Looking Back: Was Human Terrain System a Revolutionary or Unnecessary Program?

Looking Back: Was Human Terrain System a Revolutionary or Unnecessary Program?

“Discussing Life in Afghanistan” A Psychologist and Department of Defense civilian deployed to Afghanistan as members of the Human Terrain System interview local residents in April 2009. Source: U.S. Army/Flickr.

In 2005, Montgomery McFate, a former defense consultant for the Rand Corporation, and Andrea Jackson, the Director of Research and Training at the Lincoln Group, published a paper entitled: “An Organizational Solution for DOD’s Cultural Knowledge Needs.” In it, they outlined the goals, needs, and cost for the development of a “specialized organization within the Department of Defense to produce, collect, and centralize cultural knowledge, which will have the utility for policy development and military operations.” The article in Military Review was published at a time when policy makers recognized the need to have cultural knowledge of their enemy, especially during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It went on to suggest the establishment of regional combatant commanders (RCC) and regional offices to supplement teams on the ground and to maintain close relationships with local forces and possible other sources of intelligence.  From this paper, the Human Terrain System (HTS), a United States Army, Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) support unit costing $726 million, was born.

Units in HTS, known as Human Training Teams (HTT), were supposed to deploy people with social-science backgrounds, such as anthropologists and linguists, to provide military commanders and staff with an understanding of the local population in the area. In 2007, the program was critiqued by the American Anthropological Association, which called the collaboration of social scientists and combat units “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise,” as there existed a moral conflict between studying, for example, Iraqis, and advising troops who might end up killing them. However, the criticisms did not stop there; taxpayers were upset, as were military personnel, who felt that there already existed units that carried out the same function and that HTS was draining resources away from other priorities. The program also came under close scrutiny in 2009, when Staff Sergeant Paula Lloyd, a member of HTT in Afghanistan, was doused with petrol and set alight by a local Afghan. Her death went unreported, despite it being the third researcher with HTT to die on that deployment.

The need to thoroughly understand our enemies and associates is something that has been recognized for a long time. Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” And the need still exists today; General Odierno, the 38th Chief of Staff of the Army and former Commander General, United States Forces – Iraq, acknowledged its necessity during the war. While in Iraq, he recruited Emma Sky, a non-military British expert on the Middle East and who had lived in Kirkuk and dealt with the Iraqi-Kurdistan disputes after the Fall of Saddam and the war, to be his political advisor.

In late June of this year, the press got word that HTS had been terminated quietly in September 2014, as “there was no longer a requirement for HTS teams in theater.” But why was there such a long delay in announcing the end of the program? Many believe that HTS had the potential to change humanitarian missions and reconstruction efforts. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even praised the program and its “alternative thinking” that was key to success for a military that has a reputation of being heavy handed, something that was only emphasized around the world. Secretary Gates expressed how HTS led to less violence, citing a commander in Afghanistan who had worked with Human Terrain Teams and, as a result, had to carry out 60% fewer armed strikes.

So what does the military do now that HTS has been terminated? Major Adam Martin doesn’t believe HTS’s termination left any void for his operations. His fellow soldiers are from diverse backgrounds and are trained in the same way and can, therefore, carry out the same functions as HTS personnel did; he works with reserve soldiers who are anthropologists, state troopers, civil engineers, and environmental engineers to name a few. Maj. Martin has been with Civil Affairs since 2010 and is the HQ Company Commander for the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade based in Philadelphia. His unit is part of the United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) (USACAPOC(A)) which was founded in 1985, is comprised of mostly U.S. Army Reserve soldiers and which is meant to carry out five functions: civil information management, population resource control, support to civil administration, foreign humanitarian assistance and nation assistance. I met Maj. Martin when I worked at the International Rescue Committee’s Refugee Youth Summer Academy this year in New York where he was visiting to research how to engage youth in post-conflict areas through creative arts programs, such as the dance and music classes the Academy ran.

He too thinks that understanding your enemy is vital, as you cannot do your job (in this field) without understanding the culture. He added that this applies more to Civil Affairs soldiers who are “expected to understand and to know a lot more than anybody else.” For example, when examining the next Area of Operations (AO), he explained how there are two systems the unit uses to assess various factors: PMESCII – political, military, economic, social, cultural, informational and infrastructure – and ASCOPE – areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people and events. Every minute detail, such as the location of power plants and natural resources, are plotted, analyzed and discussed.

U.S. Army Reserve Officers from 418th Civil Affairs Brigade work with locals in the Horn of Africa in 2010. Source: U.S. Army Africa/Flickr.
U.S. Army Reserve Officers from 418th Civil Affairs Brigade work with locals in the Horn of Africa in 2010. Source: U.S. Army Africa/Flickr.

Despite being civilians, HTS personnel wore uniform when deployed, like those in Civil Affairs. Wearing uniform might seem imposing and threatening but Maj. Martin assured that it “can be helpful as it opens doors. There is credibility.” He even mentioned that local interpreters would also wear military uniform but would be covered, as they would not want to be seen, as this may endanger their families – something that the army would try and prevent at all costs. Maj. Martin did explain that Civil Affairs does differ from HTS in its operations, which include advising on infrastructure development projects, water distribution centers, and school and bridge refurbishment – known as Engineering Civil Action Programs or ENCAP – such as those he carried out in the Philippines. Moreover, Civil Affairs personnel can carry out a wide range of programs: Veterinarian Civil Action Programs (VETCAP), Educational Civil Action Programs (EDCAP), and Medical Civil Action Programs (MEDCAP) – Maj. Martin disclosed that through this last set of programs, he has had to carry out circumcision operations with a local doctor.

Understanding our enemies and foreign populations beyond what their military capabilities are, where they could be deployed, what history says and what their tactics are can only tell us so much. It is vital to comprehend and to follow cultural practices to add credibility to the incoming force and to not aggravate what is likely to be an already complex, volatile environment. The United States has, unfortunately, only emphasized its controversial approach to reconstruction efforts in recent history. The Human Terrain System was established to help with this. Although marred in controversy, the program also received much praise so it does not seem to make sense that its termination was abrupt, hushed and muted. However, there is no rush for the country to consider finding and funding another similar program for it seems as if there already exists a unit to help military forces without the assistance of HTS.

Civil Affairs appears to overlap with HTS in many aspects but surpasses it in its capacity with regard to personnel and operations, which beckons the questions: did we really need the Human Terrain System? What would have happened if it were never established?

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