On Sept. 5, Col. Myles Caggins III took a group of journalists on a helicopter to eastern Syria. For Caggins, director of public affairs and spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, it was a farewell – the last trip to Syria in his position.
He has often been the public face of the U.S.-led Coalition’s war against ISIS ,during a period of intense turmoil in Iraq and Syria in 2019-20. In a wide-ranging interview with the Long War Journal, Caggins looked back at lessons learned during the campaign and argued that fighting modern war requires a mindset shift in how the U.S. approaches the “word war” against sophisticated adversaries, whether it is Iran, Russia or ISIS.
The U.S. withdrew from some areas in northeast Syria in Oct. 2019 during heightened tensions with Turkey. Since then, Russian patrols in eastern Syria have been challenging U.S. patrols in a grey zone where both countries operate. At the same time, Iranian-backed proxy groups in Iraq escalated their harassment of U.S. forces, using rocket attacks. This has placed experienced public affairs officers in a complex situation.
The U.S. mission is to defeat ISIS, but the group was pushed out of its last foothold in Syria in March 2019, meaning the major fighting was over and the coalition, established in 2014, would transition to advisory and training roles. President Donald Trump’s desire to reduce America’s role in “endless wars,” the Covid-19 crisis, combined with tensions with Iran, seem to have accelerated the withdrawal and repositioning of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq , concentrating them at Al-Asad base and in the autonomous Kurdistan region.
In this unique interview, Caggins provided an insight into challenges America faces today in confronting enemy propaganda, how public affairs is an important tool in the military’s arsenal, and how the military can adapt to new technology. Media has always played a key role in conflict, from the era of the First World War when images of ghastly conditions were censored, to Vietnam when iconic video from the Tet offensive contributed to shifts in public opinion on the conflict. The Pentagon has shifted its approach to disseminating information over the years, inviting journalists on embeds at times in 2003 and being wary of advances in new media after scandals like Abu Ghraib. What follows is a candid conversation about these challenges.
Caggins provided key insights into several issues of paramount importance. First, U.S.-Russia tensions in Syria have been on the rise as Russia uses patrols to interdict U.S. patrols and incites the local population against the US presence. Four U.S. soldiers were injured on Aug. 25 after a collision with a Russian armored vehicle. Confronting these myriad adversaries requires a multi-pronged approach using diplomacy, soldiers and media disseminated in Arabic, Kurdish and other languages. Second, Iran has carried out a campaign of harassment against the US in Iraq, requiring the U.S. enter into strategic dialogue with Baghdad . Pro-Iranian political parties in Iraq have called for the U.S. to withdraw all its forces and the strategic dialogue is supposed to result in an agreement that enables some forces to remain, at the continued invitation of Baghdad. Third, the U.S. has sought to shore up confidence among local Kurdish and Arabic-speaking partner forces. Fourth, the interview raised questions about how the U.S. might innovate more on social media, listen better to locals, and be more proactive in spreading its message. Caggins argued that a lesson learned in Iraq and Syria is that the U.S. needs to put “information on same level as maneuver and intelligence and other war fighting functions.”
The war on ISIS has been largely successful at defeating the territorial “caliphate,” but not in totally destroying sleeper cells and networks in Iraq, Syria and globally. This continuing grey zone of conflict that exists in non-governed areas and weak states, is exploited by adversaries, and Washington’s attempt to win peace has been difficult. This has been a two-decade challenge during the global war on terror as the U.S. shifts its national defense strategy to confront Russia, China and Iran. Hybrid warfare, with proxy forces, frozen conflicts and social media, will continue to play a role in the next decades.
Caggins, 45, has been in the U.S. Army for 24 years. He saw combat in Diyala province in Iraq in 2003. He became a public affairs officer in 2006 and was with the 1st Armored Division in southern Iraq before moving to the Pentagon as the Office of Secretary of Defense spokesman for Guantanamo in 2014. By the time he arrived in Iraq, several well-known colleagues – colonels Steve Warren, John Dorrian, Ryan Dillon and Sean Ryan had helped shape the narrative of the war on ISIS. As a reporter covering the war on ISIS, I interviewed Caggins’ predecessors and when he arrived in 2019, he brought a different style to Baghdad.
The interview was conducted on Aug. 12, 2020 and has been edited for clarity and organized by topic. Where necessary I’ve paraphrased it or elaborated on events and issues. It is presented almost in its entirety, giving Caggins the space to go into details about the operations of the public affairs personnel and discuss their challenges and accomplishments, as well as his support for innovations. Details about key incidents have been left in to illustrate the complexity of the battlefield in Syria and Iraq and how information war played a key role in both countries.
The role of a public affairs officer
Caggins: There are only about 33 colonels in U.S. Army Public Affairs Officers [PAO], and a few dozen other in the Air Force, Navy etc. I came into this profession and switched over to public affairs as a Major. The first thing I did was an Army scholarship at Georgetown University and then Master Degree in public relations and communications and so my introduction was with fellow students in the communications space and changing career toward it. [I had] professors who were responsible for selling a product or getting candidates elected and protecting their brand’s reputations and looking for opportunity to get messages out and create relationships and fulfill a need. That’s different than the Defense Dept “maximum disclosure, minimum delay” concept, that [DoD] framing means I wait for someone to ask and then I give them an answer quickly.
How do you approach public affairs?
Caggins: I heard a quote ascribed to Kobe Bryant, If you want to be best at basketball, ‘you need to go all in and make it your life if you want it to be the best, it’s 365 days a year,’ and I share this same view. I want to be the best in public information warfare, I think about it all the time, I take calls at all times of day or night to ensure our message is out there and the reporters and volunteers are great at telling me what’s hot in the streets and I dig into it too see if it is true or not true and get the Coalition voice into the narrative and try to set the public narrative in Iraq and Syria.
I tell my team we are here to weaponize truth and dominate the information environment I tell them [the public relations team of the Coalition] to dominate the information environment with weaponized truth, I ask them not to do just what I say do, I challenge them with “hey give me ideas” as they rotate through. It is a joint multinational Coalition, with personnel from the UK, Australia, US Marines, US Army, US Air Force, and French, Italian and German public affairs, etc. We look to try different things, and if you try and fail it’s better [than not to try]. I encourage them to experiment.
[Note: This is a difficult environment. On Aug. 11, 2020 Caggins was in Baghdad doing an interview when sirens sounded in the Green Zone indicating an incoming rocket attack, he had to dash off screen. Using social media can also be a challenge, in August one of the tweets from the Coalition was critiqued for using too many emojis.]
Who are you trying to reach?
Caggins: The core audience is those who were affected by ISIS, and those threatened by ISIS or security forces fighting ISIS … They speak Arabic, Sorani Kurdish and Kurmanji Kurdish. I try to let them know how well their security forces are doing and how the Coalition supports their security forces and efforts the [Coalition and host nation] does for stabilization and humanitarian assistance…my attitude here is that I am a guest and they are the host in Iraq and Syria and I want to learn as much as possible to effectively communicate with them and that means a sincere interest in the people in this region.
[Note: One of the issues the Coalition faced in 2019 and 2020 were concerns by locals about whether the US and other contingents would stay in Iraq and Syria. In Syria most coalition countries had not sent forces to fight ISIS, and in Iraq many partners withdrew forces temporarily in the spring of 2020 when Iran tensions increased and rocket fire on coalition facilities grew. Caggins’ focus on local language, such as Kurdish, and hearing from local sources about what their concerns were impacted coalition messaging over the last year, a crucial time for confidence in US policy.]
Caggins: At Harvard Kennedy School I took a course under Prof. Steve Jarding and he had a popular course about ‘making of a politician’…He said that in all communications we should strive to be likable, credible and believable….While much of government public affairs and relations; much is lawyered up or stilted and in queen’s English; and that’s not how people get messages in life.
Tonight [Aug. 12, 2020] I posted a tweet about a soccer game at Al Asad Airbase in Anbar Province, Iraq. The soccer tweet had a photo of Spanish soldiers so it makes them relate to the soldiers in a more, for the mission the sub-message is that the Coalition is not just U.S. troops with machine guns, it has many nations; and its message is that soldiers are not all robots with body armor bayonetting ISIS terrorists, they unwind; and third is I had several pictures, I had one with a female soldier because the nations have equality and opportunity for men and women and fourth I wanted the Spanish who are a large contingent to know they are valued members; so I hit themes of diversity of nations and people and language and wanting to get the populace to understand the humans of the Coalition and like us a bit better. This is because deployment isn’t all rocket attacks and IEDs, there is a lot to life on camp, even though the number of forces got smaller over last six months.
[Note: Caggins arrived in Iraq in Aug. 2019. He met his Iraqi counterparts Major General Yehia Rasool, the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Senior Security and Ministry of Defense Spokesperson and Maj. Gen. Tahseen, the spokesman for the Joint Operations Command-Iraq. Caggins works closely with the Defense Department and conducts inter-agency collaboration with the State Department, intelligence agencies, the US Treasury and other combatant commands such as EUCOM, SOCOM and CENTCOM.]
That was a wild time in Iraq with rocket threats and the withdrawal from part of Syria?
Caggins: It was a wild time, someone could write a text book about the last twelve months … The first thing we did was the Qanus island airstrike. F-35s and F15s blew it to smithereens. It was a bed down location for ISIS. That video we made was the most popular video in the entire Defense Department, except the video of a toddler boy singing the Army’s birthday song…We did this air strike and we got the strike video from the drones and mashed that up with an air force sergeant on my team to edit it with ground footage from the Iraqi Coounter-Terrorism Service.
I spliced the video Wahab and put it on Twitter, with a conversational tweet and it trended and the video and tweet was on network news in UK and Europe…I want people to know what we are doing…So the next day the front page of Stars and Stripes was about the airstrike, and they reported how many ISIS were killed and that was my first weeks here. And ever since then I tried to make sure we do a steady drum beat of what we are doing with our partners to defeat ISIS, I try not to just focus on big events or holidays, I try to inspire, to make some news.
[Note: The video represented an innovation because the Defense Department doesn’t usually use footage from local partner forces phones. Caggins faced an uphill struggle to get phones for his soldiers, waiting on approvals and red tape. He is adamant that since everyone is communicating with smart phones, public affairs officers should have them. On August 28 he got a message that the iPhone 11 MAX Pro phones would arrive soon. It would be the first time they were issued to US soldiers in this manner, he says.]
What were your first impressions of your current role? What did you want to accomplish?
Caggins: In a few areas I wanted to go beyond. Some of this I grew into as I got to know the people in the region and establishing relationships with journalists and others. What I wanted to do specifically is take the show on the road. The previous spokesmen did most of their media engagements from the office space I have at the US embassy Baghdad…reaching out to different media from different locations. We had media do formal in-person, sit-down interviews with the flags, and I did those. But we needed to expand our outreach—especially as COVID made it more difficult and less safe for media to travel to the base, for instance over Skype and with networks throughout the region and world.
[Note: While it might seem obvious that public affairs personnel would be actively engaging the public, Caggins says this need to go out and speak often is important. He says the volume of engagements is immense, noting that in August he was sometimes doing several interviews a day, including through WhattsApp and Signal and other apps. He also emphasizes the importance of speaking in plain language without “fifteen pages” of talking points, to be part of an ongoing conversation and setting an agenda. Towards that end he cultivated a relationship with local Kurdish media because US operations in northern Iraq and Syria were closely partnered with Kurdish-speaking forces.]
Local conditions and local media
Caggins: I’ve served in Iraq twice. First in May 2003 to 2004 as a company commander in Diyala near Hamrin lake. When we arrived, we were told that there were Kurdish Peshmerga on the road. Someone printed a picture on PowerPoint and they said ‘they are friendly don’t attack them.’…That was my first exposure [to Kurds], I don’t know if I knew they were Kurdish. In 2009-2010 I was PAO for a brigade command in Maysan and other southern provinces and did my first major interaction with media of any sort and press; my brigade commander sent me in early to get to know the people and, then, Major Chad Carroll [now a colonel in Texas] introduced me to some local Iraqi reporters and we invited them to our transition of authority ceremony and right off the bat in May 2009 we translated the commander’s biography from English and Arabic and had this fact sheet for the Advise and Assist mission. I was a Major then and I treat all reporters, whatever the outlet or affiliation, I treat them all equally and as professional peers. I can’t do my job effectively if there isn’t a free press so everyone gets an opportunity, a fact sheet and I respond to everyone because they have an audience that is worthy of hearing about our contributions.
I came back here and met the Western press pool in Baghdad and had a request from Rudaw, I don’t know if I knew they were Kurdish but I sat and talked about operation against ISIS.
[Note: These relationships became more important in October 2019 when the US withdrew from part of eastern Syria while at the same time US forces found and eliminated ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Caggins explains how it unfolded.]
Caggins: Here is what happened; in October we were having [Turkey’s Operation] Peace Spring and we had more queries and I was tweeting in Kurdish languages and there was the raid where [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi killed himself. I was in Erbil [the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq] at that time with intention of bringing media to the Kobani landing zone in Syria to show the [U.S. forces] packing and moving out. That was scuttled for some reason, and concurrently we had this big mission to catch Baghdadi and it was my naïve thought that since we caught the top ISIS guy so as spokesman for the anti-ISIS mission, shortly after I’ll get to talk to press… [instead Washington handled statements relating to the Baghdadi raid]
A few days later, in Erbil I spoke to Mr. Shakalan Miro, Director of the Kurdistan Region Security Council co-located with the Coalition’s Kurdistan region coordination center at Erbil International Airport, and I said “I want to talk to press” so he said “let’s have a press conference.”… I distinctly recalled walking in the conference room and there were cameras all across the back and I didn’t know what I was getting into, I go out and the podium had so many microphones I didn’t have room for my speech and was standing on this crate missing a plank with a linguist I’d met a few minutes before. I stumbled over the greeting “Bayani Bash” in Kurdish; speaking to Kurdish press there I was, and it was a big thing and I didn’t know there had never been a press conference in the Kurdistan region by the Coalition. The former PAO had been in Baghdad and although they spoke to Kurdish media they did it in Baghdad. Since that press conference I developed relationships with the journalists in Kurdistan region.
[Note: As Iran tensions grew in Dec. 2019 and Jan. 2020 the public affairs team was put in a difficult spot. The mandate of the mission in Iraq was to defeat ISIS. However the killing of a U.S. contractor in December near Kirkuk led to airstrikes on the pro-Iranian militia Kataib Hezbollah and that led to protests at the U.S. embassy and U.S. airstrikes on IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani. Iran then fired ballistic missiles at U.S. forces on bases in Erbil and Al-Asad. Iran was now central to questions about the coalition’s role in Iraq and Iran’s supporters in Iraq were often affiliated with the Hashd al-Sha’abi or Popular Mobilization Forces, a group of mostly Shi’ite militias.]
The Hashd al-Shaabi
Caggins: The Hashd al-Shaabi Popular Mobilization Forces has been important for fighting against ISIS. But there are some people inside of Iraq who are not so keen to have Hashd presence where they were not prior to 2014. Some in the U.S. lump all PMF together as malign actors. But there are members of the PMF who come to meetings on joint operations command where I am and they have sidearms, it’s not hugs and kisses, they are here and they have thousands of members and they do ongoing operations. I also mention there are Federal Police and Peshmerga and PMF and some ask why I mention them, they are a formal part of the Iraqi government. There are also rogue outlaw militias and we talk about them differently, so they [the PMF] are not all of what some in the West say.
But Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was the deputy of the PMF and he was killed in a U.S. airstrike, so it’s not just rogue militias, despite the terminology today?
Caggins: Yes, on the wall outside of [Iraqi Joint Operations spokesperson] Tassin’s office is a picture of Muhandis, and many Iraqis made salat [prayers] with these men who were killed. I recognize I’m an American, even though I’m part of a Coalition, and some won’t accept any Americans, some don’t want any Americans in Iraq. That’s not the audience I’m trying to win over, they do their thing and we do our thing and try to keep the temperature down. We have a right to defend ourselves but we aren’t here to start wars. Being careful and not trying to inflame and being culturally sensitive is a requirement.
I was raised by two parents who taught me that you are at your best when you have good advisors. I have advisors on what to say, when to say it and how to say it, such as Ms. Tania Aziz the Coalition’s cultural advisor. I have paid linguists for Arabic translation, and then I have a network of people in the security forces such as Iraqis, Peshmerga, SDF, and beyond that there are journalists I know, and then other people who support us. If I sent you a screenshot of the number of WhattsApp and Twitter messages I get a day [it is a lot], for instance they send me concerns about the rockets that were fired last night, they translate messages and make infographics, or questions about IEDs.
On Easter I needed photos of sheep, this gives me a chance to represent the people, it’s not just ‘happy Easter’ to Americans in Al-Asad base and in Kuwait, there are Christians all over the region. I reflect the Coalition, and American values of freedom of religion, diversity and inclusion in my messages. I have sent messages in 15-16 languages including Syriac, and I might get a South Korean officer here and then I’ll tweet in Korean.
[Note: The coalition paused operations against ISIS amid the tensions with Iran in January and Caggins found an opportunity to shift more focus to Syria. A trip was planned and Caggins was able to coordinate messaging with the partner forces. Shifting focus to successful operations against ISIS in Syria was essential because coalition forces were no longer “kicking down doors” going after ISIS amid the tensions with Iran and Covid crisis in Iraq.]
Caggins: After Baghdadi was killed in October, I went back to Baghdad and planned a media trip to northeast Syria. I had some embeds come and regional press and brought NPR and a NYT reporter … We loaded up on Black Hawk helicopters in Erbil and flew to Syria, stopped at some bases and they were able to speak to soldiers about their backgrounds and on partnership with SDF. We went to a place, a landing zone, in Hasakah and there they [journalists] were going to meet Major Gen. Eric Hill, the [June 2019-June 2020] special operation commander for the anti-ISIS mission. At the same time we had the Bradley Fighting Vehicles which had just arrived, the first time we had tracked armored vehicles in Syria.
That brings me to wonder about how it’s possible the coalition didn’t have a close press connection and coordination with the SDF prior to 2019?
Caggins: We did have a relationship with the Special Forces. The structure has changed there. Previously it was elite Special Operations and they had a relationship. In fact, the SDF media officers frequently ask me to convey their hello to the special operations public affairs officers who were in Syria between 2014-2019—they are really awesome and we worked together with me being the public messenger for the elite special ops. Probably a good case study on Conventional (regular) troops serving as the public messenger for elite special operations troops. Prior to 2019, the Baghdad-based CJTF spokesman didn’t have those relationships with SDF spokesmen. SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali’s number was not in the cell phone I received from my predecessor and he wasn’t being followed by on twitter.
So this was your first contact with the Syrian Democratic forces, the U.S. partners in Syria?
Caggins: Let me quickly explain how I met the Syrian Democratic Forces spokesmen … I had not had contact with [SDF spokesman] Mustafa Bali until I had done a tweet in Kurmanji Kurdish and he quipped that I spoke Kurdish and I sent him a direct message on Twitter and told him who I was. The Operation Inherent Resolve Twitter account hadn’t even been following him.
I told the SDF spokesman I would travel to Syria on Nov. 11, 2019 with media and expressed my desire to meet them in-person. So we were communicating with Mustafa Bali and [his deputy] Kino Gabriel who speaks English and said I was coming, so when I got there they drove out there [to meet me]. All of our Coalition bases in Iraq and Syria are partners force bases and I didn’t need to give the SDF clearance, so I met the SDF spokesman and an immediate respect and partnership formed.
While Hill was speaking to reporters, I was chatting off-camera speaking to Kino and Mustafa Bali. Ms. Tania Aziz, the senior cultural advisor for the Coalition, an American of Kurdish background was with us. We decided on-the-spot to have a joint press conference. During our quick prep session, really only two minutes, before we talked to press I said there are some things that were difficult to talk about such as the “NATO ally [Turkey]” is one thing we couldn’t get into; I felt a kinship with the SDF spokesmen and trusted that they also did not want to have us in an awkward position. We had a press gaggle and that was the first time we had a Coalition press conference in Rojava in northeast Syria.
So we built relationships. During the March 2020 trip, we had a group of 30-40 reporters meet us for a press conference on a non-descript airstrip. Staging is important so we asked the U.S. troops to bring out an armored vehicle with American flag. At the press conference, I have my team working the margins, taking selfies, and making WhatsApp contact lists.
We had a similar event in early Aug. 2020, I invited my colleague Royal Canadian Mounted Police Superintendent (Colonel) Marie-Claude Cote the Coalition’s Gender Advisor, to meet with the SDF’s media team—including several tactical unit spokeswomen. During the press conference I was joined by SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel, as well as, tactical spokeswomen Ms. Nasrin Abdullah, and Ms. Nisha Gewriye. The relationship continues to grow and I was in Rmeilan and I have one final scheduled trip in early September 2020 and I’ll bring my replacement and I hope my successor will continue this partnership and keep the narrative going.
On information warfare and tensions with Russia in Syria and Iran in Iraq
[Note: Caggins highlighted six issues that took place in Syria after the October 2019 crisis. As the U.S. withdrew from some posts the Russians signed a deal with Turkey and with the Syrian regime they moved into areas the U.S. had formerly operated from. Russia made a big show of this, Caggins notes, conducting a helicopter air assault on the unoccupied Kobani landing zone. In February 2020 U.S. forces were fired on by pro-Syrian regime elements in a village new Qamishli. Russian officers filmed themselves inciting locals to say ‘America must go.’ This began a series of what Caggins terms “road wars and highway shenanigans” with Russia trying to harass U.S. patrols that were securing oil fields. The public affairs spokesman also notes that the deployment of Bradley Fighting vehicles was important to show locals the U.S. had not abandoned them. More recently the coalition has had to deal with tensions between the SDF and local tribes near Deir Ezzor. This is a sensitive area because Russia, ISIS, the Syrian regime and Iran can seek to inflame tribal tensions. This is an area where information warfare plays a key role.]
Caggins: This is information warfare: The maneuvers that happen, most of what you see exploding or driving around is done for an information effect. This is about outlaw groups setting off roadside bombs on Coalition contracted convoys, or one rocket that lands outside the base, that is information. Or Russians driving around areas in Northeast Syria, that is information, thus far they don’t try to hurt or escalate with Coalition troops, Russia tries to show ‘Here I am, I go where I want and I want world to pay attention to me.’ So what we do in public information warfare is supremely important, it must be timely and accurate.
[Note: Caggins says that there has been a lot of discussion about the role of cyber warfare today and having more security clearances and cyber programs that would appear to make accessibility for journalists and the public even harder when it comes to explaining the U.S. mission and countering adversary disinformation. He also points to the investment ISIS put in public affairs and the number of ISIS spokesmen who were eliminated during the conflict. He contrasts that with whether ISIS or others ever put efforts into targeting U.S. public affairs officers, with the conclusion being that U.S. enemies don’t see public affairs as a major threat to them. This leads to questions about whether the US is out of step with adversaries on the information war battlefield].
You’re at a crux of this intersection of Russia, Iran and other countries in Syria and Iraq and they are good at information war?
Caggins: As a colonel with experience, our adversaries are much better and more sophisticated in information and public information war … Our mentality at the Defense Department is we have F-35s and aircraft carriers and we are big and strong and rich; that is important and meaningful; but you can do words warfare and our word warriors do it on the cheap (and, unfortunately, paying out-of-pocket): We pay for our own internet, we do things outside our office to be in compliance with rules about information technology (IT) and we do iMovie because we don’t have software because we need waivers and we work with slow networks, so we have to do things on the cheap, the way they are done like everyone else. The videos you see of Russian troops in Syria, those videos are from cell phones and instantly put up with live stream. We can’t post photos and videos as fast because our soldiers don’t have phones or battlefield wifi. But [if they did have phones] they could take a picture of some interaction which our adversaries say is an inflammatory interaction, but if we have our own video then we can say “nothing to see here.”
Caggins: It takes a mindset shift for the Department of Defense to do the things I’m talking about. The capability is there, every teen has a phone and all of them put up pictures and video. For instance, I happened to be on TV and there was a rocket attack [while we were live] but in all other attacks people have the phones on, and that’s how the information world works today. There is not the mindset in the U.S. Defense Department that puts information on same level as maneuver and intelligence and other war fighting functions and when we do talk communication it is about sophisticated high dollar stuff and while that has its role, how does that get on the front page…and trend on twitter? How does that get on regional news, how do we assess [impact] on regional news.
I’ve done press in Suleimani and Erbil and Baghdad with regional press like Al Iraqiya, Al Mirbad, Al-Arabiya, North Press Agency, and Kurdistan24 and none of that will [be quantified] in the media monitoring done by the Defense Department because they don’t have a Kurdish speakers and they don’t know all the dialects but these media are important for the people we are helping in region. When it comes to regional and big media in U.S., they drive thoughts of our leaders, I understand the “beltway” mindset, I’ve worked at the Pentagon and White House National Security Council, but out here [in the Middle East] we need to focus on regional press.
[Note: Countering disinformation is a complex task. The U.S. has discussed ten-year plans to increase its abilities at information warfare. This means quickly counter disinformation, for instance. While there is active discussion on this issue, getting the right tools in the hands of soldiers and public affairs personnel appears to be as yet an unrealized goal.]
Understanding local complexities amid the information war
Caggins: I know about the other informational war like billboards and psy-ops and all that, but I’m talking about relentless media engagement. I did an interview with Mohammed Hassan, a talented reporter … He lives in northeast Syria … He has sent me photos and video of our troops when they were moving in Syria, and patrols and interactions with Russians and he would show me that, and he would ask sometimes if I had a comment. We have a rapport and so I can ask what people in Qamishli are thinking and what they think about the patrols. He is a local guy and knows the feelings of the populace. What he tells me is near real-time and more descriptive than the military storyboards that are classified at the “five eyes” [intelligence] level. I go to guys like Mohammad to know what is hot in the streets.
I try to inform and inspire and not offend … I think very rarely there should be “no comment,” but some [issues] are emotionally charged. I represent a big group, I am an individual, but I’m not representing myself, I’m representing entities and organizations and connecting with audiences.
[Note: These local complexities are important when dealing with a large area like Iraq and Syria where there are different ethnic and religious groups, countries competing for influence, and tribes and local power structures. For instance in Aug. 2020 a tribal sheikh was assassinated near the Euphrates river and Deir Ezzor, potentially creating tensions between locals, the SDF and coalition forces. Having locals provide information to public affairs personnel makes them cognizant of what messaging may need to be done.]
Being attuned to that local minutiae is important and a spark there can set things aflame?
Caggins: Three people not affiliated with us sent us information about this [tribal protests controversy]. When I heard it from several people I had a conversation with the State Department’s representative in Syria, Ms. Zehra Bell to get a better sense of the situation. My role is to speak on behalf of the Coalition and after a few tweaks from Zehra it was a good message we sent. There is trust with the volunteers we have and I see it is shared in the region among those who I didn’t previously know. I know we did something right on behalf of Coalition.
A lot of people want to be heard. I wrote this at the Kennedy school: Generation Z is accustomed to rate uber drivers for instance and be heard, think of the young kids in school in Florida whose classmates massacred in a school shooting, they went out and protested. In communication people have audience-centric approach rather than an imperial mindset of saying what those on-high want to hear; my primary audience is not the big-wigs in DC, it’s the people affected by ISIS. So having them view us as a trusted source and trusted military source is key. We did surveys in Syria and we had a 28 percent trust rate after Peace Spring and now we are in 65-75 percent trust range. They see value in the Coalition.
In the past there was more embeds, but over the last years there haven’t been these opportunities, maybe that is in the wake of the kind of embed controversy that happened with General Stanley McChrystal in 2010 and so people like yourself are more front and center?
Caggins: I heard that media embeds were not allowed when I got here, but there was no memo from CENTCOM that there were no media embeds allowed. [So I started to have them], we have had them for the past year but now there is Covid-19. We closed and transferred a lot of bases, we don’t do many operations outside the wire that are potential for embedded operations so there is less to see. We are open to see embeds … We welcome embeds in Baghdad, there are reporters everyday speaking to the joint operation spokesman. Defense Department does continue to do it, but it takes a mindset and acceptance or being affiliated with the units I’m with,
I tell PAOs they are there to facilitate and that orientation is different than a mindset of control, or even worse to censor, and that goes back to if you believe in your mission and if the nation sent you then you can inform the world so why wouldn’t I want to have people come see this story … We work for commanders and it is up to the commander who is in charge and we make recommendations and implement. I work for a commander and implement his public affairs program and strategic narrative. But we do a lot on out our own initiative within the commander’s messaging guidelines, trying to not escalate tensions with regional adversaries and competitors and also [making sure to] put our Iraqi Security Force and SDF partners first.
Do all your tweets have to go through some complex bureaucratic clearance?
Caggins: I write them myself and then a second set of eyes looks at it to catch typos and I send it. It can be operational or reactional, or pre-planned or when I want, there is no clearance process, when we do base transfer ceremonies, those messages we send to a larger group, so an engineer might need to tell me how much a structure costs and I’ll gets stats for the tweet. We have a broad strategic narrative from the Global Coalition, the State Department, the Combined Joint Task Force, I just audible off that narrative. I don’t set policy via tweet, I describe how policy is implemented.
Squad designated spokespersons
Caggins: It’s about a mindset. When I roll out the gate if everyone can see me with my American flag I want to tell my story rather than others telling it about me. It’s a mindset that says during pre-combat inspection there is a Squad Designated Spokesman that have rehearsed talking point so they can engage press on camera and when we are stopped on side of road and there is ubiquitous media like in Syria, do we have someone to give a simple three messages, so they can also hand out a business card, instead of the current mindset of “I’m not authorized to talk to media” and they can’t even answer what their mission is. This is an opportunity to say “I’m on a security patrol, etc.”
We have a Squad Designated Marksman … and they get more training so let’s have a Squad Designated Spokesman … and we don’t have that.
So if you had these guys at squad level they could bring back info?
Caggins: In the military “our ‘stars’ wear stripes” I say. The public loves our enlisted troops. It’s not the people with stars on their collar [generals and admirals] but people like sergeants and corporals that do the heavy lifting.
When I brought embedded media to Syria in November, I remember this lieutenant from South Carolina and he was asked how he prepared for the Syria deployment: He was smiling and proud and it was the first time the ‘old hickory’ [30th infantry division] had deployed since WWII and it was in Syria and he said, “well when I was getting ready I googled Syria and saw a bunch of desert and I got here and there is wheat and rolling hills and it doesn’t look like what I saw on YouTube.” And then he talked about trucking and drivers, and being surprised to see Mercedes trucks. We need more of those moments that show humanity and our wonderful people. We had a tweet from our corporate account from CJTF about parents and child day and we have parent pairs out here, some parents and their sons or daughters deployed at the same time. What does that have to do with ISIS? These are the humans out here that supports our mission.
It’s better when they speak. So we tell junior soldiers to stick to speaking about what they do and a day in their life and speak to the reporter and not the camera and loosen up and give good soundbites and the generals can fill in strategic messaging. I haven’t been on a patrol since I was a Major, so go ask a sergeant or captain, we need to have the confidence in our young men and women who have rifles with live bullets and have them feel empowered to tell their story to media.
Enabling soldiers to respond in ‘media permissive environments’
Caggins: It goes to the mindset, we need confidence that junior officers and soldier can tell their story to the press and they might say something off-base. It’s not criminal to go off message. It’s not criminal to have a fender bender in the motorpool [in most instances], we need to understand that through the soldiers when they are expected to be in media permissive environments and be able to respond to media. They can to respond combat action, for instance an IED or ambush—shouldn’t they also be allowed to respond to media on the battlefield? Our adversaries do this, like the Russian patrols, they have people live stream from the vehicle. I don’t know if they pay [local Syrians] people but they always find a town with a sympathetic crowd, like they always go to the most regime friendly town and that’s the image that goes out.
We had a mentality in Defense Department that we need a memo from the lawyer to have them [press] in the vehicle. It has to go through bureaucracy. What I tried to do in my time was to approach these challenges of how we get to yes. It’s not “should I” but “how can I” do this; and this mindset and achieve that goal. Not being deterred by the bureaucracy, and that’s an uphill battle as military public affairs officers—sometimes it feels like the whole system is in the way to stop military journalists from doing all the cool stuff. We’re (mostly) banned from drone photography, we (mostly) don’t have access to wifi, we rarely issue cellphones to our troops, we must get memos to do the most basic things. The intelligence and IT people often treat the public affairs mission as the bane of their existence.
I remember one time, after the Iranian ballistic missile strike, we had a media roundtable with Western news organizations in Baghdad. We submitted all the journalists names to Coalition security and had the reporters go through the normal screening checkpoint. These are big name news organizations—AP, New York Times, NPR, Reuters, etc … I was at the headquarters waiting for the reporters and wondering why there was a delay. I would have called my deputy who I sent to the gate, but again, no cellphones. Finally, when the reporters arrived at the headquarters, I learned the Iraqi-born correspondents from Washington Post and Wall Street Journal had their phones confiscated and were issued “Red” escort-only visitor’s passes. Why? Because they are Iraqi citizens. I was vexed about this. Heck, I’m still pissed about this eight months after the event. How insulting to confiscate the phones from the Iraqi citizens who were visiting an Iraqi base to report on the Coalition’s support to Iraqi people. Meanwhile, their US and European born colleagues sailed right through security with “Green” badges and cellphone in-hand.
[Note: These bureaucratic changes would make Washington more nimble at getting its message out and appear more approachable for local media and local people whose support the U.S. wants as part of the mission. Some of the issues are technical approvals, such as using cell phones and having better access to internet. If adversaries have it then keeping up with their messaging requires these tools. Caggins also suggests more approvals to leverage other technology, such as small drones and also the need for awareness of which social media people are using more frequently].
Is there more you’d want to broadcast?
Caggins: That’s an example of where the whole world operates when you have troops on the ground. I want to release more strike videos or gun-cam video. It may be edgy, but I have public relations expertise in the managed violence business and killing is what we do. We have precision strikes, so if it’s in the rules of engagement it should [be ok to publish]. We don’t want to glorify killing—but, again, managed violence is the core of our capabilities when deterrence has not work. There are rules and we want to follow international norms.
I do really wish, we could have a blanket authorization for Defense Department public affairs personnel to use quadcopter drone photography (and buys American-made drones to reduce security concerns). The news and film industry incorporate drones all the time. Out in Syria, one of our enterprising young leaders used drones to record our anti-terrorism security partners training on raid techniques. They critiqued the raid training film with our local partners in the same manner a high school football coach reviews film with his players. This should be the norm.
Audiences also like, what I call, “ground strike” footage. Sometimes we have anti-terror troops attach GoPro cameras to their helmets for a first-person shooter perspective of raids. We have spliced this footage with drone imagery to great success. I wish we had more of this.
There are young men and women who join the military for action, why not show them some action … we are at the point in the defeat ISIS campaign where the partners in Iraq and Syria do 99.9% of the on-the-ground security. Seeing them in action is an inspiration to Coalition troops too…We are doing words war on the cheap, everyone is on Tik Tok these days, we need to trust the soldiers with guns to also handle smart phones. We should send them out with the purposes of also taking videos of patrols and life on the base.
You can have a million hours of good and two seconds ruin it like happened with the Abu Ghraib scandal though, isn’t that what concerns people?
Caggins: We should trust them and add a control mechanism. We trust them with rifles, then trust them with cameras, we jump out of airplanes, even Iraqi F-16 pilots take selfies.
[Note: Over the last year the changes in Syria and Iraq, including pressures from Iran and Russia as well as the brief conflict between U.S.-backed partners in Syria and the Turkey, a NATO member, provided many opportunities for missteps and controversies because of the sensitive nature of many converging issues. Changing policy in Washington, such as the decision to first leave Syria and then remain to secure oil fields, has led to controversies with allies, partners and adversaries. One controversy in November 2019 involved complaints that the coalition had tweeted a video of a Kurdish woman which media in Turkey said included a “PKK slogan.” The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is listed as a terrorist group by the US and Turkey, but Ankara asserts that the SDF has members who are linked to the PKK, creating a public affairs minefield. The offending tweet that was then deleted. “I am more careful, I understand there are regional tensions,” Caggins says looking back on the incident.]
Well what about controversial issues like the recent oil deal in Syria or rocket attacks?
Caggins: Every day we do a phone call with CENTCOM and our representatives and special operations and the Pentagon of Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Staff and weekly with State Department Ambassador James Jeffrey’s office and we coordinate and have emails that might cross combatant commands, such as dealing with our NATO ally.
So I won’t say something off the cuff. I wouldn’t do something proactive or not run it up the flagpole, I don’t want any military leaders to be surprised. So I might flag it for the chief of staff or commander. But at this point a lot of the men and women in public affairs, we worked together coming up the ranks, and we know and trust each other and we decide who says what when. When there is a missile attack, like the ballistic missile attack in January 2020, I had dozens of messages, I didn’t get back to people, decisions were made at higher levels, in that case I’m just trying to survive.
[Note: Caggins also dealt with concerns about which media to give interviews to. RT in Russia has an Arabic version which has a large audience in the region. The public affairs officer did an interview with the Arabic side and argues that it was worth it because it has a big audience, achieving 100,000 views on Facebook. He argues that while the coalition sends out email press statements to people, to reach locals in places like Deir Ezzor in Arabic it is worth doing interviews like this, even though RT is affiliated with an adversary.]
If I believe in my mission then it’s a gospel that everyone should hear, so I will speak to any reporters and I reach out to them. I don’t worry about naysayers who are loyal to the regime and say “don’t steal our oil,” that’s their criticism, so what? There are going to be critical comments. My job is to advance the public narrative of 77 countries and 5 organizations in the Coalition, the public has a right to know where their tax dollars are going and that is our job, what else do we do and who we are, so I’m a spokesman and ambassador and diplomat and words warrior on behalf of these nations and I take is seriously and make sure everyone is represented.
[Note: The public affairs officers says his background also helped inform his ability to work with locals. Many people are familiar through media with issues in the United States, such as recent protests and the police killing of George Floyd. That means explaining the American role abroad or US values may mean addressing issues back home to foreign audiences].
You’re African-American and I understand you come from a military family?
Caggins: My dad was a retired colonel and in 1964 after he graduated from Tuskegee, white sergeants would cross the street at Fort Benning so they didn’t have to salute him and 50 years later, I represent all these countries and live out the dreams of my grandparents and great grandparents that they couldn’t imagine. When the George Floyd demonstrations began a lot of Kurds sent me messages and said “hey Col. Myles we see this with George Floyd and we know what it’s like,” so it is this kinship that comes with the color of my skin and understanding those who were left out and left behind and marginalized and oppressed. I identify with that because it was my family and friends and microaggressions. I was speaking to Iraqi PM Spokesman Mullah Talal and he said ‘hey Col, you look like one of us,’ and so these types of conversations I can have and my predecessors didn’t have. Most people around the world look like me and it opens doors, and that’s not trainable, that is kinship in conversations.
So that helped you identify with the challenges facing the people on the ground?
Caggins: There are a lot of nuances to language and look at the tribes, it’s complex and so things happen with the tribes and I reached out to guys I know in Deir Ezzor and I asked them what is happening in the tribes. I wanted to have a series of ongoing conversations and I said I wanted to send a message. We had this six-year anniversary of the massacre of the Shaitat tribe by ISIS.
Back in 2014, I was Guantanamo spokesman at the Pentagon [and wasn’t aware of this massacre], and now seeing the 2014 images of people decapitated in streets and the Shaitat massacre which was the second biggest ISIS did, I wanted to send the right message beyond just saying we are thinking of those killed and we care. It wanted to send a message to honor those who were martyred and show we all work together. But if I’d said, [after the protests against the SDF and Coalition], “knock it off and get together,” then I’m an ugly imperial American telling them what to do. I’m a guest and I want to encourage and SDF and the tribes and let them know the Coalition supports all people.
What comes next?
Caggins: I asked to stay for another year, I wanted a [multi-year] assignment like in Korea, they say that is so you can maintain continuity, and this is the type of job lends itself to relationships and so when my successor comes in I want to hand off the relationships. There is a lot of nuance and history to get up to speed and I’m still learning things every day…I’ll go back to Fort Hood as a spokesperson for 90,000 armored crops soldiers at Forts Riley, Bliss, and Carson and we’ll focus on those training to deploy.
I could foresee doing big project for big army or defense department, or some kind of fellowship writing about public information warfare, and help shift mentality and mindsets of defense department policy and practices to fight word war on the cheap in the public space. I hope to speak at the Association of the United States Army conference about public info war and I want to visit military schools to coach future commanders on the value of public communication. Mostly I want to help solve big communication challenges for the U.S. Army and Defense Department. And I want to grow a generation of offensive-minded words warriors.
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