Some Recent Approaches to Cultural Intelligence Gathering
Stephen J. Fallon
Cultural Intelligence (CULINT) has once again become a much sought after commodity in the wake of the September 11th attacks and its ensuing wars. This paper readily agrees that cultural intelligence is a useful resource in fighting wars amongst people, however it is the cost-benefit analysis that is the primary source of friction amongst many writers and analysts of this topic. To date, various parties in the civilian and military establishment have deemed the financial cost, loss of life, and ethical ‘harm’ caused by several CULINT gathering programmes during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as much too high. This paper does purport to be a comprehensive review of all CULINT gathering operations neither will it tread the well-trodden path of cultural anecdotes, replete with tales of just how different Iraqi and Afghani societies are and how service members adapted to them merely for the sake of an interesting yarn. Instead, this paper will examine a number of approaches taken during these two counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns, reviewing ‘quick-‘fix’ solutions, long term programmes and suggestions put in place in the hope of providing the US with CULINT capabilities for any future COIN operations.
Theoretically, CULINT in a COIN environment provides a number of valuable services, providing insight into the mindset of the population in which insurgents operate, and reducing misunderstandings with friendly (or at least neutral) civilians, which improves over-all operational efficacy. Delp contends that CULINT ameliorates the situation for the warfighter conducting COIN operations, particularly in non-western environments, by building ‘an understanding and respect for the culture of foreign populations (which) will aid the US in maximizing support against adversaries’.[i]
The case for using CULINT in these sorts of wars is a compellingly practical one, while writers do not promote it as a panacea for tackling insurgencies, it does seem better than the alternative of ‘cultural-blindness’. COIN warfare has amassed several adages over the years, one such idiom contends that the absence of CULINT in military operations is like ‘building a house without one’s thumbs’, the result is messy, clumsy, and unnecessarily slow with high rates of frustration and failure.[ii] Advocates of CULINT argue that its neglect leads to higher loss of life on the battlefield and grave geo-political consequences.[iii] With dire predictions of failure by omission, it is quite understandable why the US military fixated on Cultural Intelligence in order to become more ‘culturally astute’ and ‘enhance operational effectiveness’[iv] in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Before considering the leading approaches to CULINT, it would be more balanced to at least briefly hear a critique of ‘Culture Centric Warfare’ and to question its necessity.[v] The Malayan Emergency is often cited as a glowing example of how to deal with an insurgency focusing strongly on culture; unfortunately the prevailing conditions the war was fought in are often overlooked.[vi] Dunvesteyn critiques this ‘over reliance’ on the ’hearts and minds’ approach (à la Malaya) in modern COIN literature, noting that there is in fact, a greater historic precedent for the successful anti-insurgent campaigns using coercion and force.[vii] Culture has increasingly been viewed as a strategic factor, one that allow us to predict or ‘divine the intentions of a society’s members’.[viii] However, this recent trend of placing culture at the centre of COIN operations comes with a risk of ‘cultural determinism’ setting in.[ix] Pre-assigned models, thought patterns, and likely behaviours ultimately leave little room for spontaneity or cultural evolution, which could have disastrous consequences if (or when) the subjects do not conform to these ‘ in-built rules’ at a crucial occasion.
CULINT gathering during the Iraq and Afghanistan[x] wars was conducted by a variety of different methods. The most famous of these was the Human Terrain System (HTS) project; a programme which at its peak cost $250 million per annum[xi] and was backed by military scholars and government figures such as General David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. The HTS initiative has received a lot of press since its inception in February 2007; a significant proportion of which has been negative if not outright condemning in appraisal. In essence, HTS attempted to bring a social science perspective, research methodology and a non-military way of thinking to intelligence gathering in Iraq and Afghanistan. Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) were embedded within every US combat brigade in these countries to provide insight into the social context troops found themselves in. In 2013, a total of thirteen teams were deployed to Afghanistan.[xii] HTTs were to provide useful, but not-actionable intelligence in the hope of allowing US forces to be more compassionate and less kinetic when responding to difficulties.[xiii] Another principal duty of HTS teams on the battlefield was to collect relevant social, political, and economic data that might be of greater use at a strategic level, this data was sent back to the HTS Headquarters in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Writing in 2010, one of the co-creators of HTS, Montgomery McFate argued that this data collection needed to be done by civilian personnel who were specifically trained to know what to look and to allow soldiers to focus on being soldiers, not data collectors.[xiv] Given the complexity of COIN operations, which the US Army and Marine Corps (USMC) describe as the ‘graduate level of war’[xv], it is understandable that all possible avenues for combatting insurgents were explored. In an earlier work on the subject of cultural intelligence, McFate warns of the danger in seeking a technical solution to a human problem, the US tried this in Vietnam and found it ‘lacked anthropological finesse’.[xvi] HTS was highly evocative of its time (the mid-2000s), and part of wider scholarly movement pioneered by the likes of Lt. Colonel John Nagl and General David Petraeus who sought alternative methods of dealing with the Iraqi and Afghan insurgencies, as the current approach of out-muscling and technologically over-powering failed to reduce US and Coalition losses.[xvii] Thus the ‘pros’ of HTS were (allegedly) valuable cultural insight, more humane cultural liaisons, large-scale of data for policy makers, and freeing up of military manpower to focus on war fighting.
Criticism of HTS’s approach to CULINT gathering and application in Iraq and Afghanistan are divisible into two distinctive categories, firstly criticisms of an academic variety from fellow anthropologists and social scientists, and secondly, disdain from military personnel also involved in HUMINT collection but working different organisations. The former’s condemnation of HTS is an interesting topic in its own right; a full discussion of it is beyond the confines of this paper but can be effectively summed up as an ethical rebuke for involvement in ‘unjust’ wars, the wrongful application of specialised skills to further said wars. Research topics and methodologies employed by HTS are highly questionable and inappropriate for anthropologists according to standard norms within that field. Within eight months of HTS’ foundation, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a formal opposition to its creation and practices, at roughly the same time another group, calling itself the ‘Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ pledged its non-participation in assisting any counterinsurgency programs.[xviii] Ferguson is one such anthropologist that has fought against the misappropriation of a profession that sought to reform the field since its involvement in nineteenth century colonialism. Much of the skepticism surrounding HTS’ lies in its exact position during the ‘kill-chain’ or process of target acquisition, which writers have contended it is nearly impossible not to be involved in if you are on the battlefield.[xix] McFate’s oft-repeated claim that HTTs do not act as military intelligence collectors points to HTS’ own handbook which admits that it provides ‘relevant feedback’ that may be used by S-2s preparing situation reports on the area of operations in advance of missions.[xx] As noted, this issue of intelligence production of the actionable variety is a key issue for some anthropologists, while the intentions of HTT members may be altruistic this is after all a ‘package deal’, members cannot pick and choose who reads what, nor how intelligence they collected will be used.[xxi] Ultimately any information gleaned from the human terrain in a COIN environment may be applied for lethal purposes, a fact all participants involved in its production should be aware of.
HTS’ partnership with the military establishment filtered through to key media organisations such as the New York Times[xxii], USA Today[xxiii], the Washington Post[xxiv], the Guardian[xxv] and even to the Middle-Eastern media[xxvi] by 2008. The contents and titles of these articles was rarely favourable, and indeed since late-2007 HTS has spent much of its time defending its practices and raison d'être. Charges of racism, sexual assault[xxvii], inadequate training (including complete absence of relevant language skills), lack of protection and anonymity for sources, embezzlement, and a generally cavalier attitude have also been leveled at HTS; the deaths of a number of HTT members and local civilians in unpleasant circumstances[xxviii] have further compounded its negative public image.
The AAA appears to have a particular distaste for any involvement with the military, this is difficult to fathom when one considers that as profession they rarely deal in moral absolutes, but in this instance seem more than willing to categorise the military and its personnel monolithically together as an ‘inherently malevolent force’[xxix] with whom any dealings are unethical. One such member of the AAA that specialises in Arab culture has informed this author that she was approached by the military but decided to pass on any involvement, as it would leave her an academic pariah and probably lead to the revocation of her AAA membership. In this instance, two prominent negative results of this fixation on CULINT and the decision to involve civilians experts in COIN are the risks of ‘bad’ press coverage and the wrath of academics; while this was unlikely to occur because of the Iraq or Afghanistan, in the past these two trends have matured into a more widespread loss of public support and have forced western countries to end protracted counter-insurgency wars.[xxx]
The second group of critics that lamented the involvement of the HTS was a cadre of well-educated, culturally aware officers in the US military that were never in accord with outside expertise being brought in. It would be easy to dismiss this relatively small group as being merely ‘territorial’ were it not for the compelling nature of their argument. Wisely taking a less fractious tone[xxxi], officers such as Connable have pushed back at what they see as unnecessary civilian involvement in an area that falls within the realm of military intelligence (MI).[xxxii] Other officers have focused less on the interference of HTS and more on the need for the military to re-examine its own HUMINT capabilities, which were clearly stretched by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Kleiner proposes an intriguing three-tier system of CULINT education prior to deployment, while this would be the ideal situation, in a 2008 paper she makes a number of suggestions that would much easier to implement than educating all US personnel with a new CULINT curriculum. Firstly, Kleiner proposes the amalgamation of Defense Attachés, Security Assistance Officers and other similar positions into one centralised body (Military Cooperation Group) that could collect and provide ethnographic intelligence (ETHINT) anywhere the US has a diplomatic presence.[xxxiii] Secondly, Kleiner suggests the creation of a Foreign Area Officer (FAO) style task force in which Warrant Officers (WOs) and possibly senior enlisted personnel (NCOs) could also serve in order to increase the numbers of long-term, foreign postings where real expertise can be developed; she moots the idea of labeling these ‘Global Scouts’.[xxxiv] Without explicitly condemning the HTS programme, Connable disapproves of McFate’s condescending tone towards the military. Responding to local needs and engaging with powerbrokers in Iraq, the Army and Marines did an acceptable job without HTS, providing ‘Common Sense in a COIN environment, not breakthroughs’.[xxxv] Exacerbating the old cliché of ‘lump headed’ military types, incapable of higher thought processes is frowned on by Connable, who contends that this merely widens the military-academic schism further.[xxxvi]
These aforementioned FAOs are an interesting concept providing cultural intelligence that is worth elaborating on. Whereas HTS could be considered a myopic response to the sorts of wars that are likely to be fought throughout the early years of the twenty first century (protracted insurgencies, peace-keeping, and non-western foes), FAOs on the other hand appear to be a significantly better alternative to answering the military’s long term needs for area knowledge, language capabilities, and cultural insight ‘in house’. An FAO’s creation is extensive, training takes a minimum of three years[xxxvii], with many taking several more years to meet language requirements, extended overseas deployment and to obtain post-graduate level education.[xxxviii] However, the downside to FAO education is the very fact they take years to train and require a significant commitment from the individuals concerned, one that can only begin as a 0-3 or higher. Furthermore, the period of use for FAOs can be quite limited, by the time an officer is fully trained a conflict in his/her area (South-East Asia, Eurasia etc.) may have ended, it is for this reason most FAOs spend their time in embassies, regional command centers or in Washington D.C.[xxxix] During their first ‘real’ operational experience in 2003 (Iraq), another issue arose; a hierarchical imbalance of FAOs deployed meant that half of the FAOs in the theatre were full Colonels[xl] (0-6), an impractically senior rank for operations below brigade or regimental level, levels at which COIN operations are usually conducted![xli] This delayed entry into the FAO program does serve a purpose; beginning extensive language training and postings in the relevant region as a 0-3, an FAO should be sufficiently experienced in military affairs already, hopefully to the extent that upon completion of FAO training they are able to ‘articulate cultural advice in an operational context’.[xlii] Understanding of relevant operation aspects is a skill HTS members lack and indeed HTS has been mocked for trying to do too much, with ‘duties and products (…) so encompassing as to be impossible’, and analysts acting autonomously and transiently, each operating as ‘a veritable Lawrence of Arabia’.[xliii] However, the FAO programme comes as close to duplicating TE Lawrence en masse as we are likely to see anytime soon combining operational experience with cultural knowledge.
The USMC largely opted out of HTS use, continuing to provide CULINT internally using its own primers and guides. In 2005, before HTS was founded, the USMC created CAOCL (Center for Advanced Operation Cultural Learning), its own socio-cultural focused organisation based in Quantico, Virginia. CAOCL’s CULINT Indicators Guide appears in the form of a ‘do-it-yourself’ guide for marines to track their cultural lessons and intelligence gathering, this novel approach treats every man as a data collector, steering marines by providing suggestions on areas to enquire and investigate further during their deployment and also encouraged feedback information.[xliv] Other literature produced by CAOCL is insightful and seems at least en par with the quality of work produced by the Human Terrain System, but was produced without negative press and aggravating the Social Science community.
CULINT was fixated upon in the mid-2000s as a silver bullet and older doctrines abandoned. Thrown into Iraq and Afghanistan, a combination of self-doubt and lack of preparation for protracted COIN operations compelled the US military to bring in outside help, to the dismay of some. Evidence from the HTS experiment suggests that vast majority of CULINT collection in a warzone should be left to the military intelligence community. The recent trend of outsourcing the workload to civilians should cease and the military must reclaim a task that was and should remain within its remit. Without a doubt, some of the reports produced by the HTT are insightful, but with its costly nature[xlv], ethical issues, member capabilities, and poor press, the military establishment must surely be asking itself if this headache was HTS worth it? Kleiner’s proposal of Global Scouts to supplement FAOs would go some way to meeting manpower shortages effecting the US military and should be looked at further. The use of force and coercion in COIN, while currently out of vogue may need to be reconsidered in future conflicts, in the past it has served COIN operations well.
Clemis, Martin (2010), ‘The “cultural turn” in U.S. counter-insurgency operations’, Army History, No. 74 (Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.: US Army Center of Military History), pp. 21-29.
Connable, Ben (2009), ‘All our eggs in a broken basket: How the Human Terrain System is undermining sustainable military cultural competence’, Military Review, March-April (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: US Army Combined Arms Center), pp. 57-64
Daily, Eric (2010), ‘Escorted Ethnography: Ethics, the Human Terrain System and American Anthropology in conflict’, Berkeley Undergraduate Journal, 22:2 (Berkeley, California: University of California, Berkeley Press), pp. 2-31.
Delp, Benjamin T. (2008), ‘Ethnographic Intelligence (ETHINT) and Cultural Intelligence (CULINT)’, IIIA Technical Paper 08-02, (Harrisonburg: Virginia: James Madison University), pp. 1-20.
Department of Defense Directive 1315.17 (2005), ‘Military Department Foreign Area Officer (FAO) Programs’, 28 April 2005 (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense), pp. 1-5.
Dunvesteyn, Isabelle (2011), ‘Hearts and Minds: Cultural awareness and good intelligence: the blueprint for successful counter-insurgency? ’, Intelligence and National Security, 26:4 (London: Routledge), pp. 445-459.
Eldridge, Erik & Neboshynsky, Andrew (2008), ‘Quantifying Human Terrain’, unpublished thesis (Monterrey, California: Naval Postgraduate College), pp. 1-96.
Fallon, Stephen J. (2013), ‘French Failure in Algeria: A public relations disaster’, Small Wars Journal, 30 October 2013, Accessed on 28 November 2013: http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/iss/201310
Ferguson, Brian (2011a), ‘Full spectrum: the military invasion of anthropology’, unpublished article in this format (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press), pp. 1-24.
Ferguson, Brian (2011b), ‘Plowing the human terrain’ in McNamara, Laura & Rubenstein, Robert, Eds., Dangerous Liaisons: Anthropologists and the National Security State (Santa Fe, New Mexico: School for Advanced Research), pp. 101-126.
Ghafour, Hamid (2008), ‘Use of social scientists in war sparks controversy’, The National, 29 November 2008, Accessed on 28 November 2013: http://tinyurl.com/ozvaogp
Glod, Maria (2008), ‘Military’s social scientist grants raise alarms’, Washington Post, 3 August 2008, Accessed on 28 November 2013: https://app.box.com/shared/z46fb7qpqt
Jacobsen, Kurt (2008), ‘Are we there just to help the army aim better? ’, The Guardian, 13 May 2008, Accessed on 28 November 2013: http://tinyurl.com/nzehq2g
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Kleiner, Carolyn (2008), ‘The importance of cultural knowledge for today’s warrior diplomats’, unpublished paper (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: US Army War College), pp. 1-30.
McFate, Montgomery (2005), ‘The military utility of understanding adversary culture’, Joint Forces Quarterly, 38 (Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press), pp. 42-49.
McFate, Montgomery, & Fondacaro, Steve (2010), ‘Reflections on the Human Terrain System during the first 4 years’, Prism 2:4 (Fort McNair, Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press), pp. 62-81.
No Author (2008), ‘Micro Mission Guide: Afghanistan’ (Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps Intelligence Activity)
No Author (2009a), ‘Cultural Intelligence Indicators Guide’ (Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps Intelligence Activity)
No Author (2009b), ‘Afghanistan: Operational Culture for deploying personnel’, (Quantico, Virginia: Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning)
Petraeus, David & Amos, James (2006), ‘Field Manual 3-24- Counterinsurgency’ (Washington, D.C.: US Army Headquarters)
Patrick, Porter (2007), ‘Good anthropology, bad history: The cultural turn in studying war’, Parameters, Summer 2007 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: US Army War College), pp. 45-58.
Renzi, Fred (2006), ‘Networks: Terra Incognita and the case for Ethnographic Intelligence’, Military Review, September-October (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: US Army Combined Arms Center), pp. 16-22.
Rohde, David (2007), ‘Army enlists anthropologists in war zones’, New York Times, 5 October 2007, Accessed on 28 November 2013: http://tinyurl.com/yrje4g
Sargent, Ron (2005),’Strategic scouts for strategic corporals’, Military Review April March-April (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: US Army Combined Arms Center), pp. 12-17.
Scales, Robert (2004), ‘Culture Centric Warfare’, United States Naval Institute Proceeding, 130:10 (Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Academy), pp. 32-36.
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[i] Delp (2008), pp. 2-4.
[ii] Ibid., p. 5
[iii] Ibid., p. 5.
[iv] McFate & Fondacaro (2010), p. 63.
[v] Scales (2004), pp. 32-36.
[vi] Coastal approaches sealed off by the Navy and tight border security at over-land routes, in conjunction with food denial by way of severe civilian rationing, extensive curfews, area denial, re-settling of populations, and extensive propaganda operations still took twelve years to force communist insurgents to capitulate.
[vii] Dunvesteyn (2010), pp. 446-449.
[viii] Renzi (2006), p. 16.
[ix] Dunvesteyn (2010), pp. 451-453.
[x] Referring to operations to date in Afghanistan.
[xi] Vanden Brook (2013a)
[xiii] McFate & Fondacaro (2010), p. 79.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 74.
[xv] FM 3-24 (2006), p. 1.
[xvi] McFate (2005), p. 48.
[xvii] Daily (2010), p. 11. ‘FM 3-24 eschews kinetic deployment of brute military force’.
[xviii] Daily (2010), pp. 3-4.
[xix] Ferguson (2011b), p. 101.
[xx] Ibid., pp. 117-118.
[xxi] Ibid., 125.
[xxii] Rohde (2007)
[xxiii] Vergano & Welse (2008)
[xxiv] Glod (2008)
[xxv] Jacobsen (2008)
[xxvi] Ghafour (2008)
[xxvii] Vanden Brook (2013b)
[xxviii] Double murder involving a HTT member being set on fire, followed by summary execution of the alleged perpetrator by another HTT member. Other HTT members have been killed by IEDs.
[xxix] Daily (2010), p. 19.
[xxx] Fallon (2013)
[xxxi] Possibly for fear of official rebuke? It would seem pointless to criticize a program that has already become policy and risk career advancement.
[xxxii] Connable (2010), pp. 57-64.
[xxxiii] Kleiner (2008), p. 19. This idea of ETHINT collection by military personnel is an older idea again; Kleiner’s novelty lies in her idea of formally structuring it.
[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 18. In the past Warrant Officers (W.Os) have provided the military with a way to increase the number of specialised personnel, without eroding the idea of an Officer Corps, this was done in Vietnam by allowing W.Os to fly helicopters. At present, W.Os in US Special Forces Groups around the world have autonomy similar to officers and perform many of their duties.
[xxxv] Connable (2009), p. 62.
[xxxvi] Ibid., p. 63.
[xxxvii] Sargent (2005), p. 14
[xxxviii] DoD Directive 1315.17 (2005), Section 184.108.40.206.
[xxxix] Sargent, p. 14.
[xl] Connable (2009), p. 58.
[xli] At sub-regimental level, an FAO holding the rank of Colonel would out-rank his own Commanding Officer.
[xlii] Connable, p. 58.
[xliii] Ferguson, p. 105.
[xliv] Cultural Intelligence Indicators Guide (2009)
[xlv] Vanden Brook (2013b) $58 million in 2013