The “Culture” Virus: The Human Terrain System spreads to Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean

The intention of the links and extracts to follow is to show the spread of the U.S. military’s intention to build on the Human Terrain System in penetrating local cultures and intervening in local societies across the planet. Of course anthropology is singled out for “special mention,” now that in the minds of the state and military “we” have reverted to being a tool of imperialism (not serving imperialism is routinely called “retreating from the world” by some).

Perhaps given the silence of so many, perhaps most anthropologists, conducting their business as usual, buried in their niche projects, we never stopped being such a tool, whether willingly or unwittingly. When debates finally do occur, in limited quarters, almost inevitably the centre of attention moves toward the question of whether Human Terrain Teams “save lives” or are used for “targeting”. If the objective is to save lives, then mine is by very far the best plan: withdraw. The fact that the rationale, ideology and worldview behind these various foreign occupations and counterinsurgency campaigns are not called into question, betrays the extent to which even the semi-critical anthropologists have bought into the dominant imperialist logic of their own society, and take such domination as natural, unquestionable fact. The critical skills they use to “peel the onion” of foreign cultures are never applied to their own; there is little doubt who “the bad guys” are, but there is extra special effort in sweetly seeking nuances in the decisions of Americans to enlist voluntarily, and of course there is the occasional HTS member who is noted to be “a hell of a nice guy.”

One could do a quick “fact check” — the number crunchers and objectivizers will love this: count the number of signatories on the pledge of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, and then compare that to the total number of anthropologists working in academic settings alone. Which is, by far, the larger number? Count the number of anthropology bloggers, and then count the number of those who have been consistently critical of the militarization of anthropology. Does the size of the latter amount to even one tenth of the former? It all comes down to interpretation and analysis of course, and I look forward to being contradicted on any of these counts.



House Armed Services Committee Discusses U.S. Africa Command in Annual Fiscal Report
By Danielle Skinner
U.S. Africa Command public affairs office

AFRICOM: Militarizing Foreign Policy

With regard to the U.S. Africa Command, committee members were in agreement with AFRICOM’s posture statement that a stable Africa is in the best interest of the United States. However, they expressed reservations relating to its specific roles and missions. Of primary concern was the committee’s perception that AFRICOM could give the appearance of militarizing U.S. foreign policy by taking over responsibilities traditionally held by government agencies and other departments. On page 412, the report lists examples of tasks that “appear to depart from traditional Department of Defense (DoD) missions, including medical HIV/AIDS assistance, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief.”

… the committee disapproved of the lack of consultation with Congress during Africa Command’s conception…

Restructuring of the United States Southern Command

The committee’s discussion of the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) on page 410 of the report focused primarily on the command’s efforts to transform its structure, mission statement, and activities to reflect that of the U.S. Africa Command.

Human Terrain Team Support

Finally, the committee recommended establishing at least one Human Terrain Team (HTT) for each regional combatant command, including the Pacific Command, the Southern Command, and the Africa Command.

HTTs provide support to the military by providing anthropological expertise on a specific region and culture, thus promoting understanding and providing warfighters with non-kinetic options in planning and carrying out their missions. HTTs were described by the committee to be “critical enablers to shaping military planning in pre-conflict environments, and are supportive of reconstruction and stabilization efforts.”

The HTTs have proven to be valuable in Iraq and Afghanistan where kinetic operations were reported to be reduced by more than 60 percent. For this reason, the believes their support would be equally valuable in support of combatant commands.

The full report is posted on the Website of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee at the link below:

Source: House Armed Services Committee report (9 MB pdf file)



TRANSCRIPT: General Ward Outlines Vision for U.S. Africa Command
By General William E. “KIP” Ward
Commander, United States Africa Command
Royal United Services Institute

A lot of activity goes on in the continent through our non-government organizations. Academia is involved. I showed you early on this thing about knowledge development. When I was in previous assignments, someone came to me and would talk about, well, ‘Ward, you need to get a cultural anthropologist on your team.’ I said, what! A cultural what? Anthropologist? To do what? Get out of here. Or, ‘Ward, you need to have someone to help you understand the human dimension. You need some human terrain analysis.’ I said, ‘what? Get out of here.’ But it’s important, and where do those skills, talents reside — academia, places like RUSI. We want to understand as best as we can and where do we go to attain that expertise and understanding: outside of ourselves; the teams that we hope to partner with, private industry. I mean, I’ve spent time in different places from the Balkans to the Middle East to Africa, and one thing that I know is that when you want sustained stability, guys 15 years of age to 35 years of age need to productively and gainfully employed. That needs to be addressed. I don’t do that, not for the long term. So private sector, private enterprise is a part of this dimension, teammates. (Shouts) I told you I get it! (Laughter.)



Marine Corps’ Strategy Stresses Regional Culture
September 2008
By Matthew Rusling

A deeper understanding of culture has become an official part of Marine Corps strategy.

Indeed, the recently published Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025 says that, to be successful in future wars, Marines will need to gain a deeper understanding of the most volatile regions of the world.

The strategy assumes that, after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan slow down, Marines will be able to prepare for future conflicts under a new organization called the Security Cooperation Marine Air Ground Task Force. These units will routinely train foreign forces in areas of the world that the U.S. military describes as the “arc of instability”a swath of territory running from the Caribbean Basin through most of Africa, the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia. Many countries in these areas are often referred to as “failed states” because of their unstable governments. U.S. officials consider them “safe havens” for terrorist groups.

“What the Corps is saying is that to be more effective, it needs to have more than a cursory familiarity with local conditions, something more than what you’d get from a travel brochure,” said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“From an outsider’s perspective this may seem like splitting hairs,” Wood said. “But I think there is a great deal of difference in quality and quantity of effort and the mindset that is being called for.”

It’s easy enough for any Marine to grasp that different cultures have their own unique characteristics. Working with a tribe in Africa may not be the same as working with a clan in Iraq or an indigenous people in the Philippines, Wood said.

So while a Camp Pendleton-based unit, for example, might focus on the specific attributes of groups in the Middle East, those Marines will learn that equally unique attributes are associated with a tribe in Africa, Wood said.

And if that unit ever finds itself in Africa during a crisis, those Marines will not try to blindly apply specific Iraq-models to African tribal problems, he added.

The same goes for Marines’ on-site experience, which could establish an intimacy with a region that could come in handy in a clinch. It will take a few years to figure out how to do this, Wood stressed. But that’s the direction the Corps is headed, he added.

Habitual deployment also boosts troops’ level of exposure and experience, which can lead to regional expertise.

“The only way you can get to know a region is if you repeatedly go to that region,” Wood said. “You have to engage in that locality to really understand the nuances (there).”

The former one-size-fits-all thinking toward Marine battalions reflected a mindset that Marines need only be concerned with combat, Wood said. A Marine battalion in Hawaii that would normally deploy to Okinawa could have just as easily been deployed to Saudi Arabia for operations against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, Wood said. Now some Marines will have to focus on those idiosyncrasies that compose a population.

Despite a sharpened eye on culture, the 2025 document does not step away from the need to maintain basic war fighting skills, nor the option of swinging Marine forces from one theater to another. While the units will be training foreign forces in one area, they will still have the skills to fight along more conventional lines if a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, Wood noted.

The Marines will break down the globe into 17 micro-regions under the newly established Career Marines Regional Studies Program.

The intent is for the officers, non-commissioned officers and senior NCOs to study one of these micro-regions for the rest of their careers, said Col. Keil Gentry, head of the national plans branch for the Marine Corps.

Starting when they are lieutenants, the officers will be assigned micro-regions at the Basic School, at which all new Marine officers receive training. The enlisted Marines will be assigned these regions as sergeants, Gentry said.

But it is still a nascent program, as the Corps is still fully engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gentry said. The Marines are still hammering out the best way to implement such a program, he added.

In the past, the Corps took a hodgepodge approach to training foreign forces. It might have been done by an infantry company, a battalion or a small detachment, Gentry said.

Now, these more culturally attuned task forces will routinely deploy, instead of in spurts and halts as before.

“The idea here is it becomes a more standardized unit that deploys regularly to do security operation activities,” said Gentry.

Host country forces will be trained in a variety of ways, such as naval infantry, artillery, mortars, close-air support, logistics and aviation, Gentry said. That would leave them in a better position to take on crime, drug trafficking and religious fanaticism before they snowball, Gentry said.

“It’s better to train a country’s security force to deal with those problems themselves than to let something build to a crisis situation,” Gentry said.

The Corps intends to have three MAGTFs deployed at any one time – one oriented toward Africa, one toward Latin America and one toward the Middle East. They would likely come from bases on the East or West Coast of the United States, Gentry said.

Right now, the plan is to source the infantry units from regionally oriented regiments. Those units would form the ground forces of the MAGTF….

Language will also be an important tool, and the Corps is planning specialized language programs. Such training will vary, but marines with a linguistic knack would at least be able to carry on a basic conversation, Gentry said. Native speakers would also be identified.

This has been done in Iraq and will continue with the MAGTFs, Gentry said.

Foreign language training would not just be for officers. “It would be peppered throughout the force,” Gentry said.

Col. Steve Zotti, director of the commandant’s strategic vision group, said Marines have learned a great deal in Iraq, such as phrases in standard Arabic, and the Corps can leverage that experience elsewhere.

Marines will focus on learning the languages of areas teetering toward instability. Asia tops the list. Second is the Middle East. South America and Africa are tied at third place, Zotti said.

But despite a clear eye on prospective regional tinderboxes, the Corps has yet to determine exactly which languages to study, although it has a general idea.

“It’s the harder languages, like standard Arabic, like Urdu – those kinds of languages that are hard to learn and harder to maintain” that Marines will have to learn, Zotti said.

And narrowing the list is no easy task.

Africa is home to a maddeningly complex panoply of languages. And Chinese has eight major dialects, Zotti pointed out.

The Corps has begun to sift out languages on which lieutenants should focus, Zotti said.

The Corps’ shift toward culture has been spurred by demographics. The developing world’s population will surge and put constraints on resources, especially oil and water, Zotti said. Swelling youth populations will gobble up jobs faster than governments can grow the economy, resulting in droves of unemployed, dissatisfied young men.

This will happen in places that lack good governance and infrastructure. A number of scenarios could spring from these conditions: non-state groups could stir locals to violence and governments could hoard resources and squeeze out minorities.

Competition for water will intensify, according to the Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025.

Zotti said: “(If) fledgling countries without adequate sources of water or clean water go to blows… that means you would have Marines deployed more often.” This goes for oil as well, which could be a key driver of instability, he added.

That could leave the Marine Corps to protect U.S. embassies in embattled capitals, as it has done before in places like Liberia and Haiti, or to evacuate U.S. citizens. These possible crises tie into the focus on culture.

“If you can help the locals help themselves, larger problems can (possibly) be precluded,” Wood said. And if a conflict does occur, that deeper comprehension of the region will hopefully lessen its length and difficulty. “The Marines will be more effective because they’ve developed more detailed knowledge of all the factors that impact operations,” Wood said.

The plan is not for the entire force of nearly 200,000 to become cultural experts or linguists, Gentry emphasized.

“I don’t think anything is going to (necessarily) derail it,” Gentry said. “But it is still time dependent on the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Still, the Corps already has a leg up in some regions.

“We already have thousands of Marines with a deeper understanding of Arabic and Afghan and Pakistani cultures, norms and some language,” Zotti said.

Some Marines have raised concerns that these units could become less focused on war fighting, which could dull those skills.

Gentry emphasized what will likely be a gradual shift after Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s not like a switch will be flicked and we’ll go from one to the other,” Gentry said.

But no one knows when Iraq and Afghanistan will draw to a close, which means the realization of the new strategy is far from a done deal.


For a great deal more, see “Department of State Adds $$ to AFRICOM”, February 12, 2008, at Moon of Alabama.

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