The Human Terrain System

The Quiet Demise of the Army’s Plan to Understand Afghanistan and Iraq

By VANESSA M. GEZARI, The New York Times

AUG. 18, 2015

The Army had begun developing the program as an experiment in 2006; it expanded quickly as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan foundered and American policy makers cast about for novel approaches. The idea was to send teams of social scientists, including anthropologists, to gather ethnographic, sociocultural and economic information and advise front-line soldiers on a range of delicate topics, from the mechanics of forging tribal alliances to how to persuade villagers to how to respond to local offers of hospitality.

Since the invasion in 2001, the United States military had been making choices about which Afghan leaders to support, which companies to reward with contracts, whom to trust and whom to kill. These choices, the shopkeeper said, were the key to why so much had gone wrong. “You are making mistakes,” he told his American interlocutor. “You have been making mistakes for eight years. I tell you one thing, different people tell you something different. There’s no right person with you to advise you. So all the people working with you are wrong.”

The Army created the Human Terrain System – at the height of the counterinsurgency craze that dominated American strategic thinking in Iraq and Afghanistan late in the last decade, with much fanfare – to solve this problem. Cultural training and deep, nuanced understanding of Afghan politics and history were in short supply in the Army; without them, good intelligence was hard to come by, and effective policy making was nearly impossible. Human Terrain Teams, as Human Terrain System units were known, were supposed to include people with social-science backgrounds, language skills and an understanding of Afghan or Iraqi culture, as well as veterans and reservists who would help bind the civilians to their assigned military units.

On that winter day in Zormat, however, just how far the Human Terrain System had fallen short of expectations was clear. Neither of the social scientists on the patrol that morning had spent time in Afghanistan before being deployed there. While one was reasonably qualified, the other was a pleasant 43-year-old woman who grew up in Indiana and Tennessee, and whose highest academic credential was an advanced degree in organizational management she received online.

She was out of her depth, but at least she tried to be professional. Two days earlier, another member of the Human Terrain Team casually told a sergeant that he could have sex with me if he gave the team member some supplies he wanted. The Human Terrain Team member claimed to be joking, but the sergeant and I were mortified.

The shortcomings I saw in Zormat were hardly the extent of the Human Terrain System’s problems. The project suffered from an array of staffing and management issues, coupled with internal disagreements over whether it was meant to gather intelligence, hand out protein bars and peppermints, advise commanders on tribal conflicts or all three – a lack of clear purpose that eventually proved crippling. It outraged anthropologists, who argued that gathering information about indigenous people while embedded in a military unit in active combat posed an intractable ethical conflict. Once the subject of dozens of glowing news stories, the program had fallen so far off reporters’ radar by last fall that the Army was able to quietly pull the plug without a whisper in the mainstream media.

By the time the Human Terrain System was shut down in September, the program had cost American taxpayers more than $700 million and was bereft of purpose; with the war in Iraq purportedly over and deployments to Afghanistan dwindling quickly, it had run out of soldiers to advise.

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