Roots of the #Human Dimension: Understanding Historical Grievances as Context for Conflict

Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ongoing challenges ranging from Russia, China, and ISIL, the Army has recognized the need for greater cultural awareness as a means of better interacting and influencing the populations in which it must operate. To address this shortcoming, the Army’s Human Dimension White Paper seeks to bolster the capabilities of its soldiers and leaders by emphasizing:

“Cultural understanding is instilled through regional alignment, broad cultural appreciation, professional judgment, and language proficiency. The Army of the future must produce leaders, at every level, who think broadly about the nature of the conflict in which they are engaged. They must have a nuanced appreciation of social context, and an ability to develop strategically appropriate, ethical solutions to complex and often-violent human problems.”

However, cultural and linguistic understanding, while positive, are insufficient unless there is specific focus on the historical grievances that provide a context for conflict between an adversary and the US or between factions between which the US may find itself caught. The Army recognized this fact in the White Paper as it described the current operating environment as “geopolitical changes are rapid, generate ambiguity, and lead to regional instability and conflict often tied to ancient grievances.”

Why is this important? The most immediate answer to that question is the situation in Iraq. The rise of ISIL represents a simmering anger in the greater Muslim world over perceived injustices faced since the collapse of the Islamic Caliphate after WWI, the artificial creation of Middle Eastern states led by depots, and continued Western meddlingProfessor Jeremy Black from the University of Exeter sums up the challenges of ISIL and others by stating “grievances provide an easy way to mobilize identity and expound policy; and the use of grievance in this fashion by one party encourages its use by another…grievance becomes a means both to interrogate the past and to deploy the past to justify current actions.” Beyond ISIL, historical grievances is driving China’s ambitions for regional hegemony as a means to undue its perceived “Century of Humiliation” and President Putin’s actions towards the West. Understanding these historical grievances from an international relations perspective in the formulation of policy is important, but recent conflicts have shown that they must be operationalize at the tactical level so that soldiers and leaders alike can interact and potentially influence populations.

The White Paper clearly emphasizes the need for operationalizing this knowledge by “promoting the cultural empathy and social intuition necessary on the future battlefield requires the Army to re-energize investment in education programs focused on the development of cultural and regional expertise prioritized to potential conflict areas. Among the many broad cultural and social skills required in future leaders, this paper proposes research to determine the feasibility of a requirement for all accessed officers to complete a minimum of two years of foreign language at their pre-commissioning institution and maintain a minimum language proficiency.” The language requirement is very achievable within most liberal arts programs and is a requirement for some Masters Degree programs, such as the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Masters of Arts in International Public Policy Program.

For the soldier conducting patrols in Afghanistan, having a basic knowledge of the tribes in their operational area may better prepare them for dealing with situations where local actors seek to use cultural illiteracy to their advantage by providing false information on rivals. Having a better understanding of why various actors are competing (food, water, patronage, etc.) will better enable a soldier to serve as an honest broker. In fact, it was this ground knowledge that enabled Captain Travis Patriquin to align with Sheik Sittar Abu Risha in Ar Ramadi during the Anbar Awakening against Al Qaeda. Sheik Sittar realized that Al Qaeda had become a more dangerous enemy than the Americans he opposed and established an alliance of convenience. A resourceful Travis, conversant in Arabic and familiar with Arabic/Islamic culture, saw an opportunity and presented to his leadership an idea that would eventually defeat Al Qaeda in Anbar Province. A similar event, though under a different context, began to occur in Afghanistan when some tribes began to challenge the Taliban in Eastern Afghanistan in 2012 and recently in Syria and Iraq where some tribes are standing up to ISIL.

A saying heard throughout Afghanistan by many Americans is, “you have the watches and we have the time,” which illustrates our challenge in dealing with conflicts rooted in historical grievances. According to Professor Black, the risk of not understanding such grievances by adversaries creates a net effect of underlying “the very real political dangers of using the past as a way of settling grievances. Yet this danger must be addressed, because an unwillingness to act will invite other, potentially more hostile, narratives.” A focused effort of cultural, historical and language education and training, coupled with exposure to local populations with regionally aligned deployments will help soldiers and both the Army and Nation writ large develop tactics, strategies, and policies that “create coherent and inclusive national accounts of their history as a way to tackle widespread crises of identity” by local populations and create the means for less violent war termination criteria in the future.

Paraphrasing Sun Tzu — if our soldiers are armed with knowledge of themselves, their adversaries, and the population caught in the middle of a historical grievances, they are assured a greater probability of success than going into battle not armed with such knowledge.

Chad Pillai is a U.S. Army strategist. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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