Printer Friendly

Analyzing the military aspects of human terrain.

"In accurately defining the contextual and cultural population of the task force battlespace, it became rapidly apparent that we needed to develop a keen understanding of demographics as well as the cultural intricacies that drive the Iraqi population."


-Major General Peter W. Chiarelli, Commander, 1st Cavalry Division, Baghdad, 2004-2005


From World War II to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. Army demonstrated its prowess in maneuvering and dominating the physical terrain. However, it tends to lack a methodology for securing the peace once major combat operations are complete. Planners and leaders analyze the mission variable Terrain to achieve a decisive victory; however, irregular forces that dominate stability operations choose to operate in territory unfamiliar to the Army- the Human Terrain. Planners at all levels must be able analyze the military aspect of human terrain to deny the enemy observation and fields of fire, avenues of approach, key and decisive terrain, obstacles, and cover and concealment (OAKOC) in the human terrain. Active networks, social networks, key leaders, culture, and passive networks (ASKCP) are human terrain corollaries to the military aspects of physical terrain.

The Army established Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) in 2006 in order to aid brigade combat team (BCT) Commanders in understanding the local populations of Iraq and aid in the counterinsurgency (COIN) fight. These teams are in high demand due to their abilities to provide insight into cultural nuances of operations to the BCT Commander and his staff; however, the majority of the decisive operations in the COIN fight are at the battalion level and below. The HTT lacks the flexibility and resources to be able to advise platoon leaders and company commanders. The primary mechanism for problem solving at this level is the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) and Troop Leading Procedure. Both of these include the analysis of mission variables: mission, enemy, terrain, troops, time and civil considerations.

The Human Terrain

The Human Terrain System concept intends for Human Terrain to be included with civil considerations. These are summarized through the acronym ASCOPE (areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people and events (civil considerations)). There is a problem with this categorization, namely that the term civil considerations immediately connotes that civilians are bystanders with no active role in the outcome of a given conflict. During Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) planners systematically scrutinize an area of operation and build a modified combined obstacle overlay (MCOO). Next they look at the enemy's capabilities and tactics, techniques, and procedures and create a doctrinal template. By analyzing both products, planners are able to determine how and where the enemy will operate. The same can be done for human terrain.

FM 1-02 Operational Terms and Graphics defines terrain analysis as the collection, analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of geographic information on the natural and manmade features of the terrain, combined with other relevant factors, to predict the effect of the terrain on military operations. Logically it makes sense that human terrain can be analyzed in a similar fashion. With a substitution of a few words, the definition becomes: the collection, analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of demographic information on the natural order and established organization of the human terrain, combined with other relevant factors, to predict the effect of the terrain on military operations. This would capitalize on the current understanding of terrain analysis to ensure planners and leaders realize that human terrain is not a passive factor; rather it is a terrain on which forces can maneuver. The military aspects of physical and human terrain are compared below.

Factors in Human Terrain Analysis

Army doctrine provides the necessary framework to analyze human terrain. By making slight adjustments to terrain analysis as outlined in FM 2-01.3 Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield, planners can analyze the human terrain corollaries to OAKOC: active networks, social networks, key leaders, culture, and passive networks.

Active networks are the groups that permit a force to see friendly, enemy and neutral personnel, systems and key aspects of the environment. These networks of people comprise early warning and human intelligence sources. They can provide insight into the nature of a conflict and provide clues on how to resolve issues.

Social networks are the established organization and patterns that determine the natural order and hierarchy enabling a force to achieve its objective. This includes tribal, political, or governmental networks. These groups serve as decision making authorities and can be used by irregular forces to recruit, propagandize, and support operations in order to meet their objectives. For example, in Iraq, a platoon leader conducts a key leader engagement with a sheik (tribal network) to reduce indirect fire (IDF) attacks, while the Company Commander influences the district mayor (political network) to refurbish a water treatment plant. Both are focused on the same objective, but take different paths.

Key leaders are personnel who have significant influence over the populace and whose assistance gives a marked advantage to either combatant. It is necessary to secure the support of these individuals due to their placement in, and their ability to affect the society. In the Anbar province of Iraq, 23 tribal leaders succeeded in defeating the insurgency where five battalions of Marines failed. (1)

Culture comprises the factors unique to the terrain that prevent common understanding. These factors include language, religion, history, modes of employment, and perceptions. Just like obstacles, culture can be natural or manmade and can disrupt, turn, fix, or block an opposing force. Language and history are natural to human terrain, but perceptions can be emplaced through Information Operations (IO).

Passive networks are the groups of individuals who are not actively supporting either side. They can be neutral, indifferent, or support by allowing an action. These groups tend to be categorized as "fence sitters," or those waiting to see which side will be the victors before aligning. It is these groups that will watch insurgents in Afghanistan emplace an improvised explosive device, and not warn a passing International Security Assistance Force patrol as it walks into the kill zone.

The outputs from Human Terrain Analysis are similar to those of Physical Terrain Analysis. With physical terrain analysis, planners produce the MCOO which enables them to see how to maneuver forces in order to achieve the desired end state. The MCOO visualizes all of the effects of terrain in relation to a map with respect to OAKOC. The same can be done with human terrain by creating a Human Terrain MCOO (HT-MCOO) which visualizes the effects of human terrain with respects to networks. The active networks show areas where both friendly and enemy have human informants or sources. It is in these areas that either force has the ability to detect and engage their adversary. The social networks show the extent of influence of each group. This includes tribal, military, police, political groups and religious groups. This shows where each group has the ability to impact the planners' desired outcome. These groups can be leveraged by either combatant against their adversary. Key leaders are shown in the vicinity of where they live or work. When the enemy situation template is overlaid, this will help planners know who must be engaged to counter the enemy's influence in that area.

Culture is the most difficult to depict graphically; however, it is possible to show how languages, religion, modes of employment, and perceptions are arrayed in the operational environment. Passive networks are shown as dead space. There are areas over which neither combatant has direct influence.


The HT-MCOO allows leaders to visualize the human terrain and see how to maneuver their forces. The forms of maneuver remain the same: infiltration, penetration, envelopment, turning movement, and frontal attack. Take, for example, an IDF network in the vicinity of a U.S. air base in Iraq after the 2009 Security agreement requiring warrant based targeting. U.S. Forces (USF) has sources that identify the insurgent members but are unwilling to testify against them in the Iraqi court system. Likewise, the insurgents have a network of individuals who alert them when USF enter the area. The area is rural with generally heterogeneous tribal and religious distributions. To the north and south are generally Shia populations, while insurgents operate in the Sunni areas. There are two tribes in the area led by two tribal leaders.

These leaders are not the sheiks, but are clan leaders. The sheiks live in different areas. Both leaders are in support of the IDF network. The government does not provide support to the villages in the area and the Iraqi security forces (ISF) do not patrol the area. The network operates with the general support of the populations which are generally hostile to the USF. In the areas outside the villages, the people do not support either side. The insurgents' propaganda is generally focused on the USF disruption of the socialist system that provides for their livelihood and that by attacking the USF they could return to their previous economic system.

The USF desired end state is to leave a functioning government that is supported by the tribal system in order to deny the enemy the ability to operate. Given this situation and the fact that the end state cannot be achieved by military means, but through the will of the people, the USF must maneuver the human terrain.

Using the preceding simplified human terrain analysis, the USF can employ any of the five forms of maneuver within the human terrain. An infiltration entails bypassing the enemy strong points and attacking weaker objective. In the human terrain, combatants avoid the leaders supportive of the insurgents and build consensus amongst the populace. A penetration, which is applying mass to break the enemy's defenses, is conducted by multiple echelons of leaderships to engage the key leaders in the insurgent areas. Leadership will include USF, ISF, and governmental officials.

An envelopment involves fixing the enemy while maneuvering to an assailable flank. In the human terrain, envelopment consists of fixing the enemy while engaging those who provide support to the enemy. A turning movement involves bypassing the enemy's strong points in order to force them to abandon their defenses. In the human terrain this is accomplished by engaging social networks around the enemy networks. A frontal attack is an attack across the breadth of the enemy's defenses. Similarly, in human terrain, a frontal attack is an engagement at multiple levels to defeat the enemy's influence.

In this scenario the USF took a multi-phased approach that focused on the eastern tribe in order to defeat the enemy network. In the first phase they conducted an infiltration and engaged the population with information engagements and humanitarian assistance. This resulted in securing support from the population. In the next phase, a turning movement, they conducted projects in the areas around the IDF networks and told the local leaders that if they wanted the same support that they would need to reduce IDF attacks from their area. In the next month IDF attacks decreased and the USF conducted a penetration. They rehabilitated an aging water treatment plant in conjunction with the local government. At the grand opening of the project, the USF chain of command all the way up to the Brigade Commander, the police chief, and mayor talked to the local tribal leader about supporting the local governance and security.

The USF immediately followed this project with a concerted IO which led to a majority of the population supporting the USF. In the last phase, the USF conducted a frontal attack by assembling the village, family, and tribal leaders and discussing their role in the future of the town and giving them an alternative to the insurgent solution. In this scenario, by the end of the USF deployment, attacks stopped from within the eastern tribe's area and the tribal and village leaders became actively involved in the local governance.

The above scenario is intended to serve as an example that human terrain is not a "consideration," but is maneuverable by both friendly and enemy forces. Moreover, by applying the time tested principles from existing doctrine, combatants can achieve a non-military end state through non-military or non-lethal means. Since the goal of operating in the human terrain is to gain support of the population, the primary weapon system is information. Regardless of the operations conducted, combatants always leave information. If USF build a road in Afghanistan, they may intend to communicate their desire to help the local economy; however, when they leave, insurgents will say that Americans are making it easier to conduct raids. A thorough understanding of the human terrain will allow planners to employ all weapons systems while producing the desired effect on the population.

This does not negate the necessity of lethal operations. Lethal operations remain vital shaping operations to protect the population and prevent the enemy from employing coercion. However, the current MDMP model leads planners to the conclusion that the decisive operation is lethal or that by addressing civil considerations the enemy can be defeated. The analysis methodology does not take into consideration the various networks when determining enemy and friendly courses of action. ASCOPE generally looks at passive measures to gain support from the population. It aids in the targeting process to ensure that critical infrastructure is not damaged. What it fails to do is adequately address the effect of the people on operations.

Successful COIN operations require a detailed knowledge of the people in order to maneuver in the human terrain. An inadequate understanding will not only lead to mission failure, but can damage future operations. For example, in Afghanistan, U.S. Marines conducted a clearing operation of southern Helmand province. Echo Company established its combat outpost in the vicinity of a local market. The intent was to operate in close proximity to the people; however, the Taliban threatened to beat or kill anyone who used the market. The actual effect of the Marines was to deny the villagers use of the local market, forcing them to travel long distances to meet there needs. (2)

The Marines did the MDMP correctly; they saw the terrain, saw the enemy, and saw themselves. What they didn't see was the human terrain. The southern Helmand province had been "cleared" by USF several times in the past, but the area had never been held. The Marines' general IO theme was that the Americans were there, everything is now okay. They failed to account for the history of the area and that the people knew that the USF would eventually leave. The Marines did not deploy with Afghan replacements or develop a plan to leave an enduring presence. Moreover, they deployed with interpreters who did not speak the local dialect which exacerbated their problem. If the battalion staff had conducted human terrain analysis, they would likely have identified these issues.

The U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF) took a different approach the same problem. They are conducting Village Stability Operations (VSO) throughout Afghanistan. The goal is to establish Afghan Local Police in the towns to give the villagers local protection and a direct link to higher government of? cials. USSOF created this program after a detailed analysis of the human terrain. Their analysis revealed that tribal villages in Afghanistan are generally autonomous and see any outside in?uence, to include the government in Kabul as a threat to their independence. It also revealed that Afghans are very pragmatic and will accept outside help when it is in their best interests. Given this information, USSOF planners realized that VSO allows them to address both issues. (3)

Major General Michael T. Flynn, the former senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, coauthored a report on the deficiencies of the intelligence effort in Operation Enduring Freedom. The report covered a number of organizational and functional inadequacies in the intelligence structure, and asserted that the Army is not properly focused on the human terrain. He highlighted several examples of units "getting it right" and the common theme is that those units "decided that understanding the people in their zone of influence was a top priority." (4) Some leaders naturally understand these concepts. For example, Lieutenant Colonel David Hodne, former commander of the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment characterized the success of his organization in southern Salah Ah Din province, Iraq, as "a phased 'network-centric' strategy that required careful definition and understanding of both friendly and enemy networks as well as how these networks interacted with each other." (5)

He used an analogy of a societal "fabric" that is comprised of interwoven and interconnected groups to illustrate the need of analyzing the human terrain in order to achieve the unit's desired end state. Early in the deployment he noticed that the staff expertly defined enemy networks, but their training did not prepare them to analyze the effects of human terrain on both enemy and friendly operations. He noted that the unit learned over the course of the deployment to refocus its IPB to the decisive terrain. This in turn caused them to refocus their collection efforts and target the human terrain with non-lethal effects (i.e., civil affairs projects, IO, public affairs). Unfortunately it took several months to develop their methodology, effectively limiting the impact of their deployment. This can be avoided in the future by standardizing the methodology and indoctrinating the force.

The Army envisions the future operational environment to pose a hybrid threat consisting of regular, irregular, terrorist, and criminal groups. Regular forces are generally easy to detect: tanks can be moved into urban areas, but they cannot blend with the local populace. Irregular, terrorist, and criminal elements have the ability to hide among civilians. In fact, they rely heavily on civilian assistance for logistics, and operations. In Iraq prior to 2007, insurgents and terrorists moved and lived among the populace with impunity. By June 2007, only nine months after the "Awakening," General Petraeus declared Ramadi a safe city. This is following a report at the end of the previous year by U.S. military intelligence in which the city had been declared "lost." (6 ) This begs the question, how did the full apparatus of U.S. military intelligence fail to grasp the problem, or more importantly, the solution?

U.S. military intelligence is extremely adept at defining and targeting enemy networks. However, as seen in Iraq, assistance from the local populace can deny irregular forces the ability to operate among the human terrain. The Army needs to implement a framework or methodology to analyze the military aspects terrain to apply non-lethal effects in order to remove the base of support and recruitment used by the irregulars. ASKCP and HT-MCOO provide the framework the Army needs. As the Army seeks to capitalize on the combined experiences of the past nine years of conflict, it is imperative that the art of human terrain analysis is not lost.


(1.) Kenneth Katzman, "Al Qaeda in Iraq: Assessment and Outside Links," CRS Report for Congress, updated 15 August 2008, 13.

(2.) Frontline, Obama's War, Public Broadcasting System, October 2009. Accessed at

(3.) Sean D. Naylor, "Program Has Afghans in the Lead for Defense." Army Times, 20 July 2010 at See also Capt. Neiman C. Young, "4th and Long: The Role of Civil Affairs in Village Stability Operations" at, originally published in Special Warfare, July-September 2011.

(4.) MG Michael Flynn, Captain Mark Pottinger (USMC), and Paul D. Batchelor, Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan (Washington D.C: Center for a New American Security, 2010), 13.

(5.) LTC David M. Hodne, "After the Surge: Task Force Raiders Experience in Iraq," Best Practices in Counterinsurgency, Report 3 (Washington, D.C: Institute for the Study of War, 2010), 2.

(6.) Katzman, 14.

Additional Reading

Center for the Army Profession and Ethic (CAPE). An Army White Paper: The Profession of Arms. Fort Leavenworth: Combined Arms Center, 2010.

Kipp, J., Grau, L. W., Prinslow, K., and Smith, D. "The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century." Military Review, September-October 2006.

Human Terrain Team Handbook. Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, September 2008).
Physical Terrain Human Terrain Human

Observation/Fields Condition of Networks that Active
of Fire weather and provide early Networks
 terrain that warning and
 permits a force intelligence
 to see friendly, to enhance
 enemy, and target
 neutral detection,
 personnel, interdiction
 systems, and key and
 aspects of the destruction.

Avenues of Route of an Established Social
Approach attacking force organizations Networks
 of a given size and patterns
 leading to its that determine
 objective or to the natural
 key terrain in order and
 its path. hierarchy that
 enable a force
 in achieving

Key Terrain Any area of Personnel who Key
 which the have Leaders
 seizure or significant
 retention influence over
 affords a marked the populace
 advantage to and whose
 either assistance
 combatant. gives a marked
 advantage to

Obstacles Any obstruction, Factors unique Culture
 natural or to the terrain
 manmade, which that prevent
 serves to common
 disrupt, fix, understanding
 turn, or block and
 the movement of cooperation:
 a force. history,
 social rifts,
 modes of

Cover and Protection from Networks that Passive
Concealment the effects of are neutral or Networks
 fire/Protection indifferent to
 from observation the presence
 or of either
 surveillance. combatant.

by Captain Jason A. Couture

Captain Couture was commissioned in 2007. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York. He served in a branch detail to the Infantry from 2007 to 2011. Assignments include: Platoon Leader, 1st Platoon, Charlie Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd BCT, 25th Infantry Division. He was deployed to OIF 09-11 near Balad. He is a graduate of the MI Captains' Career Course.
COPYRIGHT 2011 U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Couture, Jason A.
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jul 1, 2011
Previous Article:Back to basics intelligence for beginners.
Next Article:Five factors of an IED attack.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters