The Pentagon’s Human Terrain, beyond the Human Terrain System

Revised: 05 July 2010

Originally, this report was titled “The Pentagon’s ‘Other’ Human Terrain System,” which in subsequent discussions and follow ups with a source in the military, proved to be too misleading. What we are dealing with here is the wider interest in “human terrain capability” across the military, and in military intelligence, separate and distinct from the Human Terrain System, and different in terms of how personnel are sourced.

In connection with my report, “Mapping the Terrain of War Corporatism: The Human Terrain System within the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex,” and with some relevance to my other report, “Multiplying Human Terrain Dreams of Victory and Fortune,” an officer in U.S. military intelligence was interested in offering clarifications to the fact that not everything marked as “human terrain” necessarily implies the involvement of the Human Terrain System. This source requested anonymity, and there is substantive need to either identify him, or to encourage any suspicion that I am merely being “fed” information for reproduction. This is simply intended to be a report of what others in the military are saying about human terrain analysis, and how they are distinct from HTS. My interest in relating what I was told has to do with the fact that even if HTS were to be entirely eliminated, that does not end U.S. military intelligence’s interest in human terrain research, but it may mean an end to the high profile and deliberate recruitment of academics.

Wider military interest in “human terrain” also suggests another possibility, which has been little considered in public debates thus far: that the dozens of supportive media articles generated to put HTS in a favourable light, may have been at least partly motivated by a HTS struggle over turf, over budgetary allocations, and recruitment of personnel, a struggle played out against other parts of the U.S. military.

In terms of the “Mapping” report above, this contact did not indicate that there were numerous errors, and instead only specified one: the Tactical Ground Reporting tool (TIGR), developed by Ascend Intelligence–that, apparently, was not developed for HTS’ use as such. As it turns out, the contact was wrong.

The officer in question began by admitting that, “there’s been a lot of confusion with our branch at U.S. Central Command and the Army’s Human Terrain System because both organizations have ‘human terrain’ in the name of the organization.” HTS oversees Human Terrain Analysis Teams (HTAT) inside Iraq and Afghanistan, “making their name even more similar to our name.” For example, CJTF-82 [Combined Joint Task Force-82], the headquarters element in [the “International Security Assistance Force”—NATO’s] Regional Command East (RC-East), has a HTS HTAT co-located with them on Bagram AFB [Air Force Base], Afghanistan. However, “there is no organizational affiliation or even similar mission between these two organizations.”

J2 Intelligence at Central Command (CENTCOM), until recently headed by Gen. David Petraeus, is responsible for providing intelligence to CENTCOM Staff. In the past, that information focused on geopolitical analysis and “current intelligence threats.” Petraeus, convinced that the “human terrain” is the decisive terrain, was obviously supported J2 staff which tries to provide “cultural focused analysis” that Petraeus believes to be critical. J2 works with the rest of the intelligence community “to define what ‘human terrain’ and ‘sociocultural analysis’ means, and develop methods and standards to provide analytic rigor and transparency.” Many of these techniques are not new, and have been employed by government, law enforcement agencies, political scientists, and geospatial analysts.

Those in the intelligence community tend to define human terrain analysis in a manner “completely different than the way HTS defines it.” This source was clearly drawing a line between military intelligence, and the kind of intelligence produced by HTS, though not an unambiguous one as HTS also claims to produce cultural-focused research to provide a better social-cultural understanding to military decision-makers. Instead this source emphasized that the human terrain analysis done by the intelligence community is “at its core, as analysis on the population overlayed with various other data layers geospatially, so that correlations and patterns can be discovered that would not be discovered by reading reports alone.” As for HTS, he claimed that HTS doing fieldwork to inform commanders on the ground “are not intelligence analysts serving strategic level decision makers with all-source intelligence analysis. We are. They aren’t.”

In terms of some of the background needed to understand the distinctions between the two, the source mentioned that U.S. Central Command [CENTCOM] has various directorates, such as J2 (admin), J2 (intelligence), J3 (operations), J4 logistics, and so forth. Until last July, “intelligence analysis at USCENTCOM was conducted solely within the Joint Intelligence Center (JIC, aka JICCENT), J2 Directorate, which is made up of military officers from each service, contractors, and civilian federal government employees.” It was not made clear who is encompassed under the label of “contractors.” The human terrain analytic branch was founded in the J2 directorate in January 2009. There were various other teams in the J2 directorate doing human terrain-related work before that branch was established, just not at the same scale or scope. The source argued that “We’re providing decision makers with a more holistic view of the environment. Better information means better decisions.” What is left unclear is exactly what kinds of decisions, to what effect, and what kinds of decisions in the past were flawed, and flawed in what manner.

Who is employed in non-HTS, military analysis of “human terrain”? “All the civilians are Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) employees.” The mission of the JIC is “to provide intelligence analysis to the USCENTCOM staff and broader intelligence community, military planners, and decision-makers.” However, most of the intelligence efforts are “current intel focused (versus strategic / long-term analysis) designed to keep the J2 Director and CENTCOM Commander informed.”

Inside the JIC, there ae various regional and functional branches, including the Iraq Branch, Iran Branch, Arabian Peninsula Branch, Counterterrorism Branch, Trans-Regional Issues Branch (WMD, Energy, and others), and what used to be the South and Central Asia Branch. However, “due to the current counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, and the strategic focus inside Pakistan, General Petraeus tapped Mr. Derek Harvey [here and here] to lead a new organization called the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence (COE) [also see the COE on Facebook] to create an enduring capability to provide expertise, academic outreach, cultural training, and more strategic level analysis.” After some bureaucratic infighting, “this organization became its own division (like the JIC) within the J2 Intelligence Directorate.” The South and Central Asia Branch formed the basis of this new organization. The existing teams—Afghanistan Team, Pakistan Team, Insurgency Team, and a new (January 2009) Human Terrain Analysis Team— “became branches as the organization began to take shape and expand.”

In the video below, an interview with Derek Harvey about the COE, Harvey discusses how they have partnered with academic institutions:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Like the other teams in the JIC and COE, others in the military engaged in human terrain analysis, “provide intelligence analysis and assessments, but on socio-cultural issues to provide contextual understanding of the operational environment.” This is applied to counterinsurgency operations, “where understanding the local population is key to winning local support and defeating the insurgency.”

It does not seem that human terrain analysis is premised on doing ethnographic work:

“Many of our products are rooted in GEOINT [geospatial intelligence] so the information can be conveyed via a map, making the information operationally relevant. Given the focus of our analysis, we usually identify opportunities (versus threats) and non-kinetic options for military commanders and policymakers to advance U.S., ISAF, and GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] interests. Other countries call this ‘white analysis’ (versus a focus on ‘red’ forces like insurgents or terrorists, or ‘green’ like government or military elements).”

One example of that work has recently published, relating to its efforts in Marjah, Helmand, Afghanistan, in connection with the recent Operation Moshtarak, was uploaded to this site’s document box here.

According to the source, “we have a very, very different mission from the HTS. We both look at ‘human terrain’ but our mission and customers are different. Bottom line—what CENTCOM’s Intelligence Directorate is doing is focusing intelligence analysis on the socio-cultural domain.”

Human terrain analysis in not limited to one geographic area alone or any one command: “the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence (USDI) has asked various COCOMs and agencies to establish socio-cultural analytic capabilities to understand this important layer so analysis is more holistic. That’s a good thing. Hopefully organizations like AFRICOM can establish this capability so that we can understand the population before a conflict arises, and reduce the chance of war.” Each command–the Pacific Command, Central Command, Africa Command, and so on–is establishing this analytic capability, on the premise that “understanding the population and culture is important for decision-makers.” Of course, what is left unstated is why it important to have this understanding, and to what ends, though readers of this and other critical sites should be able to answer this question.

These non-HTS human terrain analysts do not get a lot of press, unlike HTS. One of the rare instances are articles such as this: “‘Culture Maps’ Becoming Essential Tools of War.”

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7 thoughts on “The Pentagon’s Human Terrain, beyond the Human Terrain System

  1. In your second paragraph above, you suggest that the BBC has conferred some approval on HTS’s activities because video journalist/director Adam Curtis in his personal (although BBC hosted) blog has extended his extensive historical investigation of the West’s relationship to Afghanistan to anthropology’s relation with power. I would have to reject that you can infer such support by the ‘BBC’ because of AC’s essay, nor is it quite fair to say that Curtis’ essay is wholly supportive. Personally, I would like to be able to rely on you to be truthful in your reports on HTS, the majority of which I am very appreciative of.

  2. Adam Curtis has minimized opposition to the militarization of anthropology, generally, and yes there is a definite twinkle in his writing about McFate. The latter point is a personal opinion. As for the first point, you can see the exchange Curtis himself has with a commentator:

    28 May 2010, Doctor X wrote:
    I’m an anthropologist, and I have to say that I’m pretty annoyed that Adam Curtis has left out (as far as I can see) the entire history of opposition to militarism and imperialism among the world’s anthropologists….

    28 May 2010,
    Adam_Curtis wrote:
    Doctor X – You are right. Franz Boas did argue against the use of anthropology by those in power. Montgomery McFate makes that clear in her analysis – and I probably should have quoted that too…

    I would also suggest that if the BBC hosts a blog, it is because they approve of the author and the quality of his work. I could also have said that his essay is five years late, that it is one-sided, elementary, and careless about indicating the sourcing of its videos…but I did not. Curtis was not meant to be an important point in this essay.

  3. Thanks for the reply.

    Yes, I was already aware of his dialogue with Doctor X, who made the similar criticism that Curtis did not represent the near universal opposition to HTS & McFate within Anthropology. For his part Curtis makes a similar point to you when he says that HTS was not his central concern “You may be right that I should have made it clear that there is great opposition today within anthropology to the Human Terrain System[… ] But I decided not to because I was following another story. I was trying to look at[…] what happens when the “cultural relativism” of anthropology does get involved with attempts by the West to change the world.” Isn’t this close to your view on the above when you said “Curtis was not meant to be an important point in this essay.”

    Is it possible that here you are impuning his account as biased because you have an understandable urgency and expectation that HTS be focussed on in the way you’ve chosen to do it rather than Curtis’s more historical/philosophical angle which does not specifically examine the issues you deem crucial.

    As to the issue of his independence or speaking ‘for’ the BBC when you say “I would also suggest that if the BBC hosts a blog, it is because they approve of the author and the quality of his work.” That does not mean they agree with all the perspectives he takes or the slant he places on them. So I’ll have to disagree with you on that point.

    If you want a bit of clarification on this check the caveats the presenter bellows in this short clip before he shows a short item by Curtis within another show http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xW3XeT7qavo (If you aren’t familiar with the show it’s a blackly satirical comedic news analysis show on the BBC called NEWSWIPE.)

    I suppose that is enough on these issues, which are as you said not the central focus of your piece above. Cheers anyway.

  4. Well, you convinced me. I am removing the line about the BBC from the article above (and it’s quite fine if future readers are then confused about what we are talking about here).

    Many thanks for taking the time to share these notes and ideas.

    Best wishes.

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