The videos of Osama bin Laden that the US has elected to release so far have an important common denominator: They portray the Al Qaeda leader in a less-than-flattering light – diminished, hunched, gray, and, perhaps, a bit self-obsessed. That is no accident.
The five short clips released to the press last weekend amount to powerful tools of psychological warfare. Not only are they intended to humiliate a widely reviled terrorist mastermind, but they are also careful strategy meant to make Taliban fighters and other insurgents think twice about the caliber of their leadership – and whether the burden of the fight is being fairly distributed.
"They've seen videos now of bin Laden sitting in a small room, looking at a TV of pictures of himself up there, kind of alone and desperate – not this, you know, this big leader that they thought he was," Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the commander of US troops in eastern Afghanistan, said at a Pentagon briefing Tuesday.
Officials have been quick to offer their interpretation of what those videos show, lest insurgents fail to see it. A senior US official characterized bin Laden as "living high on the hog" in a luxurious house, while his followers were fighting and dying in "dire conditions." The official also made a point of noting his penchant for dying his beard for video appearances, in a bid to suggest vanity and sleight of hand.
Whether the videos will induce Taliban fighters to lay down their arms and reconcile with the government of Afghanistan, as the US hopes, remains to be seen. Senior military officials, including Campbell, acknowledge that the toughest insurgent syndicates include "hard-core irreconcilables."
Still, psyops – or what the Pentagon calls "information operations" – remain much in evidence more than a week after bin Laden was killed in a US raid.
Campbell argued that other terrorist networks heads operate like bin Laden. “Many of the other insurgent groups that we deal with, the leadership stays in Pakistan. They don’t come across the border. They don’t share the same hardships as the fighters.” He added that fighters “are going to think twice now, why are we doing this? Why is [bin Laden] over in Pakistan – or why was he in Pakistan – when I’m suffering over here?”
Officials hope these videos will make an impression on low-level group members who wage the bulk of the attacks on US troops. “I think the insurgents are going to see this [and] say, ‘Hey, you know, why am I doing this?’ ” he added.
“I think there’s great potential for many of the insurgents to say, ‘Hey, I want to reintegrate,’ ” Campbell noted. “I think that gives us a great opportunity.”
Haqqani network may hold out
Whether that will happen remains to be seen. Senior military officials, including Campbell himself, acknowledge that many of the toughest insurgent syndicates include “hard-core irreconcilables.”
First among these is the Haqqani network, a group that many consider to be more dangerous than the Taliban, particularly in eastern Afghanistan. Haqqani network fighters are “definitely … the most lethal threat,” Campbell said. “They have sanctuary in Pakistan, they come across the border,” and they seem to have a never-ending supply of new recruits.
The prospects for Haqqani fighters laying down their arms don’t look good, Campbell acknowledged this week.
Even if the psychological impact of bin Laden’s last years on his own men is not what the US hopes, the impact on US troops in the field has been palpable, say senior military officials.
“At the soldier level, it’s a great psychological victory for us,” says Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, who recently commanded US troops in southwestern Afghanistan.
Afghan insurgents begin to reconcile
In the meantime, officials hope to accelerate efforts to reconcile low-level insurgents. To date, about 500 fighters have laid down their arms and pledged loyalty to the Afghan government in the east, Campbell estimates.
He expects to see more insurgent reconciliations “as we continue to get the message out … of the benefits of coming back and reuniting with your family, having a job – you know, living a normal life, not on the run, not sitting in a cave someplace,” he adds. “They’re going to see that running – a life of running all the time and hiding – is not the way to go.”