Small Wars Journal

Human Terrain Mapping in Kapisa Province

Mon, 04/12/2010 - 11:05pm
Improving the Coalition's Understanding of 'The People' in Afghanistan:

Human Terrain Mapping in Kapisa Province

by Dr. Matthew Arnold

Download the full article: Human Terrain Mapping in Kapisa Province

Central to the Coalition Forces' (CF) counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts in Afghanistan is the positive engagement of the Afghan people. This is particularly true for the 'point of contact': the connection between CF field units and local Afghans. Hence, it is critical that field units dedicate sufficient time and resources to the collection of information about the driving socio-political factors of their operational environment (OE). Under the context of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, detailed socio-political information should allow field units to better understand and hence successfully engage the local population such that they can be detached from supporting or enabling the insurgency. This necessity of garnering a deep understanding of local populations is common to commander's guidance and military doctrine.

However, while COIN is ostensibly all about 'the people,' it is staggering how little consistent effort the Coalition puts into systematically understanding local communities in locales that are most critical to ultimate success or failure. Afghanistan is a valley by valley war and the Coalition needs to understand the many peoples of the country in sufficient detail to approach it as such. This article provides a summary of the work being currently undertaken by the Human Terrain Team (HTT) of TF La Fayette (TFL), the French Brigade, to better systematically understand local populations in Kapisa Province. Specifically, TFL's efforts mean undertaking Human Terrain Mapping (HTM), which in the context of Coalition efforts in Afghanistan can be understood as the collection, collation, and presentation of the socio-political information necessary for a field unit to decisively influence a local population. Concurrently, this paper also articulates the role that HTM could play in the day-to-day campaigning of other Coalition units trying to better understand local populations. Overall, the author hopes the paper will highlight for other units in the field some practical possibilities for consideration based on TFL's initial efforts.

Download the full article: Human Terrain Mapping in Kapisa Province

Dr. Matthew Arnold is a Social Scientist on the Human Terrain Team at TF LaFayette, the French Brigade in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan.

About the Author(s)



Mon, 10/10/2011 - 10:24pm

I am CPT Erhan Bedestani. I was deployed to Tagab as the SF Detachment Commander during the time period that Dr. Arnold was there. I will tell you first and foremost his assessment of the coalition and its understanding of the local populace is INCORRECT. This is the second article I have seen him write and I am making it a point to clarify that his assessments are wrong. The methods he proposes we use,to better engage are indeed being used and were being used long before Dr. Arnold arrived in country. I recently returned from being stationed overseas in Stuttgart and have become aware of both this article as well as another co-authored by Dr. Arnold in which he and a state department representative take credit for development and security initiatives that were actually started and run by the Special Forces Detachment which I commanded. We in Special Forces and the greater coalition DO GET IT, we DO GET that the people and meaningful engagement with them is critical. Dr. Arnold's quote "it is staggering how little consistent effort the Coalition puts into systematically understanding local communities in locales that are most critical to ultimate success or failure. Afghanistan is a valley by valley war and the Coalition needs to understand the many peoples of the country in sufficient detail to approach it as such," is very disappointing to me. It was actually my detachment that provided him with a thorough briefing on the breakdown of the local populace and key figures, which he gratefully took and used. I say this because the attitude in his essay is patronizing and provides little credit to where credit is due. I work for an organization that has made a living on understanding people, thats what we do. We help those who can't help themselves. The people are the center of gravity and we were operating with that mindset long before Dr. Arnold arrived in Kapisa. I value the work of HTT's, I do not value his tone or his work. "DE OPPRESSO LIBER"

Tristan Turner (not verified)

Thu, 06/03/2010 - 1:37am

Hello All,

I am working on some data collection methodolgies and would like to find a copy of "Understanding Local People in Afghanistan: A Practical Data Collection Toolkit for Small Units", that is mentioned in the paper.



Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 04/18/2010 - 8:47pm

Michael---then how does HTS provide input to battlefield commanders dealing with the following statement:

"In Kandahar the Taliban is part of the fabric of society. That is the reality."

It is really hard to root out a guerrilla insurgency when in fact the Taliban are in fact the FABRIC of the society.

How does HTS separate the "fabric" from the rest of "society"?

Do you think that maybe HTS should actually admit it has reached the end of it's potential?

Michael Skaggs (not verified)

Sun, 04/18/2010 - 8:21pm

Interesting, but I find ASCOPE, PMESII, etc., too general. They discuss the aspects of the environment, which are important. I think understanding the aspects of the human terrain with the same granularity as we study geographic terrain would be useful. We study terrain to understand how those aspects will effect military operations. A tool is needed to understand how locals will perceive our actions. This will drive how we perform operations. In order to control the "decisive terrain" that the population represents in a counterinsurgency, it is essential to understand how military actions are perceived. Rather than using Information Operations (IO) to send messages to the population, the operations themselves are the messages. Once leaders understand how these actions are perceived, leaders can adequately conduct operational design and correctly frame the operational environment, specifically frame the right problem, and then design an appropriate solution. The challenge for leaders is to achieve this adequate level of cultural understanding prior to deployment and then sustain it during operations. How do leaders estimate and assess effects on population of an unfamiliar culture? Leaders and troops on the ground need a simple system for understanding the aspects of the human terrain in their operational environment in order to allow them to plan (frame the environment), operate (clearly communicate the message through actions) and assess the effects (understand how actions are perceived.)
Problem and solution framing cannot be conducted without correctly framing the environment. For leaders in a COIN environment, the ability to use cultural considerations to map human terrain, identify groups, and predict perceptions is key to winning the "objective", which is the will of the people. Immediately understanding all aspects of a culture is impossible. If groups are identified, and their associated behavior can give insight into their world view, predicting the local perceptions will be easier. Correctly framing the cultural environment gives the leaders and soldiers a cultural lens in which to analyze operations and predict perceptions. Once perceptions can be predicted, an operational approach can be designed to modify behavior to support operational objectives.

Sabers8th (not verified)

Fri, 04/16/2010 - 8:57am

The article is interesting I am very curious about the handbook you produced Understanding Local People in Afghanistan: A practical data collection toolkit for small units. Where Can I get a copy?

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 04/16/2010 - 12:34pm

To Anonymous:
Referencing; "The modelling already exists and has been peer reviewed"


Anonymous---the research model does exist and is based on 11 different insurgency/guerrilla wars in 11 different countries, took over 55,000 reports and six years to complete. It is running on MS SQL, and has not crashed a single time in over six years-AND can be reached via thin client on a laptop which takes out the problem of band-width.

NOW what is really interesting and which should have been of interest from the HTS community side is that it provided core ecological characteristics on all the 11 conflicts that are in fact similar if not the same. AND it can provide COAs in four major areas which goes a long way in taking potential HTS data into the military decision making process WITHOUT having HTS "to be involved" in targeting their own research subjects.

NOW the major problem is it actually validated the theory of "open source warfare-OSW" first proposed in early 2004 as an explanation of the speed of the evolution of the Iraqi Sunni insurgency.

OSW has been as one quoted here in this blog "cussed, discussed, and found of no interest"--BUT just in the last week the DoDBuzz article and a just released comment by the new JIEDDO Cmdr Gen. Oates in fact are finally using the same terms first quoted in OSW BACK in 2004.

Now the common view of the researchers is that the tested, validated and released research is being ignored as it points to a development COUNTER to the COIN FMs and it was not developed inside the defense contracting world or DoD AND in order to understand where the research is pointing one must be open to understanding OSW.

It should be noted that the released research actually confirms what intel collectors on the ground were seeing in Iraq through 2006/2007 but were not understanding what they were seeing and in fact I would challenge people to go back and look at the classified reporting for that time period and much of it would in hindsight be totally wrong.

Still do not accept the reasoning why HTS cannot participate in the military decision making processe especially since there are already "behavior scientists" working with Army
interrogation personnel.


Tue, 04/13/2010 - 5:42am

Dr. Arnold,

This is a timely and appreciated paper regarding a subject/problem set which DoD needs a systematic answer for if we do indeed want to 'win'.

I do have some quibbles. The HTT and CA relationship can be seen as a simultaneously competitive and synergistic one. Both of these factors are primarily positives in my mind. The Civil Affairs community has failed to systematically manage it's human capital of Civil Affairs Specialists and as a result Civil Service (formerly Contract) help is needed to fill the need. Hopefully it's not just isolated individuals within both the CA and HTT communities who see the need to band together and cooperate in order to answer the mail for America. With this in mind I offer the following military references as perhaps common definitions of our shared work which could be refenced in future papers: FM 3-07 Stability Operations, FM 3-24, FM 3-24.2, as well as the lastest open source updates to the CA FM's and GTA's. From these references it should be noted that CA assessments are not just limited to listing or looking for, as you allude to in this paper, the following items:

<i>"Civil Affairs data (presence of clinics, schools, wells, etc.)"</i>

Instead ASCOPE, PMESII, etc. are some of the thought process involved and applied in our shared work.

I would go even further and suggest that future papers discuss & consider not just USAID, but the contributions of USDA, DoS, FAO, and the NGO and IO communities to this topic. Herding Cats is tough, but the payoffs to Unity of Effort are enormous.

Former HTT (not verified)

Tue, 04/13/2010 - 9:35am

But Dr. Arnold, what about Map-HT? HTS still brags about using that as a systematic collection method for Human Terrain Data. What about Glevum Associates and SSRA? They brag, too, about their systematic collection, analytic, and dissemination methods as a part of the HTS.

Also, you complain - rightly - of stovepiping methodologies and data collection, but then state that you printed your "toolkit" in French for TFL. Did other units get it? Did you post this toolkit somewhere other units looking for this information could find it? Would you be willing to post it here so other units, who are interested in utilizing these collection methods, might be able to use it as well?

I guess I'm a little confused because you say units don't have this information, then say that you created an easy way for them to get this information, but then you don't provide this information - you merely state, without evidence, that it worked and was effective. Can you share the HTS HTM methodology with the rest of us so we can learn from it?

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 04/13/2010 - 11:47am

The overall problem with the HTS in general that while collecting infomation it does nothing to provide answers to:

1. Ground-level decision support:
EXAMPLE: I have identified key nodes or centers of gravity of a specific cell... if take those nodes out what is the overall 2nd or 3rd degree of effects on that cell. Does the cell stop all activities or
does it as the model says splitter and then reform with an even stronger cell? What might be the psychological impact on 1) the cell and 2) other cells.
2. Understanding the insurgent ecosystem:
EXAMPLE: Insurgent systems are difficult to understand, with many different moving parts, evolution and feedback loops (OODA). We can use the model of the insurgent ecosystem to trail different strategies to see how the insurgency responds.
EXAMPLE: Any "model" that can help us understand the enemy's communications structures, decision making process and group dynamics can, if given to the right people be a true "game-changer"...
3. Scenario Analysis:
EXAMPLE: Does picking off the "low hanging fruit" of let's say the Haqqani or hurt...I always struggled with this we hit the guy emplacing the IEDs or be patient, watch him, and follow the trail? In the meantime, he is emplacing IEDs that are killing US soldiers?
EXAMPLE: Information is transmitted using both global signals (media) and local networks. The local networks are formed through the coalescence and fragmentation process that results from the group dynamics within the insurgency. We can seed the systems with different informants or pieces of false intelligence and then watch how this information spreads through the system. We can also try different strategies for rumor transmission within the model - e.g. is it better to have one large group of spies/agents, or multiple smaller cells within the larger population. Which organizational strategy would be more effective at transmitting information?
4. Future event planning:
EXAMPLE:... can I use/leverage this type of model to help drive say tribal engagements to isolate single cells or multiple cells that were identified by the model?
EXAMPLE: For a peacekeeping scenario, where you have two opposing groups and one peacekeeping force. What is the best organizational structure for reducing violence? Do you split your forces up into many small groups or is it more effective to instead have a few very strong groups?

This is what field commanders want and need from human terrain---the key is turning collected information into actionable intelligence and that is not happening with the current HTS model.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 04/13/2010 - 12:09pm

Dr. Arnold's article described and elaborated on a method of information gathering, management, dissemination and retention. Let's evaluate it - there's plenty to evaluate; it's a good article, even if (or because) one can debate the ideas contained within it - on its merits or demerits, as the case may be, rather than on the larger question of "What is HTS and what should HTS be?

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 04/13/2010 - 2:28pm

Let's take Dr. Arnold's work as described.

Can the collected info (not intelligence)be tied into an analysis tool called ORA in order to draw the dots as CM states and "find" the "terrorist" in near realtime?

Quote: "Applying ORA to an organization, key actors who by virtue of who they know, what they know, and what they are doing are potential risks to the security of a company can be determined. Applying ORA to a covert network, key actors whose removal will damage the adaptability or performance of the covert network can be determined. A critical feature that is currently being built is a "sensitivity" indicator for each threat metric which estimates, given the level of accuracy of the underlying network, how sure we can be that the person identified as key really is key." Unquote

The major problem is not whether there should be or not be HTS---the overlooked inherent problem is far greater---what are we getting back from all the HTS reporting?-- and how is that reporting (basically info gathering)
contributing to the overall efforts at countering a phase two/three guerrilla war at the village level?

Right now I can count over three link analysis tools being used in the field at any given time and a targeting methodology called CARVER and now the push for "social network analysis" using ORA which is really a glorified link analysis visualization tool that still does not truly tell us in near realtime the ecology of an insurgency, how that insurgency is growing, thinking, communicating, and what are the projected attack windows. What is interesting about ORA is that while it uses advanced math it does not cross into the world of quantum physics which would be necessary if one is actually trying to look at an evovling insurgent ecology that is in fact a living organism as it is based on people and their the actions. I think the reason for remaining in the realm of advanced math instead of quantum physics is that a quantum model takes time to build and test for the validity, and be peer reviewed.

Now if in fact Dr. Arnold's article described and elaborated on a method of information gathering, management, dissemination and retention---where is the final logical step of analysis of the collected info?---this is where HTS is failing as it does not want to be seen as targeting the very population it is collecting vast amounts of data on.

Until that contridiction is addressed HTS will swim.

As a former HTSer who worked with the HTT in Kapisa province from its founding in 2008 to mid-2009 or so (both from the CONUS-based Research Reachback Center and in Kapisa itself), I want to congratulate Dr. Arnold for continuing to do great work in Kapisa. More than a few of us have very fond memories of the province, its people, and the French soldiers we worked alongside and supported.

I remain confused by one point, though. He's not the first HTT social scientist to note the complete lack of systematic collection methods, nor the first to try to implement a solution. If he's as successful as this essay suggests, I'd be interested in learning <b>how</b> he was able to get broad adoption of his HTM methods, since we spent years trying to convinced deployed HTTs on the need for standardized interview forms stored in a central place, and everyone obsessed on knowing the precise details of the people in their AOs. The thing is, most of those efforts fizzled out, partly because the HTTs didn't have good equipment or mandates to really implement these ideas, and partly because some HTTs have such enormous leeway in carrying out their missions few saw the need to cater their methods to a CONUS-based research center... and a number of them were so busy they didn't have much time or opportunity to specifically tailor their collection methods to any AO-wide standard.

I'm also curious as to to content of this toolkit (as is a previous commenter, if he's really from HTS as well). We noticed, for the most part, that standardized data collection - like a stable and relatively simple set of questions laid out in such a way to maximize the potential information gleaned from a brief interview - were generally rejected by ground units in favor of hyper-specific questions (i.e. "who lives in this settlement, and how do we convince them of X?"). At least in 2008 and 2009, there was little patience or tolerance for broader preparing-of-the-battlefield activity on the rare chances when the HTTs could get out on patrol with the local units.

If HTT-TFL (is it no longer called AF2?) solved these problems, I'm certain everyone can benefit from learning how. Both personally and professionally, I think many of us have a stake in figuring out how to make this really work.

So, Dr. Arnold, can you help us?

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Wed, 04/14/2010 - 12:18pm

While I can empathize with anonymous position that the HTS only collects cultural information I submit that transforming cultural information into intelligence and concrete actions on the ground remains the responsibility of the military and specifically our operations folks. HTS was never intended to be an extension of the operations arm. I submit that what the field commander really needs are planners and operators that can take the cultural information provided by the good people on the HTTs, and then actually develop campaign plans and civil-military operations actionable within the target audiences cultural frame of reference. HTS provides planners and operators with these cultural reference points. Anyone can be trained to be a frontier fighter... what we need are more frontier thinkers. To place the responsibility for frontier thinking on the good people working the HTS instead of expecting our military to do so is misguided.

Brother or Sister Anonymous, do we really require a HTS person to explain the 2nd and 3rd level effects of taking out a given cell and the likely impact on centers of local power. Do we really need to ask a psychologist what the likely psychological effect might be on a group of fighters if the leadership is taken out by a drone or assassinated in a previously considered safe area? Are we saying that our military folks cant figure out when to grab for low hanging fruit or not? Are we actually saying that our HTS folks are in a better position to explain the difference between low hanging fruit (targets of opportunity) and deliberate attacks? If that is the case, then we are in worse shape than I thought.

Warfare, whether population-centric or not, is still about imposing one's will. HTS folks, bless them all, are there to provide us with relevant cultural information, but not to plan or take responsibility for the operation. Thats what commanders and staffs are for...


Anonymous (not verified)

Wed, 04/14/2010 - 12:43pm


And why not have the HTS side of the house also explain their results to the planners?

We have "behavior scientists" already working with interrogation personnel at the JIDCs for a long number of years.

As an "enabler" it would be beneficial if in fact they could provide answers to the points you raise;
"Brother or Sister Anonymous, do we really require a HTS person to explain the 2nd and 3rd level effects of taking out a given cell and the likely impact on centers of local power. Do we really need to ask a psychologist what the likely psychological effect might be on a group of fighters if the leadership is taken out by a drone or assassinated in a previously considered safe area? Are we saying that our military folks cant figure out when to grab for low hanging fruit or not?"

Now you have hit the core issue with HTS---they actually cannot predict the impact of a decision on an insurgent movement down to the cells as that is not in their remit of data collection. Example: Attack the Network thinking takes info on the cell and attempts to development targeting of key individuals--but what if after taking the low hanging fruit and some mid and top level fruit--just what is the actual impact on both the cell and movement?---where do those go/do that were missed as they were deemed unimportant-- they may attempt to sit it out, but quantum physics research has shown they usually link back into the fight with the strongest group in the area.

HTS is not designed to provide the ecology of a cell or insurgent group as they are not from the world of quantum physics that in fact would provide those answers if tied to a research model that had already plotted the ecology of the local insurgency based on their own forms of communications and all military reporting in that area. The model could in fact test the 2nd, 3rd or even 5th level of effects before a move is even made against the cell or insurgency movement.

The modelling already exists and has been peer reviewed but for some strange reason it is being totally ignored for a number of reasons I will not go into here.

Now COMBINE the modelling with HTS and you will have the best of both worlds.

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 04/15/2010 - 6:10am

"The modelling already exists and has been peer reviewed"


I am relatively skeptical of a model with so much utility. I am reminded here of Abu Muqawama's "Quantitative Manifesto" (nor am I a quantitative-phobe). And just because something has been peer-reviewed does not mean it is or will be (let alone always is) right, just that it has gone through a quality control process designed to try and prevent something obviously wrong from proceeding (toward publication, toward usage, etc.). You write as if there is some silver bullet out there (the model you allude to) when I doubt any model possesses so much potency. Again, I think the way to proceed is to take the world as given - HTS's charter is not going to change, and it is going to remain explicitly and deliberately non-kinetic - and rather to *focus on the system that Dr. Arnold elaborates.*

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 04/15/2010 - 6:21am

Would like to add:

Fully agree with "MAC"'s position, and would like to reiterate/rephrase/repeat it. It seems a stretch to ask HTS to provide solutions - perhaps suggestions, but not solutions - to questions regarding force structure, etc. That would, to me, seem a military responsibility. Recall that while some HTS personnel are military, some if not most are not. HTS is ultimately arguably a hybrid military-civilian enterprise, but it is not a purely military one. Moreover, its charter is not to be an adjunct to the S-/G-/C-/J-2 with respect to collecting intelligence, but rather more to be an adjunct to multiple staff sections (eg, CA, etc), regarding gathering information about the civilian population within the AO. *Granted, HTS exists to provide operationally relevant information, but how to make the information operationally relevant is ultimately the responsibility of the unit to which the HTT in question is assigned, not the HTT itself.*

Once more, this is HTS as it is, not as we - might - like it to be. Improving it within these parameters seems to me more fruitful than wishing it were something it neither is, nor very likely ever will be.

Anon 5:10 AM

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 04/16/2010 - 1:25pm

Someone needs to look at OSW more intently as the standard Army COIN concepts are simply not addressing the current insurgency/guerrilla war evolutionary speed.

Would be interested in hearing a HTS answer to just how was it possible for the Somlia pirates to now be in about their third generation of evolution---the answer has always been "open source warfare-OSW" but the community has ignored it as the concept is to "simple". AND it has been around since early 2004!…

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 04/16/2010 - 12:48pm


Warfare, whether population-centric or not, is still about imposing one's will. HTS folks, bless them all, are there to provide us with relevant cultural information, but not to plan or take responsibility for the operation. Thats what commanders and staffs are for...


Hope you are not saying "it was great to have developed the atomic bomb, but I do not want to be involoved in dropping it" because that is what this comment points to.

Explain to me that if you are wearing BDUs, in some cases carrying weapons, or at least having an armed escort, eating and sleeping in military areas, AND getting paid at the GS15 level plus danger pay and overtime just HOW one cannot particpate in the military decision making process?

If the HTTs are so good at what they do then take responsibility for the work--do not try to provide personal cover and no responsibility so one can go back to the academic world with clean hands.

Why is it that any Army interrogator still has Abu Ghraib as a ghost hanging over him but HTTs can wash their hands---all warfare is dirty---then do not get involved and simply train the military to do your work.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Fri, 04/16/2010 - 4:58pm

Dear Anonymous,

Are you serious? Is this what my comments point towards? Who was responsible for authorizing the release of the atomic Kraken? Was it Einstein whose theories of relativity helped nurture the thing, or was it the father of the atomic bomb Oppenheimer himself? It was the commander President Truman himself that authorized the targets and the use of the bombs. Everyone else served in a supporting role.

Ill say it again. Our HTS folks provide cultural reference points for our planners and commanders and we should not push these folks to take responsibility for operations. Thats what commanders and staffs are for... HTS people provide information, nothing more, and nothing less. Transforming cultural information into intelligence and concrete actions on the ground remains the responsibility of the military and I am not about to support your premise to hand over this responsibility to HTS folks.

Maybe we ought to get rid of "enabler" programs such as HTS since what I believe I am hearing from you is that we should pass the responsibility for operational planning and execution to GS15s "who may or may not be wearing BDUs, in some cases carrying weapons, or at least having an armed escort, eating and sleeping in military areas". While these HTS folks may not participate directly in the military decision-making process, although I know for certain that many do, the cultural reference points and information they provide certainly is used by planners and commanders to make decisions.What more do you want? Sounds to me like you are looking for someone else to take responsibility that every green tabber intuitively understands to be his or hers.

You sound bitter... bad experience with BDU clad academics?