Human Terrain System in the Media

Posted on 21 August 2010 by


First, and in case you missed them, a series of YouTube videos produced by the U.S. military about the Human Terrain System:

The U.S. Army’s “light touch with heavy impact…a non-lethal force multiplier” — “a Human Terrain Team working with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment is comprised of military and civilian analysts who specialize in capturing the mood of a local people:

“Knowledge is power in Afghanistan” — bridging the gap between the local population and occupation forces:

The Human Terrain Team — “prime cuts” of the above, longer, no narration:

[Please note, in light of the Pentagon's accusations against Wikileaks, that the U.S. military and NATO forces, which produce the photographs and videos like you see above, never blur the images of the Afghan civilians who are clearly providing them with information (an act that one would think is sufficient to provoke at least some questioning by the Taleban, if not something more punitive and drastic). No names are given, but in a country where many individuals go only by one name, or a name shared by many, photographic/video evidence is a much more reliable means for the Taleban to track down collaborators. However, feel free to continue ignoring this point--I raised it with a former HTS employee, who denied the practice of informants being photographed by the military even occurred.]

Second, some recent articles on the Human Terrain System:

It annoyed me that the critics of “mercenary ethnography” took cover in principled arguments. I wanted to form my own opinion about the HTS. I have to admit, I also wanted to experience firsthand one of the major events of this century. When I climbed out of the cargo space of an airplane, full of ammunition, onto the crushed rock track of the military base, Salerno, I was unsuspecting of the dangers that were ahead of me; I had no idea how I would investigate the lives of the Afghans in the middle of this war.

…and Katherine Carroll, a Vanderbilt assistant professor of political science, who spent a year in Iraq as a part of the military’s Human Terrain System’s team, dodging IEDs and suicide bombers.

These individuals — who put American values into practice throughout the world — say they’re aghast fellow Tennesseans would cite those values as reason to deny Muslims a place to meet and pray.

We should be clear that the third sector is simply one of a multitude of international actors whose work is being compromised by greater militarisation. Academics (human terrain teams), journalists (embeds) and diplomats (Hilary Clinton has demanded 7,000 fully armed security operatives to protect the US embassy in Iraq) are all experiencing a similar trend. In place of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s concerns over a military-industrial complex we may be heading toward a military-industrial-academic-media-diplomatic-NGO complex whose eventual hegemony could prove unchangeable.

An entirely new space has been created between wartime and peacetime development – “stabilisation operations” – which are driven by the military leadership despite its alarming similarities to the work of humanitarians. These operations include support from the newly formed human terrain teams, which have also brought the independence of academia into question.

The armed Peace Corps idea is not just a fantasy or red herring propaganda. It has been promoted and institutionalized by a new generation of pseudo-intellectual militarists who are trying to synthesize a military/anthropological strategy for restructuring failed imperial adventures in other cultures beyond Vietnam, like Iraq and Afghanistan. To accomplish this, the army instituted a program in Iraq in 2007 labeled “The Human Terrain System.” This program was an actual formal effort to use anthropology to bridge the gap between the Green Berets and the Peace Corps. Not surprisingly, it was roundly criticized by the American Anthropological Association and not surprisingly, it has had the support of General Petraeus.

Several interpreters told me, however, that every meeting includes some young American soldiers whose locker-room-style male bonding features bouts of hilarious farting.

To Afghan men, nothing is more shameful. A fart is proof that a man cannot control any of his apparatus below the belt.  The man who farts is thus not a man at all.  He cannot be taken seriously, nor can any of his ideas or promises or plans.

Blissfully unaware of such things, the Army goes on planning together with its civilian consultants (representatives of the State Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and various independent contractors who make up what’s called a Human Terrain Team charged with interpreting local culture and helping to win the locals over to our side).  Some speak of “building infrastructure,” others of advancing “good governance” or planning “economic development.”  All talk of “doing good” and “helping” Afghanistan.

Le constat que dresse Allison, lui, est encore plus clair : c’est celui d’une attitude déplorable et constante de terrain conquis. Les afghans étant …les nouveaux indiens  : “ce n’est finalement pas si différent de ce que les Américains d’origine européenne ont fait aux Amérindiens. Maintenant, plusieurs générations plus tard, les histoires se sont transmises et sont profondément enfoncées dans la conscience collective de ces peuples indiens et leur façon de voir les Européens-Américains d’aujourd’hui, et ont un effet sur la façon dont ils perçoivent les programmes gouvernementaux, tentent de modifier leur point de vue sur le travail, l’alcool et la drogue, etc’.

Sometimes, however, the line between civilian and military is blurred. During one stop, a man swore that his neighbor was working with the insurgents. Although the accusation could have potentially serious consequences for the person in question, Carnahan didn’t hesitate to pass the information to company officers. “If we get something that’s a threat to a unit, then we turn it over to them,” he says. “One way or another, you’re involved.”

Asked about the programme in a meeting with reporters in March, US secretary of the army John McHugh said that he was “neither happy nor unhappy” with the HTS. “Whether it’s a long-term solution or one in which we can glean short-term lessons and then move forward is still something we’re not able to judge,” McHugh said.

Not only did Carroll learn to confront fears head-on, she also began to understand the U.S. military, a topic she hopes to continue to study. While she has spent much of her career studying Middle East politics, the military was a foreign concept. That is, until a recruiter knocked on her Vanderbilt office door in June 2007 looking for professors to embed with a unit.

In the summer of 2007, Carroll heard that the Army was searching for Ph.D.s with specialties in Middle Eastern culture and history to embed with combat brigades, to “help them take into account the social, political and cultural context,” she says. Carroll just happened to have the required doctorate, in her case from the University of Virginia in political science with a specialty in Middle Eastern politics. She sought advice from everyone she knew. “By November, it was clear I wanted to go.”

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