Declaring the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System a Success: Rereading the CNA Report

[First, many thanks to John Stanton for notifying us of the release of the report discussed below, available here, and for his article. Here I take a somewhat different approach in describing and interpreting the contents of the report, and the conclusions it draws. In addition, or as an aside, readers may be interested in reading my article, “Review Essay: The Human Terrain System and Anthropology: A Review of Ongoing Public Debates,” American Anthropologist, 113 (1) March 2011: 149-153.]

A report by the Center for Naval Analyses, as mandated by Congress last year as a precondition for releasing further funds to the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System, declares that HTS is a success, and at worst, a victim of its success. The report is primarily focused on management structure (not managers), organization, recruiting, the “metrics” of success, and policy and regulatory issues (p. 1). It now seems more than likely that the report was a formality as part of a public, political window-dressing act where Congress ostensibly “responds” to criticisms and controversies surrounding HTS, but with every intention of continuing the program. Indeed, that is a fitting conclusion, considering that the report came on the eve of the announced resurgence and expansion of the program.

It’s a Success, and a Victim of its Success

While “success” is the overarching theme of the report, at no point do we find a CNA explanation of what it means by “success,” and indeed it remains the big mystery word of the entire report, even when the CNA investigators themselves note that HTS also lacks a formal understanding of success and how to gauge it. Here is the first declaration of success, appearing right up front in this report, which serves more as a justification for continuation of the program than an in-depth analysis of the many criticisms of the program:

“First, the HTS program has been, in many ways, a success. It is a unique and dynamic program, and its leadership and staff have been able to generate a new and innovative capability within a bureaucratic environment that is not always open to such initiatives. In our interactions with HTS personnel and staff, we consistently came across individuals who were deeply committed to the mission, which most likely has also contributed to its successes. The program also has support within the Army leadership. General David Petraeus, who recently became commander of International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, is a staunch supporter. There are some indications in the data we collected for this assessment that this capability fills a gap for the war-fighter and therefore has made an important contribution to U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan” (p. 2)

The CNA does note that there have been criticisms of the program—largely muffled—but argues that they are rooted in “misunderstandings” and that they tend to focus on issues of decision-making and specific incidents (which, as critics of HTS, we know is an entirely deceitful characterization):

“the program remains the target of criticism. Part of this appears to stem from specific incidents and poor decisions that have occurred within the program, such as sending unqualified personnel into combat zones. Our analysis suggests that poor internal communications and the absence of an overall outreach or communications strategy may also be contributing to a misunderstanding of the program’s goals and operations. This may also account for some criticism” (p. 2).

Given the immense, and usually favourable, media coverage devoted to HTS and often stage-managed by HTS, one has to wonder how the CNA came to the conclusion that HTS lacked a communications strategy, or in which ways the program’s “goals and operations” were misunderstood. Since the very report itself was mandated at the culmination of a wide range of critical opposition, one would be justified in expecting some more detailed and careful treatment of these points. Instead, we have vague and obscure generalizations.

Some Anthropologists are Opposed to HTS

“For numerous reasons,” we are told, but without going into any detail, “some anthropologists are opposed to the program. To learn more about the nature of these concerns, we recommend the reader refer to the ‘AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) Final Report on The Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program,’ Submitted to the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association, October 14, 2009.” At no point in this report does the CNA simply lump a major theme under a single reference and tells the reader to go elsewhere—usually there is an attempt at a summary. “In addition,” they continue, “there is also an active blog community made up of a variety of outspoken individuals who oppose the program” (fn. 4, p. 2)—but no links, because the understanding is that Congress should not be made aware of any of our criticisms. Indeed, the CNA explicitly prefers to avoid them: “we do not directly wade into the broader debates surrounding the HTS program that are currently taking place on various websites and blogs” (p. 11). Somehow missing the lead role played by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists—which is never mentioned even once in the report by name—the CNA states: “A key stakeholder in this debate is the academic community, most prominently represented by the American Anthropological Association” (p. 12). We will return to what the CNA says about academics’ criticisms, and relationships with universities, further down.

The problems the CNA found/chose to examine were these:

1. Recruiting/hiring of unqualified team members
2. High rates of attrition among HTS team members
3. Contract ceiling being reached, halting HTS operations
4. Timecard problems
5. Frustration over permanent duty station assignment for Department of Army Civilians who rotate or transit through Fort Leavenworth
6. HTS program management (p. 8).

The Assessment

The CNA does acknowledge that there were limits to what it could assess and how:

“A significant portion of HTS activities and operations take place in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, given the 90 day time-frame we were allotted to conduct this assessment, the CNA assessment team was not able to travel to either theater to conduct our research. As a result, we relied mostly on information we could gather within the United States” (p. 10)

Relying on assessments from HTS’ own Program Development Team, the CNA reports that past PDT documents reveal “‘pockets’ of brigade commander feedback on the program—some positive and some negative” (p. 60), but also notes that there is a reason why there would be less negative feedback: “It was also voluntary for a unit to participate in the survey, thus units who were positive about their HTTs tended to participate, while those that had not had positive experiences with their HTTs were not” (p. 61). On a positive note, and unlike the mainstream media, Appendix B of the CNA report has detailed comments from brigade commanders who were critical of the HTTs assigned to them and did not find them useful.

Interestingly, while judging the program to be a success, the CNA devotes many pages to describing the partial, incomplete, halting, inconsistent, uneven, and often confused nature of internal HTS self-assessments. Our question should be: if HTS judges itself to be a “success” (and secures CNA’s agreement on this front) then what do they mean by success and how do they assess success? There is no clear and consistent answer. Indeed, even as the CNA explains at length that there were no consistent attempts to define or measure success, or that certain standard military assessment measures were never put in place, and that it is unclear who was the intended audience of the “mixed bag” of HTS assessments, and how the assessments resulted in decisions to change practices (if they did)—nonetheless, in spite of all of that, the CNA still begins its report with its primary conclusion: HTS is a success, and it’s the one basic, recurring term that it is consistently unable to define. Here are some examples of its findings:

“HTS has not relied heavily on metrics as part of past assessments procedures. Those that have been used have evolved over time, and have not been used consistently….In 2008, an effort was launched to develop a more formal assessment process similar to those in other military organizations. As part of that process, metrics have been developed, but apparently have not been employed….There has never been a permanent, fully-staffed component responsible for assessments within the HTS structure” (p. 69)

“It is unclear over time, what the exact purpose and goals of past assessments have been and who the intended audience is….Using the current approach it is difficult to do any trend analysis of the program because the tool used to assess the program’s performance and the final product has changed from year to year” (p. 70)

“There does not appear to be a formal process for implementing the suggestions/conclusions reached in the various” HTS internal assessments (p. 71)

“absence of clearly defined tasks and standards” (p. 71)

Even though they are unable to determine what success is, in the section following their detailed overview of the problems of HTS assessments, the CNA nonetheless continues with this line: “The HTS organization has been both blessed and cursed by its own success” (p. 73)

After charting poor recruitment, training and high attrition rates, the CNA still insists on concluding as follows:

“That HTS has succeeded at all (and it has had some notable successes [unspecified]) is a tribute to the hundreds of men and women who have dedicated themselves to making it happen. Many of the people we interviewed, including the most critical of HTS, indicated that HTS teams are performing a vital function. They contend that even if only a few of the teams are successful [meaning what?], the good work that the successful teams do is so important that it makes the whole enterprise worthwhile” (p. 109)

Stirring words.

Desperate and Unscrupulous Recruits, Optimism about Management

In the CNA investigators’ view, the most significant and persistent problem plaguing HTS has been recruiting (p. 3)—which is not to say that even with this limited scope they do not produce some interesting findings.

When speaking of recruitment and training, the CNA describes the work of the private defense contractor, BAE Systems, and its selection of candidates as ranging from “loose” in 2009 to “moderately selective in 2010—in the case of 2010, 60% of the total 1,342 applications received was rejected (p. 87). Interestingly, in speaking to a CNA interviewer, “BAE would not characterize recruiting as either good or bad but as ‘involved’” (p. 88). The CNA was not moved by this evasive non-explanation, and concludes:  “the quality of the personnel supplied under the BAE contract is substandard and is at the heart of most of the problems in the program….The government seems to have to take whatever BAE provides” (p. 106).

If this seems like it will take us on a journey through a maze of corrupt contractor practices and incompetent management, it would occasion disappointment, as the report spends more time outlining the unsuitable quality of recruits, and the bad economy that sends them to BAE Systems. As BAE itself told the CNA: “The weak economy had brought in some recruits….The weak economy has caused some of them to make the decision” (p. 89). The CNA says that the managers themselves found the recruits to be of poor quality: “Throughout HTS, managers comment on what they consider to be the poor quality of many of the recruits” (p. 90)—in some months, as many as 56% of trainees either resign and/or are dropped by the program. Again, the question persists: where in this do we see “success”?

What is an interesting revelation is that those in charge of recruiting and management suspected that many recruits are merely using HTS training for purposes other than serving HTS:

“Equally problematic is an apparently recent trend noticed by trainers of substantial numbers of recruits resigning at the very end of training—see for example the data of November 2009 and January 2010. The trainers tell us that many of these recruits seemed to have had no intention of actually deploying and were only there to collect pay for 4.5 months and get a security clearance….the substantial amount of pay collected during this interval may well be attractive,  particularly during this economic downturn. With the 4.5 months of training and a security clearance the recruit may also be able to get a lucrative long term job with another contractor” (p. 93)

As for the instructors, the CNA determines that 69% are from backgrounds that are “not relevant” to the stated requirements of the program (p. 96). As for the research managers, 76% are from educational backgrounds that are “not relevant” (p. 97) Of the deployed social scientists, 40% are from “not relevant” training backgrounds (p. 98) As for team leaders, 88% are from “not relevant” backgrounds: “On balance the team members’ academic specialties all too often lack real relevance to the behavioral and social science research backgrounds that the teams appear to need and is referenced in the position descriptions and the associated knowledge, skills, and abilities” (p. 100).

The CNA outlines what we already knew, that there has been a consistent lack of recruits with the necessary language skills, so much so that the requirement has been dropped (p. 101).

What is perhaps much more astounding, and never mentioned by the media, is the extremely high number of those being fired or resigning once they have already been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan: “we estimate that about 8 deployed team members are relieved from duty each year and about 80 team members resign while on deployment” (p. 102)—then, by its own reported numbers of persons deployed (157), that would mean about half of all deployed HTS team members either resign or are relieved of duty.

Even though the CNA did say that as many as 76% of all managers come from irrelevant backgrounds, the CNA is more positive in its commentary about managers. The CNA writes: “In general, there is reason for optimism about HTS internal management. The management structure has greatly improved in the last 12 months. Of note, there has been the addition of a Chief of Staff, several key replacements in directorates, and the organization is in the process of converting all remaining contractors that currently head directorates in government civilian status” (p. 5).

The CNA did assess the quality of the recruits. Did it do the same with respect to managers? No: “It is important that the reader understand that we were not asked to assess the quality of the managers, but only to comment on the adequacy of the structure” (p. 41). Even when it seems that the CNA might take a critical turn—“Given media reports (at least some of which we believe to be substantially correct) of inappropriate behavior on the part of some team members, it is reasonable to question whether the management is, in fact, adequate to the task” (p. 44)—the CNA pulls back: by inadequate management they mean management structure, and they proceed to recommend that there be more managers, following models that include those of management gurus like Peter Drucker. The problem with the managers is…there are not enough of them. As for management problems, the CNA concludes there is “reason for optimism” that all of the necessary changes to improve HTS management are well underway (p. 48).

Quite aside from the issues raised above, and included only because it supplements the photos provided by former HTS employee John Allison, what is interesting are the CNA’s notes about the HTS training facility:

“The physical plant for training at Fort Leavenworth can be described as Spartan. Until recently, training has been conducted in a group of trailers. The facility has been ‘upgraded’ and now occupies the basement of a small shopping center. The space consists of classrooms for students and cubicles for instructors. When we visited each of the classrooms was occupied with 15-25 students. Many of the classrooms are noisy due to the nature of the air conditioning system—making it very difficult to hear the instructor. During our visit, the instructors were experimenting with a headphone system to enable students to hear them over the air conditioning. This was the first day with the system and it was not working well” (p. 91).

Anthropology and Academic Outreach

First, it is important to note that, contrary to the ways HTS tried to distance itself from anthropology in the U.S. mainstream media when it could no longer counter overwhelming criticism and rejection, the CNA does note that anthropology is a cornerstone of HTS’ preferred identity: “HTS emphasizes the use of tools and approaches commonly associated with the academic disciplines of anthropology and sociology in its efforts to collect and analyze data about local populations” (p. 1).

To overcome criticisms, the CNA recommends more academic outreach, but notes “HTS also faces negative attitudes within some academic circles. For example, some universities have been reluctant to work with HTS” (p. 6). This is repeated on page 122:

“HTS also faces the challenge of negative attitudes within some academic circles towards the HTS program overall. In some of its outreach efforts, HTS has already faced an unwillingness on the part of some institutions or individuals (in particular some within the Anthropological community) to work together.”

Yet, as we know already, HTS has been successful in gaining the cooperation of at least four universities, as charted by the CNA:

How to get around the lack of subject matter experts and persons with relevant qualifications? The CNA notes that “in a resource-constrained environment, seeking opportunities to leverage the expertise, programs, and work of outside organizations is a worthwhile endeavor” (p. 121).

The CNA proposes a simple, awful solution—that all of us become silently enlisted into training HTS recruits:

“An alternative for the long term is for HTS to ‘grow its own.’ Promising young officers could be selected for training program in social science and sent to an appropriate university for advanced degrees….One downside to this approach is that the military officer trained as a social scientist might have more difficulty gaining the trust of the local population than a civilian social scientist” (p. 121).

They still want anthropologists and academics for their legitimacy and credibility in being able to penetrate local communities—assuming those communities have no access to these debates, and some do. There is no consideration of the likelihood that once the association with military training has permanently burnt the reputation of anthropologists, they will then get about the same welcome as the military gets.

An alternative that the CNA points to, and we shall have to look at whether this materializes in the future, is for HTS to work with any of “a number of Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs),” or “other public research institutions such as the center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Brookings Institution,” which, “may also be appropriate partners for HTS” (p. 122).

It is peculiar that the CNA chose to blame the overwhelming criticism on HTS lacking a strategic communications plan for outreach to academic organizations, noting that HTS also lacks a directorate or individual within HTS who has the assigned responsibility for pursuing relationships and partnerships with academic organizations (p. 121)—yet we do know that Montgomery McFate attended anthropology conferences specifically with the aim of recruiting people, and that she featured herself in numerous articles about HTS.

More than One Human Terrain Program

With the assistance of an officer in U.S. military intelligence, we already posted some information on other human terrain capabilities in the U.S. military, as well as similar functions of SCRATs, and we identified multiple human terrain programs. The CNA charts some of these, but does not address the question of why HTS is therefore needed when its capabilities have been multiplied across several domains.

Also of Interest, Some Facts and Figures:

Number of Human Terrain Teams Deployed:

  • Number of deployed Human Terrain Teams in Iraq is 10, or 92 personnel
  • Number of deployed Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan is 17, or 65 personnel
  • Total persons deployed 157–for May 2010 (p. 19)

In addition, there are a further 7 Human Terrain Analysis Teams in Afghanistan, and 3 in Iraq (p. 21)

In Afghanistan, HTTs are deployed with the U.S. Army, Marines, NATO, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, Task Force Phoenix, and “3 other unspecified units.”

Of 555 employees in total (as of 18 June 2010), 101 were military personnel, 206 were private contractors, and less than half (248) were civilians (p. 76).


“HTS was not able to provide us with a detailed budget” (p. 43) – instead, all they have is a general funding plan. From that (p. 43) we learn of the funding provided to HTS in the following fiscal years:

  • 2008–$144,000,000
  • 2009–$92,541,000
  • 2010–$159,729,000
  • 2011–$154,822,000

TOTAL = $551,092,000

* the program began in 2006, and no figures are supplied for 2006 and 2007

From those amounts, the following was spent on deployed teams:

  • 2008–$77,950,000
  • 2009–$72,061,000
  • 2010–$125,752,000
  • 2011–$112,261,000

The CNA judges the level of funding to be inadequate (p. 43).

The BAE recruitment contract, renewed in September 2009, is $380 million, over five years (p. 86).

Anthropologists in the Military:

Some interesting data on the total number of all civilians with degrees in anthropology employed by the Pentagon, as of September 2009 (pps. 113-114):

  • US ARMY: 285 (160 with a BA in anthropology, 95 with a MA, 30 with a PhD)
  • US NAVY: 119 (68 with a BA in anthropology, 30 with a MA, and 21 with a PhD)
  • US MARINE CORPS: 15 (8 with a BA in anthropology, 6 with a MA, 1 with a PhD)
  • US AIR FORCE: 70 (47 with a BA in anthropology, 17 with a MA, and 6 with a PhD)
  • OTHER DoD CIVILIANS: 43 (39 with a BA in anthropology, and 4 with a MA)

TOTAL = 532 (322 with a BA in anthropology, 152 with a MA, 58 with a PhD)

3 thoughts on “Declaring the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System a Success: Rereading the CNA Report

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  2. Damajah

    Nowhere in this article, do I see the mission of the HTS teams, or commander expectations. I would expect commanders to be critical, if they were assigned yet another clutch of people he had to be responsible for that he didn’t ask for, has a willing military staff he can rely on to do the same work, require resources that he cannot afford to allocate, and may have had his attitude about HTS teams influenced by articles like this, or previous commanders. I’m concerned that the expectations for these teams might be unrealistic. First of all…language. I mean…language speakers of Pashto, Dari, or Tajik? Reallly? Why would anyone invest the time and effort to learn these languages? Second, deployments. This may not be a problem for career military men and women, or diplomats, but academics? Let’s face it…the high attrition rate for these people may be no higher than for initial entry soldiers. Additionally, how long are they deployed for, and under what conditions? Last time I checked, there was a good chance getting killed or seriously injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. If much of their work is conducted outside or in austere conditions, anthropologists are the only academics who have been exposed to these conditions, and usually only for a very short period, and not with the possibility of being blown to bits. Don’t many of these HTS recruits have families? What arrangements are made for them to return home in an emergency? Finally, the attempt to compare an HTS team member with other private contractors or DOD employees, is unfair and unproductive. The very traits that are being sought, and the ones that make many people choose other careers. It seems to me, that a person who successfully completes an HTS deployment, is not much good as anything else, and who is surprised that there is little of no cooperation from academia? First of all, tenured professors don’t have time for this, unless it is a cash cow for their departments, and they get brownie points for “being productive.” Untenured professors don’t want to spend any time on anything that doesn’t get them brownie points for teaching, publishing, or institutional support. ABD’s have to focus on their dissertations, and let’s face it…anthropology departments are extremely small, and are being squeezed by diminishing resources. I haven’t even touched the distinct possibility, that most academics don’t want anything to do with the military, and more often than not, are the military’s greatest critics. Any hope for an endorsement from academia is doomed from the start. Having said this, and looking forward, this program has some positive potential. First, the expectations of the HTS team members must clearly be enumerated. I recommend “the production of quantitative and qualitative research on indigenous populations that can be used to facilitate the commanders MDMP,” for starters.

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