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On the Uses of Cultural Knowledge

On the Uses of Cultural Knowledge - Cover

Authored by Dr. Sheila Miyoshi Jager.

November 2007

37 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The United States needs to undertake a strategic regional net assessment that examines the following issues as it seeks to construct a regional security strategy to protect its interests and mitigate wider threats to international security. That net assessment should include reviewing the role of security guarantees in promoting regional stability, an acknowledgement of the contradictory nature of the inter- and intra state threats and tensions, and the negative impact that the U.S. obsession with force protection is having on its ability to effectively implement strategy on the ground.


The wide-spread recognition of the need for cultural knowledge in counterinsurgency has been noted and actively promoted recently by the Department of Defense (DoD). General David H. Petraeus, commanding general of the Multi-National Force Iraq (MNF-I), has been at the vanguard of these efforts. As the commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, he later took responsibility for governing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Relying on his experiences in Mosul, General Petraeus is currently in charge of a major new counterinsurgency effort in Iraq.

In sharp stark contrast to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s heavy-handed approach to counterinsurgency which emphasized aggressive military tactics, the post-Rumsfeld Pentagon has advocated a “gentler” approach, emphasizing cultural knowledge and ethnographic intelligence as major components of its counterinsurgency doctrine. This “cultural turn” within DoD highlights efforts to understand adversary societies and to recruit “practitioners” of culture, notably anthropologists, to help in the war effort in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The recent focus on cultural knowledge in counterinsurgency operations and tactics is a welcome development insofar as it has allowed field commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan to radically reassess the failed operations and tactics in counterinsurgency in both these places. However, what has so far been absent from the discussion on cultural knowledge is the effort to link this new knowledge to formulating an overarching strategic framework. 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.

The aim of this monograph is two-fold. First, it attempts to distinguish between the various “levels” of cultural knowledge and how they are used at various levels of warfare—strategy, operations, and tactics. Although not mutually exclusive, cultural knowledge informs these distinct levels in different ways. For example, the kinds of cultural knowledge that are required at the tactical level (e.g., the cultural knowledge of specific customs) is quite separate from the kinds of cultural knowledge that are required to formulate grand strategy and policy.

Second, the monograph attempts to explore how cultural knowledge might help to redefine an overarching strategy on counterinsurgency. While the military has been at the forefront of significant new and innovative thinking about operations and tactics, revising its old doctrines on the fly, America’s political leaders have failed to provide the necessary strategic framework to guide counterinsurgency. The innovative insights about cultural knowledge adapted in operations and tactics by our military leaders have so far not yielded any comparable innovations from our political leaders. While the use of cultural knowledge is transforming military operations and tactics in significant and revolutionary ways, this same knowledge is not being adapted by our political leaders to help redefine a compelling new strategy for counterinsurgency.

The monograph concludes by suggesting four distinct ways in which cultural knowledge can work to help redefine an overarching strategic framework for counterinsurgency.

1. Reconceptualizing the “war on terror” not as one war, but as many different wars.

2. Focusing less on the moral distinctions between “us” and “them”—a major centerpiece of the Bush Doctrine—and more on the differences between “them.”

3. Building support and relationships among both friendly and adversary states by taking into account how other societies assess risks, define their security, and perceive threats.

4. Building support for counterinsurgency among America’s civilian leaders. Especially amid the domestic acrimony spawned by the Iraq War, inadequate coordination between military and nonmilitary power will severely hamper U.S. counterinsurgency capabilities. Cultural knowledge of both military and civilian institutions is therefore vital if the coordination between them is to be effective.

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