How well can you know your adversary? Can you forecast their intentions? Shape your actions to influence theirs?

In 1987, when Palestinians in the Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza and the West Bank launched what become the first Intifada, they knew their adversary well – many spoke the language, followed Israeli media, participated in its economy, understood its social dynamics and political institutions. Though more than a thousand Palestinians and 150 Israelis were killed, the campaign was largely one of civil disobedience aimed at Israeli society and a wider global audience. As Eitan Alimi, an assistant professor of political science with Hebrew University of Jerusalem, recently told an Ottawa audience, its leaders recognized that the use of deadly force would unite rather than divide Israelis and so cultivated an indelible image of Palestinian youth facing down Israeli tanks with little more than stones.

Conflicts of the past decade have forced western militaries to relearn the importance of culture – and the intricacies of tribal politics – and confront a fundamental truth: for all the technology being applied to modern warfare, it is still a human conflict.

As a result, defence researchers have begun to invest significantly in the human dimension: how to understand human effectiveness, how to build trust among divergent actors, how to integrate humans with technological systems, and how to understand and influence adversarial motivation and intent.

When the Canadian Forces released its defence science and technology strategy in April 2007, the new emphasis on human factors prompted an immense reorganization of the Toronto office of Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC).

“The human is the most complex part of the equation,” acknowledges Carol McCann, head of DRDC’s adversarial intent section. Seated in a nondescript building in Toronto’s northern periphery, she describes a long-term, multidisciplinary effort to build S&T expertise capable of advising the defence and security community on psycho-social dynamics at the individual and the group levels, and the relationship between the individual and the group, and the group within the social-technical environment.

“The sciences that are available to study the human are relatively young disciplines…[but] I would like to pull together various disciplines and get integrated theories that can help understand the adversary.” Among those are psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, historians, and religious and cultural studies experts.

Defining the adversary is no simple matter, McCann notes. “Adversaries can come and go in the life of a country, or even in the life of an individual. The U.S. used to be an adversary of Canada at one point. Groups like the Taliban are very good at putting people in situations where they are forced to become adversaries. We don’t think of children as adversaries but there are situations where they are forced to bear arms, and it changes the equation.

“Our mandate is to provide the means of forecasting intent based on a knowledge of social factors – the wide range of factors that drive human behaviour at the individual and psychological level, the mental level, the emotional level, and the social level.” That includes trying to understand the cultural norms and values people unconsciously absorb from childhood.

“The idea is then to be able to help the CF and other departments think about the various ways to counter hostile intent, to shape it,” she says.

Key to that is the notion of “influence,” a word that encompasses a wide range of possible approaches. “Influence is a diplomatic idea as well as a military one. It’s been around for a long time. In our world, it’s more associated with information operations, but I don’t think it is restricted to that. We can have influence in a variety of ways by a variety of means, from the individual to the state level.”

Much of the work at this early stage is conceptual – building the foundational knowledge that will support the section’s later work – but researchers have begun to develop a framework for considering motivational sequence, integrating theories of political science and social psychology to understand what drives intent. As McCann explains, self-perception plays a critical role.

“What kind of motivation might drive a farmer who is being coerced into being an adversary? That would be quite different from what motivates the Taliban, or a warlord, or a criminal operating in Afghanistan. When we think about intent, that concept of motivation is key.

“How people see themselves can shape their role in a group, and their emotional response to events. There is a lot of interesting work on the relationship between emotion and cognition: how emotions such as guilt and humiliation shape the way people think. This is a very different dimension from the state level. When a person’s self esteem has been challenged or humiliated, especially in public, they often respond aggressively. We’ve begun experimental work on situational factors, combined with personality factors, to better understand how aggression might ensue. We can perhaps help the CF better understand how to facilitate a positive resolution to a situation that might involve those kinds of factors.”

Following the evolutionary chain of improvised explosive devices, for example, from their modern origins in Northern Ireland to Lebanon, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan, means understanding motivation. “You can think of threat from the adversary as consisting of capability, your own vulnerability and intent,” McCann explains. “A strong intent can usually find a capability to act against a vulnerability. So when we’re looking at trying to diffuse hostile intent, it’s like the key to the problem. Without that understanding, we’re not going to know how best to diffuse conflict.”

Part of that understanding entails cultural narratives. Drawing on consumer psychology, the section has begun to explore what makes stories or messages memorable. “This is an interesting and important area because stories are so important to people’s culture and values,” McCann observes. “How does the story shape our worldview? What’s the role of narrative in cultural myth?”

David Kilcullen, a leading theorist on counterinsurgency and in 2007 a senior advisor to General David Petraeus, has argued that modern insurgencies differ significantly from those of the 1960s – there may be multiple, competing insurgencies within one theatre, lacking a coherent strategy, and “the actions of individuals and the propaganda effect of a subjective ‘single narrative’ may far outweigh practical progress, rendering counterinsurgency even more non-linear and unpredictable than before.”

Consequently, DRDC is examining how hostile intent is propagated – how it is shared amongst a group and spread within a society – and is reviewing, starting with Ancient Greece, the concept of influence in military operations as a means of building a database to conduct case analysis. It has also complied a repository from over 100 open-source databases of some 400 conflict and security indicator indices.

Human terrain mapping
Know your adversary has been a canon of war since time immemorial; understanding the broader population was less customary and it has taken time for militaries to recognize that reality and adjust. At the outset of the current Iraq war, many in the U.S. military ignored the tribal structure, especially in Anbar Province, where shunned tribal leaders and largely secular tribes subsequently allied with religious extremists.

In February and August 2007, the Pentagon stood up human terrain teams (HTT) in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. Originally an idea that had been floated in 2003 and later solidified into a blueprint in 2006, the human terrain system program involves embedding anthropologists and other social scientists with army brigades to help interpret the nuances of tribal societies.

Though the notion of armed, camouflaged anthropologists has been controversial – so much so that the American Anthropological Association raised questions about the ethics of participants – brigade commanders have begun to praise the work of the six-person teams, who have been able to untangle some of the complex geographic, religious, familial and tribal divisions in Iraqi society.

In fact, with the support of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the human terrain mapping program began in 2008 to quadruple the number of teams in Iraq and Afghanistan from six to 26.

McCann has followed the development of HTT closely, and is intrigued by what field-based operations might offer. DRDC is working to ensure this cultural understanding is incorporated into soldier training, whether its shaping aspects of the Canadian Forces College curriculum or support training exercises.

“It’s important that if you are going to think about another culture, knowing your own culture and what your norms and values are could be important,” McCann stresses. “If you know you have those things, you’re more able to think about operating in a culture you’re not familiar with. So while you may want a special advisor for special situations, preparing people to understand human behavior well, maybe even at basic training, would be a way to prepare the solider well for a more human-oriented kind of conflict.”

Along with that, DRDC is also improving its ability to “red team” – to challenge military analysis, plans and capabilities through the eyes of an adversary. “It requires expertise in culture, but it also requires imagination, and the ability to challenge in a constructive way. And that’s no trivial task,” McCann says.

As the Canadian Forces further develops it’s JIMP (joint, interagency, multinational, public) enabled force for adaptive disperse operations, understanding culture and how to counter the motives behind hostile intent will be a vital tool in the skill set of each soldier. “The intersection between our capabilities and the CF’s is quite important,” McCann said. “We can forecast intent and we can think about influence, but exactly how you bring it together to have influence is something that they will be examining.”

Whether anthropologists are embedded with brigades or soldiers acquire the skills of social scientists, that knowledge will provide a part of the larger situational awareness militaries seek. Integrating an understanding of the individual, the group, the state and the non-state actors into that picture will remain a challenge, though. “I guess that’s the Holy Grail of all of this, to have that big comprehensive picture,” McCann said.