How can academia fill a structural gap between the army’s strategic planning and operational execution? 

This was the question pondered by Dr Nicholas Krohley, a civilian researcher, author and international consultant who worked in the now-disbanded Human Terrain System (HTS) in Iraq in 2008. 

HTS was part of the counterinsurgency initiative whereby civilian academics with deep understanding of Iraq and Afghanistan were embedded within army operations to see what they could observe within those contexts.  Prior to the implementation of HTS, the army was already conducting quantitative research within war zones, and measured population numbers and sanctions imposed on Iraq.  However, it did not conduct qualitative research to, in Krohley’s words, ‘examine the fabric of the city’ the army was operating in. 

Gathering this rich and deep qualitative data became the responsibility of the HTS.  Within Iraq, this meant that researchers such as Krohley sought to understand the Shia underclass, how town planning had evolved, and the impact of sanctions on the political economy of Baghdad. 

The HTS was not an intelligence gathering operation.  Rather, it helped to bridge the gap between the extremes of the military’s ‘big picture’ thinking, and ground operations.  Instead of asking ‘Who are the bad guys?’ Krohley explained that the HTS would ask ‘Why are there bad guys, and what do we do about it?’ 

Although Krohley praised the intelligence of many US army operatives, he argued that the military’s regimented structure and way of thinking hampered its decision-making processes.  He gave the example of ‘targeters’ within the army whose sole responsibility is to find and target the enemy.  During the Iraq war, the paramilitary Shia group, Mehdi Army, was targeted and appeared to collapse in 2008.  However, the collapse was not all that it seemed.  Krohley noted that the targeters lacked a holistic understanding of the Mehdi Army, and suggests in his book that the Mehdi Army’s downfall was self-inflicted, and promoted the group’s long-term survival by enabling it to fade into the woodwork.  Ultimately, the army’s incomplete understanding of the enemy hampered its strategic potential. 

Krohley suggested that the real contribution of the HTS was in helping the people on the ground make sense of their role within the army.  Some soldiers who served in Iraq – and possibly acquired post-traumatic stress disorder – lacked an understanding of what they were doing, and why.  Krohley said that these soldiers were desperate to make sense of the part they were playing, and would voluntarily attend Krohley’s lectures in a bid to acquire local knowledge, even after having spent a day patrolling in a hot and dangerous environment. 

Everyone in the army – from those in its highest echelons to soldiers on patrol – needs to think more critically about the role they play.  Krohley concluded his lecture by contending that social scientists can help the army do this – if they are prepared to find out what is happening on the ground and get their hands dirty.

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Published Date
26 January, 2016