Small Wars Journal

Contemporary Conflict: Challenges and Opportunities

Share this Post

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

End Note

[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”.


About the Author(s)

James R. Sisco is the founder and President of ENODO Global, Inc. a risk advisory firm that conducts population-centric analysis to solve complex social problems in dynamic cultural environments. Jim draws upon a distinguished 23-year military career in Marine Corps Special Forces and Naval Intelligence to lead ENODO Global.


(Edited and added to just a bit. In this regard, note especially the addition of the President Eisenhower quote, re: "identity," from his first inaugural address in 1953, and my thinking re: same.)

The primary source of conflict, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today; this is very much the same as the primary source of conflict in the Old Cold War of yesterday.

This because, in both cases outlined above, the primary source of conflict -- oh so obviously -- stems from the effort being made by great foreign nations (think the Soviets/the communists back then; think the U.S./the West today) to transform the rest of the world more along these great foreign nations' very own peculiar -- and thus very often completely alien and profane -- political, economic and social lines.

It is in this context, to wit: post-World War II efforts made by certain great nations to transform outlying states and societies more along their very own peculiar, alien and profane political, economic and social lines, that one finds elements of "identity" becoming so important. This because, in the context offered above (great nation efforts at state and societal transformation), these are the exact matters that (a) stand in the way and that, thus, (b) must be overcome and replaced.

Based on this understanding:

Question: What is glaringly missing from this article generally, and specifically from the following excerpt from same?

"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. ..."

Answer: The fact that "identity" is not only the principal source of most religious and ethnic conflicts (actually just a side issue today). But that "identity" is (much more important to our discussion here) the primary source of those conflicts which ensue when:

a. Great nations (think the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday; think the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today),

b. Acting on their determination to transform other states and societies more along their own unusual, unique, alien and profane political, economic and social lines (along communist such lines back-in-the-day; along modern western such lines today),

c. Run headlong into other state actors (think the U.S./the West back then; think Russia, China and Iran today) -- and various non-state actors (in both cases, think the conservative elements of various populations) -- who will actually (1) "weaponize" identity and (2) use it as a primary means/method/rallying point by which they attempt achieve their common objective; which is, to preserve, protect and defend their preferred ways of life, their preferred ways of governance and their preferred values, attitudes and beliefs.

(In this regard, note here, in his first inaugural address, President Eisenhower's clear understanding of the role that "identity" played in the Old Cold War of yesterday; a time when the U.S./the West, and the conservative elements of various populations, together, sought to defend their way of life, their way of governance, etc., against the onslaught of Soviet/communist-promoted communism.

"4. Honoring the identity and the special heritage of each nation in the world, we shall never use our strength to try to impress upon another people our own cherished political and economic institutions."

Of course, with the U.S./the West now, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, taking on the "transforming" role that the Soviets/the communists had in the Old Cold War of yesterday, no American president could -- with a straight face -- make such a statement today?)

Only now, and as per the thesis presented above I suggest, does one have a proper understanding of (a) the critical role that "identity" plays in "Contemporary Conflict" (if one is doing "containment," etc., it is on your side; if one is doing "expansion/transformation," then it is what is standing in your way) and, thus, a proper understanding of (b) the "Challenges and Opportunities" presented by same.


Thu, 06/09/2016 - 9:02am


Appreciate the article and detailed assessment of population and human domain centric approaches.

Tom Pike and Eddie Brown wrote a good article here regarding complex IPB and population dynamics:

It seems to me that experimental Complex IPB satisfies some of the opportunities you mentioned involving existing intelligence tradecraft, integration into planning activities, quantifiable process, identity transformation (through analysis of micro-decision aggregation), evaluation of groups/dominant identities, interactions and behavior.

I agree with your points about population centric analysis support to understanding complex OEs, social phenomena and the development of coherent strategies.

Lastly, I recently applied the complex IPB Model in Ukraine; specifically to the ATO in the east. Below are a few excerpts from that assessment. This assessment augmented JIPOE (JP 2-01.3), since complex IPB is developmental and not fully tested and validated.

Excerpt I: Intro and Core

Traditionally, IPB has been characterized by a validated approach that examined terrain, civil considerations, and threat interdependence, but did not consider multi-group interconnectedness, micro-decision-making, and population behavior evaluation (human domain centric analysis). This original process has involved a systematic four-step process of analyzing and visualizing portions of mission variables in a specific area of interest and for a specific mission. The end state for the process was for commanders to gain the information necessary to selectively apply within the OE in order to maximize operational effectiveness. Thus, if our OE and its dynamics are like a garden, the old system focused on the soil, weeds and insects, instead of the entire landscape and interactions which made the plants vulnerable or resilient to them.

Conversely, a new and more comprehensive approach know as Complex IPB 3 is a six-step developmental framework based on a 2002 RAND assessment entitled Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield for Urban Operations. Instead of only identifying and evaluating threat/adversaries, the new process offered by Complex IPB goes a step further and also analyzes multiple groups and how these groups interact and collectively behave. Like the hybrid and dynamic threats it was developed to defeat, the Complex IPB process offers a combination of conventional and more innovative method that emphasize cultural intelligence, perception assessments, population factors, and non-military actor analysis in order to create a more accurate picture of the current OE. Therefore, a Complex IPB is generated by expanding the Core IPB process to include link and social network analysis and computational agent-based models. Although Complex IPB has not been employed widely enough in order to validate its effectiveness just yet, it is clear that complex operational environment assessments like Complex IPB theory would offer a more comprehensive picture of the active OE. A more comprehensive picture of the active OE is undoubtedly crucial in maximizing operational effectiveness and consolidation of gains.

Since Complex IPB has evolved from the traditional IPB approach in order to more adequately understand the core human domain, Complex IPB is the next generation of IPB. Additionally, since Complex IPB includes socio-cultural as well as political ecosystem analysis (fitness landscape analysis similar to PMESII system and sub-system analysis), this new process has the potential to dramatically improve foreign population analysis in general. For instance, the new process considers both individual and collective capabilities, also known as fitness functions that are based on profession, education, ethnic group, family connections, and economic need. Therefore, Complex IPB understands and takes into account the fact that an actor survives and thrives not only based on their fitness function, but also based on their ability to extract resources from the fitness landscape.

Excerpt II: Complex IPB Ukraine Excerpt

Specifically using Ukraine as the case study for Complex IPB employment, the assessment is the fitness landscape and functions in the Donbass region are currently disconnected from Ukraine and Russia. These systems and capabilities are artificially and ineffectively replicated by the separatist republics with manipulation from internal and external actors. That assessment has cascading effects for the population of that area, Ukraine as a whole, neighboring countries and international community. Individuals compose groups, which compose populations. Those populations are represented by state, proto-state, rouge state and third party actors. The previous assessment is the reason why complex IPB evaluates groups as the third step in the process. Furthermore, large groups of people will make the same decisions without a centralized decision making process. This phenomenon is evident in the War in Donbass also called Russo-Ukraine War, where various groups and individuals decided to support the separatist movement, not the centralized government in Kiev. Although each group or individual may have had different motives for their decision to support separatists’ goals of “Novorossiya” or “New Russia” nation building, when these micro-decisions aggregated together the result was either the strengthening or weakening of the separatist movement. These micro-decisions change over time and cause the separatist movement and associated centers of gravity to shift. Some general population centric core grievances associated with micro-decisions and associated behavior involve: political loyalty to Russia, discriminatory redistribution within Ukraine, negative affect of European Union membership and economic austerity measures, and sense of betrayal by Kiev 5 .

Excerpt III: ATO Application Summary (threat and threat supporting groups assessment, interaction and population behavior evaluation.

The above assessment accounts for 16 of the various groups inside and outside the ATO zone, but not “friendly and unknown” groups, which are also included for appropriate engagement and effects assessment. Conclusive analysis assessed the threat and population’s behavior fit in category three of behaviors of concern, which is stalemate with neither the government nor insurgency gaining ground. More refined analysis would reveal internal dynamics driving the population’s behavior, who do not fully support Projekt Novorossiya, but feel betrayed and disenfranchised by the Kiev government. Based on this process, continued and future assessments will identify additional and connected PMESII implications on one hand, involving anti-corruption and reconciliation initiatives by the host nation. On the other hand, involving external international foreign internal defense (FID) support and ceasefire special monitoring missions by intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). Finally, current threats and external influence will continue to exploit PMESII vulnerabilities if not acknowledged and holistically reconciled and politically accomodated by the government. The question now involves what national and international instruments of power to better synergize to restore the Donbass region’s systems, Ukraine’s ecosystem and post-revolutionary equilibrium.