Human Geography: What the Future Holds for U.S. Security Forces

The U.S. Army has recently begun developing a Regionally Aligned Force (RAF) concept. This will make the concept of human geography even more relevant for military personnel.

One of the intentions behind regionally aligning the Army is to enable the delivery of Landpower, specifically in a more strategic manner, on behalf of U.S. national interests. Human geography, where people are in space and why they are there, will only become more important as the Regionally Aligned Force is developed.

For instance, events in Mali have generated a lot of recent attention. Paying attention to the human geography of Mali helps us to better understand the socio-political, socio-cultural, ethno-national, ethno-religious, and economic issues at stake.

All of which are tied to specific groups, their specific locations, and the specific grievances that have developed as a result. Only one percent of Mali’s inhabitants live north of the Niger River in the area of the country where the Sahel gives way to the Sahara.

The majority of the Tuareg, however, reside in this vast and often unforgiving space. So part of the dispute is one over autonomy or greater autonomy – the control over this specific part of Mali. This is related to the desire of the Tuareg, which is also one of their longstanding grievances, for greater economic development in the parts of Mali where they reside.

To further complicate matters there is even an internal to the Tuareg geospatial aspect to the dispute as Iyad ag Ghali, who leads one of the factions, has long been engaged in an intra-Tuareg dispute over control of Kidal and the areas around it.

In just this one conflict the human geography component looms large. A similar dynamic has been at play in Iraq for the better part of the last decade and is also a contributing factor to the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

In both of these conflicts the claims to spaces, whether sacred, agricultural, petrochemical, etc, and the disputes that arose between different religious sects or ethno-national groups have had huge ramifications.

Syria is seeing an ongoing dispute between the Alawites, a Shi’a offshoot, and their other minority allies (some Christians and Druze) and the Sunni majority over who will control the Syrian state and on whose behalf it should be run.

This is reminiscent, if in reverse, between the Sunni minority versus Shi’a majority dispute in Iraq, which was also being contested over control of the state, the provincial government, and of a variety of other sacred, economic/petro-chemical, agricultural, and other economic aspects of the human geography of the country.

And just as in Iraq, Syria also has an Arab majority versus Kurdish minority dispute that is rooted in the Kurds’ historic human geography, which includes parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.

The concept of human geography is also important for generating a Regionally Aligned Force. It will be necessary to develop curriculum in the Army’s learning domain, which is comprised of education, training, experiential learning, and individual self development, to develop Soldiers who can ask the important, and often nuanced questions, pertaining to human geography.

While there will definitely be a greater need for specific regional knowledge, Soldiers will have an ever greater need to learn not only about specific populations, but also the dynamics that drive and contextualize their behavior.

As a result, over the course of a career, soldiers will need ever greater exposure to the concepts of human geography to be successful in their missions. Without this conceptual context, the specific regional information will not be fully useful. Finally, it will not provide soldiers the flexibility they need to be able to operate wherever their missions take them.

The issues raised in this article will be discussed in full at IDGA's Human Geography 2013 summit, May 6-8. For more details, go to

(Photo courtesy of Vîctor Fernândez Salinas)

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