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Asymmetrical factors in culture for SOF conflicts: gaining understanding and insights.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Departments of the Army and Defense, or the U.S. Government.

In 1965, R.L. Sproul, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), testified before the U.S. Congress and stated, "It is [our] primary thesis that remote area warfare is controlled in a major way by the environment in which the warfare occurs, by the sociological and anthropological characteristics of the people involved in the war, and by the nature of the conflict itself." Later, a DARPA program called Urban Sunrise published findings that recent U.S. involvement in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq have confirmed this need for civil cultural intelligence collection, fusion, and effects-based analysis to support urban conflicts, peace-keeping, and stability operations. The conclusion of Urban Sunrise was that the success of our current and future operations will require expert culture awareness and competence in foreign social factor interpretation. Therefore, operational commanders who do not consider the operational factors of culture and religion during mission planning and execution invite unintended and unforeseen consequences, and even mission failure (Calvin Swain, Jr., The Operational Planning Factors of Culture and Religion). The lack of cultural intelligence support in foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare has caused troops and policymakers to make many uninformed decisions about the populations that support either the U.S. or its adversaries or a particular ideology that is less tangible and not based on choosing specific sides.

On the other hand, when cultural intelligence has been used, success is the predominant general outcome. In the RAND study, "Street Smart: Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield for Urban Operations," Jamison Medby and Russell Glenn arrive at this same conclusion where "population analysis, which includes both demographic analysis and cultural intelligence, should come to the analytic foreground." The very ideals relating to a need for more cultural intelligence are directly linked to fully understanding the nation of people increasingly engaged in combat and diplomacy, as opposed to direct fighting of uniformed soldiers on armed fronts and battlefields.

Cultural Evolution

Today's military has increased its embrace of demographics and cultural (sometimes called civil or social) intelligence's value to support strategic and tactical planning of the non-linear battlespace to leverage insight about an adversary's mindset. The analysis tries to explain the rationale of a particular thought process; it attempts to predict adversarial intentions and examines the potential lengths that an adversary may pursue. The current forays into this space are a commendable improvement but the efforts and support can certainly be enhanced, especially with regard to the Special Operations community. Special Operations demand that comprehensive intelligence be collected and analyzed on particular areas of deployment to include the inhabitants likely to be encountered to the degree required for mission success. Special Operation Forces' needs are critically information intensive as the teams are often the first "in-country" where little intelligence has been collected or it is provided at a high strategic level.

The unfortunate reality is that many leaders or "powers that be" who are pushing to have more cultural intelligence added to warfare and peacemaking doctrine may not truly recognize how labor and resource intensive this intelligence capability needs to be in order to be done correctly to mitigate risk and ensure that odds are in the Special Forces (SF) Detachment Commander's favor. While Special Operations targeting and mission planning demands vital timely, detailed, tailored, integrated, prioritized, rapidly updated, and focused intelligence in this area, many of the "target specific" items demand even more collection, research, analysis, and textual elaboration than normally afforded to conventional mission planning.

The exact degree to which Special Operations demand intelligence is often as elusive to the battlefield commanders themselves as it is to the intelligence officers and analysts that are tasked to help define a requirement and produce an actionable intelligence product. The reason for this void is simply the element of the unknown that we cannot identify and the mindset we have all heard of that is defined as "not knowing what we don't know." Training and doctrine try to fill some of these voids in human cognition but somewhere between the Special Forces' "Q course" Robin Sage training and the situational awareness concept of System of Systems Analysis (SoSA)/Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (JIPB) for Rapid Decisive Operations and Urban Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield, the devil lurks in missing details. These gaps lead to inapt understanding of adversaries and area inhabitants, which can taint analysis, and therefore, accuracy in mission planning. JIPB consists of steps to ensure systematic analysis of operational environments and adversaries. But even such a process does not define the components in terms of other doctrine such as a political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure (PMESII) nodal analysis in the checklist for Peacekeeping Operations and Information Warfare Battlespace Environment definitions.

Analysis from the Joint Information Operations Center has determined, "Finding and understanding the causal links in the adversary's systems [or organizational structure] and measuring the effectiveness of disrupting those systems will be new fields of analysis for intelligence professionals as well as new responsibilities." What this means is that the necessary capability to completely comprehend the complexities associated with asymmetrical challenges in correlation with ways to disturb adversarial activities is not prevalent today as a reliable resource. Significant intelligence products are failing to provide critical information required to increase the probability of mission success and reducing the degrees of risk with resources that are not yet up to speed to meet vital demands.

SoSA/Operational Net Assessment (ONA) teams are improving the capabilities to perform a "system of systems analysis" using every dimension of PMESII. Yet, Special Operation force missions do not only require this detailed level of planning for success; they require a great deal more details for field commanders, especially in the delicate nature of Psychological and Civil Affairs that are intrinsically tied to Information Operations and knowing exactly how a country and its populace are tied to a particular conflict and inherent belief systems.

The U.S. Marine Corps' website for Small Wars Center of Excellence states that with regard to "small wars, the key factor in determining who wins and who loses will often be knowledge of the local culture. Culture is far more than language, folklore, food, or art. It is the lens through which people see, and make sense of their world. Culture determines what is admired and what is despised, what makes life worth living, and what things are worth dying for." According to the Marine Corps Intelligence Agency (MCIA), over 50 percent of all requests for information (RFIs) from the I Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF) are culture related.

Missing Link

The current focus of most cultural intelligence that goes outside of PMESII is only collected at the theater's visible surface to an observer. Even the doctrinal format for the Joint Special Operations Targeting and Mission Planning Procedures suggests intelligence packages cover these surface level insights without demanding more insights below a level of basic cultural facade. This format misses the base of social beliefs and community behavior that create an individual or group's intentions. National culture, from a psychological or sociological perspective, is the set of meshed traits that are passed down through members of a group. These traits are typically slow to change and, therefore, can be understood and/or identified well in advance of military operations. Further, these traits have been scientifically proven to have some genetic components that are passed through generations, and many of the social traits are so routine and automatic that they never reach a conscious level in the individual.

Typical civil and cultural intelligence content in its current state is limited to our five sensory inputs for attainment. These cultural traits can be defined as observable qualities to include: language, food, population, clothing, pace of life, emotional display, gestures, or eye contact. Unfortunately, adversarial precognition answers remain a bit more hidden even beyond the typically analyzed social and political movements or characteristics. These elusive insights can involve: notions of time; how an individual fits into society; beliefs about human nature; the importance of work; tolerance for change; preference for leadership systems; motivation for achievement; communication styles; thinking styles, etc. They can also contribute to judgments about what constitutes acceptable levels of actions such as aggression.

While many of these insights seem a bit "touchy feely", the characteristics become vastly important when formulating additional questions around essential elements of information (EEIs) to assess reliability of intelligence sources; mitigating ground surprises; influences of indigenous friendlies versus hostiles in an area, and recruitment susceptibility for Human Intelligence (HUMINT) assets or terrorist/insurgency forces. These answers cross validate data required by other methods that also consider the use of denial and deception and threat evaluations. JIPB attempts to answer many of these questions but does not completely take the data to a level of understanding of how each piece interrelates and has particular influence on a general population.

"Three-domain" urban models acknowledge a need to similarly model human organizational behavior (cognitive domain), information paths and structures (informational domain), and the physical infrastructure (physical domain). Yet for tactical intelligence at the field level, the intelligence should actually go deeper to assess the group/individual dynamics, predispositions, and possible reactions to identify an adversary's human capabilities, limitations, and vulnerabilities by investigating the environmental factors found in values, beliefs, religion, etc. Such depth adds significant insight to strategies manifested in Special Operations Mission Planning Folders (SOMPF)-Battlefield Area Evaluation (BAE) in the social, cultural, and psychological areas that will in turn add more insight to the areas of government, military, trade and industries, friendly forces, hostile forces, or non-belligerent third-party forces.


Despite best intentions and transformation programs, until a change is made, failures to properly support field commanders will persist. Such commanders will lack the intelligence on the dynamics of theater cultures and behavior patterns (i.e., keeping the exclusive control over a piece of territory) and how tribal chiefs (e.g., war lords) establish and maintain control. This had been most recently experienced in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

In Somalia, for example, although armed opposition to the government of Mohammed Siad Barre had existed for many years, the war began with intensity in May 1988 when the Somali National Movement (SNM) began fighting the government in northwestern Somalia. Other armed opposition groups, mainly clan-based, arose over the next few years in southern Somalia, and in 1991 the Barre regime was deposed. Clan, sub-clan, warlord, and faction-based clashes continued with a number of prominent groups within Mogadishu, to include a faction of the United Somali Congress (USC) led by Muhammad Qanyare Afrah; another faction of the USC led by Muse Sudi Yalahow; the USC/Somali Salvation Alliance led by Umar Finish; and the Somali National Alliance (SNA) led by Usman Hasan Ali Ato.

Within the web of clan and warlord conflicts, General Morgan and his forces historically clashed with the Jubba Valley Alliance led by Colonel Bare Hirale and Dabare and Luway sub-clans both from the Digil-Mirifle clan. An alliance of the Marehan sub-clans of Hawarsame Rer Hasan and Habar Ya'qub fought with Ali Dheere and Rer Ahmad forces. Militia of the Abgal clan allied to two rival businessmen from the Warsangeli and Wabudan sub-clans clashed with each other. Murusade and Duduble sub-clans, both from the Hawiye clan, clashed. Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf, General Ade Muse Hirsi, and Jama Ali Jama had been in conflict over control of the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland.

The U.S. misperception of the Somali clan structure, rivalries, and ignorance of the notion of "collective responsibility" led the coalition to concentrate its attention on Ali Mahdi and Aideed, Somalia's main warlords. In Cultural Issues in Contemporary Peacekeeping, writer Tamara Duffey summarized that the unintended consequence of this was that United Nation actions actually enhanced the degree of power and authority which the warlords desired but, up to that point, did not legitimately possess. This then led to the marginalization of other clans, thereby upsetting the traditional balance of the Somali kinship system.

Without knowing the specific goals of the parties in conflict, troops enter a country not having the whole comprehension of the political and social situation to include the personalities involved. This includes: who in an area owes whom certain favors or debts; how families are interlocked, favored, and ranked; knowledge of cross border tribal and family relationships, and how having a U.S. military group in the area will affect daily civil dynamics. Situational awareness and social intelligence link to cultural integration, because troops must recognize the need to behave in a certain manner and be adaptable to act suitably.

Without such details theater engagement plans will not be able to cover much of the fine point details that soldiers need in the field to add proper contextual meaning to their observations to even translate into intelligence findings. Even ONA "Red" and "Blue" teams will likely not have enough ground level intelligence to truly think like the enemy. There are, in general, a number of reasons at this point for such gaps to include: some ignorance, lack of appropriate analytical training, cultural mirroring bias, or a combination of all.

Discovering Intent and Will

A generally accepted model used at the Joint Military Intelligence College dictates that Risk = Threat X Vulnerability. Within that model, Threat = (Capabilities X Intent) (Will X Action). The critical, yet less examined elements, in the model are Intent and Will. But by using a research framework that blends targeted intelligence collection, anthropological research, and psychology to permeate cultures, a combination of analytical techniques can expose these elusive battlespace elements covering the life cycle of a conflict to target correlating key nodes and links.

Relatively little is known about the terrorist or insurgent as an individual, and the psychology and history of unconventional warfare actors remains poorly understood. Attempts to clarify terrorism and activists in merely psychological terms ignore the economic, political, and social aspects that have typically motivated radical activists as well as the possibility that biological or physiological variables may be factors in bringing an individual to the point of carrying out terrorist acts.

The social psychology of political terrorism has received extensive analysis in studies of terrorism, but the individual psychology of political and religious terrorism has been greatly disregarded. This is regrettable because psychology has perfect tools to examine behavior and the factors that influence and control behavior, and it can provide practical, as opposed to purely conceptual, knowledge of terrorists and terrorism.

As an aside, SoSA ONA definitions in this area state "A Social System is a network of social relationships that is organized, integrated, and shares a common value system." In broad theory, perhaps this is true. However, at ground level, one sees that codes, ideology/theology, beliefs, and behavior may have adjoining points that create a sense of harmony within groups, but individuals who are susceptible to changes will likely not share such an all-encompassing rigidly defined value system. Individuals may simply share "interests" at that particular time. In some cases, one group may come to scrutinize the beliefs and actions of another group as fundamentally evil and morally intolerable. This can result in internal hostility or violence and damages the relationship between the two groups. For this reason, moral conflicts tend to be quite harmful and inflexible or exploitable for the urban warfighter.

One element of the psychological analysis in this process is the use of behavioral science, but at a more complex level than that of typical profiling techniques. A belief model coupled with social cognitive theory can define human behavior as a dynamic interaction of personal factors, activities, and environment. The process illuminates what is reality for groups and individuals, and therefore how that behavior is interpreted, predicted, and can potentially be changed. To support this analysis, comprehensive intelligence collection and anthropology must be conducted to also consider a level of likely scenario-based ramifications to consider ever-changing free will before mission planning and during missing execution. This is also where significant anthropological methodology approaches to participant observation, fieldwork, and historical research makes a contribution to the puzzle for assessments of historic and recurring experiences.

According to defense analyst and anthropologist Doctor Montgomery McFate, anthropology as an intelligence contribution is noticeably absent as a discipline within our national security establishment, and especially within the intelligence community and Department of Defense. Dr. McFate defines anthropology as "a social science discipline whose primary object of study has traditionally been non-Western, tribal societies. One of the central epistemological tenets of anthropology is cultural relativism; that is, understanding other societies from within their own framework." Here is a very important emphasis of "understanding within a society's own framework" which is quite different from understanding a society from our own mindset and framework. The differences between the two (us versus them) are found to be quite different from the standpoint of predispositions in interpretation and context. As an example, the Tuaregs, a North African Sahara Berber people, govern desert space and confederations by a blend of informal economies, loosely structured laws, historic boundaries, and most importantly self-understanding. Due to the fact that their "rules" can not be defined in modern state infrastructures, the French and the involved nation states have often come in conflict with the Tuaregs when extensions and intrusions to the territories are committed. Conflicts and rebellions will continue without a better sense of how the Tuaregs think and how their society and culture has historically evolved to be what it is today.


To avoid segmenting adversaries or potentially hostile individuals into randomly defined groups (and our own convenient categories, tables, and data fields), cultural intelligence analysts should ideally depict inferences from three main facets that can be found in social cultures:

* Cognitive. Judgment and reasoning traits (strategies used in decisionmaking)

* Motivational. Inducements to action (beliefs about good and bad)

* Behavioral. Actions and reactions based on internal and external stimuli (the observable traits such as customs, language, social interaction).

These inferences take form in definable qualities, whether they be links, nodes, indicators, etc. that can be applied to pattern recognition surrounding the adversary or the indigenous people of an area of interest.

Those surrounding factors will be seen in the environment or a typical area study (geography, political, economic, sociological, linguistic, demographic, and cultural) but consider a more tactical consideration that is brought down to a local or personalized level to assess individual perspectives, behavioral patterns, psychographic profiles, etc. Herein lies the real "ground truth."

With improved cultural intelligence net assessments, leaders and SF Senior Sergeant and SF Assistant Operations and Intelligence Sergeant soldiers can better construct EEIs for engagement and even survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) needs. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonels David P. Fitchitt and William D. Wunderle confirmed their experiences and observations as they wrote on the subject, "Cultural adaptability includes learning such things as language acronyms, slang, and jargon that are unique to the culture; goals and values (formal rules and principles, as well as unwritten, informal goals and values that govern behavior); history (traditions, customs, myths and rituals that convey cultural knowledge); and politics (formal and informal relationships and power structures within the culture)."

At such a micro-level, a tactical urban warrior can focus on maximizing courses of action and cover strategic, operational, and tactical needs. From here commanders are enabled to take surprise from the enemy; forecast, expanding upon the capabilities of intuitive intelligence and introducing "presencing" to the equation; come to a better understanding of the relationship one enters with the adversary--known, suspected, and unknown; and fully understand the local power chains of influence.

Field Manual Interim 3-07.22, Counterinsurgency Manual, October 2004 highlights this micro-level as a formal process, "Understanding and working within the social fabric of a local area is initially the most influential factor in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations. Unfortunately, this is often the factor most neglected by U.S. forces." By becoming aware of the full human reasoning process within an area and the choices people make; between observing data to ultimately taking action, personal and situational understanding can also transform to an ability to change or even shape others' beliefs. This is the stage where one truly knows an adversary. Perhaps it is stated best by a former expert in this area:

"When I took a decision or adapted an alternative, it was after studying every relevant and many irrelevant factors. Geography, tribal structure, religion, social customs, language, appetites, standards all were at my finger ends. The enemy I knew almost like my own side."

--Colonel T.E. Lawrence, 26 June 1933

Scott Swanson, a member of MICA, FAOA, and AFIO, specializes in strategic and tactical operation intelligence collection and analysis. He is currently the Chief Desk Officer for Delphi International Research, and is a strategic advisor at the California University of Protection and Intelligence Management in the areas of propaganda, international economics, and covert action academic programs. Mr. Swanson's educational background consists of a MS in Strategic Intelligence, a BA in Culture and Communication (Languages studied: French, Arabic, and Spanish). He is currently pursuing a PhD in Behavioral Social Psychology. Mr. Swanson can be reached at or
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Author:Swanson, Scott
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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