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Understanding the Operational Environment: the Human Dimension

https://global-strategy.org/understanding-the-operational-environment-the-human-dimension/ Understanding the Operational Environment: the Human Dimension 2021-01-06 12:26:11 Juan Carlos Antúnez Blog post Global Strategy Reports Política de Defensa Global Strategy Reports 2021
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Global Strategy Report, 1/2021

“Precise intelligence is essential in any conflict. It is important to know who our enemies are, but equally crucial to know who they are not. It is even more vital to avoid turning potential friends into foes.” Karen Armstrong

Abstract: Current military operations are essentially population centric and must be conducted in a way that influence the will and decisions of the main actors of the Operational Environment (OE), conditioning them to make their behaviour compatible with the objectives of the mission. The intricate and unstable characteristics of the constantly OE make it necessary to transform capabilities to adapt to the human environment. Recent military operations have shown that the cultural dimension is an essential element in an Area of Operations (AoO) and that the ability to identify the main actors and understand their motivations and interrelationships is vital when planning and executing any military operation. The need of operationalizing culture remains and even increases in the context of hybrid warfare. This article focuses on the importance and necessity of analysing the human factors of the OE that affect any military operation and integrating them in the planning and execution of the operations. It also includes a gender perspective and presents a case study of the analysis of the cultural factors: NATO Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflicts. Finally, the paper provides some conclusions and recommendations to better adapt military capabilities to the human-centric operations.

Para citar como referencia: Antúnez, Juan Carlos (2021), “Understanding the Operational Environment: the Human Dimension”, Global Strategy Report, No 1/2021.


The Operational Environment (OE) is “a set of conditions, circumstances and influences that affects the use of capabilities and effects the decisions of the military commander” (U.S., 2009). The OE has evolved to become an extraordinarily complex, dynamic, and adaptive system in which new actors, both state and non-state, interact (SHAPE and HQ SACT, 2008.). During the last two decades NATO military forces have been involved in overly intricate operations due to the diversity of the actors involved that make up a complex EO (Bados, 2010). Historically wars involved direct conflict between two military forces. However, the conflicts of the second half of the 20th century involved much more than military activities and operations.  This phenomenon continues during the new century. In today’s armed conflicts, economic, political, and social factors have become as important as purely military capabilities. Today’s military operations are largely influenced by economic, political, social, and cultural considerations and factors.

Schwerzel refers to the new NATO military operations as “three-faced” missions in which “a soldier who is deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq can conduct a military police patrol in the morning to ensure security in an area, can carry out humanitarian activities in the afternoon and, at night, he or she may be involved in a shooting. Everything in the same day” (Schwerzel, 2005), and that soldier and the entire chain of command of the operation must be prepared to fulfil all those tasks.

The existence of a convoluted and unstable international security context at the beginning of the 21st century, which causes new international challenges, has been pointed out by various organizations. For example, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), threats to international security and stability today are more likely caused by negative and destabilizing consequences of multidimensional phenomena (involving political, military, economic, environmental, and social factors) than of a conventional armed conflict (OSCE, 2003).

Current military operations are essentially population centric and must be conducted in a way that influence the will and decisions of the main actors of the OE, conditioning them to make their behaviour compatible with the objectives of the mission (U.S, 2015). The intricate and unstable characteristics of the OE make it necessary to transform military capabilities to adapt to the human environment. Recent military operations have shown that the cultural dimension is an essential element in an Area of Operations (AoO) and that the ability to identify the main actors and understand their motivations and interrelationships is vital when planning and executing any military operation (Moore et al., 2014). The need of operationalizing culture remains and even increases in the context of hybrid warfare. This article focuses on the importance and necessity of analysing the human factors of the OE that affect any military operation and integrating them in the planning and execution of the operations. It also includes a gender perspective and presents a case study of the analysis of the cultural factors: NATO Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflicts. Finally, the paper provides some conclusions and recommendations to better adapt military capabilities to the human-centric operations.

Understanding of the operational environment: human terrain and socio-cultural factors

According to the US Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations (JC-HAMO), the human aspects of military operations are critical both in traditional and conventional engagements, as well as in irregular and asymmetric ones. (U.S, 2015). Human beings and their social structures are the centre of gravity of the different domains and systems of the OE and a deep understanding of their interests and motivations is vital (Raymond, 2015).

The understanding of the social dynamics of the AoO, its mechanisms and balances of power, is critical when it comes to achieving military objectives, both tactical, operational, and strategic (Moore et al., 2014). Current military operations require gaining the support of the population and it is necessary to know their wishes and needs (Bados, 2010). This knowledge of the human aspects of military operations is essential during planning, direction, execution, and evaluation (U.S, 2015). War is an extension of politics, a competition of wishes and wills between adversaries, a human activity of uncertain outcome (Raymond, 2015). Although there are certain characteristics that are common to the entire human beings, there are cultural differences that affect the perceptions of the different human groups in different areas of the planet. Military commanders and the personnel under their authority must develop a deep and sophisticated understanding of human behaviour to develop an accurate strategic and operational situational awareness (Moore et al., 2014). The population of a certain AoO is the set of the local human groups. They have different levels of influence and power and are motivated by certain social, political, cultural, and economic factors. The success of the military operation can largely depend on the ability to improve the conditions of the local population, knowing and respecting their needs, opinions, and perceptions and meeting their expectations (Moore et al., 2014).

As the Art of War continues to evolve, so must the techniques and methods in which military personnel prepare for armed conflict and war. One way to do it is to “operationalize” the analysis of social networks through a deep study of the human environment that will provide an understanding of the society in which the military operation is to be carried out. This advanced level of understanding of the human factors of the AoO will provide many advantages when developing plans to achieve more efficiently and effectively the objectives of the military mission (Raymond, 2015).

Human Terrain: Actors’ Analysis, Socio-Cultural Analysis and Conflict Dynamics

The quadripartite interoperability program between Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States (ABCA) defines the Human Terrain (HT) as “… the social, political, economic and infrastructural environment, the system of values ​​and beliefs, and the forms of personal interaction that can affect the space in which a soldier operates”. The ABCA highlights the importance of “power and authority” relationships as main factors in the AoO and considers that culture and religion (including literature, history, language, music, myths and legends) are constituent parts of the HT, as well as norms and beliefs and values ​​(Hyndman and Flower, 2019).

Human beings are the dominant factor, the driving force, the determining characteristic of the OE (UK, 2013). It is necessary to identify, understand and influence the decisions and actions of the most relevant actors to assess the situation and the conditions of the OE and to achieve the desired results. This assessment is imperative for the success of a military operation (U.S, 2015). This process includes the analysis of three categories of the HT: Group Characteristics (social structures, religion, culture, language, and customs), Psychological Characteristics of the Individual (behaviour, motivation, attitude, perception, intelligence, and values) and Physical Characteristics of the Individual (health, physical form, etc.) (UK, 2013).

The U.S. Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment (JIPOE) process analyses all the relevant actors (friends, foes, and neutrals) of the OE in four phases (U.S., 2014):

Phase 1: Defines the EO:

  • How does the environment influence the development of operations?
  • What are the operational risks, threats, and opportunities?
  • How can influence and supremacy be achieved in the EO?

Phase 2: Defines the Human Dimension:

  • Who are the main actors and how do they interact?
  • What are the main relationships and dynamics among the main actors?

Phase 3: Evaluates the main actors:

  • What is the Centre of Gravity (CoG) of each actor?
  • How can CoGs be influenced?

Phase 4: Determine the actors’ Courses of Action (CoAs) of the Actors:

  • What are the most probable and most dangerous CoAs?
  • What is the best way to influence them? What is the best power tool to use?
JIPOE (U.S, 2014)
Operational Variables, JIPOE (U.S., 2014)
Operational Sub-variables JIPOE (U.S., 2014)
Mission Variables: METT-TC. JIPOE (U.S., 2014)

The Allied Command Operations (ACO) Comprehensive Operations Planning Directive (COPD) states that it is critical to understand the effects created by the action of each actor of the OE (as well as their capabilities and attributes) when discerning the best way to exercise influence over them. It is necessary to make a classification of allied, adversary and neutral actors (SHAPE, 2013).

This classification should be based on:

  • their goals and objectives (political, economic, religious, etc.)
  • their characteristics, capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses
  • their relationships with other actors
  • their strategies, their power, and their way of exercising it
  • their acts and their effects, as well as their possible responses to a military operation.

This analysis of the actors is carried out during the Comprehensive Preparation of the Operational Environment (CPOE), in which the Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure and Informational (PMESII) dimensions are analysed, providing a holistic vision of the OE (SHAPE, 2013).


A system-of-systems perspective of the OE offers a picture of the most significant relationships and interdependencies among the main the elements of the relevant systems and subsystems.

Systems analysis must examine actors (adversaries, friends, or neutrals) in a holistic way to understand their behaviour, capabilities, and interactions within the OE. This analysis will reveal strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, as well as other important factors (such as the adaptability, which will offer a vision of how to influence them). Systems analysis can be conducted in four basic steps:

  1. Analyse the composition of each system and identify the elements or subsystems in all the PMESII domains.
  2. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of the main actors. This process will help to determine CoGs, as well as the ability to adapt when interacting with other actors.
  3. Evaluate the relationships between the elements of each system and subsystem. This will help to identify the main players and to know how to influence them.
  4. Make an influence diagram that helps to visualize all the elements and relationships identified in the three previous steps (SHAPE, 2013).
Example of Influence Diagram (SHAPE, 2013)

Influence Diagram (UK)

The most relevant actors to study should include: the different government structures (central, regional, and local); security forces, paramilitary groups and militias, and non-state armed groups; political, tribal, and religious leaders; important figures from the civil society, the press, and the business world; migrant communities; global and regional, intergovernmental, and non-governmental organizations. The actions of all actors have the potential to facilitate or hinder the success of any campaign, operation, or tactical action (U.S, 2015).

Another tool, ASCOPE, which includes the following categories, can complete the PMESII approach:

  • Areas: Localities, areas, and aspects of the terrain that have the greatest significance.
  • Structures: The location, functions and capacities of structures that have an important influence on operations.
  • Capabilities: Those capabilities that are necessary to save, sustain, or enhance life, in that order.
  • Organizations: Non-military groups or institutions that influence the population (they generally have a hierarchical structure, defined objectives, established working methods, meeting places, and means of financial and logistical support).
  • Population: The actions, opinions, and political influence and support of the population in the AoO which can seriously affect a military operation.
  • Events: Routine, cyclical, planned or spontaneous activities that can have a significant effect on the organizations, the population, and military operations (U.S., 2009).
ASCOPE-PMESII Integration (U.S., 2009)

According to the U.K. Joint Doctrine Culture and Human Terrain, the analysis of the main actors of the OE consists of seven stages:

  1. Select the scope and the degree of detail.
  2. Identify the most relevant actors.
  3. Determine the core values ​​and beliefs of those actors.
  4. Extract their intent and strategies.
  5. Capture the narrative of the main actors.
  6. Describe their relationships and interactions.
  7. Describe their hierarchical relationships and power balances.
  8. Identify their strengths, weaknesses, and resilience (UK, 2013).
Actors’ Analysis (UK, 2013)

These six phases allow the analyst to find the “Base Line of Normality”, which will be the foundation for the “Scenario Generation” and “Indicators and Warnings” products (UK, 2013).

The precise and timely knowledge of the attitudes of the human groups of an AoO can increase the possibilities of success of the military operations. These attitudes will serve as indicators of the intentions and possible behaviour of the population. To achieve a change in this behaviour and make it compatible with the objective of the mission, it is necessary to understand and influence the beliefs and attitudes of the human groups in the AoO (Moore et al., 2014).

The U.S. Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations (HAMO) identifies four essential activities to ensure the success of military operations:

  1. Identify the most relevant actors of the AoO and their social, cultural, political, economic, and organizational networks.
  2. Study the behaviour of the most important actors.
  3. Predict the future actions of the actors.
  4. Influence their will and decisions (understanding influence as the act of producing the desired effect on a person, group, or sector of the population) (U.S., 2015).

The Human Terrain Analysis (HTA) is a multidisciplinary scientific approach that describes and predicts the geospatial and temporal patterns of human behaviour by analysing the characteristics, reactions, and interactions of the human groups in their environment. A Human Terrain Product (HTP) is the result of an HTA. An HTP can be a map, a written analysis and assessment, a diagram, or any other document that allows disseminating information to military commanders and personnel who carry out the planning, execution, and evaluation of operations (U.K, 2013).

The analysis of the human aspects of military operations is essential: wrong assumptions about the HT can delay or impede the achievement of the pursued objectives. On the contrary, an accurate knowledge of human aspects will allow to identify opportunities to collaborate with certain actors, identify their weaknesses and exploit their differences and enmities (U.S., 2015).

Sociocultural Aspects (U.S., 2015)

Socio-Cultural factors are those social, cultural, and behavioural elements that characterize the relationships and activities of the population of an AoO (Wunderle, 2006). A Socio-Cultural Analysis (SCA) is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of the relevant information about the adversary and other relevant actors in the AoO to discern the reasons for their behaviour. The SCA provides information to the military command about these actors through the analysis of groups, organizations, communities, and social structures, including their activities, relationships, and points of view, based on time and space, and at different scales and levels of analysis.  The SCA includes the graphic representation of socio-cultural information for a given area (map) at a given time. The SCA studies: the relations and activities of the population; the social, professional, and family networks of an individual or group; the dynamics between different groups and individuals. (U.S. 2013).

The SCA is carried out in four phases:

  • Analysis of the social structure: Identify the relationships between human groups within a society and study their dynamics, paying special attention to racial, ethnic, religious, and tribal factors and identities.
  • Analysis of the cultural dimension: Identify and analyse the cultural elements of a society as a whole and the main groups within it[1].
  • Analysis of power and authority relationships: Identify how authority relationships (both formal and informal) work. This study will include social elites, and political and religious leaders.
  • Evaluation of the different interests and motivations: Identification of the political, economic, and social interests and motivations of the main actors and social groups to anticipate and influence their behaviour (U.S., 2014).
Mapping Human Factors (U.S., 2014)

According to the UK Stabilization Unit, the analysis of conflict dynamics is a clarifying process, which helps to identify the most important factors and actors in the genesis and perpetuation of the conflict. The product resulting from the first phases of this analysis is an enormous static list of causal factors and actors. The volume of information generated can be overwhelming. However, not everything that is identified in these early stages of the analysis is “important”. It is important to understand the OE as a system of systems, in which the different actors interact. This part of the analysis will explore how different systems and subsystems are created, organized, and maintained. Rather than studying the elements of the OE individually, doing it from a systems perspective ensures that the focus is on what is significant. This approach reveals to us why a conflict (or a reaction contrary to the aims and objectives pursued by the military operation) persists over time and helps us to identify and prioritize the actions necessary to change the situation (U.K. Stabilization Unit, 2017).

Conflict Dynamics (U.K. Stabilization Unit, 2017)

Identifying and understanding the dynamics of conflict help us to know the deep and real reasons for it. The example below is a simplified version of the dynamics of transnational terrorism (U.K. Stabilization Unit, 2017).

Example of transnational terrorism dynamics (U.K. Stabilization Unit, 2017)

Culture and Cultural Intelligence

The definition of culture has evolved over the centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century, different authors rejected the idea of ​​the relationship between the culture of a certain group and its degree of development and social evolution, which established a ranking among the different cultures, placing some in a position of superiority over others. These authors emphasized the exclusivity and uniqueness of the culture of different social groups and eliminated value judgments on them. According to Avruch and Black: “Above all, our culture provides us with the way to see and think about the world, the way things are and how they should be”. Both authors also affirm that there is a multiplicity of elements that overlap in each group or individual and contribute to the formation of their single and differentiated cultural identities. (Avruch and Black, 2001).

Avruch also rejected many of the previous concepts about culture. According to him, culture is neither homogeneous (it is not the same for all members of a social group), nor it is immutable (it changes with time and circumstances) (Avruch 1998).

Geertz defines culture as: “A pattern of meanings transmitted historically through symbols: a system of symbolic forms by which people communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge and their attitudes towards life” (Geertz, 1994). However, only a small part of a person’s culture is visible, it is “on the surface” (Cultural Practices). The true foundations of those visible cultural elements of a person and the true root and intangible aspects of culture (Social Structures) are beneath the surface.

Peterson suggests that “you should define culture in a way relevant to yourself, to your company or organization, and to your own work and life situations” and soldiers can use cultural understanding to improve military effectiveness. (Peterson, 2004).

As an example, the Army and Marine Corp field manual, FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency defines culture for that purpose (U.S., 2009):

3-37. Culture is a “web of meaning” shared by members of a particular society or group within a society. Culture is:

  • A system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artifacts that members of a society use to cope with their world and with one another.
  • Learned through a process called enculturation.
  • Shared by members of a society; there is no “culture of one.”
  • Patterned, meaning that people in a society live and think in ways forming definite, repeating patterns.
  • Changeable, through social interactions between people and groups.
  • Arbitrary, meaning that Soldiers and Marine should make no assumptions regarding what a society considers right and wrong, good, and bad.
  • Internalized, in the sense that it is habitual, taken for granted, and perceived as “natural” by people within the society.

3-38.Culture might also be described as an: “operational code” that is valid for an entire group of people. Culture conditions the individual’s range of action and ideas, including what to do and not to do, how to do or not do it, and whom to do it with or not to do it with. Culture also includes under what circumstance the “rule” shifts and changes. Culture influences how people make judgements about what is right and wrong, assess what is important and unimportant, categorize things, and deal with things that do not fit into existing categories. Cultural rules are flexible in practice.

Identity is also an essential concept in today’s military operations. In general, identity can be defined as the perception that individuals have about themselves in relation to the world around them. Cultural identity refers to identity shared by a group or culture, which generally includes common history, religion, language, values, beliefs, and behaviours. Identity also defines the belonging of an individual to a group or cultural system. Culture creates the identity of a group and helps to maintain it.

Collier developed a theory of cultural identity that illustrates how the various cultural identities of an individual are created (Collier, 1997). According to this model, these multiple identities are not mutually exclusive, nor they are static or immutable. The individual self-concept is based on a wide variety of identities, both individual and collective. The multiple identities of an individual are ingrained, manifest with different degrees of intensity, and have different importance for that person.

It is also necessary to define and analyse the concept of conflict, which is an inevitable aspect of human relationships. Conflict is the perception of incompatibility between the objectives or interests of two or more parties. Culture is also part of any social conflict because they happen within the framework of human relationships. LeBaron asserts that culture affects the way we define, generate, approach, and attempt to resolve conflict. The very existence of the conflict would be a cultural question (LeBaron, 2003).

Culture shapes different worldviews and perspectives. In any conflict analysis, it is vital to determine the role that culture plays in it. There are many tools, methods, and theoretical frameworks for conflict analysis to examine and understand the role of socio-cultural factors. But there is none that is perfect and appropriate for all occasions and scenarios. The role that culture plays in conflict will not always be apparent. However, the knowledge of this role will allow us to have a multidimensional and holistic knowledge of the conflict, as well as the possibility of elaborating effective strategies for its resolution. According to Avruch and Black, cultural analysis is necessary in any conflict, especially if the behaviours and attitudes of the people involved in the conflict are perplexing to us. When analysing the role of culture in a conflict, it is essential not to make value judgments: what is important is to identify and understand the cultural aspects of the conflict (Avruch and Black, 2001).

Spiggel offers an interesting and enlightening insight into the importance of culture in understanding the OE: A lot of people, including many in uniform, tend to think that the role of the US military is simply to fight: to “kill people and break things” as some would put it. Of course, we know that there is much involved. If this perspective were accurate, however, one would certainly question the role of cultural knowledge in such a force. Some warriors might ask, “Why do I have to understand my targets?” Of course, you know the answer: We deal with much more than targets. We deal with friends, allies, neutral nations, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and civilians from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Based on this, Spigeel assures that nowadays-military personnel need to understand all the actors involved in the conflict and they must know their cultural identities (Spiggel).

Lederach states that a constructivist approach suggests that a population group acts based on the meaning that different stimuli have for them. That meaning is created through shared and accumulated knowledge over a certain time. Groups of different cultural heritages generate different ways of creating their societies and expressing their needs and believes, as well as interpreting and managing conflict. Understanding a conflict and handle it in the best way depends entirely on the knowledge and respect for the cultural roots of the local population. It is not only necessary to understand the role of culture in the genesis and perpetuation of the conflict, but also to use that knowledge in its management and resolution (Lederach, 1995).

Afghanistan-Pakistan Ethnic-linguistic map (National Geographic)

Culture can be of great help in resolving a conflict. Lederach, Neufeldt and Culbertson list four phases to analyse the cultural elements of a conflict:

  1. Identify the cultural patterns that have an impact (either positive or negative) on how the involved parties understand, approach, and manage the conflict.
  2. Identify the aspects of the intergroup conflict that may be affected by cultural and worldview differences.
  3. Prepare an inventory of the cultural aspects that contribute positively to the resolution of the conflict, as well as those that favour its perpetuation.
  4. Identify the local cultural elements, practices, and structures that have been affected by the conflict and can be useful for its resolution (local assemblies, elders’ councils, etc.) (Lederach, Neufeldt and Culbertson, 2007).

Soldiers need to become familiar with traditional methods of conflict resolution. Knowledge of local traditions in the OE can be an extremely useful resource to achieve the objectives pursued by the military operation, since a “local” and “bottom-up” approach is usually quite well received and respected. Traditional conflict resolution methods include storytelling, proverbs, fables, folk tales, rituals, ceremonies, gods, and the spirits of ancestors, elders, and women. According to Senehi, all religions treasure many texts and narratives about good and evil, which also makes them a great resource in efforts to resolve the conflict (Senehi, 2002).

All over the world, the role of religion in social relationships has been on the rise in recent decades. A variety of phenomena, including demographic changes, urbanization, migration, and globalization, indicate that religion will help shape the dynamics and policies of existing and emerging great powers. The transformative effect of globalization on religion will also play a key role in the evolution of global terrorism, religious conflict, and other threats to international security.

Religion is an important pillar in the cultural identity of each of the communities that are involved in a conflict. Religion plays an important role in building the world and can be a reason for cultural and spiritual exchange, a source of mutual respect and solidarity. However, it can also be a factor of division and a generator element of a retrograde and radical conception of the events that happen on the local and international scene. Religion can shape exclusive and excluding identities, pushing passionate convictions (including the promise of a reward in the other world) in support of destructive political programs. Nevertheless, it also offers a deep source of understanding, reconciliation, and human solidarity that transcends secular divisions.

All the majority religions of the world contain values ​​and traditions to justify violence and war, but also valuable resources to promote the non-violent resolution of conflicts and peace. Religious communities are well-structured organizations, which can communicate effectively and efficiently. Religious leaders can provide ethical and moral insights that motivate their parishioners to act. They tend to have a high degree of credibility and moral authority and first-hand information about the origin and development of the conflict, from the point of view of each of the parties involved. Religious communities and leaders are essential actors in any AoO to engage and influence to reach military objectives.

Culture is a central factor in irregular, asymmetric and hybrid warfare. According to Abbe and Halpin, sociocultural aspects affect each level and activity of those kind of operations: from personal interactions with local leaders, to patrols among the population, through Intelligence Collection, Strategic Communication (STRATCOM) and Information Operations (INFOOPS) (Abbe and Halpin, 2010). For soldiers who are deployed abroad, it is imperative to know and understand the cultural elements, actors and values ​​of a given AoO to avoid mistakes that can be totally counterproductive for both the mission objectives and their own safety and security. Schwerzel believes that culture influences multinational military operations both externally and internally. First, the components of the military force (which very often come from different cultural traditions) are integrated into multinational formations and structures. To do this successfully, they must manage the differences in behaviours, customs, values, ​​and ways of thinking and acting to avoid intercultural tensions and frictions. Second, soldiers must also adapt their behaviour and attitude to the cultural environment of the AoO, to avoid problems with the local population, which could be fatal for any military operation (Schwerzel, 2005).

Iraq Religious Composition (Kurdistanica.com)

About the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan (International Security Assistance Force, ISAF), Michael Howard, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Operations, noted that providing cultural awareness to troops is necessary, but not sufficient. According to him, it is necessary to consider the cultural norms of Afghanistan, the way in which an Afghan-style society is organized (NATO, 2010).

Military organizations have developed during the last years some improvements and initiatives that have been remarkably successful. However, the lack of knowledge of the personnel involved in military operations about local cultures often remains a serious obstacle to fulfil their mission. Selmeski affirms that military organizations have generated knowledge and procedures in the socio-cultural sphere that have facilitated the achievement of their objectives and have contributed to reducing the suffering and the number of deaths, both of civilians and of the military. However, Selmeski adds that it is necessary to increase these capacities to communicate and relate more effectively with local populations of different cultural heritage to increase the ability to influence their actions and perceptions (Selmeski, 2007).

According to Coles, cultural intelligence is much more than demographics. Cultural intelligence provides information about how and why a human group act. This knowledge provides the military commander and the entire military force involved in the operation with the possibility of anticipating these actions and planning activities that influence the population according to the desired goals (Coles, 2005). Mc Rae ensures that cultural intelligence must include information related to ethnic groups, power structures and political leaders, attitudes, customs and cultural beliefs, lifestyle, history, religion and religious leaders, languages, ideologies, tribal structures and identities, and social and humanitarian institutions (Mc Rae, 2006).

The role of culture in military operations is especially relevant when it comes to resolving conflicts in which the contestants are at odds on linguistic, ethnic, or religious grounds. Culture clashes motivated by beliefs or values ​​are the root of many of today’s conflicts (or serve as multipliers of their intensity) and members of the military forces are frequently involved in quite different cultural contexts from their own (NATO, 2010).

A great effort is necessary to use culture in the most appropriate way to promote dialogue and mutual knowledge. The members of a military operation need not only to respect the cultural norms of the different human groups of the AoO to avoid mistakes that can be dramatically negative for the mission’s objectives. Culture must be used actively to create opportunities for dialogue and reconciliation in an armed conflict or to achieve desired objectives and goals in a military operations.

General Michael Flynn, the highest-ranking officer in the intelligence structure of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan (ISAF) from June 2009 to October 2010, offers us a perfect example of what astonishing local cultures can be:

“Any organization that wants to build a water well in a village in Afghanistan can learn from our experience carrying out a similar project and the lessons we identified during its implementation. Drilling a well in the centre of a small town, to avoid local women a long walk to a fountain that was several kilometres away, we realized that the works were destroyed every night. After interviewing various members of the community, we learned that it was not the Taliban or another insurgent group that were destroying our jobs. They were precisely the women we wanted to help. For them, the trip to the well on the outskirts of the town was the only opportunity to socialize and enjoy a certain moment of freedom. Something that would totally change after the completion of our project. That is why they attacked the works of our project every night” (Flynn, 2010).

It is vital to know the local culture, not only superficially but in a much deeper way, to understand the reasons and dynamics of the emotions, attitudes, and behaviours of local groups, with the aim of predicting their actions (Bados, 2010)

Cultural Awareness, Sensibility and Competence

Cultural awareness is necessary both to defeat our adversaries and to work effectively and successfully with our allies (Wunderle, 2006). Difficulties in understanding tribal, ethnic, religious, and political relationships and dynamics have been a serious challenge and an obstacle in military operations in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, among many others (Wunderle, 2006).

Military personnel face different cultural obstacles to fulfil their mission due to factors such as prior ignorance about the area of ​​operations, the shortness of deployments, their own stereotypes and prejudices, and external influences (media, local contacts…).

In 1989, Cross defined the Cultural Continuum of Intercultural Competence, which describes intercultural understanding and knowledge in a progression of several phases (Goode, 2004). The six stages of the Cross Continuum are:

  1. Cultural destructiveness: those who believe or engage in behaviours that reinforce the superiority of one race or culture over another, with the resultant oppression of the group viewed as inferior.
  2. Cultural incapacity: those who have less active destructive belies or behaviours but are paternalistic and lack the skills to be effective with individuals from diverse groups.
  3. Cultural blindness: those who profess that culture, race and language make no difference and explicitly or implicitly encourage assimilation
  4. Pre-cultural competence: those who accept the need for culturally competent policies and procedures, but do not precede beyond symbolic efforts or searching for ways to respond.
  5. Cultural competence: those who accept and respect differences and implement policies that support these belies and commitments.
  6. Cultural proficiency: those who seek to refine their approach by learning more about diverse groups through research, dissemination, and fully inclusive practices.  

Cross believes that by being more exposed to cultural differences and gaining more awareness and sensitivity about them, people advance on the long road to cultural awareness. Cultural competence refers to the ability to behave appropriately and effectively in each cultural context. It is achieved when the most advanced levels of intercultural sensitivity are reached.

Cultural sensitivity is the “awareness that cultural differences exist and have an effect on the values, learning and behaviour” of some individuals or a given human group (Stafford et al., 1997). Bhawuk and Brislin affirm that intercultural sensitivity is the “sensitivity to cultural differences and the willingness to modify one’s behaviour as a sign of respect for people from other cultures” (Bhawuk and Brislin, 1992).

Bennett defined intercultural sensitivity as “a progressive sophistication when it comes to addressing cultural differences, moving from ethnocentrism towards phases of greater knowledge, understanding and acceptance of increasing difference when dealing with other cultures “. Bennet developed a theoretical framework to analyse the way in which people experience and react to cultural differences: The Development Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), assuming that intercultural sensitivity is a process of continuous growth in which people can transform the way they interact with cultural diversity (Bennett, 1993).

Bennett’s model assumes that exposure to cultural difference (combined with study, training, and reflection on that knowledge and experiences) will propel the individual toward intercultural competence. Bennet´s pathway goes from ethnocentric stages (such as denial, defence, and minimization of cultural differences) to ethno-relative phases (such as acceptance, adaptation, and integration (Bennet, 1986).

Ruhly defines ethnocentrism as the tendency to interpret or judge all other cultural groups (as well as their circumstances, values, feelings, and behaviours) according to the guidelines and norms of our own culture. On the other hand, ethno-relativism means that individuals can experience their own culture in relation with others (Ruhly, 1982). Most authors agree that intercultural sensitivity is a matter of interaction, communication and, above all, the projected attitude. It is necessary to understand our own emotions and feelings (as well as those of the members of other cultural groups) as a prerequisite for achieving this attitude. The most crucial aspect in this process of intercultural awareness is the transmission of a message of respect for cultural differences. Some characteristics and personal traits are fundamental in the process of intercultural awareness and (although they may also be innate) they can be learned and trained (Chen, 1997):

  • Self-esteem: Self-esteem is the way in which individuals perceive and value themselves and their social interactions. Positive self-esteem facilitates positive cross-cultural interactions. People with high self-esteem are more likely to think positively about other human groups and to be easily accepted by them. They generally have positive outlooks and more easily achieve positive emotional responses during intercultural interactions.
  • Self-control: Self-control refers to the ability to modify one’s own behaviour based on the needs of a particular situation. People with a high degree of self-control tend to be more successful in intercultural situations. They are aware of the patterns of verbal and non-verbal communication and adapt to them, modifying their behaviour and repressing their own feelings and impulses.
  • Open-minded: Open-minded people are generally less prejudiced, as well as open and receptive to new ideas and ways of life. They are willing to accept and try to understand others’ interpretation of their behaviours without becoming defensive.
  • Empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings and emotions of others. An empathic person looks for common ground in cross-cultural interactions and try to make sure that they are reacting emotionally in each situation in the appropriate way.
  • Interaction involvement: Involvement in intercultural interaction is a fundamental aspect and determines the degree to which people participate in activities that involve people of different cultural groups. Cegala affirms that it is the capacity of an individual to demonstrate the degree of commitment and implication in intercultural interaction (Cegala, 1981).
  • Suspension of judgments: By avoiding judging other cultures, it is possible to listen and observe with sincerity, without applying our own filters and cultural lenses, allowing the interlocutor to feel treated in a fairer way.

Culture and communication are closely interconnected. Communication is a fundamental element in the creation, maintenance, and development of a culture. Aldridge states that culture is derived from communication and people create and regulate culture during their interactions. According to him, language is the “glue” of culture (Aldridge, 2002). The members of a military operation are often “lost in translation.” Jandt identified five main challenges in the translation process: vocabulary; idiomatic equivalence; grammatical and syntactic equivalence; experiential equivalence; and conceptual equivalence (Jandt, 2001).

Interpreters are frequently a compulsory support to face this problem.   Furthermore, if professionally trained, briefed, and assessed, they can be a priceless assistant, because their knowledge not only about the language but also of the local culture. However, military personnel must be aware about the subculture, religion, language, etc. of the interpreter. Those factors might become an obstacle to interact with other people and groups in the area.

Any type of communication, verbal or non-verbal, is influenced by culture. However, the term “intercultural communication” was not used until 1959 (Hall, 1959). Knapp, Kotthoff, and Spencey-Oatey define intercultural communication as interpersonal interactions between different groups that differ from each other in the knowledge shared by their members (Knapp, Kottoff, and Spencer-Oatey, 2002). According to Ting-Toomey, interpersonal communication is an exchange of symbols and meanings between people of different cultures (Ting-Toomey, 1999).

High and low contexts are of vital importance in communication processes, whether verbal or non-verbal. Many members of military operations abroad come from low-context cultural backgrounds, in which the interlocutors focus on the literal meaning of the message words: the focus is mainly on verbal communication. However, these soldiers might be deployed in societies where only part of the information is reflected in verbal language. According to Hall, in this type of cultures “most of the information is either in the physical context or initialized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message” (Hall, 1976).

Military personnel must be aware of different styles of communication. If they come from Western societies, they will be familiar with direct styles, frequent in low context societies. In the direct communication style, the participants in the conversation expect to receive precise and concise information about the demands, wishes and expectations of their interlocutors. Participants in a conversation are not required to read between the lines and the message is obvious. The language is usually succinct (it tends to focus on the “most important” of the conversation and uses pauses and silences to convey the meaning of the message) and instrumental (communication is only a tool to perform a task).

On the contrary, in high context societies (much more collectivist and less individualistic), the indirect style is predominant. The participants in a conversation rely on non-verbal elements to determine the real meaning of the message. The language is elaborate (it is rich in words and forms and uses metaphors, similes, and proverbs as elements of a conversation) and affective (the emphasis is placed on the act of the conversation itself and not on its outcome).

Non-verbal language knowledge is essential for military personnel. All human beings use non-verbal communication to convey a message and share their mood and emotions with their interlocutor (they are often even unaware of this spontaneous behaviour). Non-verbal language incorporates verbal expressions, movements of parts of the body, postures, gestures, and other facilitating and regulating elements of the conversation. The central element is facial expression.  Eye contact is also essential.

The meanings behind this non-verbal message widely differ from one culture to another, as does the concept of time and space. The ways in which time is conceptualized (called chronemics or the study of the meaning of time) are also strongly linked to culture. The concept of time can be understood as mono-chronemic (Time is quantifiable and limited. People’s needs are structured to meet the demands of time. People generally complete an action and continue with it until it is finished) or poly-chronemic (Time is considered unlimited and linked to the natural rhythm of nature. Activities are carried out simultaneously instead of sequentially)

Cultures also vary in the meaning they assign to personal space, distance, physical contact, and territory (known as proxemics). A short distance between interlocutors and close personal contact between them can be a problematic factor for some cultures, which may consider it invasive of their privacy and even threatening. Likewise, a too wide distance between interlocutors and the absence of personal contact can be considered as a sign of coldness and lack of interest and respect in other cultures.

Hofstede developed the Cultural Dimensions Theory, used widely as a crucial framework for cross-cultural communication. It is the earliest theory that classified the cultures of the different countries according to six cultural dimensions: power distance, individualism vs collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity vs femininity, short-term vs long-term orientation, and indulgence vs self -restraint (Hofstede, 2001).

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory. Comparison of four countries: US, China, Germany, and Brazil in all six dimensions of the model (Hofstede, 2001)

The way people behave in public spaces or events (how they are organized or how they are placed at a table to eat or attend a meeting) is also influenced by culture. This behaviour transmits information related to customs, interests, and power relations in each society. Training in cultural awareness is the first step to provide soldiers with the ability (with varying degrees of preparation) to understand the effect of cultural factors on the OE. They must be able to adapt to these factors to effectively perform their tasks and achieve the objectives set by the mission (even without extensive prior knowledge of the AoO and despite their emotional and professional reactions to the environment (Henk, 2008).

Cultural awareness is necessary to interact with members of other cultures. Contact with the local population requires a degree of cultural knowledge that makes it possible to gather accurate and necessary information about the OE and facilitate contact with the local population. To provide the soldier with the necessary knowledge about the local culture and customs and the ability to interact with the different social groups of the AoO, it is essential to build a “cultural framework” that serves as the basis to design the appropriate education and training plans.

These plans should pay particular attention to the following essential concepts: honour and face; hierarchy and social stratification; purity, danger, and taboos; proxemics and body language; speech acts; and worldview and belief systems.

Speegle says that the basic principles of cultural awareness for military personnel are: be aware that each individual sees the world through their own cultural lens; recognize and identify their own stereotypes and prejudices (that are an obstacle when it comes to establishing intercultural relationships); identify behaviours of the local groups that indicate the fundamental elements of their cultural identity; suspend judgment on other cultures (cultures are not inherently good or bad, right or wrong, just different); and be prepared to adapt their behaviour in order to provoke positive effects and reactions from the local population (Poveda, 2007).

Cultural awareness and competence is also essential when interacting with staff from international and regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, and host country bodies and agencies.

Cultural Expertise (Bados, 2010)

Intercultural competence refers to the ability to “behave effectively and appropriately in intercultural interactions” (Chen and Starosta, 2000). Achievement happens when people reach high levels of intercultural sensitivity. Lessons learned from recent military operations show that coping with a crisis requires a Comprehensive Approach (CA) that combines political, civil, and military instruments. Military means, while essential, are not sufficient to meet the many complex challenges to security nowadays. Within the CA framework, cultural competence is essential for the success of the operation when working side by side with allies, partners, and peers with different institutional cultures (Bados, 2010).

Cultural awareness and understanding are necessary but insufficient components to achieve the cultural capacity that a military organization needs to meet current and future security challenges. The NATO’s CIMIC Center of Excellence (CCOE) states that military personnel also need the ability to identify and use cultural factors relevant to the mission success. This ability is known as intercultural competence. According to the CCOE, intercultural competence is a set of culture-general knowledge, skills, abilities, and attributes (KSAAs) developed through education, training and experience that grant the ability to operate effectively in any cultural environment (CCOE, 2015).

CCOE Model of Cultural Competence (CCOE, 2015)

Cultural elements and factors can be identified in the different dimensions of the PMESII. The PMESII approach will help to integrate isolated data into a system of elements and relationships. The CCOE uses a three-level model to understand the culture of an AoO: the ‘why’ (factors that contribute to form the cultural characteristics of the AoO and its cultural phenomena) explains the ‘what’ (cultural manifestations). This means that both cultural conformation factors and cultural phenomena indicate the ways and reasons why members of a certain group have adapted to life in a certain way. (CCOE, 2015).

CCOE model “Coping with Culture”

In this paper, we will use now on the following continuum of culture to describe intercultural understanding in terms of a progression through four phases: Cultural Awareness, Cultural Knowledge, Cultural Sensitivity and Cultural Competence.

The personnel of a military operation must attain a high level of cultural competence. Consequently, one of the most important challenges is the incorporation of socio-cultural knowledge in all phases and activities of the military operation. This socio-cultural competence or the ability to “operationalize” culture is fundamental in planning and decision-making in a military operation, particularly when it comes to counterinsurgency operations or hybrid war scenarios (Bados, 2010).

The Operationalization of Culture

An important part of current and future military campaigns involves full spectrum operations followed by complex and lengthy Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. In this type of operations, it is difficult to distinguish between the adversaries, the allies, the neutral actors, and the rest of the local population. It makes the planning, execution, and evaluation of military activities to achieve the desired objectives extremely challenging (Bados, 2010).

This situation is further complicated in the context of hybrid warfare, defined as the use of a wide range of subversive instruments, many of which are not military (Chivvis, 2017). Hybrid strategies are not new, but they have been adapted to the current context and have embraced the technical means and procedures of the 21st century. They combine various military forms of warfare with economic, information, and diplomatic instruments of power into essentially a hybrid threat whole of government approach (Davis, 2015). Hybrid warfare economizes the use of force, is persistent, and is population-centric: it intends to effect on the population through information operations, proxy groups, and other influence operations (Chivvis, 2017).

Cultural competence will also be essential in a hybrid warfare environment. It is crucial to assess how basic government functions and services can continue during emergencies and disasters or in the face of external attack of any nature. Resilience is the ability of a society to withstand and recover easily and quickly from such shocks and combines both civilian preparedness and military capability. The study of resilience will allow us to assess the capacity of a country to contribute to allied efforts in the continuity of the government, the continuity of essential services for the population, and civilian support for military operations. Socio-cultural factors will play a fundamental role in this analysis.

In a counterinsurgency, asymmetric or hybrid warfare environment, cultural competence is a critical combat capacity because it generates a permissive operating environment and allows for situational awareness and knowledge. It also facilitates interaction with the population, informs us about individuals, groups, and organizations more relevant in the AoO and allows us to influence them. A military plan will not work if the population and its needs are not understood from a culture-centric perspective. Cultural competence is not an end, but a way to make culture operationally relevant (Bados, 2010).  The operationalization of culture is an invaluable tool in those conflicts in which the “human terrain” plays a fundamental role (Holiday, 2008).

The study of local culture is a necessary means to achieve our objectives. This is the operationalization of culture: identifying the most relevant cultural aspects that influence military operations and that help us to understand the socio-cultural dynamics of the OE, as well as the effects of our own actions (Bados, 2010). Knowledge of the human terrain is vital to get the support and freedom of movement that the population can provide us, while denying the adversary (Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan, 2011). The level of knowledge required in the different functions, positions, and command echelons within a military operation is different. While for a part of the soldiers will be enough to know how to avoid misunderstandings and offenses in their interaction with the population, other part will need a much greater degree of knowledge to include cultural factors in their work and daily activities, such as: interviews with local religious leaders, designing press campaigns aimed at the local population or evaluating the effect of our actions on different human groups (Bados, 2010).

In a counterinsurgency context, the leadership of a military operation needs to identify the different social groups in the AoO, their leaders and their needs and frustrations, which can be exploited by the adversary. Cultural awareness is crucial in identifying some of the root causes of an insurgency, such as those related to identity, religion, and occupation and exploitation (for example, the specific action of foreigners may offend religious or cultural sensitivities). It will also be vital to understand some of the dynamics (leadership and ideology, and external and internal group support), elements, and strategies of an insurgency. The success of a counter-insurgency operation depends largely on a deep understanding of the society, culture, and interactions between groups and individuals (“human terrain”) within the OE. This understanding is vital to isolate the insurgency from the population, depriving it of support, information, and personnel, as well as to address the root of the problems that have led to the birth of an insurgency, which are the ultimate goals of a counter-insurgency operation (Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan, 2011).

The same principles can be applied in a context of hybrid warfare, in which military actions are combined with activities of a political, economic, or social nature. The conflicts of the coming years will be fought not only with military means, but also by the confrontation of narratives (values, history, culture, and religion): the battle of ideas (Lutsevych, 2016). In the medium term, the contest for the “hearts and minds” of citizens will persist. This information war (“the battle of the narratives”) basically uses principles and approaches to dismiss critics and distort the facts, as well as to distract and discourage adversaries through false information (Snegovaya, 2015). Postmodern forms of propaganda and disinformation use cultural elements to question the very foundations of the ideas, principles, and values ​​of the adversary’s political, social, and cultural system (Pomerantsev and Weiss, 2014).

Values ​​are frequently considered as the pillars of a society’s culture (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, 1961), representing, explicitly or implicitly, what is accepted and pursued by a group or individual. They are abstract concepts that are composed of powerful emotional elements and predispose the individual to accept or try to change a certain situation (Rotondo et al., 1997). Values ​​influence behavior by providing guidance about the objectives to be achieved (Triandis, 1979). Values ​​affect perception, increasing or decreasing the possibility that a stimulus will be perceived by an individual (Rotondo et al., 1997). Values ​​are global beliefs that influence actions and decisions in each situation: they are a learned mental programming that is the result of living in a specific culture (Rokeach, 1973).

Karabaich and Pfautz affirm that, politically, militarily, or socially, human groups carry out all activities that influence the success or failure of military operations: refugee movements, insurgency, political activities, and dialogue with leaders, or reconstruction. According to both, human groups can be classified according to three concepts: composition; goals and motivation; and behaviour and actions. According to their classification, human groups’ categories would be the following: social, religious, economic, professional, political, militant and military (Karabaich and Pfautz, 2006)

Cultural factors must be considered in all phases of the operation to determine social and cultural diversity in the OE. The population can be classified into various groups according to concepts such as ethnicity, religion, language, or gender (Therriault and Wulf, 2006). The knowledge of these cultural factors allows us to identify and understand sociocultural dynamics, to influence the population, our allies, and our adversaries in the best way to achieve our objectives, as well as to legitimize the purposes and activities of the military operation. (Bados, 2010).

Cultural factors are essential to develop a vision of the organizational structure of a group and of its motivations, beliefs, and values, which will be of great importance in predicting its actions and determining the best way to influence them, taking into consideration weaknesses and vulnerabilities (Karabaich and Pfautz, 2006). Therefore, it is necessary to combine our current knowledge and methods and our common sense and experience with a new framework that integrates culture in the planning and execution of operations.

Blooms’ cognitive ladder (Bados, 2010)

Despite efforts to create cultural integrators/enablers in the different Armies/Services, there exist little-to-no effective established systems for the integration of socio-cultural information into military operations. For that reason, some fillers are required to bridge that gap aiming at bringing commanders and planners up the cognitive ladder during the planning and conduct of operations. Those gap-fillers are Education & Training and the employment of some cultural Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), used as brokers and interfaces (Bados, 2010).

Operationalization of Culture (Bados, 2010)

The current preponderance of population-centric operations (whether in a counterinsurgency or hybrid war context) has drawn attention to the need of seriously considering the cultural aspects and factors of the AoO. However, the missing link between the awareness of the cultural aspects of threats and the development of operational plans that consider these aspects has not yet been found (Trochowska, 2014).

In recent years, the United States Armed Forces have given greater importance to the value of cultural intelligence, deploying teams of social scientists within the framework of their military operations to facilitate knowledge, and understanding of the social environment of the AoO (Barret, 2012). The US Human Terrain System (HTS), deployed in population-centric operations such as those in Iraq or Afghanistan, is an enlightening example of combining the work of civilian and military cultural experts to assist in the planning and execution of nowadays operations. The HTS includes several components:

  • Human Terrain Teams (HTT): composed of social scientist, military personnel, and cultural analyst, who function as part of the military staff.
  • Research Reach-back Cell (RCC): provides analytical and research support to the forward teams.
  • Subject Matters Expert Network (SMEnet): composed of knowledgeable subject experts who provide more in-depth research on request (Holiday, 2008).

It is necessary to highlight that there is a set of activities and military branches more closely related and linked to the population of an AoO, such as Human Intelligence (HUMINT), Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC), Psychological Operations (PSYOOPS) or Information Operations (INFOOPS), among others, which need a broad knowledge of the socio-cultural aspects of the OE (Trochowska, 2014). For these branches, it is vital to incorporate culture into operations and they are the ones who must collaborate most closely with cultural SMEs. However, the importance of culture is not exclusive for these military branches and there is a long range of Joint Capability Areas that will be affected, directly or indirectly by the socio-cultural environment (Bados, 2010).

Therefore, the success of current military operations is totally dependent on achieving a comprehensive and deep situational awareness of the OE, of which the cultural awareness of the AoO is a vital component (Trochowska, 2014). Each soldier and each military unit or headquarters must be able to identify what is operationally relevant to fulfil its mission. In this sense, mere cultural knowledge, although very necessary, is not enough; cultural information must be “operational” and “actionable” to be useful, and achieving cultural competence is paramount.

The Gender Dimension

Gender influences conflict and conflict influences gender. Men and women experience and contribute to conflict in different ways. Therefore, integrating gender into the analysis of a conflict or an AoO helps us to:

  1. identify and better understand the root causes of instability by analysing and understanding the causes and multipliers of conflict related to gender dynamics.
  2. choose the best form of response through a deeper understanding of the specific needs, capacities and experiences of women, men, boys, girls, and sexual and gender minorities.
  3. recognize and mitigate risks from policies, programs or other interventions that may exacerbate the gender dimensions of the conflict or damage the post-conflict solution.
  4. build gender equality and peace by ensuring that assistance in conflict and post-conflict situations does not rebuild a gender-discriminatory society that contains the seeds of future violence (UK Stabilization Unit, 2017).

Integrating gender into conflict analysis increases not only inclusiveness, but also the effectiveness of military operations. Gender integration improves the understanding of underlying gender power relations and indicates how these relations are influenced by armed conflicts and conflict resolution efforts. The gender perspective helps us to identify the factors that drive conflicts, potential agents, and opportunities for its resolution, as well as the practices of exclusion and discrimination present in the AoO (Conciliation Resources, 2015).

By regularly updating the gender analysis (including social, cultural, economic, health, and political factors), a gender perspective will be integrated in all the domains of the PMESII (SHAPE, 2013). Applying a gender perspective will improve operational effectiveness and strengths, contributing to increase knowledge and capabilities in areas such as: Situational awareness, liaison / communication, collecting Human Intelligence (HUMINT)[2], information (perception), allocation of forces, prioritize reconstruction efforts, security force assistance and contribution to a safe and secure environment.

Example of Gender Factor-Deduction-Conclusion Analysis through the PMESII Domains

To integrate a gender perspective into military operations, the commander’s support and the overall responsibility of all personnel should be clear. It is necessary to integrate the gender perspective into the main body of the planning document and it is vital to interpret the gender perspective from the top to any lower level, reviewing and re-evaluating existing plans with a gender perspective.

To do this, it is necessary to designate a person in charge of evaluating the plans with a gender perspective and designing adequate training to be able to integrate the gender perspective within the framework of the military operation, answering questions such as How does my plan affect men? How does my plan affect women? Are men and women affected differently? How do men and women affect my plan? Do men and women affect my plan differently?

Protection of Civilians in NATO Military Operations: A case example

While the Protection of Civilians (PoC) agenda advances, civilians are still the ones who pay the highest toll during armed conflict. The protection of the civilian population is a fundamental requirement to achieving long-lasting peace. It is at the core of NATO’s values and it is being expressed in and through its operations. Gaining an understanding of the increasing threat and the effects of armed conflict on civilians, together with the necessity to attain a PoC mind-set is essential (ACO, 2020). Socio-Cultural factors play an essential role in this context.

Under the NATO Policy, PoC (persons, objects, and services) includes all efforts taken to avoid, minimise and mitigate the negative effects that might arise from NATO and NATO-led military operations on the civilian population and, when applicable, to protect civilians from conflict-related physical violence or threats of physical violence by other actors, including through the establishment of a safe and secure environment, particularly in the current challenging OE.

The PoC Framework is comprised of four elements. They emphasise the need for a comprehensive and continuous assessment process aimed at generating sufficient awareness across all domains. This provides for the first element of the framework, Understanding the Human Environment (UHE)[3], which is enabled by the other three elements. These are distinct, but interrelated thematic lenses focused on key PoC issues and actors:

  1. Mitigate Harm (MH), focused on Perpetrators of Violence and their victims.
  2. Facilitate Access to Basic Needs (FABN), focused on Civilians, Civil Society and Aid Providers.
  3. Contribute to a Safe and Secure Environment (C-SASE), focused on the Local Government and Institutions.
PoC Framework (ACO, 2020)

UHE enables the overall understanding of a crisis by emphasising a ‘population-centric’ view, focusing on the population’s perception regarding the safety and security of their environment, including what they perceive as threats. This could include, for example, a population threat assessment (threat against the population) versus (or in addition to) the traditional threat assessment (threat against the Force), as well as assessments of the population’s vulnerabilities, strengths, and resiliencies. MH, FABN, and C-SASE can be used as thematic lenses to support the development of overall UHE in providing comprehensive situational awareness, in addition to traditional planning and assessment of operations.

The NATO Military Concept for the PoC also provides an overarching frame of reference for NATO Cross-Cutting Topics (CCTs), such as Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC), Conflict Related Sexual and Gender Based Violence (CR-SGBV), Women, Peace and Security (WPS), Cultural Property Protection (CPP), and Building Integrity (BI)[4].

These CCTs need to be considered in a coherent and integrated manner during the planning and execution of operations as they are interdependent. For example, increased sexual and gender-based violence could be an indicator for greater violence and mass atrocities against civilians. Consideration on how to establish standing procedures, specific monitoring, assessment, reporting and/or mitigation mechanisms with this interdependency in mind will aid identification of these factors.

PoC is relevant to NATO’s Three Core Tasks – Collective Defence, Crisis Management, and Cooperative Security – and is applicable to all NATO and NATO-led operations and missions[5].

Thus, PoC must be considered in the planning for all operations and at every stage of the planning process, although different considerations will have to be made depending on the phase considered.

UHE provides a ‘population-centric’ perspective that complements existing processes used to understand the operational environment. It looks beyond governmental and military perspectives that are focused on parties to the conflict/crisis as it complements the picture by adding a civilian angle to these views using the MH, FABN and C-SASE lenses. This is essential, as the Military is traditionally particularly good at assessing the ‘red’ picture, (opposing forces) and the ‘blue’ picture (friendly forces), which is insufficient in current OE. This requires also gaining an understanding of the ‘green’ picture (population perspective).

Understanding the crisis area is essential to inform decision-making in all phases of operations. To protect civilians, the unique characteristics of the population within the operating environment have to be considered during the decision-making process, to include their culture, history, demographics, strengths, informal power structures such as religious and nongovernmental leaders and influencers, resiliencies and vulnerabilities. Within crisis response operations, this also includes identifying the sources of instability and drivers of conflict. UHE is the necessary first step for the successful integration of PoC considerations into the planning and conduct of NATO and NATO-led operations, missions, and other mandated activities.

Part of UHE is recognising the complexity and dynamic nature of the Human Domain. UHE is a continuous process that needs to be proactive/pre-emptive in nature, supporting overall Situational Awareness (SA), the development of an initial understanding of a crisis, as well as Knowledge Development (KD). This is done through a persistent monitoring and assessment, to inform decision-makers with the most relevant and up-to-date information, while also recognising that much of the knowledge and expertise of this environment resides outside of traditional military spheres of information. Therefore, this task requires the use of both military and civilian capabilities (human and technological) to systematically search, identify, collect, process (manage and analyse), and disseminate relevant operational information to decision makers. This could include a systems perspective, across the PMESII domains, focusing on potential adversaries, friendly and neutral actors; a threat assessment broadened to include population centric protection; or mission security threats and risk assessments.

Among many other aspects, UHE provides information and analysis about Crisis/Conflict Actors, which contains a Demographic (Age, Sex, Gender[6], Race, Physical ability, Language, etc.) assessment of the population, including:

  1. Perpetrators of Violence – including their motivation, strategies and tactics, and capabilities. This group also comprises ‘Spoilers’ who use violence to undermine local authorities and hinder conflict settlement.
  2. Civilians – including those most vulnerable (for example those with disabilities, older people, gender groups) or most at-risk (individuals with any attribute, characteristic or exposure that increases the likelihood of harm, i.e., in some cases military aged males may be most at risk, in other cases it could be women gathering firewood).[7]
  3. Local Authorities – including their ability to protect the population.
  4. Media and other ‘Influencers’ – activities of populations will be influenced by information actors within and exterior to the conflict zone.
  5. International Actors – including international organisations, nongovernmental organisations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, governments and governmental organisations and private sector entities.
  6. Cross-cutting Topics (CCTs) – a range of different topics, which have a significant impact on all missions. Different military disciplines, branches and command levels may have to consider and deal with a variety of CCTs throughout an operation.

Consistent UHE throughout all phases of the mission, UHE is a key element as it underpins and provides guidance to planners on how to properly understand the OE. To do so, several questions should be considered, reviewed, and updated throughout the planning and conduct of operations, including:

  • What are the key protection concerns-issues in the AOR? To include:
  • Main actors that threaten or pose a potential threat to civilians?
  • Which actors are being threatened?
  • Who are the main protection actors?
  • What is the composition of the civilian population? To include:
  • Demographics – age, race, gender, etc.
  • Social Groups – Ethnicity, Religion, etc.
  • Social Structure – Literacy, Education, Urban, Rural, Class, Caste, etc.
  • Which are the religious groups present in the AOR and which are their functions?
  • Which actors of the international community does NATO have to talk to/link with to achieve own PoC objectives/goals?

The Comprehensive Preparation of the Operational Environment (CPOE), which is crisis-specific and supports the development of a comprehensive understanding of the operational environment should include a systems perspective, across the PMESII domains, focusing on potential adversaries, friendly and neutral actors; a population-centric perspective of the crisis; threat assessments broadened to include population centric protection; as well as mission threat and risk-based analysis.

The factor analysis provides a strategic-level appreciation of the crisis, with the identification of the problem, main actors, key factors, including strategic environment and PMESII factors, as well as potential threats and risks. This initial understanding of the crisis will also help identify knowledge gaps and, consequently, information, intelligence, and knowledge requirements. From a PoC perspective, the strategic appreciation of the crisis can help highlight any specific threats to civilians in the crisis area.

This assessment will include those actors that do not represent a threat to the force, which is the innovative aspect of the population threat assessment, as well as determine potential military options to protect those civilians. Once this initial understanding of the crisis is developed, continuous monitoring, assessment and reporting needs to be conducted to both further refine the understanding of the problem and to address any developments or changes in the crisis environment.


The OE has become an extraordinarily complex, dynamic, and adaptive system of systems, with new actors, both state and non-state. Today, economic, political, and social structures have become as important as military capabilities to military operations.

Culture is an important factor in the current OE, especially in a context of counterinsurgency and irregular or hybrid warfare. In this framework, ignoring socio-cultural factors is a counterproductive and highly dangerous policy when it comes to achieving the desired objectives.

Despite some recent successful initiatives, the lack of knowledge by military personnel about socio-cultural aspects, seriously aggravated by prejudices and stereotypes, continues to be a serious obstacle to fulfil their task.

Some characteristics are vital to the cross-cultural sensitivity of military personnel and must be learned and practiced. Currently, only a small number of soldiers receive intensive language and cultural training in their respective countries and most of the curricula of military education institutions still focus on “traditional” military education, such as engineering, mathematics, or chemistry. It is essential to include cultural awareness training in the curricula of all military education institutions.

It should be noted that an important part of the knowledge and skills that soldiers need in a multicultural environment are affected by attitude. Those who show some vital characteristics for intercultural sensitivity should be selected and trained to be the “face” of the military operation and interact directly with the local population.

Although cultural awareness cannot guarantee victory in current and future conflicts, the lack of it certainly results in unintended repercussions. However, cultural awareness is not enough. Military organizations must work to reach cultural competence. Having cultural competence is a force multiplier. It is a capacity that significantly increases the combat power of a force and, consequently, increases the probability of a successful mission completion.

The more we know about a specific culture, the better the quality of our decisions. The opposite is also true: a superficial knowledge of socio-cultural aspects and factors leads to culturally wrong decisions with serious consequences. All military operations must be planned, prepared, and executed based on the knowledge of those involved actors, both friends and foes.

Efforts should be made to identify best practices in cultural dialogue and situational understanding and to utilize cultural relationships and dynamics in the AoO. Military personnel must not only focus on respecting local cultural norms (offending local culture and religion can drastically damage mission objectives), but also use culture to create opportunities for dialogue to achieve the desired objectives.

A greater knowledge of the AoO enables better decisions.  The opposite is also true: a superficial knowledge will lead us to wrong choices in the cultural sphere. All military operations must be planned, prepared, and executed considering the cultural factors that affect all the relevant actors in the AoO, be they friends, enemies, or neutrals.

In this context, gender integration is a force multiplier:  integrating gender into conflict analysis increases not only inclusiveness, but also the effectiveness of military operations.

NATO PoC Concept, which include the UHE, is a perfect example of the operationalization of culture.

In recent decades, NATO had to shift its focus from preparing for a conventional war in Europe to crisis resolution missions (including humanitarian, peacekeeping, and peace-making tasks) in distant and culturally different locations. In such population-centric settings, military personnel need additional skills and specialized knowledge, and cultural training is essential. NATO must continue its efforts to operationalize culture to face emerging hybrid challenges.

The systemic understanding of the environment, which includes the social domain, is essential. Cultural factors must be incorporated in the planning and conduct of operations, according to a top-down approach, from the commander to the private deployed in the field.

It is vital to operationalize the culture: we must identify, study, and understand all the cultural factors of the AoO, and integrate that knowledge into planning, pre-deployment preparation, the decision-making process, and the overall conduct of operations.


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[1] Culture is understood here as the system of beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artefacts shared by a social group. It determines and show the way in which a human group copes with the different events of the daily life and how their members interact with people out and inside the group. 

[2] In places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the inclusion of female soldiers was vital to fulfil intelligence gaps and to gather vital information and intelligence from women in the AoO. They engaged, talked and influenced local women who were unlikely to speaks to their male colleagues. 

[3] ‘Human Environment’ (HE) is used in the PoC Concept to complement the term ‘Civil Environment’ (CE). While both share many things in common, CE is viewed as the civil component of the overall assessment of the Operational Environment or Engagement Space. As such, it only focuses on the civil dimension of the environment, to include civilian actors. In contrast, HE includes all aspects of the broader human domain focusing on how all humans interact with their environment, especially each other. Therefore, it includes non-civil aspects of the environment, such as the military and irregular armed groups. This distinction is necessary as Perpetrators of Violence can be both military and civilian. Additionally, HE emphasises a ‘population-centric’ perspective, while CE is often done from a ‘military-centric’ perspective (ACO, 2020).

[4] For more information on CCTs, see AJP-3.19, Allied Joint Doctrine for Civil-Military Cooperation and Annex A of the NATO Military Concept for the Protection of Civilians.

[5] In the event of an Article 5 operation conducted within the Alliance’s territory, the way in which UHE is conducted will be impacted, as information collection will be a responsibility of the HN. During Article 5, considering the adherence to the Seven Baseline Requirements of Resilience through civil preparedness will help a better understanding of the human environment. The seven baseline requirements include: 1. Assure the Continuity of Government and Critical Government Services; 2. Resilient Energy Supply; 3. Ability to Deal Effectively with Uncontrolled Movement of People; 4. Resilient Food and Water Resources; 5. Ability to Deal with Mass Casualties; 6. Resilient Civil Communication System; 7. Resilient Civil Transportation System. Without limiting the use of the Seven Resilience Baseline Requirements, it is important to notice that they have been developed and agreed by NATO Nations to assess their own level of resilience (ACO, 2020).

[6] For more information about Gender in NATO, please consult Bi-Strategic Command Directive 040-001, Bi-Strategic Command Directive 040-001 “Integrating UNSCR 1325 and Gender Perspective into the NATO Command Structure, dated 16 May 2017.

[7] War and conflict affect different groups disproportionately. Vulnerability is context driven and will vary from one operation to another. In some conflict areas, the most vulnerable group could be military aged males. Therefore, it is essential to understand the different security needs and concerns of different groups, to include distinctions between men, women, boys, and girls (ACO, 2020).

Editado por: Global Strategy. Lugar de edición: Granada (España). ISSN 2695-8937

Juan Carlos Antúnez

Oficial del Ejército de Tierra español. Analista Sociocultural en NATO Allied Joint Force Command (JFC) Brunssum. Doctor en Filología Árabe

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Juan Carlos Antúnez