Human Terrain System in Wikileaks’ Afghan War Diary: Searching for Evidence of the Positive

Posted on July 31, 2010 by


One question we have to ask ourselves is how the managers of the Human Terrain System can use these same records leaked via Wikileaks to make a positive case for the program embedding civilian social scientists with military units. Most of these records were written after the occurrence of the action that is reported, with a couple of exceptions: the exceptions are often written all in uppercase, such as the one record for 2009 that I missed and now appears at the bottom of the original list of records linked to above.

Missing in Action

There is much that is missing about Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) from these records. Among what is missing from the leaked records:

  • Any reports of the IED blast that killed HTT member Michael Bhatia; if one took these reports to be the whole and true picture, then that event never happened, which, as we know, is false;
  • There are no reports of injuries suffered by HTT members, though these have been reported and listed in John Stanton’s articles;
  • It is often unclear as to which particular HTT they are referring to, or if there is only one;
  • Any indication as to how exactly they obtained their information from HTTs, since none of these records were authored by members of any HTT.

Positively Spinning

Here I am: writing as if I were a defender and promoter of the Human Terrain System. I am being selective, because all readings are selective, but I am not being misleading about what the records show (otherwise it would be too easy and self-serving to set up all of this as a lie).

Some critics have said that HTS is engaged in intelligence gathering and even helping to refine lethal targeting. Instead, what we see in the records is a predominance of references to rather innocuous activities, that are health-oriented, as part of an overall humanitarian assistance effort. We see repeated references to MEDCAPs, medical civic action programs, where medical specialists set up temporary clinics and offer inoculations, among  other types of medical assistance. Nobody is throwing items back in the faces of members of Human Terrain Teams. No one is throwing stones at them, or spitting in their faces. If anything, they are being treated as a type of mobile complaints department for communicating dissatisfaction with government, policing, taxation, schooling, and demands for assistance. For example, in the Zormat bazaar on 28 January 2008, the HTT “was almost mobbed by local shop owners and residents at the Bazaar when the issue of the ban on motorcycle use came up” –motorcycles had been effectively banned since they are the vehicle of choice of Taleban attackers. Shouts of “Yankee go home!” are not to be heard. Other than MEDCAPs, HTTs conduct site surveys which, on the surface at least, seems innocuous. Clearly, there is evidence that the work of HTTs is oriented toward improving governance, connecting locals to central government, documenting wrongdoing that requires reform, and providing basic local knowledge to U.S. forces.

Members of HTTs do not appear in the records to be naive about what is happening locally. For example, when visiting Kandaw Kalay in the Shwak District on 31 July 2007, it is clear to the HTT that the MEDCAPs are being manipulated by local potentates: “HTTs impression is that the MEDCAP was definitely staged by the Khan family. The event seems to have been attended mainly by Hajji Halis supporters, meaning that the average resident was not represented. It seems that the event was Hajji Halis way of asserting his authority to the population.” That might show that the MEDCAP vehicle for projecting American assistance and winning hearts and minds might sometimes be flawed, but it also shows that it’s a service that is in demand and is prized by local leaders.

HTTs do not cover up the flaws of the Afghan National Police. During that same visit, they documented complaints of abuses committed by police: “The elders complained of ANP stealing from local households as they conducted cordon and searches. They also claimed that the ANP rifled through the personal belongings of women, which is very demeaning and is meant as a show of dominance by the ANP. Elders requested that elders be present when ever a search took place.” This shows awareness of problems, that certainly do exist, but it is also a significant passage in that it shows that local complaints about disrespect for women are not solely and uniquely directed at U.S. forces. Indeed, in none of the reports where HTTs are mentioned do we read of any such local complaints.

Yes, it’s true that not all MEDCAPs are well attended by Afghans. This was noted in the report for 07 September 2007, where the MEDCAP lasted six hours and treated only about 155 persons, and no women. The relatively low turnout, acknowledged in the report, does not appear to be due to any hostility towards U.S. forces, and it is exceptional enough that the HTT was planning to submit a report on the situation. It seems that the low turnout was likely “due mainly to possible tribal tensions in the area.”

Critics of HTS have also doubted whether HTTs do anything to save lives. We already know from the above that HTTs help to make lives better, unless someone wants to argue against medical assistance for sick and poor people. So is there any evidence that HTTs may have also saved lives? Thanks to a good relationship with one of their sources, on 18 May 2008 two members of a HTT turned in materials needed for making a bomb, that had been brought to them by their source. They gave these to Task Force Paladin’s combined explosives exploitation cell (CEXC), at Forward Operating Base Salerno. That is one less bomb that could have killed one or more innocent persons, and maybe the detailed make up of the devices submitted could help U.S. forces track down the bomb makers and end that particular threat.

Sometimes, members of a HTT have exposed themselves to significant risk, in order to minimize potential harm to both local and U.S. forces. We can see this happening on 30 July 2008, when a HTT patrol located a remote controlled IED near Forward Operating Base Rushmore. The report tells us that “the HTT patrol is currently securing the IED location and waiting for an explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) team to arrive.” Securing the position? Had it been me, I would not have opted to babysit an active, remote controlled explosive. All sprinting records would have fallen that day.

To critics of HTS and counterinsurgency, within military ranks (yes you, Gian Gentile, Ben Connable, et al.) the records clearly show that there was demand for, and good use made of the information that HTTs gathered. If they were not the ones to gather it, who was there to do so? Do we see the non-HTT military personnel answering their own questions about the local population, its ethnic and tribal composition, what people want?

How can anyone complain about this?

What’s the Problem?

I am not writing a direct criticism of anything in the last section, although readers are welcome to do so if they wish. What is said above, can in fact be said, thanks to the leaked records, with the “right” narrative. Instead, I want to focus more on what is missing or what might be perceived as inadequate.

These are military records, by people trained within a certain mode of communication, for a military audience. They betray the signs of their writers’ resocialization into a system that emphasizes numbers, measurements, and coordinates. Each report is littered with numbers, and each comes with latitude and longitude with the records, as shown on Wikileaks, each accompanied by a Google map (and strange maps they are, as some of the incidents appear to have taken place in open fields or on hillsides far from any visible population center). They are just as littered with endless acronyms–useful for rapid communication, as a specialist idiom that creates a boundary, and for minimizing the reaction time between word and action. They strike me as generally “lifeless” documents, and quite unlike my own fieldnotes which took note of facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice, the weather, surrounding sounds and smells, what I felt like, in addition to what was said, how it was said, what was done, and how it was done. HTS is not to blame for these records: none of their people wrote them (although there is a caveat here, which relates to my next article).

Any meaningful discussion has to go beyond and around these records. How do Afghans feel about getting the items the Americans give them? Did any of the HTT anthropologists consider the role of “the gift” here, about whether reciprocity was expected, or given, what kinds of “debts” were accumulated, or was there no expectation of return, like when one gives a gift to a child? In addition, the positive spin above requires us to think that critics’ use of terms such as “neo-colonialism” and “occupation” relate to physical brutality, beatings, massacres, and theft of resources–ugly words for ugly actions. That is a severe oversimplification, and I personally use the same terms to speak of NGOs in Haiti. The idea that “humanitarian assistance,” “development,” and “good governance” sanctify foreign intervention is certainly one that the interventionists would like us to believe.

There is one sticking point that I need to raise. Having read, it seems dozens of times, HTS quoting the words of Colonel Martin P. Schweitzer, who spent all of 2007 and part of 2008 in Afghanistan, about how HTTs helped to reduce violence, I asked myself what is in these records to support his assertion? Schweitzer stated directly, in April of 2008:

“So, what did all this mean for our deployment? It meant — by better understanding the human terrain, we reduced the number of kinetic operations that otherwise would have occurred. Not only did we reduce the risk to our soldiers, but we reduced the risk significantly to the communities that we operated within.” (p. 3)

“The HTT was immediately value added and became mission critical. The Team’s impacts were exponentially powerful: reduced our kinetic operations, assisted in developing more effective non-kinetic courses of action.” (p. 3)

“Without the HTT filter on courses of action and the alternative maneuver tools they identified to create the exact same effect, we would have lost double the lives. Using HTT capabilities, we reduced kinetic operations by 60-70%.” (p. 4)

It’s not clear how Schweitzer proceeds from “using HTT capabilities” to a reduction in violence and loss of life. It might have been that the “insurgents” moved on to other areas, for example. It might have been the decline that happens every year after the deadliest months, which are the summer months. He does not say when in 2007 they achieved this 60-70% drop, and if it was maintained. It sounds like correlation implies causation here. It might be possible, depending on how much is measured, that another unit had found the same decline after beginning to consume mints after meals.

Suspicion about what documentary basis there was for making these assertions, led David H. Price to file a Freedom of Information Access request. Presumably, Price was looking for those records–classified–like we now have. There is nothing in what we have that suggests anything about levels of violence or of any HTT role in reducing that violence, if there was a reduction.

I am also suspicious about any claims about a reduction of violence, even in 2007, which is nothing like now in 2010. Wikileaks compiled statistics, using the leaked records, showing the monthly number of civilians killed and wounded, Afghan forces killed and wounded, NATO troops killed and wounded, and “enemies” killed and wounded. The picture for 2007, the year of Schweitzer’s deployment, is pretty alarming. The following are two graphs I generated using those statistics, one showing all killed and wounded, the second focusing only on civilians killed.

In all of Afghanistan, in 2007, 122 civilians are reported killed in these records, in April. In December, that number falls to 37. That is…a 70% drop, and that includes whole regions and many units without any HTT. Is this what Schweitzer was giving credit for to HTS? We see a similar drop each year, and then a rise. It is happening again right now.

In addition, even in the records in which a HTT is present, we still see the resort to calling in an air strike, and it is not evident that U.S. forces were in an inextricable situation against a large and implacable enemy. It reads like the average skirmish which embedded reporters are occasionally allowed to televise to audiences at home. The point is, there is no record of the HTT having any say in how to reduce violence, or measures that could be taken in place of the heavy handed resort to immediate aerial bombardment.

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