Cultural Understanding in the U.S. Military

The United States military has greatly increased its cultural understanding within its theaters of war since 2003.  That was the conclusion of Georgetown University Professor Rochelle Davis, at a lecture last week titled “Culture as a Tool of War: US Military Approaches to Occupation in Iraq” at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.

Professor Davis asserted that the military’s greater focus on counterinsurgency is the result of Field Manual 324, the highly influential Army/Marines guide whose implementation proved highly successful in the Iraq Surge of 2007.  Professor Davis said that this cultural focus represents dramatic progress in the way it uses culture as a weapons system.   Despite progress, however, she called for the need for more subtle understandings of different ethnic groups in a theater of operation.  She also questioned whether using culture as a weapon was compatible with a “hearts and minds” strategy, in which a military seeks to win over a target population by providing security and civil services.

Professor Davis insisted we re-evaluate how we study, define, and use cultural characteristics for military purposes. She asserted that it is overly simplistic to describe ethnic groups by who they like and dislike, and that we as Americans would never describes ourselves as such.  However, in the theater of operations, cultural understanding is only useful to the extent that it is an asset for victory.  While an in-depth, graduate-level understanding of the nuances of Iraqi politics and culture for every serviceman and woman would no doubt be an asset to the military, such capabilities are neither cost-effective nor necessary to achieve mission objectives.  Davis’ contention did not spend significant time addressing this potential concern.

Professor Davis also questioned whether using cultural understanding as a “weapons system” conflicted with a hearts and minds strategy.  The military tends to think about programs in terms of enhancing specific capabilities and assets of battlefield commanders.  Use of the “weapons system” terminology is a way for commanders who support cultural training to drive home the battlefield effectiveness of such training to their colleagues in the military.  They value effectiveness.   Davis’ presentation ultimately promoted cultural understanding for the sake of greater awareness, and neglected to tie the concept to meeting military objectives. Most would agree the military is best served by cultural understanding which helps troops complete the mission.  Despite this oversight, the otherwise insightful comments Professor Davis made indicate that finding the balance between understanding and efficacy is likely to be the subject of ongoing discussion.

Share

Shia JFM Creates Graphic Tribute to “The Lions of the Shia Resistance”

Without saying a word, a pro-Shia militant group has asserted that Shia groups are the soldiers of Imam Ali, the most important figure in Shia Islam after the Prophet Muhammad himself.  A posting to an Iraqi Shia militant web forum shows footage of the “Great Lion” Aslan, the central character from the 2005 Walt Disney Movie The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (based on the 1950 C.S. Lewis book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), side-by-side with logos of two militant Shia groups, Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq. It’s ironic that the creator chose Aslan to represent the Imam Ali, as The Chronicles of Narnia contain a significant amount of Christian symbolism and parallels to Christian scripture.  In fact, the Aslan character is thought by some to represent Jesus Christ.  Regardless, by combining the images of Aslan the Lion with the logos of these two groups, the creator of the graphic is declaring them soldiers of the Imam Ali, as fierce and dangerous to their enemies as he.  Further, the creator is saying that primary mission of these militant groups, defeating the US military in Iraq, is a holy one blessed by Imam Ali himself.

Depiction of Imam Ali accompanied by a lion

The lion has special significance in Shia Islam because of its association with the Imam Ali.  During his lifetime, Imam Ali was given the nickname of “Haydar,” meaning “Lion,” and was often referred to as “The Lion” or “The Lion of Allah.”  Because of this association, Imam Ali is often accompanied by a lion in graphical representations, or depicted as a lion himself.  Shia militant groups in Iraq, like Kata’ib Hizbollah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, frequently refer to their fighters as “the Lions of the Shia Islamic Resistance.”[1] Two of the most notorious Shia militant groups in Iraq, Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq are suspected of being offshoots of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which was officially disbanded by the Shia cleric in 2008.  Both groups are thought to have received support from Iran and/or the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbollah and have conducted attacks against US military forces in Iraq.  Kata’ib Hizbollah has even been officially designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department.

A lion depicted with a body of calligraphic invocations to Allah

Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups occasionally compare their fighters to lions as well.  For example, when a group like the Islamic State of Iraq[2] claims to have conducted a suicide bombing attack, they may claim responsibility with a reference to the lion, saying that the attack was carried out by the “brave Lions of the Islamic State of Iraq.”  However, when Sunni groups make such claims, their comparisons lack the religious significance that they hold for Shia groups.  The Sunni comparison comes as a reference to the lion’s ferocity, strength, and reputation as a top predator, not as an association with a holy figure.

The Lion Imam Ali T-Shirt design, sold by Islamic Artistic Design

The association between Imam Ali and the lion is so strong that it often appears in popular culture.  For example, in this YouTube video, footage of an actor portraying Imam Ali on horseback chasing down an enemy is interspersed with footage of a lion chasing down another animal.  In another example, a clever and entrepreneurial group of artists has designed a T-shirt for sale online showing a lion with facial features represented by intricate Arabic calligraphy, to include the word “Ali” in the center of his face.

Yet another example of this association permeating popular culture is a common Iraqi joke.  Intended as a commentary on the current state of Sunni vs. Shia sectarian violence in Iraq today, this joke is a bit of gallows humor that further demonstrates the strong connection that Shia Muslims make between Imam Ali and lions:

An Iraqi lion arrives in the United States to apply for asylum.  When immigration officials ask the lion for his reason for requesting asylum, he shows them a picture of Imam Ali with a lion.

“You see?” says the lion,“the Sunnis are after me because they have seen pictures of me with Imam Ali!”


[1] The names of these two groups are translated as “The Hizbollah Brigades in Iraq” and “The League of Righteous People.”

[2] The Islamic State of Iraq is a political front organization used by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in Iraq to issue public statements on behalf of the group.

Share

Lebanese Journalist Examines, Challenges Violent Extremists

If you asked Osama bin Laden to compile a list of Al-Qaeda’s greatest enemies, most of the names on that list would probably come as no surprise.  The United States would probably top that list, followed by selections such as Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama, Western Europe, the government of Saudi Arabia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Christianity, Zionism, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Iran – no real surprises there, as bin Laden and other radical Salafist-jihadists rail against the evils of these individuals, countries, institutions, and movements on a regular basis.  But you might also find an unfamiliar name on that list:  Rima Salha, a young female Lebanese journalist who is challenging Arab and Muslim television audiences to take a hard look at extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the violence that they commit in what those groups say is the defense of Islam.

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Salha is the host of “Sina’at al Mowt” (Death Industry), a weekly program appearing on Al-Arabiya TV, a pan-Arab satellite TV news and entertainment channel that is one of the most prominent TV channels in the Middle East.  Death Industry typically focuses on people who join violent extremist groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Somalia-based Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement, and the consequences that joining such groups has on those individuals and the people close to them.  The program provides insights from experts and scholars in order to examine the phenomenon of violent extremism from political, religious, social, and economic perspectives.  But the program also places a major emphasis on personal perspectives by interviewing people who are former, or even current, members of violent extremist groups, or friends and family members of people who join such groups.  For example, she has interviewed family members of the late founder and leader of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and also Kamal Habib, who was one of the organizers of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat but has since renounced violence.  The recent May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry focused on former Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi[1] and featured interviews with his father, the mother of his second wife, and former friends from his childhood. To feature these kinds of guests, Death Industry travels to dangerous places – refugee camps, insurgent strongholds, Iraq, Yemen.  Al-Arabiya TV general manager Abdul Rahman al-Rashed said, “There are a lot of programs debating the issue of terrorism, a lot of debating. But this is the only program with field trips, with special footage, with a lot of revelations in it.”[2]

al-zawi

Dawood al-Zawi, the father of slain Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi, from the May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry

Salha’s motivation for hosting this program is to discourage people from embracing violence as a means for achieving political and social change, as she indicates in a statement given to Fox News“As we know, there are lots of Muslims who are brainwashed so they believe in terrorism but there are also big sections of Muslims who sympathize with terrorists,” says Salha. “We are targeting those people and trying to explain to them that terrorism is not a good thing.” She also seeks to counter the assertion frequently made by Salafist-jihadist groups that violence acts are necessary to defend.  In much the same way that the United States has grown increasingly aware of the importance of its image in the non-Western world, Salha stresses that these Islamist assertions in fact tarnish the image of Islam held by many non-Muslims: “Terrorism is illegal violence, as it targets innocent people to achieve a political objective. Terrorists who are acting under the name of Islam are killing civilians without thinking.”  Extremists engaging in terrorism, she argues, defame the image of Islam and Arabs who reject and criminalize these inhuman actions. “There is what we call now ‘Islamophobia’ worldwide. But in reality, terrorism knows no religion, sect or nationality.”[3]

Al-Arabiya TV was founded in 2004 to be a direct competitor to Al-Jazeera TV.  At the time, Al-Jazeera was a target of significant criticism in some circles for not providing objective coverage of violent extremist groups in Iraq and for its clear hostility to the U.S. military’s presence in the country.  At that time, the station had a tendency to portray Iraqi insurgent groups with some degree of sympathy (because of their opposition to the U.S. military presence in the country) while tending to overlook some insurgent groups’ attacks against civilian targets.  Al-Arabiya TV now generally offers more balanced views of such topics and has instituted a number of practices to reinforce this balance in coverage, some of which have been adopted by other Arab media outlets.  For example, it is now much more common for Arab media outlets to refer to Iraqi insurgents by the term musulaheen, or armed men, instead of muqaawama, or resistance, which was a common practice in the early days of the war in Iraq.  The Death Industry program seems to fit in with Al-Arabiya TV’s approach of providing a more objective and balanced coverage of major issues in the Arab and Islamic worlds by providing a much more in-depth look at violent extremist groups and the people who join them than most other Arabic-language media outlets.

A program like Death Industry has the potential to be a great complement to U.S. efforts to combat violent extremism because it emphasizes messages similar to those that the U.S. frequently emphasizes in strategic communications efforts targeted at Arab and Islamic audiences, and because it can reach a huge viewership thanks to the extensive reach of Al-Arabiya TV.  The fact that the program comes from an Arab media source rather than a Western one, as well as the fact that the program often features actual former members of violent extremist groups speaking in their own words about their own experiences, lends considerable credibility to the program.  The program’s emphasis on the impact of family members makes the program’s messages particularly effective, given the importance of family in Arab and Islamic societies.

How do we know that the Death Industry program is having an impact?  Because unfortunately, Salha has received death threats from jihadists who have called her derogatory names such as “Christian Crusader” and “sister of the Jews,” and have declared her “fair game for the mujahideen” for her criticism of extremist groups for conducting violence against civilians.  Even Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayyman al-Zawahiri has reportedly singled out Death Industry and Al-Arabiya TV for criticism in one of his video diatribes.  But Salha seems undeterred by such criticisms and threats:  “They accuse me of fighting jihad, they accuse me of destroying the image of Islam. This is not true. We are not distorting the image of Islam,” says Salha. “The program is just trying to show some facts about terrorism and these so-called jihadists. Of course I receive threats on a regular basis, but that does not prevent me from doing my mission.”[4]


[1] The Islamic State of Iraq is an AQI front organization; it basically serves as the public face of AQI in an attempt to give the organization more of an Iraqi character and to downplay the group’s links to foreign organizations and leaders (namely Osama bin Laden and his global Al-Qaeda network).  Al-Baghdadi was killed, along with AQI leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (aka Abu Ayyub al-Masri), in Iraq during a joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation on April 18, 2010.

[2] This excerpt is taken from the Fox News story on Death Industry titled “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda” which is available at http://www.foxnews.com/world/2009/09/02/popular-arab-tv-program-exposes-real-al-qaeda (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[3] Excerpt from http://pibillwarner.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/rima-salha-host-of-death-industry-in-dubai-exposes-al-qaeda-and-receives-death-threats-christian-rima-salha-must-be-decapitated (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[4] Excerpt from “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda”.

Share

Foundlings of The FARC?

Conflicting narratives have been emerging regarding the treatment of women and children by the FARC. Both supporters and opponents of the Marxist guerilla movement have been prolific in their praise or condemnation of the movement’s treatment of women and children.

The FARC likes to portray its movement as a healthy crèche of the next wave of Marxist guerillas trained from birth to fight for the people’s revolution.  However, while women in the FARC are supposed to be “fighters as well as mothers,” some have alleged that young mothers have been forced into unwanted abortions in order to preserve their effectiveness as fighters. Male fighters are allowed to fall in love with their female comrades, as long as they continue to perform their duties responsibly.  Through photos, the FARC publicizes the prominent roles that women in children play in the movement.  The FARC aimed to give birth to a “new socialist culture” in the jungle, poised to take the decadent cities.

Nevertheless, women in the FARC have their children stolen away from them to be raised communally, a system that harkens back to Maoist communal childcare. Since Marulanda’s death, there have been increased reports of combatants abandoning their ranks, who complain that cases of rape, boredom and lack of direction in the jungle have led to low morale and defections. Many women get punished, raped and executed, and the romantic idea of female as revolutionary fighters is long gone. If these allegations are true, they raise questions about the long-term sustainability of the FARC, given that a third of the movement’s members are women.

Colombian newspaper El Cambio published an article claiming that the FARC’s new generation of leaders has resorted to kidnapping children as young as young as 8 or 9-years-old to boost the group’s cadre of soldiers.  The daily El Specatador even went so far last January as to call Colombia “The Congo of Latin America,” because of the prevalence of child soldiers employed by The FARC.

If these developments continue, the FARC, already on the wane, will be increasingly marginalized in Colombian society.  The FARC is turning into an example of the insurgent groups that Jeffrey Gettleman described in his Foreign Policy article, groups that morph from national resistance groups into criminal syndicates, movements that prefer hiding in the bush, “where it is far easier to commit crimes.”

Share