The battlespace of culture: Mapping the human terrain
“Whenever I hear of culture…I release the safety catch of my Browning!”
— Schlageter, stage play, 1933
In the wars of the 21st century, the people are the terrain to be fought over and won. Their support is the ultimate condition of victory, depriving insurgents of the aid and shelter they need to carry on the battle. Culture defines the battlefield, but commanders may not have the maps they need for this kind of fight.
A succession of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) senior commanders has acknowledged that their forces have misjudged the battlespace. Looking back on his 2006 command of the Multinational Brigade (Regional Command South) in Afghanistan, MGen David Fraser said, “I underestimated one factor – culture.” Quoted in The Difficult War: Perspectives on Insurgency and Special Operations Forces, he said, “I was looking at the wrong map. I needed to look at the tribal map, not the geographic map.”
In September 2009, Gen Stanley McChrystal’s Strategic Assessment of Afghanistan described ISAF as “poorly configured for COIN (counterinsurgency), inexperienced in local languages and culture, and struggling with challenges inherent to coalition warfare.” A year later, his successor as ISAF commander, Gen David Petraeus, told reporters, “we have never had the granular understanding of local circumstances in Afghanistan that we achieved over time in Iraq…One of the key elements in our ability to be fairly agile in our activities in Iraq during the surge was a pretty good understanding of who the powerbrokers were in local areas, how the systems were supposed to work, how they really worked, which tribe was which.”
Perhaps most devastating, a 2010 report called “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan,” authored by U.S. MGen Michael Flynn, described the American intelligence community as largely irrelevant to the overall strategy. With the focus on the insurgents, intelligence organizations missed “the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced…”
Since the fall of 2008, Canadian Forces have had “white” situational awareness teams working in Afghanistan to “help better understand the local population and help decipher cultural nuances for senior leaders and advisors.” (In military terminology, “red” is the enemy, “blue” denotes friendly forces and “white” refers to the civilian population.) The Canadian culture teams are thought to consist of about five people, a mix of military personnel and civilians, working for Task Force Kandahar/Joint Task Force Afghanistan. Beyond that, little else is known; their identities and activities are classified.
The United Kingdom Ministry of Defence is deploying cultural specialists from a new unit to support operations in Afghanistan. The Defence Cultural Specialist Unit has more than 40 advisors in its pool, civilian and military, each speaking either the Pashto or Dari language. The specialists advise senior commanders on the local cultural, political and economic environment in Helmand, the British area of operations.
The apparent American equivalent, the Human Terrain System (HTS) and Human Terrain Teams (HTT), have formally existed since 2007, and several dozen groups are now working across Iraq and Afghanistan. Ideally, the teams have well-trained anthropologists and social scientists to gather and package information about the indigenous culture.
In the fall of 2010 at Kandahar Airfield, Don Rector, the leader of Human Terrain Team AF-4 described its work. “My people spend at least three fourths of their time out there with the infantry sections on patrol. My people go out there and talk to the Afghans. We come back and let the commander know what the Afghans are thinking and feeling about what’s going on.”
At that time, AF-4 comprised Rector, two social scientists, a research manager and a human terrain analyst. The HTTs aim for a mix of former military personnel and social scientists. “We need the social scientists’ skills to do what we do, but we need people with military experience in order to blend in smoothly with military society and culture,” Rector said.
“[We] spend three or four weeks in a given area that a commander needs to know certain information about, and then we come directly back and present a report right to the TFK commander, so the guy making the decision gets some idea what’s really going on out there on the ground.”
Rector said major power brokers are almost always known. When they resist ISAF influence, the HTT can give the commander leverage. “[If] that major power broker in the area can’t be brought over to our side, he just resists everything we try to do, then we try to find out who are some of the subordinate leaders that we can go to and say, ‘hey, wouldn’t your people like to have a well in this location, or don’t they need a footbridge over here, wouldn’t they like to have a little bit of the money…that can improve your community with a medical clinic or building a school or whatever?’ This helps us to identify who the people are, who we need to deal with.”
In October 2010, British Army Col Ewen McLay was working to solve the power broker puzzle, among others, as head of the Prism Cell at Kandahar Airfield, a small experimental “think tank” reporting directly to the commander of Regional Command South. In McLay’s view, a counterinsurgency campaign can succeed if it looks beyond geographical boundaries and faces the facts about power relationships.
In Kandahar, for example, power is personified by Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. “The bottom line is you will never deliver the south at the provincial level,” McLay said. “Ahmed Wali Karzai’s tentacles reach from the heart of Kandahar City into the heart of Kabul and into the heart of Marjah and Helmand. So if you have a provincial approach, a parochial approach, where you hit your boundary and over there be dragons, then you’re going to lose.”
The answer to that problem was a headquarters with sufficient weight – the two stars of a major general – that could see southern Afghanistan as a whole and understand the insurgency, politics and tribal affiliations down to the local level. “So an activity that takes place in central Helmand has consequences in the heart of Kandahar. That’s a campaign,” McLay said.
The concept of using social scientists and particularly anthropologists to map human terrain in conflict situations has been controversial. There have been spirited debates within the ranks of the Canadian Anthropology Society and the American Anthropological Association about the ethics of serving military ends with academic means.
Dr. Marc Tyrrell is a Senior Research Fellow with the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University. A social anthropologist, he points out some of the areas where his colleagues are in dispute over military human terrain work. “First, it is covert research,” he said. “Basically, anthropologists act as undercover intelligence officers. It is inevitable that what people learn will wind up in the kill chain.”
Anthropological methodology, and its use in a military context, also divides academics. Given the security and time constraints in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, “a lot of what HTTs are doing is just not anthropology,” Tyrrell said. Another point of division is ideological. “Many academics believe the military-industrial complex in the U.S. is out of control, and the current wars are understood in that context.”
Culture in context
Beyond the academic debate is a purely military one. In an oft-cited 2009 Military Review article, “All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence,” USMC Maj Ben Connable wrote: “HTS has sapped the attention or financing from nearly every cultural program in the military and from many within the military intelligence community. The human terrain teams have given a number of staff officers an excuse to ignore a complex and challenging training requirement.”
Connable captures the contradiction at the heart of the human terrain team concept: “The civilian academic, the military cultural experts, and the leader of the team serve as special advisors to the brigade commander, providing a separate stream of data and advice that is not ‘polluted’ by the intelligence cycle.” Keeping social science out of the “kill chain,” or pretending to, allows recruiters to attract academics who might otherwise remain inaccessible.
Connable writes that warfighters in low intensity conflicts adapt quickly to the environment and “first-round failures occur because a focus on cultural training and education has yet to be sustained between conflicts.” He concludes that the military should focus on cultural training within its ranks and end the civilian human terrain team experiment.
Another Canadian academic, Dr. Emily Spencer, has made a study of how militaries can understand and use cultural knowledge to their benefit. Interviewed in Kingston, where she is a research associate with the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command Battle Laboratory, Dr. Spencer said she has seen an increased awareness of the importance of cultural knowledge in the Canadian military over the last year and a half, but she believes that awareness is still largely conceptual.
“I am not seeing it being incorporated fully in education yet and I’m not aware of any major advancements of it being incorporated into training in a meaningful way either. I think we are still a long way from seeing culture intelligence institutionalized in Canadian Forces education, training and operations,” she said.
Part of the problem in institutionalizing this “tool of choice” is the questionable desired end state. In the context of counterinsurgencies in general and Afghanistan in particular, she asks, “What is success? A mirror image of our own society?”
So far, the debate about the cultural battlefield concept has ranged from the existential – “military officers can do better than human terrain teams” – to the anecdotal – “as the unit prepared to roll out, a tribal elder casually mentioned that insurgents might have planted an improvised explosive device on the road just outside the village” – to the ideological – “social science and warfare are incompatible.” With U.S., U.K. and Canadian cultural specialists now deployed in Afghanistan, some kind of cultural capability will undoubtedly be institutionalized within the Canadian Forces. What capability is needed? How will it be generated and sustained? Most importantly, how will it serve the commander’s intent?
Spending good COIN: Contracting for counterinsurgency
For years in Afghanistan, NATO military might has been working at cross-purposes with its money. One hand battles the Taliban with weapons while the other hand dispenses cash to the very “power brokers” or strongmen whose corruption and understandings with the Taliban lend the insurgency legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
The international community is pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan every year. Testifying in Washington in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “you offload a ship in Karachi and by the time whatever it is – you know, muffins for our soldiers’ breakfasts or anti-IED equipment – gets to where we’re headed, it goes through a lot of hands. And one of the major sources of funding for the Taliban is the protection money.”
After taking command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen David Petraeus issued guidelines for how money under ISAF control should be spent. Contracting can support the Afghan government and ISAF but if the money is misspent, “it is likely that some of those funds will unintentionally fuel corruption, finance insurgent organizations, strengthen criminal patronage networks, and undermine our efforts in Afghanistan.”
Petraeus wants COIN contracting built into commanders’ training. “Integrate contracting into intelligence, plans and operations. Commanders must know what contracting activity is occurring in their battlespace and who benefits from those contracts. Integrate contracting into intelligence, plans and operations to exert positive influence and to better accomplish our campaign objectives.”
British Army Col Ewen McLay said, “money is the big weapon we have, and money is the weapon we haven’t used effectively.” At Regional Command South headquarters in Kandahar, McLay has spoken with a number of national support commanders, the officers in charge of contracting with local suppliers. “These are the guys who provide the food, fuel, stuff, trucks, and I said, ‘you need to realize, you’re a power broker. You’re really influential and you probably have just as much influence as COM-TFK [Commander, Task Force Kandahar] and all the guns in the world.’”
The answer? “It was, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m just here to provide the scoff, the food, I’m not actually part of the campaign.’ Well, you are. Anyone who’s here is part of the campaign because you’re going to have an influence.”
The Petraeus guidance directs commanders to find new Afghan companies to do business with and break up the power brokers’ monopolies. Col McLay said, “we’re using a thing called a scorecard nowadays where it needs to be representative. So where previously, let’s take Ahmed Wali Karzai, where he would favour Popolzai, he would marginalize Barakzai, he would squeeze anyone out who might compete with him for a contract, you’ll see that…there are no more contracts with Watan security [Watan Risk Management, a Karzai family company, blacklisted by the U.S. military in December].”
The Petraeus guidance is clear about the pervasive influence of powerbrokers and their ties with criminals. “In situations where there is no alternative to powerbrokers with links to criminal networks, it may be preferable to forgo the project.” Clearly, one of the lessons learned in Afghanistan is that money is a weapon. The next lesson is how to aim it.