Information Campaign

Most counter-insurgency doctrine stresses the importance of the political aim and its primacy. In Palestine the British had a clear political aim: a settlement that was compatible with wider British strategic interests, the preservation of the Anglo-American relationship, and Britain's position in the Middle East. This however, was not a clear political aim in narrative terms that could be articulated in a way that could have undermined the insurgency. Britain consistently presented herself as the 'neutral' arbiter and honest broker in dealing with this unwanted international responsibility. In reality Britain pursued its own national self-interest. So, it is not just having a clear political aim, but having one that is credible, that can be translated into a meaningful outcome and set of activities on the ground.  It is hard to imagine that there existed a settlement that the majority of Jews and Arabs could have agreed to that would have also satisfied British strategic aims. 

The government was conscious of the ingredients of a successful information campaign and attempted to conduct one, albeit with mixed results.  Officials correctly understood both the insurgents' propaganda aims and how they would exploit British vulnerabilities. British propaganda urged the merits of compromise - that Palestine alone was not the answer to the problem of Jewish Displaced Persons, that Britain had responsibilities to two communities in Palestine, not just one, and that there should be a peaceful settlement of the issue rather than terrorist violence or criminal illegal immigration.

The problem was in effect a problem of policy, not the information strategy.  The tempo of the events on the ground was greater than the British ability to deal with them in a way that would ensure the British version of events dominated in the perceptions of what was occurring. Thus the British information effort was often on the defensive, reacting to events rather than proactively controlling how they would be received.

In terms of the battle for the dominant strategic narrative, Zionist legitimacy beat the British honest broker. The insurgents made holding on to Palestine morally and economically unacceptable. The commitment to finding a negotiated settlement that fulfilled British strategic interests meant that the prosecution of the counter-insurgency strategy was subject to restraint.  But even with this self-imposed restraint, and an eye on the wider strategic picture, it was impossible for the British to look good in the process. In terms of reputation and morale, Britain was deeply wounded.

In losing Palestine, as far as wider interests in the region were concerned, Britain in the short term rid herself of her obligations to the Jewish community and at the same time avoided the 'odium' in Arab eyes of having assisted in the creation of the state of Israel. Britain maintained control of the Suez Canal until 1956; retained bases in Iraq until 1958; troops in Libya until the revolution in 1969 and a presence in the Gulf until the 1970s. Britain also managed to isolate the issue of Palestine from the early post-war development of the Anglo-American relationship, while the US generally supported Britain's strategic position in the Sudan, Gibraltar, Aden and Cyprus.

Target audiences and misunderstood agendas

Countering insurgency requires an end state that can be clearly articulated to all audiences and that can also be translated into a campaign on the ground.  A co-ordinated effort is required and it is necessary to be clear about who is a critical player and whether they have been understood correctly. As Palestine shows us, this is made almost impossible if both or all the protagonists are of equal importance and who have what are in effect zero-sum grievances and aims. Today this is compounded when fighting alongside coalition partners who try to demonstrate the unity and solidarity of their allied purpose, but who will also have their own information priorities. Moreover, if the strategy is perceived to be failing, the media and the adversary will pick up on differences in policy and practice between allies and exploit them.

In Palestine the key target audiences were correctly identified. The regional audience was crucial.  It was believed that British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East depended on the maintenance of Arab goodwill and the compatibility of British and Arab interests, particularly in the context of growing Arab nationalism across the region. In spite of British publicity appeals to compromise on the basis of creating a bi-national state, Britain failed to really understand the domestic political utility of public support for Palestinian statehood that ruled out further Jewish immigration.

The Jewish audience in Palestine represented a population of nearly 600,000 and the active membership of insurgent underground organisations was approximately 45,000 in the Haganah, 1500 in the Irgun, and 300 in the Lehi.[12]  These numbers belie the real challenge that faced Britain. While the British information campaign sought at great length to marginalise the insurgent extremists and build an alternative moderate majority, in practice for most of this period the distinction did not exist. This is not to say that all Jews supported the terror campaign, and indeed at times it was seen as counter-productive by the Jewish Agency.  However, the British never really understood the nature of political Zionism and the general support for illegal immigration, the one thing that united the Jewish community.  Again, the audience was correctly identified, but its agenda was misunderstood.

British public opinion was a less critical audience.  As the pro-Zionist Labour MP Richard Crossman put it:

'No British election would ever be decided in the merits of the Government's handling of Palestine.  The British press at this time showed no interest in the Jewish problem, and in the little space they gave to it, no very violent partisanship. The British people would be ready to accept any solution which seemed reasonable and averted the risk of bloodshed.'[13] 

When British press, public and parliamentary opinion did play an important role it was as pressure on Britain to withdraw from Palestine because expectations raised by the information campaign that promised a political settlement were not met. Moreover, the inability to meet the insurgent challenge questioned the sacrifices being made in order to fulfil what the public had been told were international responsibilities.

Again it was correctly identified that the US was the most important audience because it was the power broker with the power to either help or hinder Zionist aims. Britain tried to persuade the US to use its influence to get the Zionists to compromise, to moderate the insurgents, to break illegal immigration and to underwrite a political settlement.  But Britain was vulnerable to American policy as she was dependent upon American economic aid.  President Truman's interest in the future of Palestine and the pursuit of American interests and priorities that were incompatible with those of the British meant that the reality of American interference strained relations between the two states, undermining British solutions. 

Maintaining Legitimacy - a fine balance

If an insurgency is primarily a battle for legitimacy, the strategic information campaign can only work if the legitimacy of the counter-insurgents can be successfully demonstrated and defended. This is why tactical mistakes such as acting outside the law or civilian casualties are own goals and a free gift to the information campaign of the insurgent, reinforcing perceptions of illegitimacy. Today it is recognised that a counter-terrorist strategy needs to be holistic, addressing both the causes and the symptoms of terrorism. But how do you address very real grievances without 'delegitimising' your own counter-insurgency strategy? In Palestine, denying Jews a state was not perceived to be legitimate. 

The importance of legitimacy was recognised. British propaganda themes stressed British legitimacy and fairness in carrying out its responsibilities to both communities under the Mandate, and also the legitimacy of Palestinian Arab concerns for the future of their country. While British propaganda emphasised the use of insurgent terrorist and illegal immigration methods as 'illegitimate', Zionist propaganda turned British attempts to stop Jewish immigration into Palestine to their advantage.  For example, over 4000 passengers on Exodus arrived in Palestine at the same time as the UN was conducting its investigation on the future of Palestine, winning international sympathy in their portrayal of Britain as persecutors of the Jews. The forcible transhipment of the Exodus Jews and their return to Germany (from where their journey started) was legal, but it was a publicity disaster and was perceived to be illegitimate, not only internationally but also in Britain. At the very moment when the British might have expected international sympathy following the kidnap and hanging of two British sergeants (Paice and Martin), the Zionists won a moral and propaganda victory for their cause.

Today the legitimacy issue causes problems for NATO in Afghanistan.  NATO's counter-insurgency strategy is linked very closely to undermining the legitimacy of the Taliban and building the legitimacy of the Karzai government, a government whose legitimacy is increasingly in question given the results and conduct of the August election.

Conclusion

Strategic information campaigns, narratives and perception management are not new areas of government activity. But it is a difficult area of activity and even more challenging today than in 1945-48 because of the proliferation and immediacy of the media, sources of information and opinion. While counter-insurgents need to bear in mind Kilcullen's advice and consider the propaganda of the deed together with the publicity impact of all they do, the limits of the information campaign and strategic narratives need to be understood. A strategic narrative is not a substitute for policy. It will not succeed unless it is credible and supported by actions and political will. While it may be strong enough to withstand a temporary setback, it is not a panacea or an alternative to a strategy which is ill-conceived.

The target audiences for the counter-insurgent's information efforts need to be thought through carefully, identifying whose perceptions count in the battle for legitimacy and who can materially affect the success or failure of the insurgency. The information campaign needs to be coherent, ideally a simple and credible 'truth' based on facts that can be transmitted and reinforced to all target audiences. It should support the wider political process, which in turn should reinforce the government's credibility and reputation as the legal government, while the campaign should also undermine the insurgents by representing them as a criminal minority. Moreover, the campaign should persuade the wider international community that the state's political aims are legitimate; that its method of prosecuting the counter-insurgency campaign are both legal and moral; and that it is intent on promoting a political settlement that addresses the expectations of the moderate majority. This is the ideal, but an information strategy alone cannot deliver success in a counter-insurgency campaign. As the case study of Palestine shows, it is also easier said than done.  The impatience to demonstrate progress in Afghanistan and to provide facts on the ground to support the expectations that the strategic narrative has raised is clear.  As the next commander of British forces in Southern Afghanistan Maj-Gen. Nick Carter acknowledged 'time is not on our side, and we've got to show positive trends as quickly as we possibly can'.[14]

Dr Kate Utting is a Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department, King's College London, at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

The analysis, opinions and conclusions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the JSCSC, the UK MOD or any other government agency.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

[1] Transcript of a speech given by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, 4 September 2009 <http://iiss.org/whats-new/iiss-in-the-press/september-2009/gordon-brown-says-britain-is-doing-the-right-thing-in-afghanistan/> accessed 21 September 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Soft power, the 'ability to get desired outcomes because others want what you want ... the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion' Robert O Keohane and Joseph S Nye, 'Power and Interdependence in the Information Age', Foreign Affairs, (Vol. 77, No. 5, September/October 1998), p. 86. 

[4] Quoted in Milena Michalski and James Gow, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing Contemporary Conflict, (London, 2007), p. 199.

[5] David J. Kilcullen, 'New Paradigms for 21st-Century Conflict', EJournalUSA, Foreign Policy Agenda, US Department of State, (Vol. 12, No 5, May 2007), p. 44 <http://www.america.gov/publications/ejournalusa/0507.html> accessed 21 September 2009.

[6] Lawrence Freedman, The Transformation of Strategic Affairs, Adelphi Paper 379 (IISS, 2006), pp. 22-3.

[7] Bard E. O'Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare, (New York: Brassey's, 1990), p. 13.

[8] Thomas Mokaitis, British Counterinsurgency, 1919-60, (New York: St Martin's Press, 1990), p. 63.

[9] A more detailed examination of this case study can be found in Kate Utting, 'The Strategic Information Campaign: Lessons from the British Experience in Palestine 1945-1948', Contemporary Security Policy, (Vol. 28, No.1, April 2007).

[10] Margaret MacMillan, The Uses and Abuses of History, (London, 2009), p. 156.

[11] Propaganda is used here in a non-pejorative sense as a short hand for information/perception management activity, and as the calculated intent on the part of the British government to persuade its target audiences to think or behave in a certain ways in pursuit of British policy aims.

[12] Ian Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and their Opponents since 1750, (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 88. 

[13] Richard Crossman, Palestine Mission, (London: Hamilton, 1946), p. 59.

[14] Frank Gardner's interview with Major-General Nick Carter, BBC News Website 18 September 2009  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8262153.stm accessed 21 September 2009.

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