Counter-Terrorism: Mapping Cultures


August 11, 2012: The United States has a very important intelligence effort going on in Afghanistan that is little reported. This work is called human topography and collects large quantities of tribe, family, and economic data. Put into databases and analyzed with powerful software, otherwise hidden relationships are discovered. The more data you gather, the more insights you get. In effect, this would give American commanders more knowledge of what is going on inside Afghanistan than national, or even local, Afghan politicians and government officials. This kind of knowledge is necessary if you want to make long-term changes in Afghan society (like eliminating blood feuds and the violence in general). These techniques can also generate predictive analysis, which is basically generating a good estimate of when someone will do something.  

Gaining a better understanding of the culture and local politics makes it possible to gain allies and make negotiating peace deals without a lot of violence easier. For over two centuries the U.S. military (and colonial militias before that) have understood that knowledge of your opponent is the first step to victory. This sort of thing was never considered important enough (until recently) to be made part of the official military doctrine (books of details on "how to fight" and such). One exception was the "Small Wars Manual", written by some U.S. Marine Corps officers just before the U.S. entered World War II.

The Small Wars Manual was never really forgotten inside the military. When the U.S. Army Special Forces was established in 1952 many of the key players were men who had served in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Special Forces and the CIA) during World War II. There they learned how critical what we now call human topography was. The World War II vets also learned how powerful media (mainly radio and well-crafted rumors back then) could be.

Until about a decade ago the Small Wars Manual and the OSS experience was largely forgotten (or ignored) in the U.S. Army and the American military in general. But the Special Forces and some in the CIA remembered and were ready to move after September 11, 2001. It's taken the last decade for most of the U.S. military leadership to appreciate human topography and what is now called Information War (developing media messages and outlets to gain the support of local social movements).

Just knowing of these tools and their importance is only half the job. Obtaining accurate and useful human topography and then using that to fashion an effective Information War campaign is essential. In the last decade a lot of new techniques were developed for collecting and sorting out all this data. Part of that was technology, but a lot of it was the realization that this sort of thing has worked for centuries and still does.





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