Changing Fortunes in Washington: The Evolution of House Armed Services Committee Reports on the Human Terrain System

Recycled news—because it’s always tastier when it’s refried. At different times on this blog over the past two years we have quoted the House Armed Services Committee on its views of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System. The latest report is causing some to wonder what is really being said, and how to interpret it. From the point of view of the American Anthropological Association, the HASC has issued “a stinging rebuke;” for Kerim at Savage Minds, “It ain’t over, but it seems like HTS is at least ‘on hold’ for now;” for Noah Schachtman at Danger Room, this means that the HASC “puts the brakes on ‘Human Terrain’”; one of the comments on the Danger Room post says “this is neutral news, not negative;” for Inside Higher Ed, this simply “raises questions”: “the House Armed Services Committee included language in its version of the military authorization bill that raises questions about the Human Terrain System…and suggests that funds could be cut off for the program if the Pentagon doesn’t take certain actions;” for Spencer Ackerman at The Washington Independent, this news shows that the HASC is “displeased” with HTS. Put it all together and you get: stingingly neutral displeasure that raises some momentary questions, maybe, maybe not.

Pressed on how I interpreted the language, I recently replied, “one way to understand it might be to read it as what it is not saying–for example, it is not saying that the future of the program is guaranteed, and it is not saying that there will be an increase in funding, or that the funding will be continuous even in the short term.” Another way to put the language in context, is to juxtapose all three statements made by the HASC about HTS over the past two years.

2008

In what appears to be the first instance, here is the HASC’s final report on H.R. 5658, dated 16 May 2008:

“The committee notes that today’s military forces are involved in a growing number of complex missions from counterinsurgency to security and stability operations. These missions are best served by a security force that understands and appreciates the individual, tribal, cultural, ethnic, religious, social, economic, and other aspects of the human terrain. The committee supports the Department’s effort to reshape their approach to research, training, and doctrine to adapt to the current irregular warfare environment. The Department’s creation and deployment of Human Terrain Teams (HTT) that employ cultural awareness and analysis practices notes one approach toward adapting to complex military operations” (p. 271).

“In title XV of this Act, the committee notes the contributions of the prototype HTTs currently supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and believes that sound research and resulting tools are key technology enablers for success of these teams now and in the future” (pp. 271-272).

“The committee recommends $13.4 million, an increase of $4.0 million, in PE 63670D8Z and $8.0 million, an increase of $2.0 million, in PE 64670D8Z for the continued development, demonstration and rapid transition of key technologies supporting human terrain understanding and forecasting to include, Mapping the Human Terrain Joint Capability Technology Demonstration and the Conflict Modeling, Planning and Outcome Experimentation Program” (p. 272).

Not just additional monetary support, but this unmistakable endorsement:

“The committee has also been encouraged by the success of integrating social science expertise into Department of Defense operations via the Human Terrain Teams (HTT), which provide culturally relevant advice to military decision makers. As has been pointed out in recent testimony before the committee, these teams provide value added to traditional military operational planning and have been instrumental in saving lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The committee believes that more programs in the future should be informed by social science research” (p. 279)

And, the grand finale in their report on HTS in 2008—money, well wishing, applause:

“The committee supports the concept for the prototype Human Terrain Teams (HTT) currently supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. HTTs have been instrumental in saving the lives of coalition troops by reducing casualties among Afghani and Iraqi civilians. HTTs provide our warfighters with non-kinetic options in planning and carrying out their missions. The committee is aware that the first prototype HTT is credited with reducing kinetic operations by more than 60 percent during its first 6 months of deployment in Operation Enduring Freedom. HTTs are critical enablers to shaping military planning in pre-conflict environments, and are supportive of reconstruction and stabilization efforts. HTTs are currently proving their value in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the committee believes that capability would prove equally valuable in other combatant command areas of responsibility. The committee recommends $90.6 million in Operation and Maintenance for the purpose of fielding additional HTTs to meet the current Central Command requirement of 26 teams. The committee encourages the Department to begin training, equipping, deploying, and sustaining human terrain teams with other regional combatant commands to include at least one each for Pacific Command, Southern Command, and Africa Command” (p. 479)

2009

What a difference a year can make.

HASC’s final report on H.R. 2647, dated 18 June 2009:

“The committee continues to support the concept behind the Human Terrain Teams (HTT) and the overall Human Terrain System (HTS). In the committee report (H. Rept. 110–652) accompanying the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009, the committee expressed support for expansion of the HTT concept, including to other combatant command areas of responsibility” (p. 154)

But?

“The committee is aware of anecdotal evidence indicating the benefits of the program supporting operations in the Republic of Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The committee also notes that a number of press accounts provide anecdotal evidence indicating problems with management and resourcing. The committee finds it difficult to evaluate either set of information in the absence of reliable, empirical data” (pp. 154-155).

Therefore?

“Therefore, the committee directs the Secretary of Defense to conduct an independent assessment of the Human Terrain System, and submit to the congressional defense committees a report detailing that assessment by March 1, 2010. The independent assessment should consider the following elements:
(1) An overview of all of the components of HTS, including related technology development efforts;
(2) The adequacy of the management structure for HTS;
(3) The metrics used to evaluate each of the components of HTS;
(4) The adequacy of human resourcing and recruiting efforts, including the implications of converting some contractor positions to government positions;
(5) An identification of skills that are not resident in government or military positions, and how the Army can leverage academic networks or contracting opportunities to fill those gaps;
(6) An identification of policy or regulatory issues hindering program execution; and
(7) The potential to integrate HTS capabilities into existing Exercises” (p. 155).

2010

HASC’s final report on H.R. 5136, dated 20 May 2010:

“While the Committee remains supportive of the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) to leverage social science expertise to support operational commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is increasingly concerned that the Army has not paid sufficient attention to addressing certain concerns. The Committee encourages the Department to continue to develop a broad range of opportunities that leverage the important contributions that can be offered by social science expertise to support key missions such as irregular warfare, counterinsurgency, and stability and reconstruction operations. The bill limits the obligation of funding for HTS until the Army submits a required assessment of the program, provides revalidation of all existing operations requirements, and certifies Department-level guidelines for the use of social scientists” (p. 25).

Has there been a change of tone, a decline in enthusiasm, more questions being asked, less praise, and less mention of new money to support the program? It seems so.

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3 thoughts on “Changing Fortunes in Washington: The Evolution of House Armed Services Committee Reports on the Human Terrain System

  1. This is not directly related to the main point of your post, but I would really like to know precisely how and by whom the 60% figure mentionned in the 2008 report was calculated :

    The committee is aware that the first prototype HTT is credited with reducing kinetic operations by more than 60 percent during its first 6 months of deployment in Operation Enduring Freedom.

    How is this 60% ? Not 54% or 67% ? Sure ?
    But I note that the HASC is quite prudent. It didn’t write that the first prototype HTT reduced kinetic operations, it only wrote that they are aware that this HTT was “credited” as such (by whom ? how ?) .

    In 2009, it is once again “aware” , but this time, “aware of anecdotal evidence indicating the benefits of the program” (again, no indication of sources) and it “notes that a number of press accounts provide anecdotal evidence indicating problems with management and resourcing.” (this is not very precise, but at least, we have an indication of a kind of sources).
    Then, when it writes that ” The committee finds it difficult to evaluate either set of information in the absence of reliable, empirical data” , I tend to think this is not very kind to the writers of the press accounts, but, more importantly, it is an acknowledgement that the sources for the “anectodal evidence indicating the benefits of the program” are not reliable.
    Then, again, what/who on earth could these unreliable sources be ?

    Oh, wait a minute…

  2. Hello Jérémy,

    Those are in fact the key questions. David Price did some research into the substantiation for those figures, filing freedom of information requests, and there is no documentation whatsoever produced by the unit(s) involved that supports any kind of figure of a reduction in deaths. Remember, Price is one of those accused of “knee jerk reactions” and “rushing to judgment”–and here is quietly and carefully doing research to find out if there is any substance to these assertions. And there is none.

    Right now, all the HASC has are the materials produced by journalists, and by ex-HTS members who have submitted hefty files outlining their experience with the program. Some are currently launching lawsuits against HTS as well. There are also materials submitted by anthropologists opposed to HTS. Meanwhile, the Army has yet to produce the assessment that was demanded. One would think, with all the wonderful details and data to support HTS claims, the filing should have been a breeze. By delaying this much, and being unresponsive, it means that if and when they send anything to HASC, the readers will be looking at what is submitted with a lot more skepticism, I imagine.

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