It has become axiomatic that cultural intelligence is key to success in counterinsurgency operations. But is it? This episode examines this assumption—is the cultural training we receive in the military indeed the linchpin to success, or is it a red herring, even a harmful distractor, in the absence of coherent strategy? Why does cultural awareness tend to be absent at the strategic level, and does this really matter? As with much of the questions we discuss on the Irregular Warfare Podcast, the answers are by no means simple—but are important for both policymakers and practitioners to understand.
Our guests on the episode discuss why cultural intelligence is as important to strategic decision-making as it is to tactical actions on the ground and give compelling examples of what happens when this concept is ignored. They explain what cultural awareness should mean in the context of counterinsurgency and, looking ahead, in the era of great power competition.
Sir Simon Mayall had a distinguished forty-year career in the British Army, much of it spent in the Middle East, culminating in the position of Prime Minister David Cameron’s security envoy to Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government. Since retirement, he has written and spoken extensively about Western involvement in the Middle East and has also authored a book, Soldier in the Sand: A Personal History of the Modern Middle East.
Dr. Christian Tripodi is head of graduate studies for the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London. His research focuses primarily upon irregular warfare—particularly the approach of Western militaries to IW and the forms of knowledge they use to understand the environment. Christian has authored a book on the topic called The Unknown Enemy: Counterinsurgency and the Illusion of Control.
The Irregular Warfare Podcast is part of the broader Irregular Warfare Initiative (IWI). IWI generates written and audio content, coordinates events for the IW community, and hosts critical thinkers in the field of irregular warfare as fellows. You can follow and engage with the Irregular Warfare Initiative on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn to make sure you don’t miss any new content.
Image credit: Task Force Helmand Public Affairs
If one is an entity — for example the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday and/or the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — whose raison d'être is to achieve, in other states and societies, "revolutionary change" (that is, to achieve complete and comprehensive political, economic, social and value change), then:
a. The cultures of the foreign countries within which you operate,
b. These such cultures are, in fact, your enemy/THE enemy.
Thus, if one is supposed to — as one is told — "know one's enemy," then one must, quite obviously and from the perspective I offer above, know and understand the culture of the foreign countries where you have been, as a soldier and/or as a statesman, deployed?
Logical. Sad that logic is discounted as its foundation is, surely, needed to be victorious in warfare.
As to a counter-argument to my position above, given that our job is to achieve "revolutionary change" (that is, to destroy and replace the existing culture within the state and societies where we are deployed); given this such mission, knowing the culture of such places serves no great purpose. As to this such suggestion, consider the following:
"A revolutionary war is never confined within the bounds of military action. Because its purpose is to destroy an existing society and its institutions and to replace them with a completely new state structure, any revolutionary war is a unity of which the constituent parts, in varying importance, are military, political, economic, social, and psychological. For this reason, it is endowed with a dynamic quality and a dimension in depth that orthodox wars, whatever their scale, lack. This is particularly true of revolutionary guerrilla war, which is not susceptible to the type of superficial military treatment frequently advocated by antediluvian doctrinaires. …"
Thus, instead using training time to educate our statesmen and soldiers as to the cultures of the states and societies where they will be deployed; there, to destroy and replace the existing social structures and institutions therein — instead we should use this training time to better educate and indoctrinate our soldiers and statesman — as to OUR OWN CULTURE AND INSTITUTIONS; this, so that these soldiers and statesmen might become better able to educate, and indoctrinate, the native populations that meet and interact with in foreign lands:
"In the United States, we go to considerable trouble to keep soldiers out of politics, and even more to keep politics out of soldiers. Guerrillas do exactly the opposite. They go to great lengths to make sure that their men are politically educated and thoroughly aware of the issues at state. A trained and disciplined guerrilla is much more than a patriotic peasant, workman, or student armed with an antiquated fowling-piece and a home-made bomb. His indoctrination begins even before he is taught to shoot accurately, and it is unceasing. The end product is an intensely loyal and politically alert fighting man. Guerrilla leaders spend a great more time in organization, instruction, agitation, and propaganda work than they do fighting, for their most important job is to win over the people."
(See U.S. Marine Corps Field Manual FMFRP 12-18: Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla Warfare, pages 7 and 8.)
As to the counter-argument that I make above, also consider the following:
Dhofar, El Savador and the Philippines are all campaigns driven by fundamentally conservative concerns. When we are looking to Syria right now, it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end. And in this coming era, where we are pivoting away from large-scale interventions and state-building projects, but not from our fairly grand political ambitions, it may be worth exploring how insurgents do more with little; how they approach irregular warfare, and reach their objectives indirectly."
(See the Small Wars Journal article "Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency" — an interview by Octavian Manea of Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell.)
After spending the better part of my active military duty either in mountains or chasing armed rebels, can relate to the importance of cultural intelligence in Counter Insurgency (CI) operations. The local population is the center of gravity in any internal or intra-state conflict. Hence, the success of CI lies more in the people-centric operations and less in cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is only a tool to achieve that. But rather unfortunate it is, that such awareness even though in abundance at the strategic level, is rarely in sync at tactical levels resulting in soldiers losing combat motivation. Understanding the difference helps navigate the unchartered landscape. No doubt military contingents of a few nations are generally are more in demand and are acceptable in UN peacekeeping in complex intra-state conflicts
From the first paragraph of our article above:
"Why does cultural awareness tend to be absent at the strategic level, and does this really matter?"
As to this such question, let's attempt to (a) look at the culture of other states and societies; this, (b) from a strategic point-of-view. Here goes:
Although we are no longer use "colonialism;" this, as our means of (a) overcoming the "cultural backwardness" problems of other states and societies and to, thereby, (b) benefit more fully from the "normal economic activity" that we might implant in such places:
"Where the cultural backwardness of a region makes normal economic intercourse dependent on colonization, it does not matter, assuming free trade, which of the civilized nations undertakes the task of colonization."
(See Joseph Schumpeter's "State Imperialism and Capitalism")
Although we no longer do this, the strategic mission to (a) overcome the "cultural backwardness" problems of a region; this, so as to (b) benefit from "normal economic intercourse" that we might create there — this such strategic mission remains the same.
Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:
From this such strategic point-of-view, how important is it for us to understand the cultural (or, from the perspective that I offer above, the "cultural backwardness") of the places that our statesmen and soldiers will be sent; there, to achieve the strategic results that I outline above?
From the perspective that I have provided above, can we actually say that — in colonial times and/or today —
a. Cultural awareness tends to be absent at the strategic level; this, given that — yesterday as today —
b. "Cultural backwardness" is what we have, in effect — and both then and now — been sent to overcome?