The Situation On The Ground

There are two ways for our nation’s protectors to get left of bang: either to identify the pre-event indicators that are present on the ground (the physical terrain) or to find those indicators communicated by people (the human terrain).  Both components are what make up the environment, but in the search for the quantifiable information needed to make decisions on the battlefield, the physical terrain is often seen as more tangible and therefore more reliable. People can easily identify the affect that sunlight, wind, and moisture has on vegetation or the ground itself.  Disturbances caused by a footstep are present for a longer amount of time than a posture or gesture is displayed on the body, allowing the observer to spend a longer time on scene to analyze that information if needed.  However, in an urban environment with a heavily concentrated population, these indicators become very hard to find as the sheer number of people can contaminate the scene and skew the analysis.  As the world’s population migrates from rural areas into urban centers, the need for our nation’s military to become more adept at separating the enemy from the crowd he hides amongst becomes an increasingly relevant skillset.

This skill is accomplished by developing the ability to not only read and assess the people around us, but also to communicate what information the human terrain is providing.  It is a long established principle that successfully defeating an insurgency comes from successfully earning the active support of the population.  This is no different than law enforcement officers’ efforts to minimize the influence that gangs have on American cities.  Herein lies the problem; without the ability to clearly define and measure the human terrain, our ability to target insurgents effectively and earn the ability to influence the local population will always be lacking.

Defining the local population isn’t something that we have failed to attempt. We have just failed to do it well.  We have tried to gain insight through a segmentation of the population based on demographic data or mapping tribal affiliation. We have tried to measure the success of our operations by looking for economic indicators, changes in the political structure, or the existing rule of law.  We have tried to understand literacy rates, poverty rates, and social structure, without finding the valuable information we were after. While that information may help decision-makers at a higher and more detached level of command, they rarely provide any useful information to small-unit operations operating on the ground.  The decisions that the Marines and soldiers on the ground make on a daily basis require a different set of metrics – indicators that can be read immediately, with minimal analysis, and can be assessed without the support of technology.

Getting Dropped Into The Deep End

The information pulled from successful counter-insurgency campaigns and countless after-action reports from Marine units returning from deployments show us that the units who are most effective at intuitively understanding this ambiguous human component of the environment are also the ones who have spent the greatest amount of time in an area. The continuous exposure to a single neighborhood over time allows an operator to develop a tacit understanding of the patterns that people set and identify when changes have caused a shift in that norm.  Our current deployment cycles, however, will never allow for a deployment long enough to successfully implement an approach like this that would be reliable.  There is also the inherent limitation of the length of time it would take for someone new in the area to develop this understanding. One unit that we spoke with mentioned that it would take them upwards of 15 patrols before members of the squad felt that they had begun to develop a working baseline. The insurgent who has lived in the village their entire life, already has an understanding of the environment, which lets them be a step ahead of a new unit that has just rotated into that area.  While the unit is trying to a feel for the area (establishing a baseline), the insurgent has already begun searching for weaknesses in the new unit that can be exploited.

The Underlying Patterns

Because success or failure of an operation is a relative term (success is in comparison to a previously existing condition) there has to be a starting point for assessment.  This means we must have a way to explicitly define what is normal for an area. The area’s baseline is that starting point. The baseline is made up of the patterns that individuals, groups, and an entire neighborhood or village sets and becomes the basis for future comparison.  To do this, we will analyze the baseline through three separate lenses using the Combat Profiling terminology.

(Note that we are looking at this simply to understand the environment that is expressed by the local population, not the enemy.  This information will need to be assessed later against a picture of enemy activity to identify enemy patterns that indicate a relationship between the two.)

The First Lens – Noncombatants

Before we can understand the enemy, we first have to understand the environment we are operating in.  This is why the first layer of observations needs to be focused on “bigger picture” patterns of movement around the village.  The initial goals are to identify the places where people go to get their needs fulfilled.  These Habitual Areas are the places where people are being Proxemically Pulled for a specific reason.  This could be for tangible needs, such as goods at the local market or restaurants, spiritual needs fulfilled at a place of worship, or the intangible goal of relaxation at a local park, playground, or beach. Once we know where people are going to end up, we can begin working backward to identify how people are getting there.  Locals who are familiar with their area will know where the Natural Lines of Drift are, and will use those to move – taking the safest, yet most simple path of least resistance to the places they are going.

We focus our observation on the “noncombatant” behavior initially in order to find the metrics we will be using for future assessments.  This behavior can also provide pre-event indicators for an attack, since any change in behavior could indicate their knowledge of a pending attack.  This could be villagers avoiding the local marketplace (a habitual area) that is normally bustling with activity because they know insurgents are waiting in an ambush.

For each of these habitual areas, baseline establishment can begin by observing “pattern of life” information, such as when people begin arriving at that area, when it is first opened, the peak times of the day, when it closes, and how many people visit to provide an additional layer of quantifiable facts to your observations. Assessments can be made about the normal Atmospherics in the area to get a reading on the normal noise level, existing rule of law, and other indicators that show the population’s perception of safety.

We can also look at any messages that an insurgent has used to communicate their beliefs or affiliations, Iconography.  These sentiments and the local’s acceptance of them may change over time and show that shift through graffiti, posters, and signs.  Later in the process, this initial assessment of civilian behavior can be overlaid with enemy activity to identify their patterns and relationships as well.  Over the course of your deployment, the human component of the environmental are what will provide the context to better understanding the population.

The Second Lens – Relationships

The second layer of observations relating to understanding the baseline is the relationship between the local population and the resident security forces.  Specifically, we are looking at Proxemics, and seeing if locals are attracted to or repelled away from the military or police.  Because security personnel maintain a position of authority and will often be the ones to close the distance with people they want to talk with as one example of Proxemics. These observations need to be coupled with Kinesics in order to confirm any assumptions.  Identifying the six clusters of individual behavior (Dominance, Submissiveness, Discomfort, Comfort, Interested, Uninterested) will show an observer how the local populace responds to that presence of authority.  As the support of the local population is often derived from their perceived sense of security, changes in these relationships can show a slow change in the baseline.  Without first identifying these patterns, they would be otherwise missed and fail to show to provide the feedback needed to show success or failure over a period of time.

The Third Lens – Personal Displays

The final layer of observations relating to understanding the baseline environment is how locals communicate information about themselves to others.  This can include Personal Iconography that shows status, beliefs and affiliations through clothing, tattoos, jewelry or other accessories they have chosen to display.  Understanding how a political leader, religious leader, schoolteacher, taxi cab driver and farmer, differentiate themselves through Iconography can help you make predictions about their interpersonal relationships and potential actions upon arriving in a habitual area.

These three lenses: looking at large scale patterns of behavior, the relationship with security forces, and personal displays of iconography, can be observed immediately upon arriving in the area because they are seen in the noncombatant masses that fill the village.  These factors can be observed from an observation post with standoff, allowing a unit to begin developing their understanding of what to expect before they come face to face with potential threats, and can begin the process of revealing how the insurgent is hiding among the locals.

An Operational Impact For The Better

The goal of intelligence is simply to reduce uncertainty.  Assessing the local population and the human terrain through these three lenses provides a quantifiable baseline and starting point. This is by no means the final answer, and we will never be able to completely see through the fog of war, but without metrics that can be clearly and confidently defined, we will continue to struggle to understand the environment we are operating in.  This terminology and these lenses can be used to guide conversation among squad members to make sure that everyone has the same understanding.  This ultimately can help to shorten the time required for a new unit to understand the village and become capable of looking for the enemy at an earlier point in their deployment.

Being capable of noticing and quantifying changes in the baseline over time is a requirement for determining how successful our patrols are.  However, without a clear starting point, these subtle changes are missed and decisions are made based on subjective observations that may or may not be truly accurate.  This greatly biases any determination about our progress and can cause a commander to question the quality of their intelligence.  Without a set terminology, the commander is limited to the common post-patrol statement “Atmospherics are good, nothing significant to report.” Using the Six Domains offered in a behavioral analysis program provides that quantifiable method for Marines to define their neighborhoods in terms that provide them with actual useable information that matters.

All of this information about the local population’s core patterns is assessed through an analysis of their behavior that is primarily outside of their conscious awareness.  This makes it more likely to be accurate, reliable, and objective.  By using the domain terminology, we can harness the tacit understanding of an operator with more experience in an area and pass that intuitive knowledge onto the new units taking over the battle-space.  By decreasing the time that we need to assess and understand the baseline, we can decrease the time that the enemy can operate with impunity. This not only improves our personal security, but also guarantees the success of the mission.

This article has become part of an e-book that can be downloaded here