Religious and Cultural Sensitivities in Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
9 years ago

In my article Religion and Insurgency: A Response to Dave Kilcullen (and associated comments), I responded to Dave Kilcullen’s article Religion and Insurgency at the Small Wars Journal.  In order to continue the conversation, let’s tackle a real life instance where cultural and religious sensitivities come to bear in the counterinsurgency campaign.  Whereas it might have been assumed that the only application to my claims was that of seeing the insurgent as a jihadist, religiously motivated and completely unamenable to our COIN efforts (certainly this is one application for some number of them), there are far more applications where a proper understanding of religion and culture would help frame the discussion.

A Stryker Colonel Talks About the Situation in Iraq:

FORT LEWIS – The commander says the loss of two soldiers hit everyone hard. We had a rare opportunity to speak with Col. Stephen Townsend from Baghdad Tuesday.

The 4,000 Fort Lewis-based soldiers have been there since last summer and now are in the hotspot, Baghdad.

“We feel pretty fortunate to be doing what we’re doing,” Col. Townsend said. “Right now, the Arrowhead Brigade is employed in a role that is ideally suited for a Stryker Brigade. We’re being very mobile. We’re going to where the tough jobs are. We’re helping out with both the Coalition and the Iraqi security forces there where the tough jobs are.

“We’re pretty fortunate about that. It’s pretty gratifying to see the progress the Iraqi security forces are making. In fact, the operation that we’re in now an Iraqi general is actually running the operation and I’m working for him rather than an American general.”

Col. Townsend and the 3rd Brigade have been to Iraq before, but this is their first time patrolling Baghdad.

Cpl. Jason Ratliff out on patrol says on video provided by the Army, “We always look for weapons and we try to see if people know anything.”

PFC Elizabeth Turan on patrol says, “It’s kind of scary because you don’t know if someone is going to pull a gun out. But it’s not that bad.”

‘Elizabeth’ is not one of those names that can be mistaken since it is not a gender-neutral name.  ‘Elizabeth’ is a woman, and she is on patrol in Baghdad.  We might make several observations about this.

For whatever reason (meeting recruitment goals, political pressures), the Pentagon wants women in combat.  Of course, there are practical matters with which to contend, including unit cohesion, lower torso strength of women, a higher rate of lower extremety injuries, etc. (in fact, the Russian campaign in Afghanistan saw a much higher rate of lower extremity injuries in women).  But leaving behind the practical effect on U.S. forces, has anyone stopped to consider what we are communicating to those whose hearts and minds we want to win?

In the heavily patristic and tribal society that is Iraq (and in fact the whole Middle East), family and tribe function to a great extent by providing protection and security.  This is codified into the religious framework of the region by Islam.  The very notion of accepting security from women would be seen as scandalous, humiliating and repugnant to the head of a family or tribal elder.  But in our so-called “security plan,” accepting security from women is precisely what we are offering (and in fact demanding) from men who cannot accept this offer.

We routinely offer up rhetorical flourish on winning hearts and minds, while Elizabeth is on patrol in Baghdad.  And no one stops to ponder the question “just what are the consequences of these actions?”

  • kat-missouri

    I might be mistaken, but I thought the entire point of having a woman with these units was to be culturally sensitive to social mores that insist other men keep their hands off the women?

    Which is it? Are we to be sensitive to these ideas or more worried about our own cultural concerns re: women in the military to conduct this appropriately?

    Or, are you asking that very question?

  • Herschel Smith

    Yes. You are indeed perceptive. But more than this. For a head of a family, for instance, to allow someone to provide security for them is to place themselves under the submission of that person or persons. I do not see it as important that women be searched. I seriously doubt that this excuse (i.e., we have to have women with us in order to search Iraqi women) is salient. It doesn’t get traction with me, and I doubt that this happens in a large percentage of the cases (if it does, then this is another problem because it shouldn’t). It seems a convenient excuse for the larger wishes of the Pentagon. Now then. Shall we consider what it means for the head of a family in a patristic society like Iraq to have an armed woman enter his home?


    After thinking about it for a minute, I am adding to my response.  I have for a long time been a strong advocate of robust ROE.  If there are known insurgents in a home, we should conduct raids according to the procedures (up to and including house clearing if necessary).  But unless there is a known insurgent in the home, our troops have no business putting their hands on Iraqis upon entering homes.  If we want to talk about winning hearts and minds, then let’s first show respect for homes, and use troops that will not offend the religious and cultural sensibilities of the inhabitants.  (In all of this, I am differentiating between “cordon and knock,” and raids or room clearing.)

  • kat-missouri

    I believe, like the marines in ramadi and fallujah, they do things like take census, do medical care, etc, etc, etc

    There are a lot more things than the pound the door down, which I believe you are alluding to. I think that women are more comfortable with women and might be a little more open or at least make inadvertent comments that would yield some intelligence.

    I think there are a lot of things at work, but I would agree, with the military being appx 30% women, it makes sense that the military is attempting to use their forces and not take 30% of the forces off the table right from the start.

    By the way, I put up a post at my place and commented at small war journals ie, religion in warfare.

  • emjayinc

    Patristic? Google results indicate that’s a religious term, not a sociological one. Perhaps patrimonial catches your meaning? But “patrimonial? structures are not homogeneous across all patrimonial societies – there are significant differences among the 3 modern versions of the archetypes usually cited in anthropological literature: Iraq, Brazil, and Thailand. Of course, the religious component of these types of societies, while not the “tent pole?, does significantly define some of the differences. To the point, here, consider the origins and implications among Christian Brazil, Buddhist Thailand and Muslim Iraq of the legal, traditional and contemporary roles of women. As more than one analyst (including TPM Barnett) has noted, the political and cultural roles of religion and of women are leading metrics for a society’s status and membership in the “Gap? (Iraq), “Seam? (Brazil), or “Core? (USA). Which is just another way of measuring a society’s susceptibility to internal and external violent dysfunction. Which is another way of saying, we “Core? people are not fighting Islam, but those Islamists committed to remaining in the “Gap?, and our strategies employ “Core?, not “Gap?, values and capacities.
    Your take on women in combat, while sort of stale – same objections have been raised since the 1970’s- offers a rather patronizing (paternalistic vs. patristic?)perspective. Blaming the Pentagon (using “Newsmax? as a source) doesn’t pass the smell test – there’s red herring in the air on that one. It’s here, it’s now, and even a draft will not put women back in that box. Meanwhile, like every other evolution in GI tradecraft, this one has had positive and intended as well as negative and unintended consequences. I hope we can maximize the former, and get past the latter. Personally, having served, enlisted and commissioned, for 27+ years, including several tours in SEA 1968-1987, I have nothing but admiration and encouragement for our soldiers, whichever gender they happen to be.
    On balance, our women in uniform probably benefit, more than damage, our war goals, including info war goals, by cracking prejudices and stereotypes “Gap? women hold of themselves. The essential energy for “from the bottom up? change will come at least as much, and in many areas, more, from the “traditional? women than from the men. At the same time, our GI women seem to be cracking a bunch of prejudices and stereotypes in some fairly, uh, postmodern societies, as well – about time, too. Gen. Pelosi comes off poorly up against the typical private soldier of the female sort.

  • Herschel Smith


    Again, I am somewhat bemused at the complete irrelevance of your comments. The entire first paragraph is off-point.

    Additionally, the subject of the post is not women in combat. This might be the subject of a future article, and if so, it will be sourced — like all of my other articles — with ample evidence. A few links are given above to demonstrate that cohesion and readiness of infantry units is adversely effected by women in that MOS. It is a fact, and piling more evidence on top of this is unnecessary.

    However, more to the point, the issue is the religious sensibilities of the culture whose hearts and minds we are trying to win, and whether women on patrol is the best tactic to employ given the culture. None of your rambling discussion changes the role of women in society and home in the Middle East. Frankly, I am not interested in breaking “stereotypical” views on women or politics or anything else. This is a Milblog, not a political blog. This discussion belongs on another web site.

    Finally, in order to summarize the heart of the article, any comments about how you feel about women in combat utterly misses the point. The point was about Iraq — not you.

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  • Brian H

    “You go to war with the army you’ve got”, religious sensibilities notwithstanding. There is a (fuzzy) limit to how far the U.S. or any (note the uniqueness of this phrasing) benign occupation force can go in accommodating social and religious mores. These things are fluid over historical periods, and it’s interactions like this that cause adaptation and change. Whether this unavoidable mis-fit of attitudes and behaviours and cultures can be managed or kept from causing complete disaffection and communications breakdown is another issue; if it’s impossible, then lots of bad things happen. If it can be handled, then a modus vivendi may be hammered out to the benefit of both.

    But the absolutist end of the curve in Islam will be working hard and relentlessly to prevent any such accommodation. It may be that they have overplayed their hand in Anbar and Iran, and don’t have the cards now that their bluff has been called (if it has).

    Consider the contrast between Sistani’s traditional Shia quietism and Khomeni’s Revolutionary activism. Giving too much away to the latter by, say, respecting demands that all women should be at home barefoot in burqahs is to cede far too much. It’s an unfillable black hole.

  • Herschel Smith

    Brian, what you say makes perfect sense for conventional operations. OIF3 is anything but. For this instance, it should be fairly easy to ensure that this potential cultural insensitivity is not present: pull women from combat roles or potential combat roles. Or in other words, follow the laws that the congress has already established.

You are currently reading "Religious and Cultural Sensitivities in Counterinsurgency", entry #501 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Department of Defense,Iraq,Small Wars,Women in Combat and was published May 16th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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