July 16, 2012

Insha’Allah they learn something useful

A recent article in Armed Forces Journal (AFJ) (How to teach about Islam, Armed Forces Journal, July 2012) discusses the issue of how to teach our personnel about Islam. When I began typing this, my intent was to critique the article. However, my differences with the article are so nuanced and our areas of agreement are so plentiful, that explaining the differences would require twice as much text as simply laying out my view. Although I will briefly touch on a few areas of disagreement, I encourage the reader to read the full AFJ article as a companion piece to this weblog post.

Issue: Our forces will continue operating in majority-Muslim countries and need some cultural knowledge relevant to those operating environments.

Over the past ten years, hundreds of thousands of members of our armed forces and other government agencies have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Many more troops and civilians have been involved in deployment activities by doing intelligence analysis and related functions from the United States. Surely, at least tens of thousands of personnel had direct interaction with Afghan and Iraqi civilians on the battlefield. Many personnel who did not engage in such direct interaction were involved in analyzing intelligence, briefing decision makers, and creating products that were designed to inform or influence local civilians. Whether directly interacting with local civilians, or interacting with the information environment that influences local civilians, our personnel need some cultural knowledge relevant to the theater of operations.

Constraints: Efforts to educate our personnel about Islam will continue to be constrained by the time available for training. Time available will increase as dwell time expands and deployments are shortened, but the complexity of the training will increase due to a more diverse mission set.

When operations were concentrated in Iraq, particularly when we had over 150,000 troops in Iraq for a prolonged period of time, it was easy to identify the necessary knowledge that most troops should have. The same is true now, in Afghanistan. Basic vocabulary, cultural taboos, and customary practices are easy to teach (or should be) when nearly everyone is deploying to, analyzing, or supporting operations in one or two countries. But as operations have wound down in Iraq, and as operations begin to wind down in Afghanistan, our forces are not coming home to stay. We are increasing our footprint in the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Languages skills, cultural norms, and customary practices are logistically more difficult to teach when troops are being shuffled among multiple countries. The optimal number of subject matter experts and learning materials swell with each new deployment destination. However, as the deployment tempo of our forces continues to decrease, there should be more time for training. As dwell times lengthen to two years and deployment times are reduced from 12 months to 9 months (for most of the US Army), commanders and staff should not be forced to stuff "10 pounds of training into a 5-pound bag," as my old Battalion Commander used to say.

High points and low points

We do not always do an adequate job of teaching our deploying and supporting personnel about how Islam influences daily routines and shapes values, norms, and beliefs in the areas where we operate. One example is a lengthy presentation given to personnel of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which portrayed radical Islam as being mainstream. That portrayal is neither accurate, nor useful. A more egregious example is a course formerly taught at the Joint Forces Staff College in which a professor – a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army – reportedly taught personnel to "prep for a 'total war' on Islam using 'Hiroshima'-style tactics." If that report is accurate, then the course was not only useless, but actually counterproductive, possibly causing personnel to be less informed than when they began the course.

Thankfully, there are bright spots in our training efforts that I have seen at our Combat Training Centers (CTCs). When I was a Soldier preparing to deploy to Bosnia, we conducted training scenarios at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana that used Bosnians as role players. When I was preparing to deploy to Iraq, we conducted training scenarios at the National Training Center in California that used Iraqis as role players. Some of the most productive moments in those training events were the unstructured interactions with the role players, after training scenarios played out. We were able to discuss misperceptions and cultural nuances that are difficult to learn from a book or training video. This training was certainly not adequate, because it represented a very small fraction of our training time, but what little time it occupied was used well.

A more recent example that I have seen is the Naval Postgraduate School’s Leader Development and Education for Sustained Peace (LDESP) program, which provides mobile and online instruction for troops preparing to deploy. Many lecturers are recent immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, or others with extensive experience in those countries. This program provides an incredible opportunity for units to receive instruction from experts who are among the most knowledgeable and experienced in their field. Instruction includes history, culture, strategic overviews, economic issues, security threats, and specific blocks of instruction about Islam, the legal system, and numerous other issues. The LDESP program is limited by how much time it can spend with each unit, but augments this time by providing online resources and distance learning programs.

It is reassuring to note that I have first-hand knowledge of positive programs, but I am only aware of the negative programs because someone tipped off a journalist. If the problematic programs were more widespread, then I suspect that I or someone whom I know would have encountered examples when serving in the Army, and repeatedly deploying to majority-Muslim countries.

Positive programs like LDESP, and good ideas like using native role-players, will hopefully survive budget growth-rate reductions. The greatest argument for retaining and expanding those methods is that they are useful and can be even more effective if an adequate amount of time is dedicated to them. As noted above, training time will be limited, but should be available as deployment tempos decrease.

The ends sought

This leads to the question of how to educate personnel about Islam. Our personnel will continue to deploy to majority-Muslim countries. They will have more training time to prepare for those deployments. But the content of the education will need to account for a greater number of deployment destinations. There are some basics about Islam that can be taught regardless of the destination, such as introductory material about who Muhammad was, how the Qur'an was compiled, prayer times, what occurs during Ramadan, and so on. There will need to be variation in instruction that aims to teach personnel how Islam shapes local culture, since this varies differently in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

At the start of this piece, I mentioned the recent article in Armed Forces Journal. One of the issues that it dedicates a lot of attention to is the domestic squabbling in the US between two groups: one that includes "those who believe extremism is intrinsic to Islam itself" and the other that includes "those who see no relationship whatsoever between Islamic doctrine and extremism."

I generally agree with the author’s assessment of the dishonest and dumbed-down debate that is unfolding in the United States. Most people in foreign countries, as the author points out, are shocked to discover how Islam is portrayed in the United States. Indeed, the way in which Islam is portrayed by anti-Islam activists here in the US is so far removed from reality as to be useless, and even detrimental, if any personnel were to accept it as accurate and rely upon that knowledge while deployed to majority-Muslim countries. But, as stunningly ignorant as much of the anti-Islamic nonsense is, much of the outrage it generates – real and feigned – is counterproductive. Reacting to an inflammatory statement only gives that statement free publicity and wider attention. Reacting to a minor slight reinforces a perception of being as unreasonable and extreme as your opponents allege.

As should be clear, I agree with problems that the author identifies in the US. However, I fail to see what this has to do with the issue of educating our personnel. We are not training our personnel to be foot soldiers in a culture war fought on cable television and weblogs in the United States. We are training our personnel to conduct operations in foreign countries.

The author laments that our “government educators are often caught between extreme anti-Islamic voices and aggressive lobbying by Islamic organizations to silence criticism of Islam." Perhaps this is true. I lack the knowledge of the personal pressures that are felt within the halls of our professional military education system. He goes on to declare that “there is only one way out of this dilemma." That way, he argues, is "to understand the battle for American perceptions of Islam, to map out the topography of the debate and to teach students to critically analyze rival arguments."

The specific details of what the author advocates includes some good ideas. I actually agree with much of it. But our agreement on ways and means is nullified by a disagreement on ends. The problem that he identifies is not relevant to preparing our personnel for deployments to conduct, and provide support for, operations in majority-Muslim countries. What the author has advocated is a program to help our educators avoid being pulled into battles of a culture war on US soil and, along the way, educating our personnel. The primary focus should be educating and the secondary focus on mitigating public pressure from fringe organizations.

As noted at the start, my disagreements are on nuanced issues. Rather than go point-by-point with what I agree or disagree on, I will simply lay out my view for any readers that have managed to survive this far.

Finding the way and means to get there

Our primary goal is not to make life easier for the educator. Our primary goal is to make the educational experience more valuable to the student. To achieve that, the content must be understandable, sufficiently comprehensive, usable, timely, relevant, and conveyed within tight time constraints. Ultimately, training schedules are approved by commanders whose primary concerns are readiness, sustainability, combat effectiveness, logistics, and basic combat skills. It would be wonderful if personnel had the time to read and discuss the works of Maliki and Shafi’i, analyze case studies involving hudud and qesas punishments, debate the views of Robert Spencer versus Tariq Ramadan, and so on. Try selling that idea to commanders.

Some classroom time is needed. For the average American teenager who has never met a Muslim, seen a mosque, and who may not know the difference between a Muslim and a Hindu (I’m projecting my 18-year-old self onto others), many basic concepts will seem abstract and are best taught in a classroom. But, as much instruction as possible needs to be integrated into training. Role players at CTCs are an excellent idea that should be expanded and refined. Rather than boring troops in a classroom with do’s and do not’s about barging into a mosque, burning a Quran, or handing out pork chow mien MREs, we should incorporate those things into training. Training scenarios can include:

- an insurgent attack being launched from behind a mosque as the call to prayer goes out
- actors playing the roles of orphan children begging soldiers for food and water at high noon during Ramadan
- leaders being thrust into situations where it is difficult to discern whether role players are motivated by religious extremism or political ambition guised as religious piety

As tactical units respond to those situations, the basic essential knowledge will be retained. The value of understanding the impact of religion will also be enhanced. Commanders will then be more amenable to making space on the training calendar for further instruction on Islam. Ideally, once a unit has begun collective training, developed standard operating procedures, and begun to receive details about its next deployment, it can receive more specific instruction relevant to its area of operations. This is an area that the LDESP program places emphasis upon. The cadre, composed of retired field grade officers and senior non-commissioned officers, explains to lecturers where the unit is deploying to, what the mission is, and gives a general idea of what the unit will be doing on a regular basis. Lecturers then tailor their presentations to be relevant to that mission set.


One institutional challenge that we must overcome is that our classroom environments are geared toward identifying articulable and measureable learning objectives to convey explicit knowledge. I am speaking from experience in the Army, but my view is that we are not very good at conveying tacit knowledge. We like to break down the knowledge, skills, and abilities of our personnel into lists that can be selected and installed into our personnel like applications in an iPhone, according to the mission set. If only life were that simple.

The greatest weakness of classroom instruction is that classroom objectives can be achieved without adding value to the unit. Instruction must be geared toward laying a foundation of knowledge that personnel can apply. In order for this to occur, there must be buy-in by unit commanders. In order for that buy-in to occur, there must be perceived value for the training. Instructors need to sell the value of this education to unit commanders by making it relevant. This means digging up case studies where knowledge of Islamic practices in an area of operations enhanced unit effectiveness, rather than reciting doctrinal distinctions between Sunni and Shia theology. This means following up those case studies with realistic and simple recommendations for how to incorporate the concept into training.

As commanders buy in to the value of the instruction, they will offer more details of what type of training they want. When this collaboration occurs, the instruction offered will be better received. It will be more relevant as input from the unit is incorporated into the instruction. But, none of that will happen until the unit leadership buys in to the value of the training.

The first move needs to be made by the educators. And educators will not convince anyone of the value of their instruction if their focus is primarily upon making sure all sides are heard in the classroom (this is where I part ways with the AFJ article and, again, I urge readers to read the entire article). There is not ample time for educators to give all viewpoints a voice in classroom instruction. And, quite frankly, nobody cares about hearing all viewpoints.

Unit commanders want to hear useful information that will make their units more effective. The least likely way to do that is to assure a commander that virtually "any viewpoint would be welcomed," but "not wholeheartedly embraced" and that his troops will "emerge with sophisticated views that are nuanced in all the right ways." I pulled those quotes directly from the AFJ article. Educators need to set out with the goal of convincing a commander that the instruction offered will make his unit more effective. If educators set out with the goal of placating fringe groups within the US, then everyone’s time is wasted.

Full disclosure: the LDESP program that I speak so highly of has permitted me to give guest lectures about the Afghan legal system, on 4 occasions over the past year.