The United States and its NATO allies have been in Afghanistan for eight years now, but their soldiers are still struggling to figure out what makes the country and its people tick. It's hard to blame them. If you've ever been there, you can't help but feel a bit of sympathy for any outsider who aspires to plumb its secrets. Even at its friendliest, Afghanistan is a bewildering place, a dizzying farrago of tribes, customs, and ethnicities.
Enter the Human Terrain Teams (HTTs). Remember them? The idea was born a few years back, when higher-ups in the U.S. military establishment (and outside it) realized that troops in the field often seemed to be blind to the cultural particulars of the environments they were operating in. In his hugely influential 2006 primer on counterinsurgency, for example, David Kilcullen, the Australian ex-military officer with a Ph.D. in anthropology, introduced "Twenty-Eight Fundamentals" to guide the fight against guerrillas. Rule No. 1: "Know your turf." Kilcullen argued that you couldn't hope to beat a terrorist organization like al Qaeda without understanding the "social networks" that sustained it; nor could you hope to win the hearts and minds of the populations also being wooed (or intimidated) by the insurgents.
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The solution clearly had to go beyond the superficial cultural sensitivity training meted out to combat troops before their deployments. One idea soon came to the fore: Why not recruit anthropologists with regional experience who could approach the task with bracing academic rigor and outside-the-box clarity?
And so the Human Terrain System (HTS) was born. At first, military planners tried creating a social analysis database that could be accessed by teams in the field, but it soon became apparent that commanders wanted humans to be around for the job. Gradually a new approach took shape: five-member teams that combined academic social scientists with retired military officers, all of them feeding data into a specially designed computer system. It seemed like a no-brainer to many of the journalists who covered the early teams back in 2007 -- probably because the same reporters had witnessed the all-too-obvious obliviousness of the troops at the start of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like many ideas that sound good in theory, the reality of the Human Terrain Teams has proven a bit of a mess in practice. The first trouble came from the academic community. Anthropologists, in particular, have a sharp institutional memory of the Vietnam War, when well-meaning anthropological research was put to use in pacification programs that in some cases overlapped with Pentagon campaigns to assassinate real or presumed Viet Cong sympathizers in South Vietnam. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) reacted to the formation of the Human Terrain System with worries that the integrity of their profession would be compromised by "academic embeds" serving with U.S. military units in the field. "The prime directive is that you do no harm to informants," says Hugh Gusterson, a George Mason University anthropology professor. HTS supporters argue that social scientists in the field can help troops reduce the amount of force they use by giving unit leaders alternative courses of action, such as improved negotiating strategies or more precise pinpointing of development needs. Gusterson responds that the data collected by HTT members can also be accessed by military intelligence operatives who might use the same information for targeting Taliban operatives. The product generated by the Human Terrain Teams, he says, "is inherently double-edged." And, in a global information environment, he worries that all American research anthropologists will be tarred by the same brush of presumed collaboration with the Pentagon.