All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System Is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence

By Connable, Ben | Military Review, March-April 2009 | Go to article overview

All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System Is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence


Connable, Ben, Military Review


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FIELD-EXPERIENCED WARFIGHTERS and other experts in operational art have identified a range of weaknesses in military cultural training, education, and intelligence. Each "culture gap" has been painstakingly codified in military journals and official publications, most notably in Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency (COIN). Finding an effective and lasting solution to these shortcomings has framed the latest phase of an ongoing debate over how to meet operational cultural requirements.

One approach argues for comprehensive change. This method would take all the criticism of military cultural training and intelligence analysis to heart, applying recent doctrine to long-term knowledge and cultural terrain analysis programs. Forcing the services to view the cultural terrain as a co-equal element of military terrain--without abandoning core warfighting capabilities--would ensure the kind of all-inclusive focus on culture that the Army and Marine Corps applied to maneuver warfare theory in the 1990s.

The other side of the debate, represented by the advocates of the Human Terrain System (HTS), calls for an immediate solution in the form of nonorganic personnel, new equipment, and the direct application of external academic support. HTS essentially adds a quick-fix layer of social science expertise and contracted reachback capability to combatant staffs. This "build a new empire" proposal is based on the assumption that staffs are generally incapable of solving complex cultural problems on their own.

The HTS approach is inconsistent with standing doctrine and ignores recent improvements in military cultural capabilities. American military staffs have proven capable of using cultural terrain to their advantage in the small wars of the early 20th century, in Viet Nam, and contrary to common wisdom, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever weaknesses in cultural capability existed had always proven most evident at the onset of low intensity conflicts but were later rectified as warfighters adapted to the environment. These first-round failures occur because a focus on cultural training and education has yet to be sustained between conflicts.

Moreover, the practice of deploying academics to a combat zone may undermine the very relationships the military is trying to build, or more accurately rebuild, with a social science community that has generally been suspicious of the U.S. military since the Viet Nam era.

Post-9/11 Joint doctrine pounds away at the solution to the systemic weaknesses identified in cultural training, education, and intelligence: Soldiers, Marines, and combatant staffs must become cultur-alterrain experts. Cultural terrain considerations must be closely woven into the full spectrum of military training and operations. The excessive focus the Department of Defense (DOD) has placed on the extraordinarily expensive Human Terrain System has, and may continue to come, at the expense of precisely those long-term programs that will develop this mandated, comprehensive level of expertise.

Failure to refocus effort on sustainable cultural competency programs will eventually lead to another wave of first-round operational failures the United States can ill afford.

Addressing the Capability Gap

Initial operations in Afghanistan and Iraq revealed three interrelated shortcomings in military cultural competency. First, cultural training for troops, staffs, and commanders was utterly deficient. Second, military intelligence personnel were not prepared to read or analyze cultural terrain and lacked comprehensive data to constantly provide cultural analysis. Third, many staffs were incapable of using cultural terrain to their advantage, which resulted in an early series of wasted opportunities that fed the insurgencies and terrorist operations of the Taliban, Ba'athist insurgents, and Al-Qaeda.

In an effort to address these gaps the services and DOD provided impetus to a grass roots cultural "surge" generated in late 2003 by returning combat veterans who were frustrated with cultural training inadequacies. …

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