The U.S. military has access to the world’s best topographic maps. It is now trying to build “culture maps” that include details such as a region’s tribal affiliations, ethnicity, religion and language.
The commander of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. David Petraeus, in a number of speeches has repeatedly said that “human terrain” is the decisive element in counterinsurgency operations.
“His remarks have had a rippling effect across the intelligence community,” said Jesse Wilson, who works at the command’s Afghanistan Pakistan Intelligence Center of Excellence. Officials there are pairing human terrain analysts with traditional intelligence teams.
Traditional intelligence, based upon satellite and aircraft imagery of the geophysical environment, worked well in past wars where open battle spaces far removed from civilians were the norm.
Commanders needed to know the lay of the land in order to attack the opposing force. But in current conflicts, they are relying upon soldier interactions with the local people to gather information.
“They’re told to walk the beat and make friends with the population,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Shane Halloran, who in December returned from a five-month deployment to Afghanistan.
The socio-economic climate of a region and the cultural norms, values and attitudes are qualities that the nation’s intelligence agencies in the past have overlooked.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency “is not set up to collect this type of information,” said Joel Maloney, director of the military operations group within the agency’s analysis and production directorate.
Intelligence analysts collect all the relevant geospatial information over an area, including the mapping, terrain elevation data and the latest imagery, and then analyze the terrain looking for culverts or other physical features that might lend themselves to an ambush or an improvised explosive device, or IED, attack, he said. They also include data from other intelligence disciplines such as signals or human intelligence.
At Central Command, the human terrain specialists work side by side with the geospatial-intelligence analysts to produce maps of a different vein, said Wilson, team chief of regional commands south and west in the human terrain analysis branch.
For example, if analysts plot on a map military reconstruction or development projects in Afghanistan with roadside bomb attacks during the same period, they may see correlations that show an increase or decrease in the number of those attacks over time.
Human terrain analysts are trained to hone in on cultural facts quickly and fuse them with geospatial data to make maps that traditional analysts wouldn’t normally consider, said Swen Johnson, founder and CEO of SCIA LLC, a Reston, Va.-based company that specializes in socio-cultural intelligence analysis.
Human terrain analysts seek to map out where tribes, ethnic groups and religious sects are located. They document attitudes — where a population’s beliefs and values are most prevalent — and annotate where certain behaviors tend to occur or not occur.
“Human terrain” maps are assembled in layers so that analysts can correlate previously unrelated qualities of an area to each other, Johnson explained. One map might show the locations of all the tribes in a region. A second map of that same region might depict the known locations of all the suspected insurgents. By superimposing one over the other, an analyst might discover that the bad guys are in a single tribe.
Social dynamics information, including local grievances and tribal riffs, can bolster troops’ knowledge of whether certain individuals or groups should be deemed friend or foe. Such maps could also be useful for search and rescue, and humanitarian assistance teams.
“Zeroing in on the things that matter to the populations that we study and then turning that cultural information into a geospatial product is really at the heart of what we do,” said Johnson, an Army veteran.
“We’re not just map makers. We also give assessments of what that map means,” he added.
Troops lacked that insight in Iraq, which cost the nation thousands of lives and billions of dollars, he said.
Johnson found himself in a tough situation as a counterintelligence special agent who was deployed to Kosovo in 2000. “I was supposed to walk the ground, meet with Muslim leaders, imams in their houses to find out where the bad guys were. But I did not have a good understanding of where the significant social groups were,” he recalled. It would have been nice if the maps that he carried had identified the neighborhoods where ethnic Albanians, Serbians, Turks and gypsies lived, he said. “You needed to efficiently reach those people, get the story and then send it up to higher headquarters to piece them together.”
The deployment of unmanned surveillance aircraft has not fixed the intelligence gaps, he added. “All that equipment out there, to us, is taking away from where the focus ought to be: Using the tools of the social scientist to understand the environment on the ground,” said Johnson, who holds a doctorate in sociology and founded SCIA after completing a five-year enlistment in the Army.
Troops on the ground, meanwhile, are tackling the problem with a new mentality. In a program separate from Central Command’s human terrain analysis efforts, the Army has embedded small teams of anthropologists with ground forces to collect data (see related story). Other initiatives have cropped up across regional command south in Afghanistan, Halloran said. A British task force element operating in central Helmand Province last year was ordered to survey the populations through which they were moving.
Newly arrived units to the theater are becoming aware of the data collection efforts. As Halloran was preparing to deploy back to the United States in December, he received a phone call from a Stryker battalion that had been moved out to Zabul Province as part of the realignment of forces in Afghanistan. “There was a [provincial reconstruction team] out there that didn’t have a lot of information for them in that area of Zabul, and they knew I had some [maps]. So they called me up and said, ‘Hey, we’re brand new here, what do you guys have for us?’” he recalled.
Halloran and his team back at Central Command had produced wall maps depicting the region’s tribal safe houses. Previous units had used those maps as templates for policing and security operations. Troops would overlay additional data and use them as guidance for planning their missions.
“It’s very much about having the information about the human geography of the area,” he said.
The first thing that the International Security Assistance Force’s new regional command south commander, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, asked for upon taking the reins in November was an intelligence briefing on the population, said Halloran, who at the time was deployed as the human terrain lead at the Kandahar Intelligence Fusion Center.
Special operations forces also are leaning on human terrain analysis products, said Wilson, who supported the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Alpha commander in Afghanistan last year. Human terrain analysis was used to make assessments about the source of violence in the area.
Because troops at all levels are finding utility in human terrain data, Central Command officials are pushing a plan to network U.S., coalition and allied forces into a single socio-cultural knowledge database that will provide them with pooled information.
“You’re seeing an effort that actually transcends any single discipline and a link between civil operations and military operations,” said Air Force Maj. Tom Hornik, chief of the command’s human terrain analysis branch within the Afghanistan Pakistan Intelligence Center of Excellence.
The so-called Afghanistan Pakistan tribal knowledge base would be accessed through a secure Internet host site, the Combined Information Data Network Exchange, or CIDNE.
CIDNE is available for use by coalition forces in Afghanistan, said Air Force Maj. John Redfield, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. It is available via three networks: combined enterprise regional information exchange system (CENTRIXS), battlefield information collection and exploitation system (BICES), and secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET).
Access to U.S. databases is a problem for non-U.S. partners.
The intelligence community has a propensity to over-classify reports, but sometimes the socio-cultural information in classified reports is not considered sensitive, said Wilson. Officials at Central Command’s human terrain analysis branch have decided to produce two versions of all products — the first one is classified and the second version is releasable to coalition forces.
“It’s a burden on us, but we know that that is what’s needed in this sphere of information sharing,” Wilson said.
Unlike geographical terrain that changes over the course of decades, the human terrain is constantly evolving. Maps need to be updated continuously, but with limited resources in the intelligence community, that is difficult to do, said Johnson.
“We feel it takes at least 208 hours to make a good analyst into a good human terrain analyst,” he said. “It’s an art for sure, more than a science.”