14 April 2010

COIN: Art & Culture

President Obama has proposed a 3.7% cut to the $161.3 million alloted for last year's funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). What does this have to do with the military and the state of warfare? Retired Brigadier General, Nolen Bivens, testified to Congress yesterday (Tuesday, 13 April, the day of President Thomas Jefferson's birth), saying to the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies; "Future conflicts should be approached with a better understanding of how a nation values its cultural heritage and its arts."

His statements come with a proposed 7.5% increase in funding, estimated at a total budget cost of $180 million, one supported by a large advocacy group, Americans for the Arts. Bivens' comments call for the "arts," however this is to be particularly defined, to be a vital component of diplomatic efforts both home (i.e. veterans) and abroad (i.e. insurgents). I focus my brief analysis here on the latter: How to win public sentiment in the "new anti-insurgency tactics the U.S. military has since adopted in Iraq and Afghanistan."

On 26 November, 2007, in a speech given at Kansas State University, Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, stated; “One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win - economic development, institution-building and the rule of law, promoting internal reconciliation, good governance, providing basic services to the people, training and equipping indigenous militaryand police forces, strategic communications, and more – these, along with security, are essential ingredients for long-term success.”

What Bivens is bringing to the table is the idea that fostering cultural arts amongst the local populace can serve as a tool in "impacting the lives of people, which in turn affects their attitudes and perceptions." For one, in thise sense, intelligence packets prepared by analysts can highlight art and culture within the context of situational awareness to aid the decision-making process: Win hearts and minds.

Understanding how a nation values its cultural heritage, though, rests on understanding how a local tribe values theirs. We know full well, as this one news report notes, that the Taliban are attempting to secure the same hearts and minds but in different ways (i.e. fear): The pillage of ancient Afghanistan art in the Kabul Museum also destructed the people's connection to, for example, religion and culture; that which fosters national unity. The most difficult task, as in any diplomatic operations, is to generate action on behalf of the people. Then-Director Omara Khan Massoudi recognized this as both a barrier and challenge. Our soliders have enough on their plates trying to secure Afghan jobs for the long-term let alone thinking about providing cultural avenues for enjoyment.

Is it on the U.S. Army's/Marine Corps' tool-belt to get Afghans to visit cultural sites such as this? Is it even within the purview of the military forces on the ground to engage in such diplomatic initiatives? The US Army/US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center, in collaboration with Combined Arms Center, state in the report (provided in the link);
"COIN requires deep and detailed context- and culture-specific understanding of local and regional conditions. Success requires leaders who can effectively understand their environment and the impact of their actions on that environment. Consequently, COIN leaders must learn to be both critical thinkers and innovative problem solvers..."
The essential question is; "How can the U.S. forces act as a broker in the process?" Is it essential to the regional objectives for the Army/Marines to impact the environment through the arts?

The most obvious point of our initial assessment is that there is not a viable structure of military personnel to institute such an effort, and to remain focused on it while the insurgency adapts and morphs. Furthermore, shall we raise once more the question of how much responsibility we ought to place on our soldiers. This, perhaps, might be a profound discussion for another time, as dialogue now-a-days surrounds the emerging trends of "soft engagement."

In short, "soft" efforts led by the military may indeed not promise the best outcome. The promise of success and method by which we measure it may rest more in the hands of non-military partners. For example, between 2003 and 2005, "the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded the Afghanistan Primary Education Program (APEP). APEP offers emergency access to accelerated elementary education for out-of-school youth between ten and eighteen years of age, focusing on females. APEP supported Accelerated Learning (AL) programs for 170,000 over-age youth in more than 3,000 villages in Afghanistan." Funding "arts" campaigns to aid military and diplomatic goals, and U.S. interests abroad, which rest on the stablization of an economic-driven Afghanistan and ousting of Taliban strongholds within the region, is a new and innovative approach (yes); however, the need for organizational collaboration and coordination with partners (like UNESCO) who are specialists in cultural arts should be the cornerstone for this effort.

BG Bivens is hopeful when speaking about incorporating art-awareness, but it appears to me that its application to "new warfare" does not aid soliders' efforts to recognize threats to support decision-makers' response on the ground but aim to promote collective prosperity through individual and cultural expression. If anything, this is a ways down the road, as our troops have enough on their plate trying to promote individual/familial prosperity through the acquistion and procurement of jobs.

The task begins now, of course; I just think we ought to focus primarily on providing basic goods and services to the Afghan people - which is an ingredient for long-term success (per Gates). When we get to a certain point in the road, then the commanders may find it mission-critical to foster growth in this fashion. Again, questions concerning the role of "soft" tactics really needs to continue to be asked.


  1. Well, there seems to be a funny relationship between the NGOs you mention and the military they frequently work alongside. I suspect NGOs don't view their work in the frame of soft power--though I agree with you that it is--and the value that they impart is both highly practical and very rewarding for the counterinsurgent force. But I don't know that USAID, for example, would consider the services it provides as emergent rather than an excercise in winning hearts and minds.

    Not sure if that train of thought is of value--though considering the POVs of the various players in a region, both combatant and non-combantant seems relevant. But I did also want to mention Rory Stewart's NGO in Afghanistan, Turquoise Mountain, which works to rebuild and sustain artisan practices in a not dissimilar fashion to what BG Bivens (ret) discussed. (I suppose that's why I got on my NGO thought, because of Turquoise Mountain's role as a soft power asset despite being publicly unassociated with any military campaign.)

  2. Also--I should mention I've been reading al-Sahwa since you gents started it up last year, but haven't been in a position to respond to anything. Forgive me if I make up for lost time with all these comments!