Belmont Club

The bolt from the red, white and blue

This remarkable Johnny Walker scotch ad, which is almost six and a half minutes long, illustrates one of the points Seth Godin makes in this fascinating talk on marketing. He argues that marketing isn’t what people think it is. A successful product must be a revolutionary idea. No product succeeds until it sells itself to some extent and its adherents talk about it. It is the idea component, in Godin’s view that is the essential one.  Yet it is the one which marketers are prone to overlook. What largely defines a product is the way in which it describes itself. There has to be an idea in the product for it to speak. The Johnny Walker ad, while really just a traditional ad, succeeds on one level because it engages its viewers by making them think about whiskey and its history. One can ask whether the same marketing idea has relevance to military strategy. Should a strategy “sell itself”? The question comes from a Times Online reports that “opium barons” are now fair game for assassination.

The Pentagon has put 50 of Afghanistan’s powerful opium barons on a “kill or capture” list, signalling a radical shift in tactics against the Taleban. … “The military places no restrictions on the use of force with these selected targets, which means they can be killed or captured on the battlefield,” the report states. … Most of the drug lords linked to the Taleban are known to live in Quetta, Pakistan, and targeting them would probably have to involve operations similar to the missile strike last week that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taleban.

Such cross-border strikes have become increasingly frequent in the war on the insurgency, often provoking the ire of the Pakistani Government. The new strategy of aiming Hellfire missiles at drug dealers, and even corrupt Afghan officials, as one officer suggested, will be even more controversial.

The Senate report notes that several Nato members opposed the tactic earlier this year, questioning “whether killing traffickers and destroying drug labs complied with international law”.

Opium fuels the Afghan economy. Whoever controls it commands loyalties; distributes largesse; buys influence. By shifting from a policy of opium crop destruction to one of attacking the controllers of its trade, America essentially leaves the trade itself alone but appoints itself the arbiter of who gets to control it. Fighting the opium trade itself became unworkable because it stepped on too many toes; it attacked the livelihood of the farmers and the hawala money transfer system which spans the border and drove them into Taliban hands. But attacking the kingpins essentially leaves these interests intact while communicating the fact that America can now choose who the “barons” cannot be. And what they have ruled is that they can be drug lords but they cannot be supporters of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Why is this important?

Seth Godin argued that creating product tribes — people who identified with your strategy — was the key to selling any idea. The key to success was getting the product to speak to the customers and encouraging the customers to communicate between themselves.  Nothing would work unless a way was found to create connections among the missionaries of your idea.  Destroying the apex of the opium pyramid opens up a space for the ever-present rivals of the drug barons to fill their place. It automatically creates a potential community of interest between those formerly excluded drug players and the United States. It makes the United States a key player in Afghan and border politics. It allows the Americans to form a tribe.

Bing West titled his book describing the success of the Surge in Iraq The Strongest Tribe. The title is not accidental. In order to win in Iraq, America had to persuade all parties that it had become a permanent part of the equation; it was not something that could be driven out. It would be a presence that, while somehow invisible, was now a fixed part of the landscape. Henceforward, no one could act without factoring the American response into the equation. In other words, that there now existed, ineradicable and implacable, and for the foreseeable future an American tribe: the strongest tribe. John Nagl, in reviewing Bing West’s book wrote

With his deputy (and now successor), Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, Petraeus pushed U.S. soldiers in Baghdad out of the big Forward Operating Bases that had isolated them from the Iraqi people, stationing them in Joint Security Stations with Iraqi soldiers and police. This change in how the troops conceived of their mission was far more important than the relatively small increase in the number of troops that the “surge” label overemphasizes. Petraeus also took full advantage of the opportunity presented when the Sunni tribes of Anbar province attacked al-Qaeda in a turnaround that, as West argues, “was to change the tide of the war over the course of 2007.” The military was learning that in counterinsurgency, persuading your enemy to stop fighting against you — and, if possible, to start fighting alongside you — can be even better than killing him.

And nothing is deadlier than America. Michael Yon in his latest post, No Young Soldiers, describes the nearly magical weaponry that allied troops have at their disposal. The Taliban are being killed by the unseen, unheard and the nearly all-seeing.

GMLRS (Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System) scares the heck out of the enemy; GMLRS can be launched from dozens of miles away and reliably kill a man—or a lot of men—without warning. GMLRS are like the ultimate sniper rifle, only the bullet is a large explosive warhead. The system is so reliable and accurate that during operation Arrowhead Ripper during the summer of 2007 in Iraq, our people were hitting IEDs from dozens of miles away. Whereas the enemy can see or hear most aircraft, they get no warning with GMLRS. Even with the invisible and silent Predators and Reapers firing the small Hellfire missiles, the enemy has a few seconds warning. Hellfires are like gigantic hand grenades with a homing system. A Hellfire can hit a car and not necessarily kill everyone. But if GMLRS hits a sturdy two-story house, the house is gone. The Taliban hate it.

The FST had an array of tricks up their camouflaged sleeves; the primary weapons of this mission were the devastating 81mm mortars, the even more devastating 105mm howitzers, and the GMLRS many miles away. Overhead were two American A-10s; British Apaches attack helicopter; and a supersonic American B-1B bomber that was designed to deliver hydrogen bombs into the heart of the Soviet Union. The call sign for the B-1B might as well have been “Strangelove” and it’s not difficult to imagine Slim Pickens at the controls.

But this military prowess would be to no avail unless the Afghan people had a choice of sides. By restricting the alternatives to the Taliban and the government in Kabul, America failed to provide the Afghans with a viable product choice. But by attacking the kingpins directly (including Afghan officials) and arguably illegally, America is creating a new tribe and putting it on the Afghan political shelf.  The importance of this shift will be recalled from a my recent summary of STRATFOR’s analysis of the difference between Barack Obama’s strategy and what it attributes to Petraeus. The key difference being that one wants to organize an exit by dealing with the Taliban while the other wishes to achieve a victory by defeating it, with “defeat” defined as the enemy accepting America’s terms. STRATFOR wrote:

Obama and Gates have stated that the goal in Afghanistan is the defeat of al Qaeda and the denial of bases for the group in Afghanistan. This is a very different strategic goal than in Iraq, because this goal does not require a coalition government or a reconciliation of political elements. Rather, it requires an agreement with one entity: the Taliban. If the Taliban agree to block al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, the United States will have achieved its goal. Therefore, the challenge in Afghanistan is using U.S. power to give the Taliban what they want — a return to power — in exchange for a settlement on the al Qaeda question. …

From Petraeus’ view, Gates and Obama are creating the situation that existed in pre-surge Iraq. Rather than stunning Afghanistan psychologically with the idea that the United States is staying, thereby causing all the parties to reconsider their positions, Obama and Gates have done the opposite. They have made it clear that Washington has placed severe limits on its willingness to invest in Afghanistan, and made it appear that the United States is overly eager to make a deal with the one group that does not need a deal: the Taliban.

By attacking the opium lords, the US is creating a merge between the Obama position and Petraeus’ aspiration. With the US knocking off the drug lords, America will essentially be able to veto the accession to the pyramid of anyone who wishes to deal with the Taliban. In one stroke it achieves two things: it creates a situation where the Taliban is an impediment to business as usual and more importantly, it compels the Taliban seek a deal. Although there are no equivalents of Facebook or MySpace in the Afghan hills, the social networks are probably buzzing with the idea of an opium trade without the Taliban. Who will you join? Kabul, the Taliban, or the non-Taliban Pashtuns? Even those who cannot speak of it openly must be secretly considering whether it is in their interest to join the Strongest Tribe.

Will it work? Maybe not if the lawyers get their way. Seth Godin would understand. Traditional marketers are out to sell you their idea. The best marketers want you to adopt an idea that you consider your own. And maybe Petraeus wants the Afghans to do so also. The lawyers may want to negotiate with the Taliban; the advocates of victory may want the Taliban to negotiate with America.  Its a subtle difference but it may be an essential one.

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