'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Monday, 30 May 2011

Review - "Operational Culture for the Warfighter", 2008

To drink tea with the enemy or kill them? Nobody is sure anymore.

Salmoni, B.A. and Holmes-Eber, P. (2008) Operational Culture for the Warfighter: Principles and Applications (Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps University Press)

The difficulty of prosecuting post-conflict operations in Afghanistan and more prominently at that time, Iraq, led the United States Military to publish Field Manual 3-24 in 2006. The manual contained anthropological wisdom generated from the Cultural Awareness and the Military project (formed at the Watson Institute in 2004), and TRADOC, Ft Leavenworth, Kansas. This manual was written to fill a 'gap' in counterinsurgency theory [the manual superceded FMI 3.07-22 (2004) and MCWP 3-33.5 (1980)], and to update previous thinking.

Taliban in the winter. According to "Operational Culture for the Warfighter", insurgents in Afghanistan exhibit a "local cultural disinclination" to fight in the winter months. Or it could just be that the landscape is ill-suited to guerilla warfare, much as al-Zawahiri lamented the monotonous, arid landscape of the Egyptian countryside. 

'You cannot fight former Saddamists and Islamists' goes the manual, 'the same way you would have fought the Viet Cong, Moros or Tupamoros'. 2006 was, with hindsight, a pivotol year in the US-led occupation of Iraq since the al-Qaeda affiliated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (though I debate how strong that link ever was, even given the infamous 'correspondence' between he and al-Zawahiri) was deeping antipathy between Sunni and Shia amidst spiralling violence.

Looking back, we definine also during this period the so-called Sunni Awakening, in which the tribal leaders, plausibly with US funding, coagulated to resist the influx of foreign fighters that were conducting jihad against both civilian and military forces in the country without any apparent strategic goal apart from the aim of maximimising casualties, possibly to increase media attention. Even after Zarqawi's death in June of that year, violence in Iraq had reached unprecedented levels. The spectre of Vietnam was raised, of a quagmire and a never-ending stabilisation project. The convergence of a body of anthropological views on prosecuting Phase IV operations and the volatile, precarious situation in Iraq led to the the Petraeus troop-surge in the country in 2007.

The cultural turn had become an ascendent "thought model" within influential circles of the US DOD; believed to be the answer to the inability of US led forces to win the peace in the aftermath of major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a consequence, and in parallel with the Iraqi troop surge, the DOD outlayed $41 million for the development of the Cultural Operations Research - Human Terrain System (HTS) led by Montgomery McFate, Andrea Jackson (deleted wiki page here role in Lincoln Group here) and Steve Fondacaro, which sought to give anthropologists a combat role, actively implementing, from the front line, cultural expertise, embedded in military units. The use of academics in kinetic operations divided the community. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists formed in reaction and protest at academics prosecuting wars, believing it be ethically indefensible and effectively "weaponizing" anthropology.

In late 2007, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement on HTS, concerned about its ethical implications. The executive board statement concluded that it would 'place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the AAA code of ethics'.. In early 2008 one of the anthropologists embedded in US operations in Afghanistan, Michael Bhathia, was killed by an IED, prompting greater media scrutiny of the HTS. Later that same year, another academic embed, Paula Lloyd was doused in flammable liquid and set alight in Afghanistan. She died two months later. The number of serving anthropologists in these Human Terrain Teams never reached numbers of much more than ten - either in Iraq or Afghanistan, In 2010, McFate and Fondacaro both left the programme. 

The fate of HTS and its relegation to the more theoretical and now less fashionable schools of  thought within the US military has created a vast uncertainty over the role of culture in understanding and prosecuting wars. Only recently, John Nagl in a department of War Studies podcast, suggested that there had become too much emphasis on drinking tea with the enemy - that kinetic means were still the most potent in coercing the enemy and winning over local populations by demonstrations of military strength. 

Thus the 2008 manual, Operational Culture for the Warfighter, published by the Marine Corp University, is important in that it reinforces the notion that culture is assumed to play a large role in combat, but what that role is can be very hard to ascertain. Highlighting the fashionable notion that fourth generation warfare, and particularly COIN will be the way in which the Marines deploy in the future, the manual suggests that, 'our wars will be "wars amongst' the people" - not wars against the people and not wars oblivious to the people.'

The "key terrain" argues General Mattis in the foreword, is the will of the host nation's population and that gaining the trust of skeptical populations will suffocate the ideology of the enemy. In battling for the hearts and minds of the local population then, it is assumed that the better you know these people, the more easily you can win them over. The manual reads like a local phrasebook, but instead of learning languages, you can read the signs of the human terrain, instead. Diverse case studies are given which reinforce cultural viewpoints. In seeking to move beyond HTS, the authors stress that culture is mutable and fluid. And yet they still view culture as 'a logical system which can be understood using theories and principles developed during more than 150 years of research and study by social scientists'. It is supposed here that the length of time of study automatically means a greater level of understanding, and this is dangerous. 

Published in the year that two anthropologists were mortally wounded in Afghanistan, the work seeks to move away from basic, simplified expressions of culture and inherent stereotypes but I feel that it never achieves this convincingly. Noting the Culture and Personality studies of WWII, that suggested some cultural reasons for national psychologies (p.18-19), the manual rejects a one-size-fits-all approach to the human terrain. Culture is messy or "fuzzy set" to quote the manual, and the marine should not fall into the trap of homogenizing the human terrain within his Area of Operations.
Emphasizing this risk, the manual defines Human Terrain as 'those cultural aspects of the battlespace that, due to their static nature, can be visually represented on a geographic map. Human terrain is static with respect to change over time; rigid with respect to fluid human relationships and limited to representing human behaviour in only two dimensions' (p.34). Citing a map of Algeria as a caveat, with its areas of Berber and Arabs delineated, the manual warns against such a simplification, suggesting that this is only a macroscopic interpretation and that intermarriage amongst other developments may have enforced tribal links and cross-cultural ties in the region. 

As the manual goes on to present myriad ways in which culture informs decisions within a marine's AO, it falls into two traps. Firstly, the manual overplays the way in which culture informs a population's response to a US marine's presence. Consider this section from the manual:

"U.S. personnel in Afghanistan frequently notice a drop in insurgent activity during the winter. Over time, they have come to understand that this is related less to diminished insurgent enthusiasm for anti-Afghan violence, and much more to the local cultural disinclination to fight during the winter months in high altitude. Conversely, the upsurge in violence over the summer and autumn is seasonally driven, and not necessarily a function of greater insurgent zeal."

A "Local cultural disinclination" is given as the reason for dropping activity in the winter. In fact, operational elements of insurgency are much more easily prosecuted in the spring and summer, not because the lazy native finds the winter far too cold to go out and prime IEDs, but instead because the eight foot high crops that grow in the spring and summer enable concealment. One must not give cultural considerations too much sway when life and death are on the line. As Porter has shown elegantly, cultural considerations tend to be swept beneath the carpet and material considerations predominate when the former can negatively influence the latter. This year, insurgent activity in the winter (2010/11) reached unpredented levels as rebels sought to destabilise the region and influence phased troop withdrawals - creating casualties and negatively impacting on domestic populations of NATO countries. This wasn't a cultural decision - it was strategic, material. 

Secondly, the manual at times still demarcates a very 'us' and 'them' approach to culture, which is to the detriment of the entire work. As much as it seeks to break away from the "culture and identity" mantra of the WWII anthropologists, it never really does so. Consider in the chapter on belief systems, the following passage (p.173):

In the U.S. for example, the Puritan notion that we can control our lives and experiences through hard work is repeatedly emphasized through such common sayings as:
“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
“God helps those who help themselves.”
These sayings contrast significantly with popular expressions in the Middle East, which emphasize submission to God’s will and acceptance of a divine plan that one cannot control:
“If God wills it.” (Arabic, Turkish, Persian)
Im yir-tzei HaShem
“If God wills it.” (Hebrew)
Agar reza-ye Khuda bashet
“If it finds the favor of God.” (Persian)
Keh deh khoday reza wi
“God-willing.” (Pashto)
Allah A‘lam
“God knows [the outcome—not I].” (Arabic)
Allah ma‘a al-sabirin
“God is with the patient.” (Arabic)
Significant for Marines, particularly those working in Information Operations, is the way that popular folktales, sayings, and imagined histories are used in propaganda to rouse popular sentiment.

Reading between the lines, the American is the do-it-yourself, can-do motivated warrior in charge of his/her own destiny. The Arab submits (a literal interpretation of 'Islam') to the will of God allowing fate to influence their activities and shape their trajectory. The Iranian too submits (Persian) as does the Jew (Hebrew). Only the Puritan is strong and single-minded. Such a reading elides many expressions in both languages and allows culture to inform activity to a much greater extent that is the reality. The Crusaders shouted Deus Vult (God Wills It) when charging into battle during the First Crusade - such a cry invoked their God as the true God and helped to define their own troops (Christian, righteous) against the enemy (Muslim, infidel). Americans are as likely to say "God only knows" as much as any Arab, but beyond that, religion invocations carry with them much greater weight than the simplicity of the expression itself.
Ann Marlowe was right in 2006 when she wrote that 'there are some things the Army needs  in Afghanistan, but more academics are not at the top of the list'. She is still right now. Ultimately, phase IV operations aren't about culture - they are about the ability of the soldier to move away from his perception of the space as an area to be conquered, to a view of the terrain as a place to be reconstructed. The same people, that the soldier has recently homogenized and degraded in his own mind, termed them the enemy, in order to rationalise a use of violence, must then be reconfigured in his psyche as a "host population" meriting the soldier's assistance and understanding. This is the big problem with COIN - how to deconstruct a rationale of violence to one of assistance, whilst still enmeshed within a language of war that dehumanizes and homogenizes the local population.   

Consider Iraq. For the soldiers, the country consisted of two colour-coded zones. The green zone was the safe area ensconced behind high walls in the centre of Baghdad. The other area was called the red zone. All of the local population, regardless of gender or age were termed hajis, a derogatory name, given because muslims must at one point in their lives go on the pilgrimmage to Mecca. One zone for the population - red, for danger - and one name for them. That's a great mindset for prosecuting a war; it's a terrible mindset for stabilising a peace. 

The kinetic operations in Afghanistan undertaken by NATO are being cloaked in a humanitarian discourse that disguises the military aspect of developing 'security on the ground'. The media war is seeking provide covering fire whilst the kinetic war is prosecuted. McChrystal may have attempted to develop relations between the foreign agents and the Afghans (he had good relations with Karzai, which was unusual for a high ranking U.S. official, civilian or military) but his successor Petraeus has escalated operations that seek to limit the exposure of NATO troops to danger. Airstrikes in Afghanistan and drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have increased. Yesterday, after yet another airstrike that killed civilians, Karzai warned NATO against the continued use of these tactics.

Paula Holmes-Eber teaches the operational culture to marines at Quantico. She weds anthropology specifically to military effectiveness. This 2008 manual influenced the 2010 book she co-edited with Donald Gardner, Applications in Operational Culture: Perspectives from the Field. She can be contacted regarding her work at pholmeseber@gmail.com

Barak Salmoni moved from the Marine Corp Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning to RAND in 2008.

See especially this informed FabiusMaximus piece that works as a bibliography.
Pilon, J. G. ed. (2009) Cultural Intelligence for Winning the Peace (Washington, D.C: The Institute of World Politics Press)

Porter, P. (2009) Military Orientalism (London: Hurst)

Shaffer ed. (2006) The Limits of Culture: Islam and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

Stanton, J. (2009) General Petraeus' Favorite Mushroom: Inside the US Army's Human Terrain System

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