Infantry: Words as Weapons

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July 3, 2007: The U.S. Army needs more good negotiators. While technology has helped out with translators, reconnaissance and lots of other tasks, one of the more critical tasks in the war on terror is negotiating with locals, and high tech has not been much help. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and several other parts of the world, army troops have to compete with Islamic terrorists for the loyalty and support of the local population. This isn't a new situation. The army has fought several similar wars over the last two centuries, and the traditional approach is to recruit translators, preferably locals, and go to work on the local leadership.

Out of this tradition came the Special Forces, with troops who specialized in different cultures, so that such negotiations would go more quickly, and successfully. In addition, there are Civil Affairs troops, who don't have the cultural knowledge and language ability, but do have a lot of reservists who are skilled negotiators in their civilian jobs. Finally, there are many intelligence officers with training and skills in this area. The problem is that, even though this gives you a force of nearly 20,000 "negotiation specialists," it's not enough. That's because the majority of these troops, the Special Forces, are already overworked, as they also handle a wide array of counter-terrorism tasks. Negotiating with locals is just one of their many skills. Only rarely are Special Forces teams made available to regular army units for negotiation help. Same with Civil Affairs detachments. There are not enough of these to go around, and because most of them are reservists, they are not available as often as active duty troops. But even those are available only half the time. In order to avoid burn out and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), active duty troops spend at least half their time back at their home stations. All combat units have intelligence troops, but they are few in number, and have lots of other work to do. The intel troops, as a group, are not as skilled in this work as the Special Forces operators, while the Civil Affairs troops vary widely in their capabilities.

The army has developed training aids, to help everyone develop better skills in dealing with these foreign cultures (mainly Arabs and Pushtun Afghans), but this still requires lots of on-the-job experience. The video role-playing-game format develops general skills, but does not help you out a lot in specific situations. One way around that is to hire civilians who are experts in a particular culture. This has led to the formation of the Human Terrain Team (HTT), which contains two civilian anthropologists or sociologists and three military personnel. The HTT goes with a commander to initial meetings and helps sort out who is who on the other side. Spotting who is really in charge, and why, can speed up negotiations a whole lot, and avoid misunderstandings. There are, however, a limited number of qualified civilians willing to work in a combat zone.

In the meantime, one of the most useful tools in improving negotiating skills has been the Internet. No, there's not a web site where anyone can go to, but there are email groups and restricted message boards where the troops share experiences and tips on how to deal with these negotiations. The army also has an organization that collects lessons learned, and gets them back out to the troops. This is probably the most important aspect of this, at least long term. U.S. troops have had to depend on these negotiations in the past, as they do now. And will have to use these skills again in the future. The better preserved current experience is, the more easily it can be reused in the future.

 


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