Academic journal article Military Review

Human Terrain Mapping: A Critical First Step to Winning the COIN Fight

Academic journal article Military Review

Human Terrain Mapping: A Critical First Step to Winning the COIN Fight

Article excerpt


ACCORDING TO CURRENT U.S. MILITARY DOCTRINE, the path to victory in a counterinsurgency (COIN) runs through the indigenous population. Experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the people are centers of gravity, have driven this doctrine. But before the counterinsurgent can win the people over, he must take the necessary steps to really understand and know them.

The U.S. military clearly was not attuned to this reality at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Today, however, most Soldiers with multiple tours in theater understand that U.S. forces must consider the population first in everything they do operationally. They have discovered that any attempt to separate the insurgents from the population must be coordinated with effective efforts to win the population's support. Soldiers know that to succeed at the latter, they need to understand the human terrain intimately: only deep understanding can point to the conditions essential for success. Therefore, the important question is no longer "why" or "if" Soldiers operating in COIN environments should seek detailed understanding of the population; "how" they obtain that understanding is the issue at hand. In other words, how can a tactical unit most effectively amass and process the information it needs to decisively influence the population in its area of operations (AO)? Using the practical experience it gained during OIF V, Task Force (TF) Dragon (led by 1-15 Infantry, part of the 3d Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3d Infantry division) can help answer this question.

An Enemy Within

As many veterans and students of the current wars recognize, insurgents hold the upper hand with their better understanding of local customs and politics, their ability to speak the language, their freedom of movement within society, and their greater comprehension of the population's interests. Moreover, as is always the case in wars of foreign occupation, the insurgent enemy in this war does not wear a uniform and can easily blend with the population.

While preparing for its current combat tour, TF dragon looked hard at units that were enjoying success in Iraq to figure out how to cope with the difficulties of COIN warfare. Overwhelmingly, the units that seemed to be winning the fight had made significant inroads with local

leaders, had found proactive ways to understand and respect local cultural norms, and had addressed specific community needs. Although the task force recognized and understood this lesson early on, when it actually arrived in its area of operations (AO), Soldiers found that very little of the ethnographic data it needed to conduct effective operations had been collected.

The available information was sparse and spread out across the continuity files of nearly every staff section. It was also old: there had been no consistent coalition presence in the area for nearly two years, and when the staff tried to verify the little information it had received, it often found that key personalities had moved out of the area or local opinions and loyalties had changed. The task force quickly determined that the first step of its COIN fight would be to acquire an understanding of its AO in human terms.

When it deployed to Iraq in mid-2007, TF dragon inherited a heavily populated (400,000 people) area southeast of Baghdad. The AO was volatile, in part because it straddled a Sunni/Shi'a fault-line. The majority of the Sunnis lived along the Tigris River, the task force's western boundary. Shi'a tribes resided in the north (close to Baghdad) and along the eastern boundary (the Baghdad-Al Kut highway).

The requirement for new ethnographic information on its AO weighed heavily on the task force. Thus, the entire unit began focusing on systematically collecting and collating ethnographic information. Ultimately, TF dragon worked the collection through a process the staff labeled "human-terrain mapping," or HTM. …

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