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Anthropology and the Army

HUMAN TERRAIN SYSTEM (HTS) is a United States Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) proof-of-concept program that embeds anthropologists and social scientists in combat brigades in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. The intent is for those scientists to help the Army better understand sociocultural environments in deployment areas.

The program has reportedly cost the federal government at least $130 million, but the benefits are harder to calculate. In theory, human terrain teams (HTTs) are counterinsurgency tools. The goal is for these teams to provide commanders with insight into what’s happening in the population in their area of responsibility to “improve their progress toward a desired end state where the population renounces its tolerance or its active support of insurgent violent action,” says Steve Fondacaro, HTS program manager.

But the program is not universally supported. One concern is whether these nonmilitary personnel can perform in this environment. Among the problems have been numerous deaths and injuries as well as one murder charge for an HTT member who shot an Afghan man to avenge an attack on his colleague.

Major Ben Connable, a U.S. Marine Corp. Middle East foreign area officer and intelligence officer, wrote in Military Review last year that the goals of the HTS could be better fulfilled by having cultural experts within the military, and he argued that by using outside social scientists, the military was relying on a costly “quick-fix” solution.

Fondacaro argues that it’s like comparing “enlisted medical personnel to medical doctors. Sure, I can take a number of people and give them medical training, but it’s not the same as having a physician work on you…. What we’re talking about is a problem with the population and a problem with understanding cultures. That is at the Ph.D, master’s level.” Fondacaro says that type of training has never been available to professional military personnel, because “it isn’t what they’re focused on, and it hasn’t been what they’re focused on.”

Connable argues that should change.

There’s also opposition to the concept from the anthropology community. A yearlong report on HTS was recently released by the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC). It found that HTS’s goals—which include, as the report states, simultaneously being a counterinsurgency tool, intelligence collector, and data source—were irreconcilable and at odds with the AAA’s Code of Ethics.

CEAUSSIC Chair Robert Albro says the group’s research included dozens of interviews with people who are either currently involved in the program or have gone through it, with a particular emphasis on HTT members. The researchers considered everything from training and relationships between HTT members and their military embeds to data collection and storage, he says.

Albro does not argue against social scientists working with the military under any circumstances, but in this situation, he says, it cannot be productive or ethical. For example, he questions the legitimacy of information collected in a war-zone by researchers carrying weapons. “Social scientists have another set of obligations and priorities that makes serving as members of embedded teams with the forward-operating battalion and carrying a weapon and asking questions at the point of the spear sort of impossible,” he asserts.

A major criticism of the program as cited in the AAA report and by other critics is that the social scientists are involved in intelligence gathering, although the report acknowledges that there are many types of intelligence gathering within the military and government that might not be problematic.

Fondacaro responds to the report’s concerns about ethics by pointing out that the program abides by Department of Defense (DoD) guidance on the use of humans in research.

As for the concerns over intelligence, Fondacaro maintains that the researchers are not providing intelligence to assist in targeting; they’re not trained for that, and their mission is to treat the “disease,” not the symptoms of insurgents. However, the AAA executive summary states that “the program is housed within a DoD intelligence asset, that it has reportedly been briefed as such an asset, and that a variety of circumstances of the work of HTTs ‘on the ground’ in Iraq and Afghanistan create a significant likelihood that HTS data will in some way be used as part of military intelligence, advertently or inadvertently.”

Other common criticisms of the program have been that the recruitment and training have been subpar. John Stanton, a reporter who has covered the program for about two years, including writing a book on HTS, says that one of the major problems his sources cited with the program was that there was never any adequate attempt to have the military and academic sides understand each other’s cultures, let alone the culture of the people in the war zones, and that failure has led to additional conflict.

Fondacaro acknowledges that because the program was new, it was difficult developing an appropriate training curriculum at first. A revised curriculum was scheduled to be implemented in January. Additionally, Fondacaro says that it’s been a challenge to find social scientists who have field work in areas like Afghanistan and Iraq, since they were once “denied zones.”

Army Major Kevin Burke has written a paper suggesting that the program should be moved into a civil affairs “element” to ensure that civil reconnaissance is kept separate from intelligence.

Stanton agrees with Burke’s suggestion that the program be moved to civil affairs, and he advocates more of a community policing model for counterinsurgency.

But Fondacaro points to HTS successes. For example, he says the last group in Iraq recorded a situation where there were many IED attacks in the northern area of operations leading up to a provincial election. HTT members found that a Northern Sunni enclave felt disenfranchised due to the preponderance of polling stations in the south where the Shia majority was located. HTT staff proposed that the provincial government establish funded busing to the polling stations. Fondacaro says the government did that, and the election went off without violence.

Timothy McClees, a staff member of the House Committee on the Armed Services, says Congress has requested an independent assessment of HTS from the Secretary of Defense, although it is unclear when the assessment will be completed.