Friday, February 17, 2012

Human Terrain and Liars

In a recently published book, Bazaar Politics, Noah Coburn, PhD, recounts his time living in the Afghan village of Istalif for 18 months between 2006 and 2008. Fluent in Dari, he rented a small house with his wife and lived in the village in order to conduct anthropological fieldwork. Besides an incredibly detailed account of contemporary village life in Afghanistan, I think this book provides some important lessons for Marines training for and conducting census operations.

An important takeaway from the book is how ambiguous, after some analysis, the local power structure actually is in Istalif. On the surface, the traditional power structures of a Tajik qaum, which very roughly translated to “tribe”, are present. The police, maliks, and mullahs are all present as well as some national Afghan government officials. These are the traditional “power brokers” that Marines would choose to engage with during key leader engagements (KLEs), shuras, jirgas, etc. However, after taking local history, economic dynamics, and the physical terrain in consideration, a different picture emerges. The relationships between various powerbrokers was extremely tenuous and, after the long period of civil war the village suffered through, almost everyone in the village preferred a peaceful status quo to solidifying power.

A single consistency I could draw from the book was that any Afghan in a position of power saw the international community as a source of income for their own patronage networks. Village chiefs, businessmen, and ambitious young men all told different stories to various aid agencies and organizations to direct the flow of aid money.

This should not be a shock to any Marines who have conducted intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB) or census operations. In theory, it is understood that the human terrain is complex. Yet, Bazaar Politics demonstrates how incredibly difficult that is for a military unit. As a civilian unaffiliated with the government in Kabul, NATO, or even the UN, Dr. Coburn enjoyed rare access to the population. The French troops who occasionally patrol the village are seen as sporadic occurrences who know little about the true situation on the ground. In villages where Marines lack a permanent presence, I’d argue we have about the same level of situational awareness.

Can a Marine unit ever reach the level of understanding achieved by an expert like Dr. Coburn? It would certainly increase our effectiveness at conducting counterinsurgency operations. This level of familiarity would be the precision weapons of non-kinetic fires. It would translate into the right application of money, force, and persuasion to separate the insurgent from the population and increase the legitimacy of the host government.

No. We have too many time, force protection, and linguistic constraints. However, we can be better prepared by integrating some of these complexities into our census training. Census operations too often translate into Marines on patrol asking some villagers generic questions and an analyst putting color-coded circles on a PowerPoint slide to indicate tribe affiliation. This is lazy intelligence and does not help the warfighter.

Instead, analysts need to show the same inherent skepticism towards census data as they do for other intelligence reports. Single source reporting should always be viewed as unverified. Only when corroborating information, from HET, RadBn, other patrols, NGOs, etc, is discovered, can it be reported with confidence.

Pre-deployment census training should include dishonest power brokers. Different Marines will be given conflicting information and it is on the intelligence section to determine how that information answers the commander’s intelligence requirements. For example, a mock NGO representative would arrive with information about a corrupt police chief which was relayed to them by the most powerful farmer in town. Another report from an embedded Special Forces training could report on the professionalism of the police force and the drug trafficking business of the area’s farmers. A CAG unit arrives in and mentions that the farmers want more wells but their police escort said it would only help the poppy harvest. Generated intelligence reports could refute or prove any of these claims. The intelligence section must arrive at a conclusion and make recommendations based on the imperfect knowledge.

The point is not to arrive at a simple answer like it was a game of Clue (It was the police chief at the mosque with the AK-74!) but to get the Marines used to handling incomplete information with skepticism and still coming to a conclusion. Realizing that it is in the interest of many locals to lie to our patrols, we must factor that very human tendency into our training. No local should be considered a passive participate in an insurgent environment. It is dangerous to treat them as such during training.


  1. I read the article with interest, due to the data included. It looks like I have to get the book to give a more accurate commentary. However, at first glance looks like we are forgetting something before entering the battleground.

  2. Well yes, foreign occupying armies are quite ignorant of anything that matters, and generally run about until the political will evaporates for such shenanigans. So it goes.

  3. If interested the book is available at

    Marine Corps Gazette

  4. Joe,
    I certainly agree with your thoughts here on the difficulty in finding "honest" conclusions, and you sum it up in your line that it results in lazy intelligence and definitely doesn't help the warfighter. I think part of the problem is that no real intent is ever passed on to the Marines who are going to conduct the census, or clarity on how that information is going to be used once they have it. Without understanding the purpose behind the mission (and understanding the demographics only goes so far) the Marines on the ground are not able to challenge information given to them by the locals.

    To be help prompt Marines into using some probing questioning to either get the truth or realize they are being lied to, commanders need to be more clear in explaining why it is important to identify demographic data. And if they can't provide it, it probably isn't going to be used for much more than a PowerPoint slide.

    I'm not saying a census isn't important. But to uncover the liars, Marines first need to be ready to ask questions, and without a clear purpose, that won't happen.