The Army Needs Anthropologists

With the quiet death of the military's controversial Human Terrain System, America's soldiers have lost a guiding light that is needed now more than ever.


In 2007, the American Anthropological Association called the Army’s effort to embed social scientists with combat units “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise,” citing a moral conflict between studying groups of Iraqis or Afghans and advising troops who might end up killing them. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) griped that the program, known as the Human Terrain System, had “no legitimate application in a war zone or out of one” and complained, ”The overall cost and failures of HTS indicate that [it] be considered for termination.” One self-described group of anti-colonial anthropologists even superimposed a founders’ head onto a Queen Elizabeth-style torso in a parody of the horror flick Saw, a somewhat distasteful demonstration of just how evil and imperialist they found its aims and methods.

In late June, after years of such criticism, USA Today learned the Army had quietly scrapped HTS in September 2014. An Army spokesman told the news outlet, “The HTS program ended on September 30, 2014, as there was no longer a requirement for HTS teams in theater,” but did not address either the (seemingly innocuous) nearly nine-month delay in announcing the termination or the apparent about-face from the Army’s relatively recent defense of the program. The Army did not respond to Foreign Policy’s subsequent request for clarification on these counts or on whether the Department of Defense plans to replicate the capability.

Unless the Pentagon does replicate it somehow, shuttering HTS will almost certainly be a mistake. The program ultimately fell victim to two of the biggest blights of post-9/11 American warfare: inefficient and even predatory contracting practices and a well-intentioned but inadequate counterinsurgency strategy. Neither of these were shortcomings of the HTS concept itself, however. Properly executed, the idea has the potential to significantly improve future U.S. military operations, particularly in the types of non-kinetic (or at least less kinetic) engagements like train and equip missions in Africa and even humanitarian efforts in which the United States is currently involved.

Developed by the Army in 2006, the HTS program was designed to integrate American social scientists into combat units at the brigade and division level to help commanders understand the cultural contexts of the areas in which they were operating, in part to avoid inadvertently alienating communities that might otherwise be friendly to the coalition and the local government. Eventually deployed with Army and Marine units in Iraq and Afghanistan, these civilian-military partners were known as Human Terrain Teams, or HTTs. At its peak in 2008, the program boasted 28 teams deployed to Iraq and met a requirement for 31 HTTs in Afghanistan by the summer of 2012.

Many on the uniformed side spoke highly of the program; one brigade S2 (intelligence officer) I talked with who worked closely with an HTT in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 told me his first commander loved their HTT because they “kept his soldiers alive” by keeping violence levels as low as possible and avoiding antagonizing potential allies. “They went in there and figured out the tribal rivalries,” he said, “and they figured out what needed to happen psychologically and culturally — they figured out who needed what in order for there to be peace.”

In a speech in April 2008, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also praised the program, arguing that the “alternative thinking” it encouraged was vital to long-term success “in a military establishment that has long put a premium on firepower and technology. In fact, the net effect of [the program’s] efforts is often less violence across the board, with fewer hardships and casualties among civilians as a result. One commander in Afghanistan said last year that after working with a Human Terrain Team, the number of armed strikes he had to make declined more than 60 percent.”

Still, for all the support it received and the good it might have done, there were legitimate — and serious — problems with HTS. As mentioned above, for some social scientists, the concept immediately raised ethical questions: It is morally defensible to use knowledge of a culture or people to facilitate their subjugation or even expedite violence against them? (This critique came primarily from the anthropological community during the Iraq War with all the political undertones of the time.)

The program was plagued, too, by a trail of alleged mismanagement, fraud, and general misbehavior. In the course of an internal Army investigation in 2010, former HTT employees complained of time sheet padding, inflated salaries, racism, and even sexual harassment. The Army was never able to prove the fraud charges, according to statements, and similarly disputed claims of racism on the part of HTS managers. They did, however, confirm allegations of sexual harassment and poor contractor oversight. With regard to the latter, the report specifically verifies allegations that HTS hired under- or unqualified individuals, which subsequently rendered many teams ineffective.

The Army investigation — and a number of other reports on the program — acknowledged that the problems with the program largely resulted from mismanagement and hiring issues. One senior scientist quoted in the Army report states, for example, that “any successes of HTS teams have been a result of a small number of hardworking individuals with the relevant skills sets and attitudes who have been able to succeed in spite of HTS management and training, not because of it.” These issues, however, were more generally failures of the program’s execution rather than proof of a failed concept.

In the flurry of finger-pointing among HTS management following the release of the Army’s report, most attributed the program’s failings to a complicated set of relationships in which Army Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, managed the program through BAE Systems, a massive military contractor. In an interview for this article, Montgomery McFate, one of the program’s founders and the unfortunate star of the Saw parody mentioned above, also pointed to the very short timeline on which TRADOC pushed to deploy large numbers of HTTs, which she believes led to some of the wrong people being hired. “A lot of the problems were with TRADOC,” she told me. “They had an omnibus contract with BAE, and we had no way to implement performance metrics. BAE could hire whoever they wanted as fast as they wanted, and the only way to deal with inappropriate people was to fire them.”

When HTS employees became Army civilians rather than contractors in 2008 — primarily due to the terms of the United States’ Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government — some problems, including most of the issues with hiring, were alleviated, but the program continued to stumble. Rabia Altaf, a former Human Terrain Analyst who served with an HTT in Afghanistan, argued that poor pre-deployment training was part of the problem, telling me, “We were given our gear and sent out with no real job description — we were told to find allies and convince the commanders to use us.”

Many brigade commanders, however, either didn’t know what to do with their HTTs or simply weren’t interested in their input. The brigade intelligence officer quoted above recalled returning to his old base after a change of command: “Nobody had tasked them with anything for the whole year, so they were just running around doing their own thing. I tried to get them tied in, but the brigade commander and his intelligence officer weren’t really interested in anyone outside the family.”

This litany of complaints combined with the (albeit now shaky) conclusion of combat operations in Iraq, the drawdown in Afghanistan, and the draconian budget cuts now facing the Army create the impression that the end of HTS was inevitable, if not overdue. But for those who have been watching the saga closely, this month’s announcement looked like something of an about-face. Until very recently, the Army had continued to defend the program on the grounds that commanders found the capability to be useful and, more recently, that HTS could be critical in operations in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan era. The latter point is where the decision to end the program becomes not only surprising but unfortunate; non-kinetic military engagement could greatly benefit from social-scientific knowledge, likely even more so than active combat.

Throughout 2013, the Army seemed to be thinking along these same lines. In a March letter to Rep. Hunter, Secretary of the Army John McHugh wrote, “In spite of the administrative challenges, HTS has been a very successful program. Commanders in combat units supported by HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan have indicated that HTS adds significant value to their operations.” In another letter from McHugh to Hunter in December, the secretary states, “In the most recent survey of supported commanders and staffs in November 2013, 95 percent assessed HTS information as actionable and useful for decision-making.” (Based on interviews for this article, certain congressional staffers have called these statistics into question.)

These relatively recent statements, all of which were made long after President Barack Obama’s administration had set the timeline for the withdrawal from Afghanistan, make it clear the Army intended to continue the program after the termination of active combat operations. In fact, in that same March 2013 letter, McHugh seemed to confirm that HTS would outlive the war in Afghanistan, stating the Army intended to maintain the HTTs to avoid a “cold start,” which points clearly toward operations in theaters of potential future conflict (or at least non-kinetic engagement), rather than current ones.

Considering Obama’s stated intention of relying more heavily on alliances and partner nations to achieve global security objectives, that reasoning makes a lot of sense. If an HTT was marginally useful on the battlefield in Afghanistan, imagine how helpful an Africanist might be to U.S. forces supporting the African Union’s mission against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, or an expert in sectarianism to the train-and-equip mission for moderate Syrian forces. (Both are, incidentally, special operations missions — more on that below.) Thus, no matter how poorly HTS was managed — or how unfashionable counterinsurgency has become — it seems clear that the military could benefit from understanding its partners and foes better, especially before conflict has broken out or when trying to build relationships with a new partner.

In a similar vein, the National Defense University conducted a detailed study of HTS in late 2013 and recommended that the function be moved and permanently housed at U.S. Army Special Operations Command, or USASOC, which has the lead for irregular warfare and other Army functions that make the most frequent use of sociocultural knowledge. This seems like a reasonable plan, particularly if USASOC is able to coordinate closely with other parts of the U.S. government where such knowledge is housed (State Department, CIA, etc.); fortunately, this is something it has being doing well for many years.

The NDU report goes on to say that regardless of where the capability goes, “the need for a standing program to provide sociocultural knowledge should be well recognized after a decade of difficult military operations…. Some Army observers, for example, believe the need for cultural understanding is one of the ‘top 5’ lessons learned from the post-9/11 wars.”

By most accounts, this isn’t a capability that the Army, or even special operations forces, has right now — but it’s one they need. Therefore, the services should either grow it internally or source it through civilian employees or even contractors. In the case of the latter, they clearly must manage it far more carefully. But to destroy the capability based on poor past implementation is to throw a critical baby out with the counterinsurgency bathwater. Cultural competence is one of the most important capabilities a modern military must carry with it. Too many failures have been rooted in its dearth.

Photo credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

Whitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm. Twitter: @whitneykassel

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