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Contemporary Conflict: Challenges and Opportunities
James R. Sisco
Individuals, communities, transnational criminal organization, and terrorist networks impact operations like never before. They are the center of gravity in all conflicts and the key to creating enduring stability. Understanding what drives their decision making (identity), is paramount. Lessons from the conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria illustrate how failing to understand the human dimension of conflict costs lives, resources, and political capital.[i] Social tensions, amplified by unprecedented access to communications technologies, underpin the majority of contemporary conflict. To meet these challenges, the Department of Defense (DoD) must embrace a population-centric approach that can pinpoint, interpret, and operationalize complex social phenomena such as globalization, ethnic and sectarian strife, and demographic transformation.
The DoD struggles to integrate population-centric information into traditional collection and analysis practices, which is why analysts and operators are largely uninformed about societies. Recent and ongoing initiatives rely on standing up specialized organizations, hiring subject matter experts, or applying technical and big data approaches to identify solutions for a human problem. In the latest example, Ash Carter established the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) to transform the military by partnering with Silicon Valley firms to drive innovation. Moreover, the Army’s dependency on doctrine to inform planning and operations, specifically the counterinsurgency manual, has failed to deliver consistent results.
Technology and doctrine without a repeatable process or methodology simply helps practitioners reach the wrong answer faster. Yet tremendous investment has been directed toward technical solutions to operationalize population-centric information, including “big data” and social media monitoring. Reliance on search engines and social media to differentiate numerous, complex social variables is insufficient when developing accurate, culturally attuned assessments. Current strategies lack the rich contextual understanding required to inform Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic (DIME) and Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure, Information, Physical Environment, and Time (PMESSI-PT) models.
Increased access to communications technologies and the sheer volume of open source mediums render decision-makers unable to differentiate what social variables are truly important. Local and international news outlets, social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), academic reports, technical data, surveys, polling, focus groups, blogs, and human networks flood analysts and decision-makers with mountains of near real-time information. As they seek to incorporate and evaluate every data point that is important, nothing becomes important. This phenomenon is known as data complexity, which ultimately leads to analysis paralysis, indecision, or the wrong conclusion.
Lastly, the DoD does not realize, harness, or employ the power of narrative in their military information support operations (MISO) or strategic communications campaigns. Narratives, when properly designed are an effective tool to align operational objectives with a target group’s beliefs through identity. Narratives are created to seamlessly assimilate with the culture, world views, identities, and existing narratives of a target group. Moreover, narratives are the critical elements that enable decision-makers to tap into identity in order to shape beliefs, opinions, and ideas of a population.
The DoD’s inability to effectively manage and integrate open-source information, employ narratives, and understand identities within collection, analysis, planning, and operations, prevents it from:
• Winning the hearts and minds of the population
• Designing and implementing effective MISO campaigns
• Aligning diplomatic and development efforts with military operations
• Identifying social networks and critical stakeholders for key leader engagements (KLEs)
The DoD can immediately capitalize on existing investments in socio-cultural analysis and human terrain programs by integrating a population-centric approach into its analysis and planning activities. A population-centric approach that uses a proven methodology delivers a repeatable, quantifiable process that enables intelligence analysts and military planners to interpret and operationalize complex population-centric information, while simultaneously solving the problem of data complexity. Moreover, applying the methodology into existing intelligence tradecraft delivers an additional layer of analysis and a viable replacement to the Human Terrain System at a significantly lower cost, with better results.
A population-centric approach is designed to enable decision-makers to understand the challenges and opportunities that exist within the human terrain. More specifically, the approach allows decision-makers to shape and influence conditions in Phase “0” before social tensions turn violent. However, during conflict, the methodology is applied to align the commander’s and population’s objectives to ensure that military operations are successful. This approach enables leaders to understand and mitigate social tensions that underpin violence and trigger specific behaviors to prevent conflict.
Identity is the key to unlocking beliefs, values, interests, and behaviors. Moreover, it provides the contextual understanding required for military operations to be effective in any environment. Identity is the most fundamental and strongest human need and is the principal source of most religious and ethnic conflicts. Identity plays upon the norms, values, and traditions that exist within societies. It is so fundamental to one's self-esteem and how one interprets the world that any threat to it produces an immediate powerful response. Moreover, identity is influenced by how individuals view themselves in a given situation or environment and uncovers beliefs and behaviors that are animated for conflict and simultaneously pinpoints identities that can be leveraged to facilitate inter-group negotiation and compromise.
Understanding identity should not be confused with the investments in Human Terrain System (HTS) or socio-cultural analysis; those are misguided endeavors. Cultures change gradually over time but identities transform instantaneously in response to different stimuli. By understanding the various identities within societies, intelligence analysts, military planners, and operators can make better informed decisions that shape perceptions and influence behaviors. Focusing on identity provides a framework to analyze population-centric data, direct collection activities more effectively, and integrate timely, relevant information into MISO and civil affairs initiatives. By pinpointing the dominant identity within a population, intelligence analysts and military planners can manage, synthesize, and make sense of large volumes of open source data more effectively.
The costs in lives and money associated with conflict continues to escalate as regional fighting expands in the Middle East, North Africa, and across the globe. Approximately $714.8 billion dollars has been spent in Afghanistan and $817.8 billion in Iraq. Arguably, both countries security situations are worse today than they were prior to the U.S. invasions. More importantly, over 6,500 U.S. service members lost their lives in these conflicts with thousands wounded or suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Moreover, the U.S. has already spent $6.2 billion in the war against ISIS, with no coherent strategy or narratives to counter the growing threat.
A population-centric approach that augments traditional diplomatic, military, and development efforts is the solution. Population-centric analysis finds solutions in a population’s identities, culture, beliefs, and religions. It pinpoints, forecasts and mitigates conflict through analytical products, master narratives, and engagement strategies that enable leaders, analysts, and planners to understand complex social phenomena and develop coherent strategies to engage populations and counter threats. A population-centric approach that uses identity analysis in planning cycles at strategic, operational, and tactical levels enables the DoD to:
- Manage, synthesize, analyze and store large volumes of varying open source information
- Create actionable, culturally attuned situational awareness for any geopolitical, socioeconomic, or ethnocentric environment
- Operationalize population-centric information into strategic, operational, and tactical assessments
- Create analytical reports that provide decision-makers population atmospherics, tailored narratives, and engagement strategies
- Identify the challenges and opportunities that reside within the human terrain to mitigate ongoing conflicts and prevent future conflict
- Allocate resources more effectively—save lives by preventing conflict before it occurs
[i] Flynn, Michael LTG, Sisco, James, and Ellis, David C., “Left of Bang: The Value of Socio-Cultural Analysis in Today’s Environment” PRISM. Issue 3, no. 4 “Sept 2012”.