Success Left of Zero

The significance of human geography before and during conflict


The late radio host Paul Harvey delivered breaking news announcements in a staccato voice, before pausing and adding smoothly, “And now, the rest of the story.”

The military, government agencies, humanitarian relief organizations, and industry are looking to human geography to provide the “rest of the story.” They seek the “who” and “why” to add to the “what” and “where” of physical geography, as well as the “when” of temporality. More importantly, they want the “what happens next?” that transforms a picture into a geospatial narrative with a human face.

“Human geography brings context,” said Letitia Long, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), during a media roundtable in October at the GEOINT 2012 Symposium. “It’s about the effect of demographics on how people act and interact with what is going on, where they are, where they live and work—the ability of us to understand that can lead to new insights.”

Human geography can be used to model the impact of war on a population before a battle is fought. It can show who most needs help after a hurricane or earthquake, and it can help identify starving people who haven’t seen rain in years.

At its core, human geography is built on Walter Tobler’s First Law of Geography: “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”

Human geography is a term largely generated by the U.S. State Department and is accepted—in some cases grudgingly—by the rest of government and its partners.

It’s an umbrella term for a still-evolving package of skills that includes socio-cultural, economic, political, health, urban, and other types of research. Together, this research can identify groups of people, their leaders, and their interaction with other groups, which are the seeds of potential conflict.

However, human geography is built on a socio-cultural foundation that was once the province of academia, and is often less driven by the research and more by the client.

“The temporality of the information that we’re asking for is different now,” said Dr. Dave Warner, a neuroscientist who, in 19 trips to Afghanistan, has turned unclassified satellite images into currency that buys insight into the local population.

“What we used to call social geography didn’t change a lot in time and space,” Warner said. “Now, there are social dynamics that are happening in a faster time frame … and now we have to process things faster and better.”

Dr. Sam Striker conducts socio-cultural analysis for Hollin-Phoenix Consulting, and has spent considerable time with the Army’s Special Forces and Humanitarian Terrain System. He offers this example: “I had one colonel ask me, ‘Can you find out about those stabilization operations in Maiwand, [Afghanistan]? How much time do you need?’” Striker recalled. “I said, ‘Four weeks.’ He said, ‘You’ve got four days.’”

It’s a divide between good and good enough. Academic research is good for a doctoral dissertation. Human geography is good enough to provide a relevant answer for an ever-changing situation.

Phase Zero

If you ask military leaders what happened to socio-cultural research between the Vietnam War and the War on Terror, you would receive a range of answers, including that preparation for conventional warfare overrode counterinsurgency training and strategy.

That had to change, according to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who heads the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“We’re in about 139 countries today, so we have to do some things to make sure that we’re present where we need to be,” Flynn said during a keynote address at the GEOINT 2012 Symposium. “It’s about putting our presence forward where it needs to be in a world we are really having a difficult time understanding and responding to.”

It’s also, he added, about “mitigating risk” to combatants and the population.

Critics have posited that U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has been prolonged by a lack of prior knowledge about where the military was fighting and why.

“[The] No. 1 [lesson learned] is our failure to understand the environment we were operating in or the cultures we were operating in or against,” Flynn said.

This statement should reflect a sense of urgency because “we’re in one of those turning moments in history,” he added.

Earlier in 2012, Flynn penned “Left of Bang: The Value of Sociocultural Analysis in Today’s Environment,” which was published by the National Defense University Press.

He wrote, “Once a conflict commences, it is already too late to begin the process of learning about the population and its politics.”

The time prior to conflict is called Phase Zero, and it’s where many in the military want to operate.

“Those of us in the intel world consider [‘Left of Bang’] a bible which takes us from how things were to how things should be,” said Maj. Faye Cuevas, an Air Force reserve intelligence officer for Special Operations Command–Africa and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). “[Lt. Gen. Flynn’s papers and others] emphasize that there needs to be a shift in the way the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance community does its job. We need to find a way to consider in parallel targeting and counterterrorism, but we also need to emphasize a population-centric strategy.”

Left of Zero in Africa

The U.S. has had a military presence in Africa for decades without really knowing much about the continent and its people. The military aims to change that with AFRICOM, a Stuttgart, Germany-based command formed in 2008 with socio-cultural research in mind and as a stated goal.

Since AFRICOM was established, there have been Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed at Benghazi, Libya. There have been contentious government changes in Kenya and Mali. The world’s newest nation was formed in the South Sudan, and civil wars are being fought amid the growing influence of Al Qaeda and ongoing health issues. All such events are being studied by AFRICOM’s Socio-Cultural Research Center.

“It’s an inter-disciplinary division of intelligence analysts sitting alongside socio-cultural Ph.D.s,” said Cuevas. “They are military and civilian, and the goal of the group is to analyze and research the information we need to support operations in Africa.”

The center also has its own Socio-Cultural Research and Advisement Teams (SCRAT), which work under a code of ethics and with the host country’s permission.

The Socio-Cultural Research Center is part of an effort to better understand the African nations the U.S. works in partnership with. As important, the center can use military intelligence capabilities to identify potential problems.

“From a full-motion sensor, we might see things like cattle herds,” Cuevas said. “Cattle migrations are based on where the water is—especially in Africa. So there’s information and knowledge that’s being collected that might not be of direct intel value, but a socio-cultural analyst can apply his tradecraft to it, and then it might become important to me as an intelligence analyst.”

A Human Face on Terrain

AFRICOM’s SCRAT is much like the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS), which was created in 2007 as a catch-up effort to conduct environmental research in Iraq and Afghanistan. The HTS has been much maligned since its inception, at least in part because its mission was begun mid-war.

“It was a setup for failure,” said Striker, who was part of two HTS teams. “I was prior service, Special Forces, so to me it was no big deal. But to a social scientist … they got bowled over.”

The HTS continues work with 20 teams in Afghanistan, down from 31 teams at the start of the summer, when the program’s budget was cut 40 percent as a result of the troop drawdown.

But HTS may have found its niche in a Phase Zero pilot it conducted with U.S. Army Africa (USARAF), a component command of AFRICOM.

“Based on the results of that success, we will be starting to hire some people to USARAF who are no longer in a pilot,” said Jeff Beatty, HTS’s futures director. “They will be part of the [U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command] effort to expand human terrain capability to contribute in a post-Afghanistan environment.”

Beatty is spending the next fiscal year touting the capability and potential of HTS to commands around the world.

The approach makes sense, according to Striker.

“A social-cultural team works best in Phase Zero because it has access to the population,” Striker said. “In Afghanistan, I had to take four [Stryker armored vehicles] out with me, 30 soldiers surrounding me. It’s a million dollars every time you go outside the wire.”

It’s also a hard way to persuade the population that you come in peace.

The Way Ahead

There are several arguments for giving the study of human geography a permanent place in the military and the Intelligence Community.

One is the now ever-present threat of irregular warfare. Over time there have been multiple disparate attempts at raising the profile of human geography. HTS and SCRAT are two examples. NGA has also developed a new Human Geography Steering Group in an effort to coalesce these initiatives in a more cohesive whole, at least within the Intelligence Community.

“If [Iraq and Afghanistan are what] caused us to pay attention to the human complexities that caused the conflict and sustained the conflict, it has to matter,” Warner said. “We should be paying attention.”

The torch is also being passed to a new, more technologically savvy generation.

“I think now there’s a cultural change within the military,” said Warner, himself a former soldier. “The guys (junior officers and NCOs) that have been out and about and learned this—if we actually put those people [in charge], they will understand the need. The old folks will eventually leave, and we’ll have the young cyberwarriors, the folks who understand social media intrinsically, who understand how it works with human geography.”

And who understand the need to obtain the rest of the story.

A Momentous Task

In June, a 22-person Human Geography Steering Group was formed with representatives from various DoD and Intelligence Community stakeholders in human geography. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) was tasked by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to lead the group, which has the momentous task of orchestrating all of the human geography activities within the Community with representation from around the Community.

Bruce Heinlein was named NGA’s Director of the Human Geography Joint Program Office, which was formed from NGA’s Analysis and Production, and Source Operations and Management directorates.

Heinlein said one important task of the steering group is to find subject matter experts in the field of human geography. Those experts will help chart a course through what often looks like a data morass—determining best practices, developing standards, and working up training regimens.

The group has already seen similarities in approaches to human geography and the emerging activity-based intelligence methodology.

“The tradecraft in human geography and the tradecraft, if you want to call it that, of activity-based intelligence will clearly overlap,” Heinlein said. “We’re very early in the process of determining what human geography will become.”

But its value is already clear.

“I think that we have seen the contributions over the past year of human geography to national security and international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Heinlein said. “Opportunities continue to grow in value and importance. We are just beginning and there is much more for us to do.”

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