Warfare strategy is intricately linked with the knowledge of an adversary’s culture. Understanding one’s enemy as a tool to formulate effective warfare strategy became a regular affair by war councils since Greco-Persian wars. The famous Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence) continued on the same route after the Arab rebellion (against the Ottoman Empire) post-1916, submerging himself deep in his adversary’s culture; topography, tribal hierarchy, social structure, religion, language and customs, fondness for food, lifestyle were all subjects of expertise. He knew the enemy better than he knew himself. To further expand his knowledge, he risked his life selflessly.[i] Thereafter, soldiers developed a tendency to memorise Sun Tzu’s proverb before heading into combat:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Interestingly know your enemy is one of the critical elements in warfare strategy. No matter how significant it may be, military operations and strategic national security decisions continue to suffer serious losses due to inadequate understanding/knowledge of an external nation’s culture. Learning the lessons from history, a prominent US decision maker accepted challenges faced by Washington in formulating national policies for a nation in which it had limited or no cultural knowledge or societal understanding.[ii] Washington’s belief in its ethnic superiority, followed by misguided thoughts on its adversary’s culture and politico-societal architecture, resulted in negative outcomes during the North Vietnamese offensives between 1967 and 1974. Others have suffered the same fate; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to name but two examples.

Even though cultural intelligence has traditionally been side-lined by relevant decision-making institutions in the US, the incumbent insurgency in Afghanistan and lessons learnt from the US invasion of Iraq, highlights its significance in 21st century warfare. Platoon commanders patrolling on the streets understand this better. While speaking to a returning 4th Infantry Division commander, his repetitive emphasis on real time situational assessment highlighted his strategic thinking, but inadequate cultural insight further pointed out critical lapses in decision making. He knew exactly where the enemy could mount an offensive or perhaps re-group. The only issue was, his troopers were fighting against radical Islamic militants firing AKs on foot or shoulder fired rockets from heavy MG mounted technicals. The intelligence would be accurate and actionable. But the approach towards a formidable enemy was wrong.[iii] In accordance to the strategic insight demonstrated by the aforementioned commander, knowing the enemy would require more than aerial reconnaissance and high pixeled photograph of the adversary’s supply depot. Instead, it would rely majorly on the coalition forces' ability to categorically study/learn about their needs/historical interests, colonial past, strategic outlook, intents, socio-political understanding, social organizations, multi-lingual factions, ethnicity, regular appetites: in short, culture.[iv]

The objective of the article is to highlight the need to understand an adversary’s culture in the light of unconventional warfare where emerging formidable enemies are potentially challenging traditional and non-traditional forces in complex environments. Inadequate knowledge of an adversary’s culture may result in severe unfavourable outcomes. That being said, by knowing the enemy’s culture, coalition forces could strengthen their operational planning at both the strategic and tactical level. The success of future combat operations, particularly those in unconventional environment will lay heavily on coalition forces’ knowledge on adversary’s culture. Modern militaries must integrate politico-cultural and socio-linguist mechanisms in their military/civil service training, during intelligence collection, and operations planning. Furthermore, intelligence and national security architecture/organizational frameworks must be integrated with cultural anthropology and ethnography at all policy levels in an effort to understand the adversary better, and further support combat operations in complex environments effectively.

Vivid Enemies & dynamic Areas of Operations (AO)

Decision makers should seek to incorporate cultural intelligence within the pillars of national security architecture. A swift re-organization in the military’s traditional thinking is vital since the enemies are no longer the same as they were during the Cold War, and combat areas of operations have radically evolved since the end of the former due to evolution in technologies, rise of violent non-state actors, and rampant use of improvised small and large weapons.

NATO armies modernised their training mechanisms to effectively combat soviet forces during the Cold War (with an objective to potentially deny soviet tanks from crossing the Rhine river). However, the enemy which challenges western countries today (and is potentially capable to challenge it in the foreseeable future), is not limited to a region, possess global operational capability, follows an unconventional hierarchy, and operates beyond traditional functions of a state and hides in plain sight. Neither the Taliban, Boko Haram, Haqqani Network or radical militants fighting in Yemen or Syria, read Clausewitz before engaging in conflict, nor are the armed conflicts in the aforementioned regions an extension of politics. The militant factions mentioned here do not possess rational thinking as that of a state. Instead, their warfare tactics, operational architecture, organizational hierarchy, and ideological reasons highlight the role of their society, religious ideology and culture which they have been a part of.

Attacks on coalition forces in Sunni dominated areas, to an extent, demonstrated expected warfare tactics: some picking up arms to avenge loss of loved ones; some inspiring others through courage and sacrifice; and some demonstrating absolute tribal values.[v] On a similar note, Al Qaeda and its affiliate factions are imitating ancient methods (employed during the holy wars) that politicise war using jihad, particularly involving conflicts in leaderless regions, assisting religious heads of other states in deposing tyrant rulers, re-introducing conscription of hard liners and streamlining mass recruitment of believers, and evolving target acquisition tactics to eliminate infidels, local sympathisers and other state/rival non-state adversaries. To counter an adversary with a deep-rooted history and conflict centric radical beliefs, western nations must induce ethnography as a national security policy making consideration as the states may represent the initial layers of political demography, but true understanding of its political structure lay beneath the layers of one’s culture.

Impact of Culture on Strategic & Operational Environment

Cultural intelligence is no less than a jargon, but is it really relevant for modern militaries? Below are some of the lessons learnt from historical experiences in Iraq: misinterpretation of culture by strategic leadership can result in formulation of policies with possible counterproductive outcomes; inadequate cultural understanding by operations command could steam negative perception in host populous; and categorical/systematic neglect of host nation’s culture could result in dire consequences for both civilians and ground forces. Undoubtedly, inadequate knowledge on adversary’s culture can result in dire consequences at strategic, tactical and at operational levels.

Strategic Level

At this level, many key decision makers serving within the Bush administration failed to understand Iraqi culture and society. They were under the assumption that the civilian element within the government architecture would remain functional even during post-coalition airstrikes and could withstand defeat. However, when US forces systematically eliminated/captured Baathist leadership, the structural integrity of the organization was restored through the basic/traditional chain of command, the tribal leadership. It was the responsibility of the tribal leader to formulate a fresh chain of command in case communication link with Baghdad failed, during which the tribal leader or the Sheikh assumed the top position within the chain of command.[vi] In Iraq, the basic societal architecture exists on tribal lifestyle, and the Baath party as a whole was ambit of one such tribe. Post-invasion, Baathists soon were out of employment, they were systematically and swiftly defeated in brief battles, and were further neglected/isolated by Coalition Provisional Authority’s de-Baathification process, instigating their tribal instincts to unite and initiate revenge through insurgency.[vii] The tribal insurgency is a direct result of our misunderstanding the Iraqi culture.

Operations Level

At this level, the military leadership drastically failed to assess the flow of communication within Iraqi society and significantly lost initiatives to take them into confidence. Military leadership were extensively focussed on broadcast media with a hope to infiltrate information into Iraqi households. But this had negligible impact on average Iraqi’s as they employed rumours as a preferred tool to spread information. Rather than tapping individual Iraqis for information, military leadership could have taken a seat at a coffee house in a crowded bazaar. Sadly, due to severe threat, ground forces were tasked to mobilise with heavy calibre weapons preventing them to visit local bazaars. There was limited interpersonal relationship between the Iraqis and American troops which was vital for accessing essential intelligence and developing confidence within the local masses. Furthermore, the decision to permanently shut Iraqi’s freedom of speech was a blunder. Leadership within the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) were threatened by anti-western and anti-coalition slogans/statements as they were potent enough to compromise their regional security and stability initiatives.[viii] Shutting down freedom of speech further reinforced Iraqi perceptions of the West, particularly that of Americans: ‘despite being the beacon of freedom of speech and expression they never really promoted/supported it’.

Tactical Level

Decision makers' inability to study an adversary’s culture can potentially compromise ground forces and local populous at the tactical level. It may not matter much to a platoon commander during fire engagement, but ignorance to an adversary’s culture is still lethal. In this matter, numerous theories have been made by think-tanks all across the globe, but in particular a think tank associated with the US Navy took the credit for taking in-personal accounts on challenges faced by troops during their tour of Iraq. They unanimously agreed on their misconception of the adversary’s culture, particularly to religious relics, its significance and insensitivity to local dialect, which were a direct repercussion of their inadequate cultural and linguistic trainings. Most visible were the US forces’ apprehension to Iraqi’s hand movements during communication, their ability to constantly move during eye contact (especially at the onset of argument and explanations), and their close proximity during inter-personal communication. On numerous accounts, ground forces were trained to accept the Iraqi’s way of communication. Many troopers became intolerant to Iraqi’s way of communication especially their constant way of yelling and screaming. Moreover, inadequate understanding of cultural symbols and signs created further ruckus. Understandably, in western society’s a white flag would designate an individual’s surrender. However, when Iraqi’s turned up raising a black flag while keeping their hands in the air, platoon commanders misunderstood that as a threat. This resulted in significant losses of Shia lives as black flags were of enormous significance in their religion. Furthermore, there were numerous problems during checking at coalition manned outposts. The hand signals used by coalition forces to stop were widely considered as a go in Iraqi culture, on the contrary the hand signals to go for coalition forces was to stop in Iraqi culture. This resulted in frequent stone pelting/skirmishes between coalition forces and local populous at check posts.

Studying an adversary’s culture results in positive strategic, operational and tactical outcomes. Below mentioned arguments highlight certain positive reasons: incumbent obsolete governing mechanisms gives significant room for coalitions to employ actions legitimately, tribal societal architecture and class study (including the rapport between leadership and their subjects) assists in understanding insurgent’s information flow and chain of command, and avoiding cultural, religious and societal interference by coalition forces, would win local masses support.

In the case of Iraq, decision makers should have focussed their attention to understand societal structures to politically stabilise Iraq. Although Washington seemed confused to see the Iraqi quasi-tribal societal architecture, London on the other hand, performed an extensive study to understand Iraq’s society and used the knowledge to maximise their capacity. The commander of British forces stationed in one of the insurgency stricken province of Iraq, identified a key lesson from history: he adjusted with the local environment, its culture and societal norms and refrained from imposing outside laws.[ix] In Iraqi culture, tribe is at the epicentre of its society and lineage. The population is divided roughly over one hundred and fifty tribes, some tribes extending to over a million populous while other ranging to roughly hundred. Tribes headed by Sheikhs dominate the societal order and exercise power on their subjects. They further grant riches to sub-Sheikhs, who are then responsible for distribution of such riches within their tribe. In turn, sub-sheikhs pay lavish riches to their sheikhs as a token of trust and loyalty. In Iraq, it is difficult to subdue a Sheikh under an outsider, but it is easy for an outsider to buy one. Once the Sheikh agreed, the tribes followed. This is precisely what British military commanders did. They set-up numerous councils and financed them (which were distributed within the tribe) in an effort to cement Sheikhs political stand in the Iraqi society.

Restructuring institutions during post-conflict scenarios will only be effective and fruitful if they fulfil expectations/desire and interests of local masses and do not interfere with existential societal architecture. To the Iraqi populous, the CPA was the enemy. The lack of communication between Baghdad and provincial councils highlighted the fact that the message either was not relayed to the former or failed to reach the latter. The CPA, based on this pre-assumption, tried to establish a Western style democratic system in the region. In the meantime, ground forces were successfully employing credible measures at the ground level, taking a community first approach. It looked as if the coalition forces, who went with a message of ‘defeating the tyrant’, became the tyrant themselves.

An Imperfect Approach?

Combatting terrorism in today’s dynamic operational environment requires coalition forces to extensively study an adversary’s societal architecture, linguistic variations and culture. Without a doubt, asymmetric warfare in the 21st Century will force field commanders to holistically study their adversary’s culture within the framework of anthropology. However, it is debatable whether many armies currently possess the right tools, relevant scientific mechanisms, equipment, trained staff, and organizational structure to counter incumbent threats.

Although many coalition forces have a designated Foreign Area Officer assigned to their commands, many provincial and regional commands still have inadequate FAOs who can interpret local culture, dialect and societal architecture to field commanders. Capabilities, such as the FAO, equip military leaders with local/regional politico-societal, cultural and tactical insight, and linguistic opportunities to develop and strengthen inter-cultural relationship between coalition forces and regional actors. However, as few FAOs are permitted to penetrate within the local community outside the traditional chain of command and military responsibilities, most of them fail to establish real connection at cultural and societal levels. Importantly, many FAOs do not provide constant support to field commanders and instead perform their duties as military attaches, instructors to regional combat schools or local area security providers. This leaves field commanders to rely on other mechanisms for knowledge. One field commander speaking to the author denied the presence of any designate FAO during his tenure in Afghanistan. Interestingly, the cook – who was a Pashto and was born in Helmand province but raised in Kunar – proved valuable on missions.

Also, the incumbent intelligence gathering mechanism is also insufficient in collecting necessary cultural intelligence. Undoubtedly, militaries rely on socio-cultural knowledge for actionable intelligence. Field commanders need to focus, comprehend, evaluate, and manoeuvre in the fractured corners of conflict-stricken communities where most of the enemies in 21st Century warfare operates. Instead of focussing on a bigger picture, intelligence institutions must focus their attention on analysing specific threats. Field commanders will require an in-depth assessment of threats, constant data on person of interests, and operational/functional military capabilities of the adversary. In addition, field commanders must be reinforced with adequate knowledge on local dialects, linguist and ethnic demography, tribal variations, regional topography to name a few. However, in the light of such vast demography, gathering intelligence would be a challenge even for a veteran intelligence institution.

The Road Ahead

Western democracies must reinforce their domestic and external security institutions with social, cultural and linguist anthropological segments broadly. Irrespective of how this new concept may sound, segments of anthropology were primarily evolved to supplement military needs.

Taking a closure look at the colonial expansionist policies of the British, the extensive knowledge on their subjects reinforced their colonial domination resulted in the systematic amalgamation of British Empire during their colonial years. For military echelons in Washington, culture became a pertinent subject for warfare during American-Indian Wars resulting in the establishment of a dedicated department to study tribal Indian culture. During the onset of the Second World War, numerous anthropologists provided critical insights to intelligence institutions; many carried out surveillance and intelligence operations in South East Asia, and later provided critical intelligence on political leadership and governance in an effort to exploit opportunities. Furthermore, ethnographers provided estimated pattern of behaviour on axis leadership in an effort to identify nationalist characteristics.

Where can one find ethnographers and anthropologists today? While the field of study may have an intrinsic relationship with the military, only a handful anthropologists would volunteer to assist decision makers in military planning. Their apprehension towards the military’s decision to operate outside traditional laws prevents them from cooperating. Is it safe to say that today’s anthropologists prefer conscious and ethics over national security? If ethnographers and anthropologists are too inclined to not compromise their field of study, does their cooperation with intelligence and military institutions violate their core principles? According to them, they do. This statement is not a meagre assertion rather it is based on numerous strategic military projects initiated by Washington to employ ethnographic tools during conflict-driven scenarios. One such counterinsurgency study was initiated by Special Operations Research Office (SORO) at the American University under the title Project Camelot in an effort to enhance military’s capability in predicting and influencing socio-political developments in developing economies. The initiative came to an abrupt halt after massive public outrage and demonstration in targeted lesser and middle economies.[x]

However, ethnographical and anthropological understanding is vital for natal security policy. Beside employing ethnographic tools, decision makers and military echelons must provide necessary training to critical strategic leadership and educate them on employing such knowledge efficiently, timely yet ethically.

The rampant dynamic environments inherent in 21st Century warfare requires conventional/unconventional forces to understand the adversary’s culture better than itself. For a tactically superior unconventional adversary with distinct societo-culture distance from the West, the need for coalition forces to study its society and culture is much greater. To eliminate factions operating under unconventional organizational structure and operational hierarchy, clandestine operations is the only way, and to manoeuvre outside traditional lines of culture and society, military forces needs to extensively employ new mechanisms to study foreign adversaries.