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  • Writer's pictureMichael Shurkin

Loose Change No.14. Public Opinion as a Domain of Warfare

One of the more sobering truths to emerge from France’s war in the Sahel, which is now almost nine years old, is the importance of public opinion as a “domain” of warfare that may turn out to be more decisive than anything that happens in the more physical ground and air “domains.” The French Army itself is well aware of this: Its 2021 keystone doctrinal publication, Concept d'Emploi des Forces Terrestres (CEFT) 2020-2035, notes that modern conflicts now “structure themselves around the battle of narratives, which consists of imposing one’s story (to justify the intervention of our forces, de-legitimize that of the adversary)…” This requires, the document continues, synchronizing all aspects of an operation from fires to “strategic communication.” Nonetheless, although it is difficult to gauge from afar what the French have been doing and how, it seems to be the case that they have failed to mount the kind of effort the battle of narratives requires.

The result: France and its allies are losing. They are losing not because of combat, but because many Sahelians, distrustful of France for good reasons and bad (fake news, Russian IO, etc.), prefer to blame France rather than rally alongside it to fight their mutual enemies, Al Qaeda and Islamic State. Mali's leaders, for example, are using anti-French sentiment to justify their hold on power and their resistance to calls for elections, making support for them a way to defy France and distract the public from their own failings. Just this week, Burkinabè protestors blocked a French army convoy in the mistaken belief that it was carrying arms to be supplied to terrorists. The boy in the image above, who reportedly shot down a French drone with a slingshot, has become a hero to large swathes of African social media, which positively vibrated at the sight of a tiny David striking a blow against the French Goliath. Meanwhile, there was another attack in Burkina Faso, and still more soldiers and civilians died at the hands of the very adversary that convoy the French intended to fight.

What other Western observers need to take to heart is that they should not feel confident their militaries and governments would fair any better. After all, the French force that is floundering today in the Sahel is one of Europe’s most capable and probably its most technologically advanced. Its equipment and capabilities are the fruit of a long-term investment of billions of euros. Yet somehow all that combat prowess and all of France’s cutting-edge armored vehicles are for naught in the face of a failure to seize and hold the narrative. So how might they have done otherwise? That is a question worth considering.

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