The South Asia Channel

Research Returns From War

There is no welcome home for a contentious U.S. Army program -- the Human Terrain System -- as its closure renews debate on the militarization of the social sciences.

Taking a small drink of black tea, Capt. Stoney Portis, a U.S. Army officer with the International Security Assistance Force, listens to the nearby voice of his translator during a meeting with a tribal elder in the Afghan village of Shirgal, Kunar province, on Feb. 27, 2010. As Shirgal's tribal elder, Hajji Tazikhan (seated second from the left) speaks for the estimated 100 families that live and work in this mountainous farming community located along Afghanistan's eastern border. According to Tazikhan, living so close to Pakistan can be dangerous.

Having crossed over the border, guerrilla fighters often walk along the soft terraced fields of Shirgal toward a suspension bridge that spans the Kunar River. A recent encounter with these transiting guerrilla forces has Tazikhan worried. While fingering a bowl of hard candies, Tazikhan explained that armed guerrilla fighters had visited the village and threatened to execute several young men employed by the Afghan Border Police. After hearing of the threat, Portis prompted Saeed Rahman (seated far right), a young lieutenant in the Afghan National Army, to gather further information about guerrilla activity near the village.
Taking a small drink of black tea, Capt. Stoney Portis, a U.S. Army officer with the International Security Assistance Force, listens to the nearby voice of his translator during a meeting with a tribal elder in the Afghan village of Shirgal, Kunar province, on Feb. 27, 2010. As Shirgal's tribal elder, Hajji Tazikhan (seated second from the left) speaks for the estimated 100 families that live and work in this mountainous farming community located along Afghanistan's eastern border. According to Tazikhan, living so close to Pakistan can be dangerous. Having crossed over the border, guerrilla fighters often walk along the soft terraced fields of Shirgal toward a suspension bridge that spans the Kunar River. A recent encounter with these transiting guerrilla forces has Tazikhan worried. While fingering a bowl of hard candies, Tazikhan explained that armed guerrilla fighters had visited the village and threatened to execute several young men employed by the Afghan Border Police. After hearing of the threat, Portis prompted Saeed Rahman (seated far right), a young lieutenant in the Afghan National Army, to gather further information about guerrilla activity near the village.

After serving their country, many soldiers who returned home from America’s war in Vietnam received no welcome. Service members faced a divided nation and the deep-rooted anger of a public that had long grown tired of the human costs of foreign policy failures in Southeast Asia. Not unlike the veterans themselves, military programs associated with unconventional warfare were hastily forgotten as the Department of Defense prepared to reshape itself in the post-Vietnam war era. Over the past month, critics of the deceased and controversial Human Terrain System (HTS) have driven their final kicks into its corpse, pointing out faults, casting moral judgments, but ignoring studies validating the program’s effectiveness. Rejecting cynicism, we reflect on the utility of social science research at the micro-level and argue that a robust ethnographic capability should remain within U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) or the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

Much like Vietnam, as U.S. forces engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, their inability to identify with indigenous perspectives quickly proved to be one of their greatest impairments. In response, a U.S. Army program — HTS — was funded in 2007, with the aim to employ civilians from the social sciences to deliver socio-cultural data and analysis to military and civilian commanders engaged in complex operations. From the start, critical opposition to the militarization of the social sciences revolved around two themes: moral condemnation and functional incompetence. The moral argument (often buttressed by a rigid anti-imperialist stance against military interventions) found HTS fieldwork unethical primarily for its inability to obtain legitimate informed consent of studied demographics. The functional argument focused on the utility of information obtained in the midst of an occupying force, the dearth of academic and practical skill sets within HTS, and substantial allegations of fraud and misconduct among some HTS employees. Some of these disparaging voices were projected from the ivory towers of anthropology, including scholars associated with the University of Hawaii, San Jose State University and George Washington University.

Emblematic of upstart government programs of this scale, some HTS personnel shamefully failed to fulfill their obligations or partook in unprofessional behavior. These internal mismanagement struggles were ultimately corrected and the reformed HTS represented a turnaround success for the Department of Defense. However, over the past month, many of these longstanding critics reaffirmed their qualms after the U.S. Army reported the closure of the HTS program as part of the planned military drawdown in Afghanistan. Even politicians used the opportunity to disparage HTS with Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) confidently stating: “HTS is a program that had no legitimate application in a war zone or out of one, and the termination of the program was overdue.” Critics would have done well to review the four separate nonpartisan studies that found clear evidence of HTS success in the field. Some other important studies are worthy of review as well (Here, Here and Here).

The militarization of academic knowledge is not restricted to embedded researchers or support programs like HTS. Every day the U.S. military uses published research found in the public domain; moral disapproval does not change this fact. Social scientists who actively participate in militarized research will continue to offer significant contributions not only to military and government entities but to the social sciences as well. Of these contributions, the possibility of introducing indigenous perspectives into the military decision making process must not be discounted or discontinued. Lost to fiscal-minded policy makers, ivory tower academics, and war weary citizens is the utility of a social science capability at the “tip of the spear” within a complex operations environment. While many contemporary scholars remain fixated upon the ethics of anthropology, relatively few examine the functionality of applied research methods within areas impacted by protracted armed conflict. Even fewer are willing to compromise their virtuous stance in order to offer their expertise towards the identification of ethnographic approaches to micro-level research that may enhance cooperation and reduce conflict. Without these indispensable perspectives at the micro-level, the U.S. military is less likely to make a timely correction when their operational heading is leading dangerously off course.

Not all scholars turned away. In Afghanistan, ethnographers with HTS regularly advised stability practitioners and recommended directional changes when operations were misguided. Armed with the right methodological approach, these ethnographers acted as directional aids and remote sensors that informed micro-level research in support of stability practitioners engaged in complex operations. It is important to note, some of these ethnographers accepted unparalleled professional and personal risk in order to maintain meaningful relationships with their network of indigenous informants. As field instruments, these ethnographers accessed social networks and developed an indigenous point of view that enabled the identification of pragmatic entry points for stability practitioners and reduced the probability that military operations would veer off course.

Iraq and Afghanistan presented core barriers to gather and identify accurate information, notably organizational pressure to produce results, restricted rapport building with local populations, and overreliance on outside resources. More than military units, ethnographers were able to establish a degree of separation from the demands of the operational tempo and were in a better position to garner accurate and objective data. As such, they served as a check on military plans, even as nuanced as which local individuals to engage in conversation and what topics to discuss. Operational tempo can lead to complex operations fatigue — a condition that can contribute to indifference among practitioners in the field. Exhaustion can impact even the most seasoned professional soldiers often called on to perform as police officer, mayor, or economist — all at the same time. A large part of negotiating complex operations is prior knowledge of an area and its people, as well as the ability to avoid fatigue and adapt to changes in the field. Embedded social science researchers in Afghanistan, such as ethnographers, clearly demonstrated their ability to perform operationally relevant research that other stability practitioners did not have the experience, time, or energy to perform.

Often military units relied too much on “key leader engagements,” which we found often led to misleading information, ambiguity, and frustration given in part the consequences of military occupation, conflict, and contested power dynamics. Skilled and patient ethnographers were able to build rapport, access “safe spaces,” and deliver more nuanced information to military commanders. Granted these opportunities were limited, but often came about on village or district stability platforms where military presence was less intrusive on a geographic region. While a team of social scientists generally worked for a particular battalion or division commander, the opportunities were wide open for single or split-team research approaches. This generally offered cover from bureaucratic hurdles impeding outside-the-box research and the typical organizational pressures from above for actionable data. Those trapped in what we viewed as a ceremonial cycle of producing data (often by way of PowerPoint presentation) were generally unable to engage in thorough participant observation or rapid ethnography at the local level.

A number of examples exist in which social scientists offered military units an edge and local civilians a voice. In one particular war-torn district in Wardak province, we noted three primary indicators of ineffective government — limited access, absenteeism among officials, and poor administration. Immediate and inexpensive changes were made to improve security around the district center, develop administrative capacity, and incentivize officials to work. The results based on resident access to district administrators was impressive. Without the embedded ethnographer, the stability detachment was limited in its ability to garner local knowledge, perspectives, and insights regarding effectiveness of changes at the district center, as most information was derived through key leader engagements.

In another district in Ghazni province, we realized through informal conversations with a variety of local residents that a pro-government militia supported by stability practitioners was preying on local civilians and charging a tax for their security service. Not only did the militia’s activity undermine broader stability operations in the district, but it led to skepticism and distrust from local residents regarding the capability of their own government to manage the use of force. As a conveyor of resident insights, we offered another voice to those plagued by the negative effects of war and occupation.

As research returns from war, the untold success stories do not have to be buried with the end of a controversial program or behind the veil of criticism. Instead, we should learn from the successes — just as we learn from the mistakes — and produce even better capabilities for the future. The best HTS had to offer, we argue, was its ability to work at the tip of the spear in complex operations. Embedding this program in USASOC, DIA, or a similar operational entity should be a priority.

Photo credit: Jim Lee

Matthew Dearing is Assistant Professor of Regional and Analytic Studies at the National Defense University and served as a social scientist with HTS in Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense.

Jim Lee is a visiting lecturer at San Francisco State University and served as a social scientist with HTS in Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense.

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