Regulating Complex Terrain in Counterinsurgency
Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 23:20
Michael A. Innes

I just fired off two paper abstracts/proposals to the Small Wars and Insurgencies Working Group. It's organizing conference panels for the British International Studies Association meeting at the University of Exeter in December 08, and the International Studies Assocation meeting in New York in early 09. I thought I'd take a risk and post them here, as well, in the hopes of generating some feedback and discussion. The first, for the BISA conference, is an extension of the CTLab's raison d'etre, the second, for ISA, extends things a bit further. There's some contextual overlap between the two, but they're distinct efforts.

1. Regulating “Complex Terrain” in Counterinsurgency (FOR BISA 08)

Official discourse, doctrinal revisions, and concept papers on contemporary forms and dynamics of war have redefined its spatial syntax, challenging social scientists to investigate and illuminate the textures, nuances, and implications of variable geometries of violence. Scholars have grappled with the transformation, newness, or changing character of war, simultaneously striving to identify elements of continuity and change, and to redress emergent practical and conceptual imbalances in the way war is understood and governed.

Under the aegis of the Institute for National Security and Counter-Terrorism (INSCT) at the University of Syracuse, and the Institute for Counter-Terrorism Policy (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary (IDC) Center Herzliya, a joint research initiative entitled New Battlefields, Old Laws: From the Hague Conventions to Asymmetric War conducted workshops and meetings throughout 2007 to debate these complexities. New Battlefields, Old Laws (NB-OL) asks a basic question: "Are the traditional laws and norms of armed conflict sufficient guides in asymmetric war - where weaker combatants use strategies and tactics outside the rules to offset their military disadvantage?"

Initial discussions among NB-OL participants (including this author), suggest that the Laws Of Armed Conflict, elements of which were first drafted over a century ago as a means of regulating conduct on linear battlefields, face a pandora’s box of apparently non-linear challenges. Conflicting political and security metaphors of spatial knowledge, simulation and control - "failed states", "human terrain", "terrorist sanctuaries" - have revealed deep divisions over the perception and management of threat. This paper will discuss the NB-OL project, contextualize it within the more general realm of scholarly engagement in security research, and examine the conceptual and social science underpinnings of problematic notions of complex physical, human, and informational spaces in insurgency and counterinsurgency. It will survey the analytical and methodological levers needed to pry open these intricate and contentious lines of inquiry, with a special focus on the role of ethnographic and spatial intelligence in counterinsurgency.

2. The Spatial Dynamics of Counterinsurgency (FOR ISA 09)

Conflicting political and security metaphors of spatial knowledge, simulation and control - "failed states", "human terrain", "terrorist sanctuaries" - have revealed deep divisions over the perception and management of threat. Contemporary counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq has specifically elevated problems of “terrain” and “complexity” to the forefront of doctrinal revision and scholarly research, though the latter lags significantly behind the former.

US and Allied counterinsurgency doctrine suggests that wars now and in the future will be fought in “complex terrain”. It acknowledges that such landscapes of conflict are rooted in an intricate weave of material, demographic, and cognitive threads. It generally limits “terrain analysis”, however, to the physical world of rugged hinterlands and the built environment, while simultaneously advocating social network analysis methodologies largely devoid of locational data.

This paper explores the spatial dynamics of counterinsurgency. It briefly surveys various initiatives to regulate complexity in the insurgent battlespace, with special emphasis on the contentious deployment of U.S. Army and Marine Corps human terrain teams in Afghanistan and Iraq. It argues that practically oriented “terrain analysis” and socially oriented network analysis have been speaking past each other. It introduces a methodological way forward, in three parts: development of a terrain complexity index that integrates physical and non-physical variables; an elaboration of social network analysis through the development of hypocentrality measures focused on locational correlates of social networks as they evolve over time; and the introduction of the TEMPEST (Tracing Extremism: Measures Per Evolutionary Spatial/Temporal) dataset.

I've been discussing the TEMPEST dataset concept with a few people, including Colin Flint, whose ConflictSpace project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is attempting something similar. I also sounded out MS on whether the biographical dataset he developed for his two books on terrorist networks - or any other dataset that he's aware of - offers the kind of locational specifity we're looking for. I think I'm on solid ground when both agree that this is a good idea and there's really no choice but to build it.

Article originally appeared on Complex Terrain Lab (/index.html).
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