Last Monday the MoD announced
the first deployment of the Defence Cultural Specialist Unit to Afghanistan.
The aim of this “Culture Unit” is to ‘build a picture of Helmandi society for commanders in Task Force Helmand and battlegroups across the province to help them identify and understand issues relating to the local cultural, political, economic, social and historical environment to help commanders make better and more informed decisions.' The specialists will engage in information-gathering and fostering of contacts at bazaars, shuras and other places where local Helmandis gather. At full strength, the unit will have forty two members from across the three Services as well as civilians. As well as deploying to Afghanistan, the units' personnel will also support cultural training in the wider military and other government departments.
This is very welcome progress but begs the question, why not sooner? Until the existence of this unit created
in September 2009), most Service personnel received just half-a-day's cultural awareness briefing before deployment. Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Operations) Air Vice-Marshal Andy Pulford admits that “cultural awareness has been a weakness in the past”. A similar neglect of “soft” power and cultural awareness can be found in the U.S military. A recent report
from Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the top intelligence aide to International Security Assistance Force Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal has commented,
“Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate
and the people they seek to persuade.”
As I argued in a previous blog
the failure to appreciate the urgent need for the fullest knowledge of native custom, or for taking account of its influence, was a striking absence from military policy in Afghanistan.
However, the MoD is set to embark on £700 million of efficiency savings. The UK Defence Academy
(home of The Disraeli Room's very own Matt Qvortrup) for example is a highly valuable resource providing expertise across a wide range of multi-disciplinary fields to decision makers and policy staff engaged with national, international and transnational security challenges. Back in February, Chief of Defence Staff Sir Jock Stirrup insisted
that the UKDA's research and assessment branch would continue to play an important role despite reports that it was to close the majority of its activities. The Defence Cultural Specialist Unit will have 42 members when running at full capacity. With more cuts imminent, and the media and politicians narrowly focused on equipment for frontline troops, the likelihood that the resources of the Unit will be boosted is slim. The question is, will current resources be sufficient in making the radical difference to the battle in Afghanistan that is required?