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3 + Rumor Mosaics Counterinsurgency Operations in Iraq’s Triangle of Death The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive. —Carl von Clausewitz, On War Insurgent organizations like al Qaeda use narratives very effectively in developing legitimating ideologies. —U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual In 2005, Multi-National Force–Iraq (MNF-I), the military command overseeing U.S. and coalition forces in the war-torn Arab nation, began a bovine inoculation campaign to improve the health of cattle throughout Iraq.1 Although the intent was to stabilize the food supply and increase the return on investment for local cattle ranchers and dairy farmers, the inoculation program was also a key element of an information operation to counter insurgent violence and propaganda. At this stage of the war effort, the insurgents , who were mostly foreign jihadists, Ba’ath Party loyalists, and disgruntled Iraqi soldiers, had severely degraded counterinsurgency communication efforts by U.S., coalition, and Iraqi forces. These measures ranged from early information campaigns designed to portray U.S. and coalition forces as liberators to later efforts at building consensus and support among the civilian narrative landmines 74 population for the nascent Iraqi government. MNF-I was seeking ways not only to defeat the insurgents in battle but also to overcome the political mindset that interpreted insurgent activities as beneficial and MNF-I actions as detrimental to the well-being of local and regional populations. The vaccination campaign was a key pillar in what amounted to a narrative countermeasure attached to a civil affairs operation. Yet soon after the inoculation campaign began, a rumor spread throughout Iraq that the Americans had embarked on a sinister plot to starve the Iraqi populace by poisoning livestock.2 The conspiratorial charge and dramatic structure of this rumor appealed more to imagination and fear than to thoughtful reflection and questioning at a time when official news sources inside Iraq were either silent or lacked credibility. Indeed, for farmers already wary of the U.S. and coalition presence, wracked by fear of societal and political instability, and suffering livestock losses to disease and a rapidly dwindling water supply, the bovine poisoning rumor explained the deaths of the herds, predicted future loss and gloom, and linked the cause of the their current woes to the U.S. invasion and occupation. It provided a target for pent-up frustration, anxiety, and fear that led some farmers to turn a blind eye to insurgent activities and others to participate in violence. MNF-I’s information operation and civil affairs mission backfired. The insurgents gained narrative ground at a critical juncture in the war effort. The bovine poisoning rumor posed a local challenge for counterinsurgency and diplomatic forces in the area. At the same time, it dovetailed with three other rumors: (1) American helicopters cause more and larger debilitating sandstorms by kicking up enormous amounts of dust; (2) American forces and weapon systems contribute to the drought by using up water reserves and by creating sandstorms; and, most important, (3) America invaded the country to steal Iraq’s oil. By linking with other rumors concerning the environment, the bovine poisoning rumor advanced the widely held belief that the United States cared little for the Iraqi people and had invaded Iraq to exploit its natural resources. Seen in this light, this cluster of rumors posed not only a local threat to a civil affairs outreach effort but also a larger geopolitical—and hence strategic communication—challenge for the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Given the everyday violence Iraqis experienced after the U.S. invasion, the explanation implicit in the bovine poisoning and associated rumors was plausible and even rational. With the country’s political, economic, and physical infrastructure decimated in the aftermath of “shock and awe,” two significant factors led to these rumors making sense: first, recent experience had created a population filled with anxiety over safety, access to resources, and economic stability; second, official and trustworthy communication keeping the populace informed about government progress was inconsistent to non-existent. In this anxiety-ridden information vacuum, the story presented by the bovine poisoning rumor made sense: U.S. forces in Iraq are engaged in a crusade, destroying our...


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MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
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