Multiplying Human Terrain Dreams of Victory and Fortune

Posted on March 4, 2010 by

PARWAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Task Force Cyclone Human Terrain Team’s, 1st Lt. Raphael Howard, research manager, speaks with village members of Shaykh Ali, Parwan province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2009. (Photo by U.S. Army Spc. William E. Henry, Task Force Cyclone, 38th Infantry Division)

It is increasingly apparent that even if TRADOC’s Human Terrain System were to simply be deleted, that would not spell the end of the human terrain doctrine, the military application of social science, and the applied study of “culture” in American counterinsurgency. In the previous report, “Mapping the Terrain of War Corporatism: The Human Terrain System within the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex,” we find that some companies do not directly service the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System as much as producing their own variant, one example being SCIA Solutions/Earl Industries which runs its own training classes at George Mason University.

It is even possible that the absence of the program we know as HTS would open up new defense contracting opportunities for such companies, or increase what they have already gained.

The Military’s Human Terrain, but without HTS

In “Social Scientists Under Fire: How anthropology and other social sciences are transforming the American way of war in Afghanistan” (Miller-McCune, 17 February 2010), David Axe says that the “original versions of the so-called ‘Human Terrain Teams’— the basic units of the Human Terrain System—are now slowly going defunct. From one point of view, they have been rendered redundant, as the philosophy and practices they espoused spread throughout the military mainstream. But seen from another direction, the Human Terrain System is on the cusp of a much-deserved breakthrough into the military mainstream, and, after a rocky start, the social-science teams are primed for a speedy rise up the military hierarchy.” In fact, some of the changes internal to HTS over the past year have helped to further this trend, Axe argues. The deaths of Bhatia, Suveges, and Loyd prompted a gradual “hardening” of HTS: “The [Human Terrain] teams began to include a greater proportion of current and former military personnel. And even those team members who weren’t military started acting and looking more like soldiers. Some of the civilian social scientists now carry weapons.” Moreover, with HTS’ retired army/social scientist contractors being incorporated as government employees last summer, this has “hastened the militarization of the Human Terrain System.”

More than the above, however, is the growing realization within the U.S. military that what HTS offers is not so unique that only HTS can provide it. One former HTS employee, turned critic, quoted by Axe stated: “for 99 percent of what HTS does, it can be done by soldiers filling out survey forms and reporting back to a research center in the U.S. There’s no need to have these mostly crap teams out there not really doing anything besides getting in people’s ways.”

Indeed, Axe found military units that had never heard of HTS, and yet were doing the same work in Afghanistan regardless:

“Though they might not have heard of the Human Terrain System, Shepard’s troops were actively engaged in studying and exploiting the human terrain. They just used different terminology. Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeisen, Shepard’s beefy, gravel-voiced boss, described his strategy in Logar as an attempt to build ‘security bubbles’ in the communities that are most amenable to a U.S. troop presence. Deciding where to focus security efforts requires daily close contact with Afghans. ‘The security bubble is the human-terrain piece,’ Gukeisen said.”

Axe concludes that, “Soldiers are capable of the cultural interactions that are supposed to be the HTS’s exclusive domain”:

The Human Terrain System and less formal human-terrain efforts boil down to single conversations between two people from very different cultures, speaking different languages. Whether it’s conducted by a highly trained, highly paid civilian academic or a young soldier, the mapping of human terrain is mostly a common-sense effort that requires patience, respect and courtesy.

[Lt. Sean Mahard:] “We’re not really trained for this. The majority of our training is in infantry tactics,” he said, and then shrugged. “But if you can interact with people, you can be successful.”

Human Terrain in a University Class Room

Whether in the battle zone, or in the class room, the human terrain doctrine seems to be undergoing expansion, paradoxically at the same time that HTS seems to be buried under the weight of criticisms from many different quarters, including within the military itself. Paula Holmes-Eber is an anthropologist with a specialization in the Middle East, a Ph.D. from Northwestern University, and was formerly an assistant professor in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After spending time as a visiting scholar in Middle East Studies and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, she took up a position teaching “operational culture” at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. National Public Radio, in a story titled “In Class, Marines Learn Cultural Cost Of Conflict” (09 January 2010), describes the following:

The students in front of Paula Holmes-Eber wear camouflage and have close-cropped hair. Most of them are Marine officers, and many of them have already been to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re here to learn the consequences of their actions.

“Should we change another culture?” she asks the class. “The reality is, the second you land on the ground with 100,000 troops eating and using the materials of the area, you’ve changed the economy; you’ve changed the environment.”

“It’s not should we,” she tells them, “it’s what are we doing—and is that what we want to be doing?”

An anthropologist, Holmes-Eber trains American warriors to be sensitive to other cultures. She teaches operational culture at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va. It’s her job to get soldiers to think through how every move they make on the battlefield has a consequence—not just for enemy forces, but for ordinary people.

Given the “bloody, horrible, protracted” history of conflict in Afghanistan, Holmes-Eber would like to see American troops in the region take a different path—and that means understanding local culture well enough to build cooperative relationships.

“The goal is mission effectiveness,” she explains. “If they fail because they don’t understand the culture, then they didn’t do what we asked them to do. So it’s not about being touchy-feely and sweet and ‘don’t we like the natives.’ “

“I really hope that we don’t kill as many people this way.”

The rest of the story can be heard here:

The basic principles voiced by Holmes-Eber are essentially the same we have been hearing from HTS propagandists, framing warfare in “culturally sensitive” terms, understanding local culture, building relationships with locals, and “saving lives” (which simply means killing, but not as much). Look past the gloss, and you see one face of counterinsurgency (the other is great violence, the face that tends to shy away from photos ops for the mainstream media back home)–it does not have to be untrue to be any less of an insidious attempt to subvert local societies and bend their people’s minds toward accommodation with empire.

The Other Human Terrain Programs

“The new emphasis being given to tribal engagement in counterinsurgency signifies that such tribal studies are highly relevant to the various military and civilian government agencies tasked to implement this new approach. Repeated public statements by US military and civilian leaders now downplay military operations in favor of gaining the support of local communities, not only by bringing tangible benefits, but also by acting in a manner acceptable to tribal people.In order to accomplish this mandate, we believe it is essential to understand tribal culture and society as a prerequisite to productive interaction.”–Tribal Analysis Center

A number of companies and research programs have been building their own “human terrain” programs. One of these is the Tribal Analysis Center (TAC). The TAC notes that “Traditional anthropological research conducted among tribes inhabiting remote areas where insurgents and criminals operate has become increasingly difficult to implement. Studies carried out among people living in small-scale societies now are nearly impossible due to the physical dangers associated with the civil and religious unrest found in those areas.” Indeed, this is a recurring theme across TAC’s pages: doing anthropology in Afghanistan is too dangerous.Thus the TAC adopts an “indirect approach,” which means using research from a variety of disciplines, collecting and analyzing data obtained from others, in the past and present. This is revamped armchair anthropology, the late 1800s dusted off for the early 2000s: “We assume that much can be gleaned from well-informed observers who are not anthropologists, ranging from journalists and travelers to government officials.”

TAC speaks highly and repeatedly about anthropology: “Although we value highly anthropological research and publications, none of us are full-time anthropologists.” The one TAC editor with a background in anthropology, a M.A. to be exact, is Arturo G. Munoz: “he applied anthropology to intelligence analysis and wrote intelligence assessments on various Latin American issues….he conducted counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations in diverse countries….In February of 2009, Munoz joined the RAND Corporation as a Senior Political Scientist. Working out of the Washington Office, he specializes in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism issues, focusing currently on Afghanistan.” It is no wonder then that, despite TAC’s open acknowledgment of anthropologists’ criticisms of work such as its staff conduct, and especially noting the ethnical problems, they proceed nonetheless–in the final analysis, with experience such as that of Munoz, where else can such individuals be employed? They are tied to the “terror” system of empire, because that is the side on which their bread is buttered.

But the bread has not been as buttered as TAC would like. At present, the TAC appears to lack any government contract, with its work done on a part-time and pro bono basis: “Some of us are employed full-time with various government agencies, others with private companies, or, are retired and do contracting as consultants or researchers for various clients. Our main source of funding at present is from the sale of books and teaching of courses.” In line with the latter, the TAC has set up the rudiments of an online course program through its Tribal Analysis University, which quite appropriately opens with a quote from none other than Rudyard Kipling himself, great visionary of the “white man’s burden.”

The Program for Culture & Conflict Studies is premised on the belief that the United States must understand the cultures and societies of the world to effectively interact with local people. It is dedicated to the study of anthropological, ethnographic, social, political, and economic data to inform US policies at both the strategic and operational levels.CCS is the result of a collaborative effort to provide current open source information to Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), mission commanders, academics, and the general public. Covering tribes, politics, trends, and people, this website – a 21st century gazetteer, provides data, analysis, and maps not available anywhere else.–Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at NPS

At the Naval Postgraduate School the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies seems to be virtually duplicating some of the intended functions of HTS, led by Thomas H. Johnson–“Under his direction, the program coordinates anthropological research activities on the human terrain of Central and South Asia.” According to one report, Johnson was supposed to “develop a database for the Human Terrain Teams,” which suggests a close working relationship that the others do not seem to have, and some online commentators insist, along with Newsweek, that Johnson not only served on a pilot Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan, but that he was also later fired from the program, all of which was flatly denied by HTS’ Montgomery McFate. In terms of “advising the troops,” which HTS claims to do, it seems that PCCS does so as well, only at much higher levels, and away from the battle zone: “Canadian Brig. Gen. Daniel Menard and a dozen top officers of his Joint Task Force-Afghanistan took time in their pressing schedules preparing to take charge of NATO operations in Kandahar, the center of gravity for the Pashtun insurgency, to attend the Conference on Culture and Counterinsurgency in Southern Afghanistan hosted by the NPS Program for Culture and Conflict Studies (CCS), Aug. 25-27 [2009],” with the goal of the conference being “to paint a clear picture of the battle space the Canadian Task Force was about to enter, enabling its members to better understand the institutions, organizations and individuals affecting conditions on the ground in their area of responsibility” (“University Experts Brief Canada’s New Afghanistan Task Force Commander on Winning ‘Mission Impossible’“). That was not the only such event.

It also clearly shows that what HTS boasts about, providing cultural knowledge, does not require a presence in the battlefield. HTS also does little/nothing to shape policy when it is focused on those lower down in the military food chain, whereas PCCS is clearly advising and engaging with those at the higher levels of command. In terms of mapping, PCCS also provides “tribal maps” on its website (anthropologists laugh out loud when they read such things) as well as tribe and clan genealogies.

Dartmouth College’s Laboratory for Human Terrain is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of the diffusion and appropriation of the human terrain concept. They produce lots of diagrams of boxes and arrows and balloons, so you know they’re busy producing real knowledge. They have three team members and have produced roughly a half dozen articles. The background of George Cybenko, the first person listed, is in mathematics. The others have backgrounds in mathematics, electrical engineering, and computer science — in other words, all the right disciplines for understanding human social relationships and meanings.

It’s About the Tribe: Three Cups of Tea, Hold the Grain of Salt

Roberto J. González’s article in Anthropology Today (Vol. 25, No. 2, April 2009), “Going ‘tribal’: Notes on pacification in the 21st century,” begins with an important, basic observation:

“Few anthropologists today would consider using the term ‘tribe’ as an analytical category, or even as a concept for practical application. Years ago, Morton Fried observed that ‘many anthropologists have attempted to avoid the word, or deliberately isolate it in inverted commas’ because of its persistent ambiguities.” (p. 15)

Lured by the simplicity of synchronic, static, functionalist snap shots, ludicrously conceiving human objects in the form of maps, it is not surprising that the human terrain cartographers either miss or cannot grasp the fact that the Taliban are a post-tribal phenomenon. The presence of the Taliban in every part of Afghanistan should suggest, to any reasonable people, that they simply cannot be equated with or tied to any “tribe.” It does not even seem that the military understands what “tribe” is supposed to mean, usually conflating (as González found) tribe with chiefdom. In the meantime in U.S. and NATO articles and photo essays, not to mention a plethora of dependent mainstream media recitations, tend to “also suggest – in Orientalist fashion – that ‘tribesmen’ are traditional or pre-modern people unfamiliar with Western ways.” González adds: “Official Defense Department photos depict US soldiers sitting on cushions and drinking tea with ‘tribal’ leaders, as if participating in such a ritual is enough to earn their trust and co-operation. Such images are reminiscent of Orientalist paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Capt. Duke Reim, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, Charlie Company commander, and Human Terrain Team members talk with a local village elder during a village assessment. The Human Terrain Team embeds anthropologists and other social scientists with combat units in the field. 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment Photo by Staff Sgt. Justin Weaver

I am thinking that the implication is also that these “tribal elders” are simpletons–show them enough kindness and respect, and they’re yours. In portraying locals as easily manipulated hicks (just flash the right cultural signs and provide some Western goodies on the side), the authors of such portraits reveal themselves to be by far the greater of the simpletons. If there is one thing that Afghans are experts on, it is modernity, and they have known it longer and know it better than their American occupiers. Afghanistan has met almost every major empire of the past two thousand years. The so-called “ancient” and “biblical” wilderness that some U.S. troops claim to be seeing in Afghanistan, is often the destroyed ruin of an American or Soviet development project. Tribal Afghanistan is a Western projection, of remoteness, isolation, backwardness and primitiveness. One must wonder how using flawed paradigms, and deploying them in complex armed conflicts, is supposed to “do good” and “save lives.” But that is not the point–the point is to make a sale to the Army:

“And what are we to make of the peculiar use of the outdated ‘tribe’ concept by militarized social scientists? It appears that these technicians are not concerned about the ambiguity of ‘tribes’ because they are in the business (literally) of providing tools to help military commanders achieve immediate objectives. Short-term ‘mission success’ trumps all other considerations. In the current context, US military forces have been asked to carry out a quintessentially imperial mission – pacification of Iraq and Afghanistan – and the technicians have been quick to provide the necessary instruments, from tribal maps to hints for dividing and conquering….Social science can easily become a ‘martial art’ under these conditions.” (González, 2009, pp. 18, 19)

Permanent War: War Corporatism, Militarized Knowledge, and Regimented Mentalities in a National Security State

Permanent War–Catherine Lutz, speaking to the Canadian Anthropology Society in 2008 (see: Catherine Lutz, “Anthropology in an Era of Permanent War,” Anthropologica, 51 [2], 2009: 367-379), described the extent to which the American nation-state is one marked by permanent war. Permanent war began in 1947 with the passage of the National Security Act, and the creation of what is effectively a second, shadow state organization that includes the National Security Organization (NSA), the National Security Council (NSC), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to which we can now add several more. The head of this second state, as Lutz puts it (among others, such as Andrew Bacevich), is an imperial President, with ever expanding powers. The U.S. has the largest military budget in recorded history, regardless of the end of the Cold War. This goes beyond published figures, as there is also a “black budget” whose funds are kept secret even from Congress. The Pentagon’s black budget reached $32 billion a year under Bush and “billions more in black funds go to the CIA and NSA, whose budgets are completely classified, disguised as seemingly unrelated line items in the budgets of other government departments, which sometimes even Congress does not realize” (p. 368). In 2009, $1.2 trillion was spent on military matters, including the off-budget costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, debt payments for past wars, and allocations for veteran care.

In terms of global reach, the U.S. now has over 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilian employees in 909 military facilities in 46 countries and territories, with bases located on 795,000 acres of land owned or rented by the U.S., housing over 26,000 buildings and structures, figures that obviously do not include secret and other unacknowledged installations (p. 368). The U.S. military rents or owns 28 million acres in total (43,750 square miles).

The U.S. military has become the biggest employer in the U.S., paying the wages of 2.3 million soldiers and 700,000 civilians, with even the largest private corporations dwarfed by comparison. This in a country where politicians and public commentators shriek at any hint of “socialism,” yet remain largely mute in the face of such massive state expenditures and social regimentation. Having remodeled itself, as Lutz says, after neoliberal business restructuring, the U.S. military now has as many temporary employees as permanent ones: 1.4 million are permanent employees in the regular branches of the military, with another 0.9 million in the Reserves and National Guard. Millions more Americans receive paycheques through defense contracting. Taking all of this into account, Lutz shows that military labour constitutes 5% of the total U.S. workforce (p. 369). One quarter of scientists and technicians in the U.S. work on military contracts. Now, work that was once done within the military is now contracted out to private firms.

This is the world into which the Human Terrain System fits, as well as the other human terrain variants, and the dozens of private corporations contracted for human terrain work, with more standing in the wings waiting. This is a world of lucrative military contracts, of militarized labour, and the development of mentalities regimented by the national security state. While Americans are so quick to colonize others, they do so having first colonized themselves massively. That is a nation whose first face shown to the world is a military one, where even handing out water bottles to Haitians is done by gloved hands protruding from camouflage fatigues. Popular culture is amply militarized as well, from Hollywood movies to video games, cultural militarism is a major growth industry, one of America’s few. The social scientists joining creatures such as HTS not only fail to critique such facts, they seem to be oblivious to the structures they actively choose to reinforce and which they validate and justify, at the cost of both democracy at home, peace abroad, and an independent intellect that takes itself seriously.


Addenda (13 March 2010):

More in line with the article above:

Atran leveled criticism at the U.S. military’s Human Terrain System, a program that has embedded social scientists in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It is the infantry units themselves that should be trained before they go in theater to be culturally sensitive,” Atran told the senators. “Such efforts as these, small as they are, are potentially quite counterproductive. … The military and cultural reality of the terrain may favor having embedded social scientists be uniformed and armed, … but the possibility that social scientists themselves would have to fire their weapons and perhaps kill local people … is guaranteed to engender academia’s deep hostility.”


From readers:

  2. Article in Military Review, on culture and language training in the U.S. military; Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force definitions of “culture”, etc., complementing or perhaps supplementing some parts of the discussion above concerning “tribe.” (click here)
  3. Draft FM 5-0, The Operations Process, see particularly sections 1-22 through 1-26 on “Cultural Understanding”, which will appear as page 17 in your PDF browser:
  4. From “The Small Wars Foundation (Small Wars Journal’s non-profit parent organization), along with several government and private sector cosponsors, is conducting a small Tribal Engagement Workshop (TEW) on 24-25 March in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The objectives of this workshop are to: (1) Evaluate the value and feasibility of a tribal engagement approach in Afghanistan (2) Assess what secondary effects adoption of a tribal engagement approach would have on the political and military situation and (3) Identify the operational components of a tribal engagement approach in Afghanistan.”

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