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Culture, Conflict, and Counterinsurgency
By Thomas H. Johnson, Barry Scott Zellen
Stanford University Press Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
INCORPORATING CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE INTO JOINT INTELLIGENCE
Cultural Intelligence and Ethnographic Intelligence Theory
Alexei J. D. Gavriel
What we need is cultural intelligence. What makes them tick? Who makes the decisions? What is it about their society that's so remarkably different in their values, in the way they think, compared to my values and the way I think in my western, whiteman mentality? ... What you need to know isn't what our intel apparatus is geared to collect for you.
—General Anthony C. Zinni
CONTEMPORARY THEATERS OF OPERATION, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, have defined the requirement for a reformation in intelligence focus that incorporates sociocultural knowledge to meet the challenges presented by changing adversaries and operational environments. Although the defense community has become intimately familiar with the integral importance of cultural knowledge to current operations, there has been limited depth thereafter to understand what sociocultural knowledge is and where it comes from, and as a consequence it has struggled to unambiguously define what cultural intelligence is and express a sort of mysticism over how academics, such as anthropologists, come about producing this knowledge. The intent of this chapter is to demystify the practices of anthropology by integrating its unique concepts and collection methodologies into two formal intelligence disciplines, cultural intelligence (CULINT) and ethnographic intelligence (ETHINT), and incorporate their use into existing joint intelligence infrastructure.
Misconceptions and Reality
In the movie The Beast (1988), the main character, a Soviet soldier named Constantine Koverchenko, takes a personal interest in the local Afghan culture. Fellow soldier Samad, a Muslim serving in the Soviet Army, explains to Koverchenko the Afghan Pashtun people's code of honor. This code, known as Pashtunwali, is explained as having three main obligations: Melmastia, Badal, and Nanawateh. The first, Melmastia, is the obligation to show hospitality to visitors. The second, Badal, is the obligation to seek justice and revenge. Last is Nanawateh, the obligation to provide asylum or sanctuary to anyone who asks, even if that person is an enemy. Later in the movie, Koverchenko is captured by the Mujahideen, who intend to kill him under the obligation of Badal for the destruction the Soviets had caused to their village. However, when Koverchenko utters the word "Nanawateh," the Mujahideen are forced to stop and provide him with sanctuary.
This example illustrates the largest misconception of cultural intelligence: that cultural intelligence is the uncovering of a hidden or secret code of a foreign society and that the mastering of this code allows unrestricted control over a population. This misconception likely originates from further misconceptions about culture in general.
Culture consists of shared patterns of ideas and behaviors; however, variation will exist in any group as individual members retain a degree of agency to make personal decisions. Although culture is shared, there is no single Afghan point of view as there is no single American point of view. Understanding a social group's culture, however, allows an understanding of why members act in the manner that they do and how they think and perceive the world around them:
Culture might also be considered as an "operational code" that is valid for an entire group of people. Culture conditions the individual's range of action and ideas, including what to do and not to do, how to do or not do it, and whom to do it with or not do it with. Culture also includes under what circumstances the "rules" shift or change. Culture influences how people make judgements about what is right and wrong, assesses what is important and unimportant, categorizes things, and deals with things that do not fit into existing categories. Cultural rules are flexible in practice. For example, the kinship system of a certain Amazonian Indian tribe requires that individuals marry a cousin. However, the definition of cousin is often changed to make people eligible for marriage.
While we must remind ourselves of the principles of culture, we need not doubt that, in operational environments with such complex human terrain as Iraq and Afghanistan, the large role culture plays in both of these societies has an impact on ongoing counterinsurgency operations.
Cultural intelligence (CULINT) is an intelligence functional discipline that analyzes cultural knowledge to assess or interpret how it impacts, influences, and affects the operational environment, adversary, and operational planning considerations. CULINT does not produce cultural knowledge but rather seeks to understand the effects of culture and the human terrain. Cultural knowledge can be used to assess the effectiveness of adversary and coalition information operations, assess local reaction or fallout from coalition potential courses of action, and understand how local social organization can have an impact on operations, how local dynamics may fuel conflict, or even how local values and perceptions shape the local actors' views of coalition forces and operations. This is what cultural intelligence is in reality. The use of secret handshakes or code words that, when used by an outsider, force the natives to make one their king is a reality confined to Hollywood.
Levels of Cultural Knowledge
Cultural knowledge initially establishes a level of basic intelligence that can be used to "set the scene at the outset of operations and to meet intelligence requirements dealing with unchanging facts" of the operational environment. However, a level of sufficient knowledge about a social group's culture to support intelligence analysis, such as cultural relativism, is not something that can be developed overnight. For this reason there are three progressive levels of cultural knowledge: cultural awareness, cultural understanding, and, finally, cultural intelligence.
A level of cultural awareness is achieved when the "what" can be answered about what makes the social group's culture different from our own. This incorporates a very basic understanding of the social group's religion, language, history, economy, and a basic customary understanding of the necessary "do's and don'ts"—a level of comprehension typical of any tourist visiting a foreign country.
A level of cultural understanding is achieved when the "why" can be answered. Cultural understanding involves understanding a social group's perceptions, attitudes, mind-set, and beliefs that stem from the group's values and behaviors. Whereas a level of cultural awareness allows recognition of a group's religion, a level of cultural understanding provides comprehension of the embeddedness of religion in everyday life and to what extent religion shapes the values, perceptions, and actions of group members.
A level of cultural intelligence is achieved when this understanding can be comprehended to answer the "so what?" of how cultural aspects shape the operational environment and affect or impact operations, the adversary, or planning considerations. At this level, cultural knowledge provides not only basic intelligence but also current and estimative intelligence (see Figure 1.1).
Support to Levels of Operation
Cultural knowledge is additionally useful at all levels of operation from the strategic level in the "formation of policy and military plans at national and international levels" to the planning and conduct of campaigns and operations at the operational and tactical levels.
Strategic intelligence can be supported through the development of a comprehensive understanding of the social structures, ideologies, and narratives insurgents use to organize their networks and mobilize segments of the population.
Effective cultural intelligence preparation of the operational environment could aid operational intelligence in understanding the various factions and groups that occupy the commander's area of responsibility and additionally what social factors may be fueling elements of the conflict. Civil–military cooperation (CIMIC) organizations can benefit from an understanding of how indigenous values are represented in dispute resolution. Psychological operations (PSYOPS) units would also benefit from cultural knowledge in the development of information operation campaigns that would speak to locals in a manner they would be receptive to.
Indoctrinating soldiers with cultural knowledge during predeployment training can benefit operations at the tactical level by making soldiers more interculturally effective in conveying proper respect to indigenous customs, thus minimizing the possibility of turning potential friends into enemies through cultural insensitivity—especially in this "strategic corporal" era of war fighting.
In contrast, an absence of this knowledge can have grievous consequences as noted by the former human terrain system (HTS) senior social scientist Dr. Montgomery McFate: "Misunderstanding culture at a strategic level can produce policies that exacerbate an insurgency; a lack of cultural knowledge at an operational level can lead to negative public opinion; and ignorance of culture at a tactical level endangers both civilians and troops."
Defeating Ethnocentric Bias in Intelligence Analysis
Perspective, or the requirement to "think like the adversary," is the first principle of joint intelligence. Perspective requires intelligence analysts to seek to understand an adversary's thought process and continuously develop and refine their ability to think like the adversary. Joint intelligence doctrine directly states that the joint force commander (JFC) should direct the J2 intelligence staff to assess all proposed actions from the perspective of how an adversary will likely perceive these actions and what the adversary's probable responses would be. "Understanding how an adversary will adapt to the environment, conceptualize the situation, consider options, and react to our actions" are all integral intelligence requirements that are inhibited by ethnocentrism if intelligence staffs do not possess enough knowledge about a culture to understand the world from the adversary's perspective.
Virtually all intelligence assessments are made from an ethnocentric viewpoint as the assessed courses of action of adversarial forces are based on our own beliefs of how these forces might act. These beliefs stem from our own logic, values, and ideas—our cultural programing—and are in essence an assessment of what our course of action would be given the same circumstance. All of our assessments have an ethnocentric bias as we do not understand the values and beliefs of the cultures we operate among and therefore base our assessments on the standard of another culture, in this case our own. An ethnocentric bias can, however, be overcome through cultural relativism.
A level of cultural relativism, or understanding a culture in terms of its own values and beliefs, must be achieved to overcome ethnocentric bias in intelligence analysis and provide intelligence staffs with the necessary perspective outlined by joint intelligence doctrine. "The ability to think like an adversary is predicated on a detailed understanding of the adversary's goals, motivations, objectives, strategy, intentions, capabilities, methods of operation, vulnerabilities, and sense of value and loss," most of which is further predicated on a detailed understanding of an adversary's culture.
This comprehensive level of understanding, available only through a culturally relative, nonethnocentric perspective, is outlined in joint intelligence doctrine as being:
... essential to: recognizing challenges to our national security interests; establishing security policy; when appropriate, formulating clear, relevant, and attainable military objectives and strategy; determining, planning, and conducting operations that will help attain [national] policy objectives; and identifying the adversary's strategic and operational COGs [centers of gravity].
Cultural Information Credibility and Source Reliability
The credibility of information and the reliability of its source are of the up-most importance in military intelligence. Sociocultural knowledge is developed through the process of ethnography. Cultural information can be found from a variety of other sources; however, just as a CNN report would not be considered a valid source of HUMINT data, Wikipedia and the like are not valid sources of ethnographic data, as in both cases the collector has no ability to assess the credibility or reliability of the information and its source.
The perils of incomplete or inaccurate cultural knowledge can be far worse than the complete absence of cultural knowledge. McFate highlights such an example during the Abu Ghraib prison fiasco where a 1973 study on Arab culture and psychology, The Arab Mind, was allegedly used to understand Arab psychological vulnerabilities regarding sexual shame and humiliation. The study outlines that the social segregation between the sexes in Arab society has made sex a mental preoccupation, and it was allegedly thought that this could be leveraged by taking sexually humiliating photographs of the prisoners, which in turn could be used to blackmail them into becoming informants. The presumption that the prisoners would do anything to prevent the dissemination of these images completely overlooked the broader context of Iraqi society and the importance of Al-sharaf, the obligation to "uphold one's masculine honor," which requires its restoration through the appeasement of blood. The result of the complete misuse of this data "demonstrates the folly of using decontextualized culture as the basis of policy."
All information derived from a human collection instrument has a high-risk margin of error. In the case of HUMINT, specialized collectors are trained to minimize this error as much as possible. The case is no different for ETHINT, which employs specific collection methodologies and concepts that serve not only to minimize the risk associated with collector error but also to minimize the effects of partial, incomplete, or noncontextualized cultural data. Intelligence estimates and assessments based off of CULINT have the potential to have large repercussions, which requires a need to limit this margin of error by using reliable sources of cultural information, such as ethnographic intelligence.
What Is Ethnographic Intelligence?
Ethnographic intelligence (ETHINT) is an intelligence collection discipline that produces sociocultural knowledge through the use of specialized ethnographic collection methodologies and analytical processes that are guided by anthropological concepts.
Information versus Intelligence
NATO standardization doctrine defines information as "unprocessed data of every description which may be used in the production of intelligence" and intelligence simply as "the product resulting from the processing of information." In this context, ethnographic information is data that have been collected through ethnographic collection methodologies that are unprocessed. These data later become intelligence when they are processed into a product. Processing occurs to ensure the data's validity and that they are free from bias contamination, meaning that they remain sterile of the collector's own cultural biases. Ethnographic information that is valid is holistic in scope, contextualized, triangulated with other data, and integrated to form definitive patterns. This process is what transforms ethnographic information into ethnographic intelligence and is the fundamental difference that uniquely separates ETHINT from other intelligence collection disciplines.
Scientific Method, Data Limitations, and Predictive Power
Ethnography uses a scientific method known as grounded theory in which theories about what is going on in a social group are developed from collected data, or from the "ground up." This differs from traditional scientific methods, which formulate a hypothesis and then test it. In ethnography, preconceived, deductive hypotheses are discouraged. Instead, inductive hypotheses as to "what is going on in the social group" are formulated from empirical observations over time that form definitive patterns and subsequently safeguards presupposed conclusions from bending data to suit.
Ethnography takes place in the field, rather than a laboratory, and subsequently the researcher cannot control, manipulate, or re-create the influences that affect the group's environment. As such, systematic observation in the natural, or "real-world," setting captures the perspectives and behaviors of a social group at a particular point in time and space. This "time and space" disclaimer does not mean that the information will become "untrue" at a certain expiration date but rather that ethnographic data are true (accurate) to the time and surroundings in which they were collected, as the group's culture will inevitably change and adapt over time. While this poses an issue for the replicability of findings, because it would be impossible to go back in time to recreate the exact environment in which data were collected, it does not hinder its predictive power.
Excerpted from Culture, Conflict, and Counterinsurgency by Thomas H. Johnson, Barry Scott Zellen. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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