Human Terrain Teams

It sounded like a good idea: Swarms of social scientists would help U.S. troops better understand local customs and avoid cultural mishaps. But is the program creating more problems than it solves?

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The United States and its NATO allies have been in Afghanistan for eight years now, but their soldiers are still struggling to figure out what makes the country and its people tick. It’s hard to blame them. If you’ve ever been there, you can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy for any outsider who aspires to plumb its secrets. Even at its friendliest, Afghanistan is a bewildering place, a dizzying farrago of tribes, customs, and ethnicities.

Enter the Human Terrain Teams (HTTs). Remember them? The idea was born a few years back, when higher-ups in the U.S. military establishment (and outside it) realized that troops in the field often seemed to be blind to the cultural particulars of the environments they were operating in. In his hugely influential 2006 primer on counterinsurgency, for example, David Kilcullen, the Australian ex-military officer with a Ph.D. in anthropology, introduced "Twenty-Eight Fundamentals" to guide the fight against guerrillas. Rule No. 1: "Know your turf." Kilcullen argued that you couldn’t hope to beat a terrorist organization like al Qaeda without understanding the "social networks" that sustained it; nor could you hope to win the hearts and minds of the populations also being wooed (or intimidated) by the insurgents.

The solution clearly had to go beyond the superficial cultural sensitivity training meted out to combat troops before their deployments. One idea soon came to the fore: Why not recruit anthropologists with regional experience who could approach the task with bracing academic rigor and outside-the-box clarity?

And so the Human Terrain System (HTS) was born. At first, military planners tried creating a social analysis database that could be accessed by teams in the field, but it soon became apparent that commanders wanted humans to be around for the job. Gradually a new approach took shape: five-member teams that combined academic social scientists with retired military officers, all of them feeding data into a specially designed computer system. It seemed like a no-brainer to many of the journalists who covered the early teams back in 2007 — probably because the same reporters had witnessed the all-too-obvious obliviousness of the troops at the start of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like many ideas that sound good in theory, the reality of the Human Terrain Teams has proven a bit of a mess in practice. The first trouble came from the academic community. Anthropologists, in particular, have a sharp institutional memory of the Vietnam War, when well-meaning anthropological research was put to use in pacification programs that in some cases overlapped with Pentagon campaigns to assassinate real or presumed Viet Cong sympathizers in South Vietnam. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) reacted to the formation of the Human Terrain System with worries that the integrity of their profession would be compromised by "academic embeds" serving with U.S. military units in the field. "The prime directive is that you do no harm to informants," says Hugh Gusterson, a George Mason University anthropology professor. HTS supporters argue that social scientists in the field can help troops reduce the amount of force they use by giving unit leaders alternative courses of action, such as improved negotiating strategies or more precise pinpointing of development needs. Gusterson responds that the data collected by HTT members can also be accessed by military intelligence operatives who might use the same information for targeting Taliban operatives. The product generated by the Human Terrain Teams, he says, "is inherently double-edged." And, in a global information environment, he worries that all American research anthropologists will be tarred by the same brush of presumed collaboration with the Pentagon.

The practical effect of such censure is probably minimal because the AAA can’t ban individual members from cooperating with the military. Yet the force of moral disapproval — along with antiwar sentiment among academics in general — might have been one factor affecting the U.S. Army’s recruiting effort. The number of anthropologists willing to join the HTS program has been small, and regional specialists with detailed knowledge of local languages and cultures have been notably absent from the ranks. "I totally applaud the effort," says Maj. Kevin Burke of U.S. Army civil affairs. "But they ramped up too quickly. They just arbitrarily assumed that academics could walk onto the battlefield and that there would be no issues."

Issues there have been aplenty. John Stanton, a blogger who has tracked the Human Terrain System since its inception, has built up an impressive chronicle of scandal and mismanagement. One of his recent posts included excerpts from an internal investigation by the 101st Airborne Division that harshly criticized failings in training and administration that contributed to a disastrous feud between one of the HTT scientists, Marilyn Dudley-Flores, and regular Army troops in the field in Afghanistan involving allegations of sexual harassment and death threats against the professor. Three anthropologists have been killed on duty since the program began. In one of the cases, a scientist named Paula Loyd approached an Afghan man in the street to ask research questions; he responded by dousing her with fuel from the container he was carrying and set her alight. Loyd’s team leader, Don Ayala, detained the assailant and soon after shot the man in the head; he later pleaded guilty to manslaughter before a U.S. court. (Loyd died of her wounds this past January.)

Still, the program has been growing rapidly. The original idea of hiring area specialists hasn’t taken off, so the Army has recruited other experts — even psychologists (as noted in a recent Washington Post article). And the money is flowing. Just two years ago its backers were thrilled to receive $40 million; by now the program’s annual budget has hit $143 million, with two-dozen five-to-nine-member teams in the field (18 in Iraq and 6 in Afghanistan), as well as a "reachback center" (a sort of on-call reference library) in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Many commanders swear by the program; the HTS Web site is well stocked with testimonials. Montgomery McFate, an anthropologist who was instrumental in the founding of the Army program, says that Human Terrain Teams in Iraq can be credited with everything from helping to protect archaeological sites to advising negotiations that led a Mahdi Army commander to stop fighting coalition forces. And there’s no question that troops on the ground urgently need as much cultural information as they can get.

But in a seminal article earlier this year, Marine Corps Maj. Ben Connable argued that the Army and Marine Corps already have plenty of internal institutions that could be used as sources of cultural knowledge — from foreign-area officers to civil affairs units to psychological operations experts. Connable says that these areas remain dramatically underfunded, a condition that could well be exacerbated by the rise of the Human Terrain System. What’s more, he argues, the HTS is undermining the military’s ability to tap into civilian expertise by aggravating suspicions within the academic establishment. The Army’s McFate responds that the Army’s and Marine Corps’ in-house cultural experts "have other assignments and duties that preclude them from adopting this particular mission" and that HHT members "are able to openly articulate views that are not necessarily in conjunction with the dominant perspective or paradigm" because their careers don’t depend on report cards from superior officers. As for the culture gap between academics and war fighters, she says, it existed long before the Human Terrain System came along and can only be broken down "one individual at a time."

Supporters of the program probably don’t have much to worry about for the moment. With supporters ranging from Gen. David Petraeus to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the idea of bringing social scientists to the battlefield is probably here to stay for the moment. But that could change in a hurry if the mishaps continue. The whole rationale for Human Terrain Teams, after all, is to solve existing problems, not create new ones.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola