More European Press Coverage of the Human Terrain System

Ted Callahan, American "anthropologist," in a photograph displayed in Germany's GEO magazine this past May.

Continuing from the last item on this topic, the following are more examples of recent European press coverage of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System and its embedding of civilian social scientists in counterinsurgency missions. One thing that immediately stands out from most of these articles is the emphasis not on “civilian social scientists,” but specifically anthropologists. Still written as if this were 2007, and with the aid of people in HTS such as Montgomery McFate and Ted Callahan, no effort is made to minimize mention of anthropology–despite the fact that in the North American media the increased emphasis is now on “social scientists” in the program, and HTS itself tells the home audience that few anthropologists have actually joined the program, and in some circles, that it is not an anthropology program. Abroad, the story is different–anthropology is still being used to sell HTS. As to what the purposes behind such press coverage may be, that is open to question. If the articles are meant to sell the war in Afghanistan as “winnable” if fought in a “smart” way, then the articles are a waste of time: the majority of Europeans oppose the war, and they are still a bit too wise to be bought with little fluff pieces about American “smarts” and American “can do.” The danger might be that people just remember about “anthropologists” aiding in counterinsurgency, serving to eliminate the boundary between an independent and critical anthropology, and one that is blurred beyond recognition as a tool of military planning. No wonder then that the American Anthropological Association is keen to create as much distance as possible between anthropology and HTS. These articles suggest that they have been partly successful, even if in most instances anthropological criticisms of HTS are relegated to a minor paragraph, included as a formality, a token to “balance.” Thus far, as far as I know and recall, outside of the U.S. (many of whose media are themselves international) there has been press coverage of HTS in media outlets based in Canada, Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, Italy, Germany, Austria, the UK, Romania, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Sri Lanka, and South Korea.

Here is the latest batch:


I do not speak or read German, and therefore I am unable to offer anything more than links to the severely deficient services of Google Translate.

GEO first ran an extended magazine article on 05 May 2010, the whole of which can be viewed and downloaded from here, titled “Ein Ethnologe im Krieg.” It is a grandiose, richly illustrated piece, that seems to focus on the work of anthropologist Ted Callahan.

Online you can also see GEO‘s “Odyssee in Afghanistan” (“Odyssey in Afghanistan“), mostly part of an electronic diary by war photographer Marco di Lauro and his exchanges with Ted Callahan.


On 30 June 2010, Die Presse ran a story story titled “Ethik: Anthropologen an die Front?” (“Ethics: Anthropologists at the front?“)–and once again anthropologist, like ethnographer, is in the very title. However, this piece gives much more attention to criticisms of HTS, especially on ethical and political grounds, and benefits from the input of Roberto J. González.


On 05 July 2010, the Romanian newspaper, Adevarul, published “Pentagonul recrutează antropologi pentru Afganistan” (“Pentagon recruited anthropologists to Afghanistan“). Despite being Italian, I still find that reading Romanian poses many challenges. This story seems to feature yet another HTS anthropologist (or at least anthropology is implied in the article), Patrick Carnahan– “He went from house to house, seeking interaction with Afghans. He had no weapon, and was the only American. His background is not in the military but in the social sciences….[part of] a controversial U.S. military-funded program, which proposes creating joint teams of military and anthropologists.” A minor paragraph on the ethical problems of HTS appears at the bottom of the story, fogged up by being enveloped in details of Paula Loyd’s killing. As far as short media pieces go, this one is virtually indistinguishable from countless published in the U.S. over the past two years.


There have been a number of media reports about HTS in the UK over the past two years, mostly in the BBC (a radio documentary, a BBC commentary by anthropologist John Gledhill, a recent extended blog post, and other items). Most of the materials have been quite detailed, informative, and sometimes critical (at the very least, sober).

On 11 June 2010, The Guardian published James Denselow’s “Scholar soldiers in Afghanistan are on dangerous terrain” with the subheading “Using social scientists in military human terrain teams blurs the lines between independent academia and partisan militarism.” In my opinion, this is among the better pieces we have seen in the mainstream media, for its depth of context, its critical analysis, and its refusal to engage in the usual boosterism. About media coverage in the UK and US, about HTS, Denselow writes (careful not to repeat that HTS is anthropology),

One of the US military’s experiments with harnessing civilian power has been the creation of human terrain teams (HTT). This embedding of social scientists into military brigades to provide cultural understanding and intelligence has received little coverage in the UK while in the US it is seen as one of the most controversial aspects of the war.

Denselow comes to the conclusion that, “It is this dangerous blurring between independent academia and partisan militarism that is at the crux of understanding the human terrain system.” He also relies on feedback from Hugh Gusterson for this article.

Not news media as such, I should mention an “intriguing” article by the UK Ministry of Defence, “Military develops its cultural understanding of Afghanistan” published on 24 February 2010. There is a lot in there that is worthy of note, and commentary. Essentially the MOD has come up with its own answer to HTS, with what it calls the Defence Cultural Specialist Unit (DCSU). It promises to do what HTS does, and more: cultural awareness training for troops, and providing “cultural specialists” to be deployed (who appear to be, for the most part, linguists). A DCSU was involved in the recent failure, Operation Moshtarak, in the so-called “Marjah region.” The DCSU is based at Royal Air Force base Henlow, and officially came into being this past April. Lieutenant Colonel Steven Windmill, from the MOD’s Afghan specialist implementation team, set up the DCSU. The DCSU’s “cultural advisors,” deployed in Afghanistan, perform a mission very similar to that of HTS: “They…help identify and understand issues relating to the local cultural, political, economic, social and historical environment to help commanders make better and more informed decisions.” There are 25 such individuals, assigned to senior military commanders, with the intention of increasing their number to 40. Each one speaks either Dari and/or Pashto. This article makes no mention of any attempt to recruit civilian social scientists, giving the impression that all DCSU staff are themselves military. Only in one case is there a mention of a civilian: a civilian cultural specialist, Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam. Perhaps, as with Canada’s “white situational awareness teams,” the British have found more indirect ways of recruiting social scientists.

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3 thoughts on “More European Press Coverage of the Human Terrain System

  1. Bradford Counter

    The UK solution, noted above by Maximilian Forte is novel; it looks as if Lt Colonel Steven Windmill cleverly side-stepped the weakness’s of our US Army’s HTS approach by focusing recruitment on Reservists and Regular personnel who (i) are linguists (enabling them to speak directly with local nations) with (ii) a mix of social science backgrounds.

    This approach should give the best of both worlds; a broad spectrum of social science skills combined with credibility within military and government circles from their rank. The concept of using linguists to by-pass the severe constraints found with employing local natives a translators was inspired – with their education usually ended at aged 14 or less, these people struggle to understand the concepts of law, order, economics, governance and strategy, let alone translate those terms into another language.

    The training of these DCSU people is key; speaking the language will help and using a social science toolkit will engender understanding … but being able to directly engage and influence key leaders will be the most valuable skill. These DCSU people must be able to move beyond mere understanding and be able to influence both local leaders and their own military commanders alike.

    If this approach works, we should invite Lt Colonel Windmill to come here and talk to our own US commanders.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      I am not arguing against anything that you have said. That it appears to be a smarter solution than HTS on a number of grounds, is not a controversial statement for me. I am instead raising other issues that go beyond your assessment.

      Opposition to the war in Afghanistan has reached a very high level in Britain: at 72% opposed, it is one of the highest levels of opposition to be found in any NATO country. Civilian policy makers, spokespersons, the media, and military promoters have failed to convince most British voters that the war in Afghanistan is one that deserves to be fought, and former PM Gordon Brown’s hyperbolic imagination (unless we fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, we will be fighting them on the streets of London) has only invited greater rejection.

      The point is this: if you cannot convert your own population, people that presumably you understand, that require no linguistic specialists on your part, then how do you think that 40 linguists (or 4,000 if you wish) are going to convert and win over Afghans who are at the bloody end of the NATO stick?

      Yes, no doubt, DCSU will better enable British forces to communicate with locals. What that means, and where one thinks that will take them, is what I am questioning.

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