January 03, 2008

Operational vs. Strategic Culture

This SSI publication came across Charlie's desk today: On the Uses of Cultural Knowledge by Sheila Miyoshi Jager. It manages to pack a review of FM 3-24, an overview of the controversy surrounding Human Terrain Teams (and anthropology in COIN, in general), and a set of culturally based policy recommendations for the GWOT into a v. trim 30 pages. This in and of itself is quite a feat. But wait, there's more! It's also really good.*

Of particular interest to Charlie was the author's distinction between the uses of culture at the operational and strategic levels, something she's been trying to sort out at work recently. Much of the current focus on culture--particularly in the COIN community--is in assisting operators in the field. And that's damn important. But it's not the whole picture:

If cultural knowledge has helped U.S. forces to refocus their efforts to better achieve their operational and tactical goals, the question our political leaders should be asking is whether cultural knowledge can also help them to redefine a broader strategic framework for counterinsurgency.

One element of this dichotomy is that "operational" culture is relatively static: it consists of customs, habits, and traditions; the cultural or symbolic details of everyday life. But,

Against this definition of culture as an enduring “grammar” of values and customs rooted in a timeless tradition, cultural knowledge as applied to the level of strategy assumes that cultures are dynamic entities, not static categories. Hence, in formulating an overarching strategic framework for counterinsurgency, it is important to grasp not merely the cultural logic of say, Sunni identity, including their values, customs, traditions, etc., but how Sunni extremists have invoked these traditional values, historical experiences, and belief-systems in the contemporary context to justify their extremist actions.


[E]xtremist groups like al-Qai’da have appropriated and reinterpreted Islamic texts, belief-systems, and traditions to justify their own radical ideology; in other words, they have used culture instrumentally.

Recognition of this instrumentality is underlies many of the policies associated with the Anbar Awakening and CLCs in Iraq. Which also to suggest that it's not a panacea: cultural knowledge, of the type used in devising strategies, often creates strategic possibilities where seemingly none existed before. New fissures to exploit, new allies to woo. But these polices can also be fraught with peril. Policies informed by culture are nearly always going to be at least marginally better than those that aren't (cf, Iraq 2003-2005). Like most everything on the battlefield, these victories are precarious.

Jager may respond that those are operational decisions, still not informed by anything resembling a grand-strategy based on an understanding of AQ's ideology and place in the Muslim world. And Charlie is in violent agreement. Here's hoping that that changes soon (especially with all the talk about arming/engaging tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan). But as we all know, hope is not a plan.

*Charlie is still rather uncomfortable with the idea of "culture" as popularly used. She tends to think more in terms of institutions (or, if you prefer, preference functions, which "culture" influences and orders). Jager notes that at the Army War College (which hosts SSI), they think of strategic culture primarily in terms of history. Which, to Charlie's mind, also works.