Small Wars Journal

From Cultural Intelligence to Cultural Understanding: A Modest Proposal

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 3:45am

A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article

From Cultural Intelligence to Cultural Understanding: A Modest Proposal

Lawrence E. Cline

One of the critical areas in recent operations that has been identified as a major shortfall for the Army has been that of understanding the cultures and societies in which it has been operating.  Virtually every report that has analyzed problems in Iraq and Afghanistan has noted a lack of cultural understanding, leading to difficulties in conducting operations.  In particular, the report from Major General Michael Flynn et al. described a series of weaknesses in understanding the Afghan people and culture.[1]    The Flynn report in many ways argued that the U.S. military was not really living up to its doctrine of a more population-centric approach, and considerably greater attention needed to be paid to this aspect of COIN. 

This underlying argument in fact has spread beyond the US, and these basic requirements increasingly are being embedded within other Western militaries. The most recent NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) doctrine stresses that:

The cultural aspects of the human environment must be included in the planning of operations. A picture as clear as possible is required from government authorities to determine not just insurgent strengths but other cultural nuances and influences which can be brought to bear and have potential influence and effect to aid a military commander.[2]

The process has become sufficiently embedded among some COIN analysts that it has become accepted as almost a separate intelligence discipline, cultural intelligence. One of the “godfathers” of the neo-classical approach to COIN, David Kilcullen, offered the following prescription for the intelligence system required for COIN:

[T]oday’s intelligence paradigm, which emphasizes the acquisition of secret intelligence from foreign governments, may be ill-suited to modern counterinsurgency. Secret intelligence is often less relevant than information which is not classified by any government, but is located in denied areas. Feedback on the effect of operations on public perception may be critical. Human intelligence and tactical signals intelligence are clearly crucial, and additional effort in these areas would be valuable. But in modern counterinsurgency, where there is no single insurgent network to be penetrated but rather a cultural and demographic jungle of population groups to be navigated, “basic intelligence”—detailed knowledge of physical, human, cultural and informational terrain, based on a combination of open source research and “denied area ethnography”—will be even more critical.[3]

Despite much attention to this issue, it is far from clear that the Army has made significant long-term improvements in this area.  Arguably, one problem has been the term ‘cultural intelligence’ itself.  It is probable that most analysts using the term cultural analysis are using it as shorthand for cultural understanding and are trying to emphasize its importance to operations.  By putting the issue of local culture into the intelligence silo, however, the danger is that it makes the awareness of other cultures and societies somebody else’s job.  At the tactical and operational levels, there is no particular evidence that military intelligence (MI) units or personnel are any more qualified for this mission than are others.  By training and organizational imperatives, most military intelligence analysts are much more concerned with threats than more nuanced cultural issues. 

Certainly, from the author’s experience in Iraq, many MI officers, particularly at the senior ranks, did not display any great sophistication in understanding Iraqis.  At times, in fact, it was somewhat painful watching interactions between some MI officers and my Iraqi counterparts.  This generally had less to do with ‘Culture 101’ – the Americans and other Coalition officers somewhat ostentatiously avoided using their left hands, showing the soles of their feet, etc. –but seemed to fail to understand that they were dealing with Baghdadis rather than Bedouin.  In other words, they inadvertently (or at least it is hoped that it was inadvertent) were prone to give offense by a somewhat patronizing attitude toward their rather sophisticated Iraqi counterparts, even if they were “culturally aware.”

This is not to particularly single out MI personnel for criticism on this point.  It simply is to argue that Military Intelligence may not be the best system for actually providing the cultural understanding required in future complex cultural operations.  Before proposing one possible better system, it is necessary to look at what structures currently exist and issues surrounding their efficacy in operations.  In general, these can be divided into existing uniformed support and contractor support.

The Uniformed Side

In theory, there all are several structures through which cultural understanding can be provided to US forces conducting expeditionary COIN in other areas.  These include the Foreign Area Officer (FAO) program, civil affairs, psychological operations (now under the rubric of Military Information Support Operations), and Army Special Forces Groups.  Each of these elements, however, can have issues with providing the broadly-based support for cultural understanding that will be required in the future.

Somewhat the capstone program for the Army’s understanding of social, political, and cultural understanding of other countries is the FAO program.  By any definition, the FAO program represents a high-demand low-density program.  The Army has the bulk of FAOs, with a strength of about 1,250; the other services add about 1,000 equivalently trained officers.  One specific issue with the FAO program is that by the time that officers finish their necessary language and regional studies, they will be majors.  As such, they almost inevitably will be assigned to higher headquarters, as attaches, or in joint assignments.  Although these are critical positions, they do little for direct support to more tactical units.  Likewise, while the army’s policy on using FAOs in so-called so-called single tracking assignments –which is sharp contrast to the earlier systems of requiring officers to flip flop between FAO assignments and their basic branches— provides more opportunity for using FAOs as intended, for those officers who choose to (or are required to) retire at 20 years, they may have only or two tours as FAOs.

 At the more tactical level, civil affairs or psychological operations units certainly should be expert on particular operational areas.  Unfortunately, civil affairs units in particular have a wide range of actual missions, particularly on functional areas such as support for reconstruction and governance.  As such, expecting them to up to accomplish both their functional missions and to support cultural understanding by other units is stretching them very thin.  Similar issues, although perhaps not as marked as with civil affairs, exist with psychological operations units.

Of course, the usual example provided of units that are intensely regionally focused are the Special Forces Groups.  In theory, each Group trains for and operates in a designated area of responsibility (AOR).  Again in theory, this enables Special Forces members to become THE experts on the cultures of particular regions and the best approaches to take in working with the local populace, whether military or civilian.  For many years, this generally also worked in practice.  Unfortunately, over the last decade and a half, virtually all Groups up have been fed into the maws of Iraq and Afghanistan regardless of what their putative AOR might be.   This led to team members having to learn new areas plus losing situational awareness of their primary areas.  With the partial drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, more ODAs are available for deployments elsewhere (obviously preferably in their assigned AORs), but rebuilding knowledge, links with locals, and dormant language capabilities almost certainly will be a gradual, not quick, process.  More generally, particularly in today’s environment, expecting Special Forces members to be the ‘go to’ guys for all operations in unfamiliar environments is a recipe for operational failure. 

There have been other efforts to broaden cultural expertise beyond the formal FAO program. The first of these is the AFPAK Hands Program, created in 2009. This system is designed to create a cadre of experts on Afghanistan and Pakistan who will receive regular tours in the area.[4] At least in theory, the increased expertise would improve understanding of the operating environment in these two areas. The potential downside of this emphasis of course is that it focuses only on two parts of the world; although both likely will continue to be of strategic interest, their relative priority likely will decrease when (and if) the United States withdraws from Afghanistan. This could lead to the equivalent of a professional ghetto for those officers and civilian officials involved in the program.[5]

Finally, there have been various efforts on the operational side to increase cultural sensitivity and knowledge of tactical units. These typically have involved short-term training—normally of, at most, a few weeks (or in the case of the United States, self-paced online programs)—for troops being deployed into insurgency areas.[6] Although it might be argued that shallow knowledge of what can be complicated cultures may be as dangerous as no knowledge at all, this training at least represented an awareness of the importance of culture. Under the mantra of “every soldier a sensor,” such broader cultural awareness at least in theory should be useful as tactical reporting into the operations and intelligence systems.[7] In at least a few cases, unit commanders have created their own nondoctrinal cultural analysis units “out of hide” and with no official sanction, such as the 10th Mountain Division’s establishment of a Governance, Reconstruction, and Economics Coordination Cell prior to its deployment to Iraq. This cell and its supporting intelligence cells focused heavily on “socio-cultural information.”[8] Recently, specific units in the U.S. Army have been earmarked for geographical deployments in specific areas and have been given at least basic training on the politics and cultures of these regions. This particularly has been the case for some units already earmarked for Africa Command.[9]

The Contractor Side

Given the shortfalls in ‘in-house’ expertise available for conventional forces, as in common with a seemingly ever-increasing number of areas, the Army has resorted to the use of contractors for providing support for cultural understanding.   The most formalized system used both in Iraq and Afghanistan was that of Human Terrain Teams comprised primarily of contracted civilian social scientists. In general, they proved valuable in augmenting tactical and operational intelligence units, although their practical impact and seemed to vary depending on the team and the willingness of commanders to actually use them.[10] Their academic backgrounds, primarily in anthropology, were intended to provide a resource base for providing a more detailed picture of local social and tribal dynamics. The use of outside social scientists to augment military intelligence unfortunately proved controversial, however. This particularly was the case for anthropologists, whose professional association, the American Anthropological Association, officially “express[ed] its disapproval” in October 2007.[11] Other anthropologists argued that that their field was being “militarized.”[12] Given the potential  for the equivalent of professional suicide for the academics who might be the best fit for the program, its utility in such future operations may be questionable.

The Human Terrain Teams represented the most structured use of contractors in-theater, but certainly was not the only reliance on contractors for various cultural training and advice.  Contractors served both as advisors at various headquarters, but more particularly as members of training teams for deploying units.  In many ways, there simply was no other option than to make a relatively broad use of contractors because there was not sufficient in-house expertise.  However valuable these contractors might have been – and many were in fact truly cultural experts on particular regions – one issue that typically has not been addressed is just how well they really initially understood (and to ‘translate’) the operational links between culture and military operations.  Also, although the use of contractors provides the capability for bringing in needed expertise that simply may be otherwise not available, matching requirements and capabilities is not always easy.   Speaking as someone who has worked both sides of the uniformed-contractors fence, getting the right people to the right place at the right time depends entirely on the vagaries of the contracting system. 

One shortcut noted at least in the case of Iraq that was the use of translators as cultural experts Although certainly not doctrine, for want of any better option this became the default position for some US officers dealing with the Iraqis simply because they were unsure as to who else to rely upon or because the ‘experts’ were busy elsewhere. This may have had some usefulness in the case of Iraqis who had been living in the country fairly recently, but such interpreters were the exception rather than the rule.  Most of the interpreters with whom this author dealt had been living in the US for a considerable period.  There in fact were even broader issues with many of the interpreters in terms of expecting them to be able to deal with cultural issues.  Many if not most of them originally had come from countries other than Iraq.    In the seeming desperation for some knowledge by their US employers, however, if the interpreters had been born anywhere in the Middle East, that was close enough.  In some cases, in fact, some of the interpreters had problems in dealing with the Iraqi dialect, much less being expert on Iraqi society.

A Possible Way Forward

Although there are various existing elements that can be used for providing cultural understanding, an overall framework for actually meeting this identified requirement still is lacking.  One approach that would tie together available resources is the creation of units that for want of a better term could be called regional assessment units or detachments.  These units, all of relatively small size, would focus on particular areas of interest.

The term “detachment” is used very deliberately because the units would likely be of different sizes and somewhat different composition depending on their areas of responsibility.  Given the very different cultures, societies, and political compositions of the countries in the Middle East/Southwest Asia, Africa, and Asia, these areas likely would require larger units to successfully provide support.  Conversely, up Europe and Latin America probably would not need as diverse a unit that for their areas.  Although the detachment headquarters could be somewhat broad-based, subordinate teams would focus on a particular area.  In general, they would be about company size, although with a higher rank structure.  Actually incorporating them as units rather than simply another staff section is important: the odds of their long-term success would decrease significantly if they were simply another office buried in the bureaucracy.

 Although a good starting point would be simply aligning them with the current combatant commands, this may not be the best long-term system.    Many parts but of the world of do not lend themselves to as broad a focus as the combatant commands currently use.  Central Command provides a good example of this issue.  Expecting a single unit or detachment to be expert in the languages, societies, and cultures of countries as disparate as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria is completely unrealistic.  Similar issues certainly exist for Africa and Asia.  Trying to shoehorn the level of knowledge needed into the combatant command template based solely on bureaucratic comfort levels could create more problems than it would resolve.

Likewise, the controlling headquarters of this type of detachment would need to be resolved.  If assigned to the combatant command headquarters directly, the odds of bureaucratic “capture” would seem to be quite high.  In other words, the focus of the unit could become servicing the needs of their headquarters rather than the operational needs of deployed units.  Although similar dangers could continue to exist, putting the detachment under Army component headquarters probably would be more likely to result in a focus directed toward operational-level units while providing bureaucratic ‘cover.’

It would be most logical to establish these units as a mix of Reserve and active duty personnel.  The headquarters of the detachments would be active duty, but the teams would probably be stronger if they were able to tap into the broader knowledge base of reservists. They also could make better use of enlisted personnel with specific skill sets based on a combination of background and education.  At present, such troops are either scattered out seemingly at random or simply not used to their full potential.  In many cases, actually identifying soldiers or junior officers with critical cultural skill sets seems to be more a matter of accident than through any design.  This is one other argument for moving cultural awareness missions out of the intelligence world into the training and operational realm: fewer issues involving the need for higher level security clearances would be created.  This would particularly facilitate tapping the linguistic skills and backgrounds of immigrant soldiers.

These detachments would have three major missions.  These would be training, advising, and coordinating.  The training mission would focus on providing extended training to units both in their pre-deployment phase and if necessary once they are actually deployed to theater.  Likewise, the detachment would be of sufficient strength to be able to provide teams that could provide advice and assistance to both deployed headquarters and to major subordinate units.   

Perhaps the most critical role for these detachments would be in serving as a central hub for receiving and disseminating cultural information to tactical units.  At present, this is a largely neglected mission, with mainly ad hoc efforts.  Although many units, particularly in the Special Operations community, have in fact collected and used cultural information in their particular operational areas, effectively spreading such information over both geography and time has had a very mixed record.  Having one principal organization responsible for and clearly identified as the clearing house for this would provide major benefits.  Linking the regional assessment detachment to all conventional units and Special Operations forces would greatly improve critical information flow.

Two factors in particular make this information sharing critical.  The first is that much of current cultural studies and analysis have focused on traditional cultures and societies; this may be a particular problem with the academic side of cultural studies under whatever guise.  Although there certainly are long-lasting societal norms and patterns, countries in crisis – which of course typically will be where US forces might be involved – can see relatively quick changes in their societies, particularly in where the true power centers lie.  Relying on historical templates that might or might not be accurate can be a recipe for disaster.  Having a unit focusing on both “traditional” culture and how it might be changing under stress can be crucial for units deploying to a particular area.

The second factor that remains critical is that the US intervention forces themselves become part of the cultural and societal environment.  By their very presence, intervention forces become enmeshed in the complexities of the local environment. Analysis has tended to revolve around the effects of governmental or intervention force operations, with much less thought given to the impacts of the simple presence of these forces and how this changes social dynamics.  Civil Affairs units already have become somewhat involved in this aspect (on top of their myriad other missions); having a unit that can provide support for analyzing the overall impact would be much more effective.  Both these factors necessitate what might be called environmental sensing for changes in cultures and societies that can impact military operations, and they suggest the need for a unit tailored to collecting this information and being able to get it to the tactical and operational units that are operating in the area.

At the very least, the fact that the issue of culture and its impact on operations has been increasingly raised should be viewed as progress. The question is where to go from here.  “Ad hocery” has continued to show its limitations.  Calling for the establishment of new units in an era of budget constraints and (probable) personnel cuts might be a hard sell.  If the Army is serious about improving the cultural understanding of its potential future operations in culturally complex environments, however, it needs to create a long-term solution based on the most effective use of its resources.

End Notes

[1] Major General Michael T. Flynn, Captain Matt Pottinger, and Paul D. Batchelor, Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan, (Washington: Center for a New American Security: January 2010).

[2] NATO, AJP-3.4.4, NATO Joint Doctrine for Counterinsurgency (COIN), February 2011, 2–7. It should be noted that various references to cultural issues are prominent in this manual.

[3] David Kilcullen, “Counter-insurgency Redux,” Survival 48, no.4 (Winter 2006/2007): 123–124.

[4] For details, see Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff Instruction, Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands (APH) Program, Washington DC., September 3, 2010.

[5] For a more positive assessment of the future of this program, see Michael Coleman, James Gannon, Sarah Lynch and Reginald Evans, AFPAK Hands: A Template for Long-Term Strategic Engagement? Small Wars Journal, May 24, 2015 online at and Steven Heffington, AFPAK to APAC Hands: Lessons Learned, January 7, 2014, War on the Rocks online at

[6] For the sorts of training material used by the United States, see William D. Wunderle, Through the Lens of Cultural Awareness: A Primer for US Armed Forces Deploying to Arab and Middle Eastern Countries (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2006); and the online cultural awareness training course for soldiers at Army Training Support Center at NATO has provided similar cultural training to other countries’ advisors to Afghan units. This was a two-week program conducted in Germany, but ended in April 2014. For details, see LTC Jose Munaiz and LTC Christian von Platen “Last ISAF Battalion Level Military Advisors Training Completed” at the NATO Joint Force Training Center website at

[7] For a French view of a similar system, see Henri Bore, “Complex Operations in Africa: Operational Culture Training in the French Military,” Military Review 89, no.2 (March/April 2009): 65–71.

[8] For details, see Lieutenant Colonel William G. McDonough and Lieutenant Colonel John A. Conway, “Intelligence Support to Nonlethal Operations,” Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, PB34-10-3 (July–September 2010): 7–13.

[9] Associated Press, “U.S. Army Units to Head to Africa,” December 24, 2012. For details on Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno’s intentions on the so-called regionally aligned forces (with the somewhat confusing acronym of RAF), see Kimberly Field, James Learmont, and Jason Charland, “US Landpower in Regional Focus: Regionally Aligned Forces: Business Not as Usual,” Parameters 43, no.3 (Autumn 2013): 55–63. The core plan is to “earmark” particular conventional combat units to specific regional Combatant Commands (Pacific Command, Central Command, Southern Command, Africa Command, and European Command). At least some cultural and language training is intended for these units; given the normal training requirements for combat units, the extent of this training may be questionable.

[10] For the most detailed open source examination of the teams, see Christopher J. Sims, The Human Terrain System: Operationally Relevant Social Science Research in Iraq and Afghanistan (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, December 2015).

[11] “American Anthropological Association Executive Board Statement on the Human Terrain System Project,” October 31, 2007, at

[12] For example, see Roberto J. Gonzalez, “Towards Mercenary Anthropology: The New US Army Counterinsurgency Manual FM 3-24 and the Military-Anthropology Complex,” Anthropology Today 23, no.3 (June 2007): 14–19.


About the Author(s)

Lawrence E. Cline is an adjunct professor with Buffalo State College and a part-time contract instructor with the Defense Department Counterterrorism Fellowship Program, where he has taught in over 40 countries.  He earned his PhD in Political Science from SUNY Buffalo in 2000, with his dissertation on Islamically-based insurgencies.  He is a retired Military Intelligence and Middle East Foreign Area Officer, with operational service in Southern Lebanon, El Salvador, Desert Storm, and Somalia.  Following his military retirement in 1993, he was recalled to active duty in 2007-2008 and served as an intelligence engagement officer with Iraqi intelligence.