Curtains already? The Human Terrain System heads to a close in Iraq, but “revives” in other ways at home

One of the discussions that has not yet been raised regarding the current impasse between the U.S. and Iraqi regimes over the pending Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is that, one way or another, the work of the Human Terrain System in Iraq may be heading to a very quick close. Should the SOFA remain unsigned, given the Iraqis’ desire to renegotiate what, for those who have read it, is already a remarkable series of U.S. concessions, then the legal mandate governing U.S. military operations in Iraq comes to an end this year, on 31 December. It is now almost certain that the U.N. mandate legalizing the U.S. presence in Iraq will not itself be renewed, as the U.S. is making no known effort to even broach the subject with U.N. Security Council members, and time is running out.

The Bush regime, in an attempt to pressure the Iraqis against making any amendments (which they have in fact submitted today), threatened not only to suspend economic assistance and possibly refuse to release Iraqi detainees, it has made the much more promising “threat” of confining all U.S. forces to bases and to begin a total withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year. With them would go members of the Human Terrain Teams.

What if the SOFA is salvaged before the end of the year? Then it seems that the work of HTS would come to an end in Iraq by the end of June of 2009, when all U.S. military forces must be withdrawn from Iraqi cities. Total withdrawal would have to occur by the end of 2011, at the latest. More than that, American members of HTTs would come under Iraqi legal jurisdiction — according to the current terms of the SOFA (by current I don’t mean the recently revised Iraqi version):

Article 12 (3): Iraq has the primary legal jurisdiction over contractors with the U.S. and their employees.

In addition, the identities of HTS employees would be made known to Iraqi authorities:

Article 14 (1): For the purposes of the agreement, U.S. armed forces members and civilian members can enter and exit Iraq from official borders using U.S. issued ID cards and travel documents issued by the US. The joint committee puts a mechanism for the Iraqi verification process, and the Iraqi authorities are in charge of carrying out the tasks of verification.

Article 14 (2): For purposes of verification the U.S. forces will submit to the Iraqi authorities a list with the names of U.S. armed forces members and civilian members entering and exiting Iraq or through the installations and areas agreed upon.

What options does that leave for those seeking employment with HTS? Afghanistan — Afghanistan which has seen a very dramatic increase in violence over the past year, including violence against foreign civilians. BAE Systems, which hires for HTS, is not currently advertising any other possibilities. AFRICOM, while established, is not set up anywhere in Africa except Liberia, given the strong opposition to U.S. military penetration across that continent. In the Americas, there would be no need to embed American anthropologists and social scientists with fighting units, because there is no shooting war yet, and U.S. military forces are “learning the cultures” of regions such as the Caribbean and Central America well enough on their own (see the next post). Besides, such anthropologists would be competing with academic colleagues who are already “on the ground” and without the encumbrance of a U.S. military escort.

It may be too early to know with any certainty (and my other predictions on this blog have frequently been wrong), but it may be very soon that we can celebrate the Human Terrain System getting pulled/pushed from Iraq. And when they do leave it will not be due to the “success” of the HTS mission: it will be due entirely to Iraqi political demands and Iraqi political resistance, coupled with a diminished drive in the U.S. for a continuation of the already lengthy and excessively expensive occupation.


That will not stop the domestic propaganda efforts of HTS, which as I have argued is the primary mission of the program. Indeed, a new site that claims to be in memory of slain HTS researcher, Michael Bhatia, is circulating some roughly hewn macho posts about the gritty heroism of HTS researchers, comical on its own. The more remarkable aspect of this development is how they managed to get a corpse to talk up the program, even while protesting with false innocence against those who would use the memory of Bhatia precisely for propaganda purposes, something that no anthropologist has done. I have heard of sock puppets being used, but this discovery of a new use for a cadaver is pretty grim and tasteless.

Also noteworthy is the extent of the effort put in by the proponent at in identifying himself as an American Indian, repeatedly. A grab for legitimacy in the face of a hostile audience of anthropologists? Is the notion that anthropologists will be unfamiliar with the phenomenon of Native collaboration with imperialism, when that is one of the ways they went about building the discipline in the first place?

Either way, one senses desperation, both in this, in the increasing number of open positions being advertised for the Human Terrain System, and in the resignation one reads in messages such as those from the site above. Now, it turns out, HTT members could not give a flying f*** about ethics, about the “anthropological equivalent of the Hippocratic oath” as it is dismissively referred to (I wish the writer well in the hands of a surgical quack who has no respect for such oaths), and even more than that, they are expected to fight. No wonder the explicit message, spoken through a ventriloquized body of a dead Bhatia, is f*** the anthropologists. Only the war heroes are entitled to speak about the program — like saying that only rapists are entitled to speak on issues of sexual violence. The other problem with this stance is that the hero is quite dead, and will not be reporting anything in his own voice again.

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7 thoughts on “Curtains already? The Human Terrain System heads to a close in Iraq, but “revives” in other ways at home

  1. Seth Resler


    I am the blogger that you site, and also the friend of Michael’s who set up A couple of things to note:

    1) I am not a “sock puppet” or a person who engages in propaganda for the US military. I knew next to nothing about the HTS program when Michael was killed. I am simply a close personal friends of Michael’s trying to make sense of his death and trying to learn more about that for which he died. My initial posts seemed to resonate with other friends of Michael, so I continued to work thru my feelings online. It was never my intention to get into the middle of a debate about this program or to present myself as an expert on the issue. My blog is about Rhode Island nightlife, and except for the few posts on Michael it does not delve into the realm of politics and the military. I have been quite surprised to see it so widely cited.

    2) Michael was not an American Indian, he was an Indian American.

    3) I respect the fact that you have a different opinion, but certainly we can agree to speak of the dead with a bit more civility? It would be appreciated by those who knew him.

    Thank you. -Seth

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Seth I am afraid you misunderstood.

    First, my comments were not directed at you, but rather referenced the post that you copied onto your site, and its author.

    Second, I do not claim that Bhatia was an American Indian. I said the writer of the post from identifies himself as an American Indian.

    Lastly, I have always spoken with civility about Bhatia. Being civil also means not using the dead as sock puppets for unpopular views.

    I hope this clears things up.

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