Human Terrain Teams

It sounded like a good idea: Swarms of social scientists would help U.S. troops better understand local customs and avoid cultural mishaps. But is the program creating more problems than it solves?

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.

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.

The practical effect of such censure is probably minimal because the AAA can't ban individual members from cooperating with the military. Yet the force of moral disapproval -- along with antiwar sentiment among academics in general -- might have been one factor affecting the U.S. Army's recruiting effort. The number of anthropologists willing to join the HTS program has been small, and regional specialists with detailed knowledge of local languages and cultures have been notably absent from the ranks. "I totally applaud the effort," says Maj. Kevin Burke of U.S. Army civil affairs. "But they ramped up too quickly. They just arbitrarily assumed that academics could walk onto the battlefield and that there would be no issues."

Issues there have been aplenty. John Stanton, a blogger who has tracked the Human Terrain System since its inception, has built up an impressive chronicle of scandal and mismanagement. One of his recent posts included excerpts from an internal investigation by the 101st Airborne Division that harshly criticized failings in training and administration that contributed to a disastrous feud between one of the HTT scientists, Marilyn Dudley-Flores, and regular Army troops in the field in Afghanistan involving allegations of sexual harassment and death threats against the professor. Three anthropologists have been killed on duty since the program began. In one of the cases, a scientist named Paula Loyd approached an Afghan man in the street to ask research questions; he responded by dousing her with fuel from the container he was carrying and set her alight. Loyd's team leader, Don Ayala, detained the assailant and soon after shot the man in the head; he later pleaded guilty to manslaughter before a U.S. court. (Loyd died of her wounds this past January.)

Still, the program has been growing rapidly. The original idea of hiring area specialists hasn't taken off, so the Army has recruited other experts -- even psychologists (as noted in a recent Washington Post article). And the money is flowing. Just two years ago its backers were thrilled to receive $40 million; by now the program's annual budget has hit $143 million, with two-dozen five-to-nine-member teams in the field (18 in Iraq and 6 in Afghanistan), as well as a "reachback center" (a sort of on-call reference library) in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Many commanders swear by the program; the HTS Web site is well stocked with testimonials. Montgomery McFate, an anthropologist who was instrumental in the founding of the Army program, says that Human Terrain Teams in Iraq can be credited with everything from helping to protect archaeological sites to advising negotiations that led a Mahdi Army commander to stop fighting coalition forces. And there's no question that troops on the ground urgently need as much cultural information as they can get.

But in a seminal article earlier this year, Marine Corps Maj. Ben Connable argued that the Army and Marine Corps already have plenty of internal institutions that could be used as sources of cultural knowledge -- from foreign-area officers to civil affairs units to psychological operations experts. Connable says that these areas remain dramatically underfunded, a condition that could well be exacerbated by the rise of the Human Terrain System. What's more, he argues, the HTS is undermining the military's ability to tap into civilian expertise by aggravating suspicions within the academic establishment. The Army's McFate responds that the Army's and Marine Corps' in-house cultural experts "have other assignments and duties that preclude them from adopting this particular mission" and that HHT members "are able to openly articulate views that are not necessarily in conjunction with the dominant perspective or paradigm" because their careers don't depend on report cards from superior officers. As for the culture gap between academics and war fighters, she says, it existed long before the Human Terrain System came along and can only be broken down "one individual at a time."

Supporters of the program probably don't have much to worry about for the moment. With supporters ranging from Gen. David Petraeus to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the idea of bringing social scientists to the battlefield is probably here to stay for the moment. But that could change in a hurry if the mishaps continue. The whole rationale for Human Terrain Teams, after all, is to solve existing problems, not create new ones.

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Is Turkey Renaming Istanbul Constantinople?

Chances of Turkey and the Kurds reaching a rapprochement are at their highest in 25 years. But what does that mean for Turkification -- and what concessions are the Turks willing to make?

Last month, Turkish President Abdullah Gul broke a long-standing national taboo: He called the remote village of Guroymak by its Kurdish name, Norshin.

The president's opponents say renaming Istanbul Constantinople on highway signs will inevitably follow. Or worse. For many Turks, saying Norshin leads to saying Kurdistan, and saying Kurdistan leads to recognizing an independent Kurdish state stretching across Iran, Iraq, and southeastern Turkey.

After a 1980 military coup, Turkey "Turkified": It banned the Kurdish language, imposed new Turkish place names, and famously declared that Kurds were actually "mountain Turks." Its government has since abandoned this extreme form of forced assimilation. But allowing or using Kurdish names is still a politically charged act, seen by many Turks as a concession to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (better known as the PKK), which has fought a brutal 25-year battle for Kurdish independence.

The Turkish government wants to end the PKK's terrorist campaign without splitting off a Kurdish state -- and sees extending cultural rights and linguistic freedoms as the way to do it. But what will it take to reconcile the Turks and the Kurds?

The verbal recognition of Kurds and Kurdish culture at the highest political level is a first step, as Gul's use of the name Norshin demonstrates. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently brought a number of parliamentarians to tears by saying that something is terribly wrong when the mothers of Turkish soldiers and the mothers of PKK fighters are saying the same prayers over their sons' bodies. That such a comparison can even be made is itself a sign of progress.

And there are concrete changes, too. Already, the government has opened a Kurdish radio station and promoted Kurdish literature classes at universities. In late July, Erdogan announced his government was beginning a "Kurdish Initiative." He has not yet provided any details. But most Turkish journalists expect the government to allow public servants and politicians to speak Kurdish, end restrictions on Kurdish media, give some form of amnesty to all but the highest ranking PKK members, and possibly even revise the Constitution to allow Kurds to be full Turkish citizens without giving up their Kurdish identity. (Those Kurds who are proud to call themselves Turks have always been accepted and often risen high in the ranks of politics and pop culture) 

These initiatives have met -- and will meet -- tremendous push-back. Previous leaders have considered similar changes, such as calling citizens "Turkiyeli" (from Turkey) rather than "Turkish," to emphasize citizenship over ethnic identity. But obstacles to implementing such initiatives have been insurmountable. Already, the two leading opposition parties have denounced Erdogan's plan. Plus, Turkey has a Constitutional Court with the power to strike down laws that alter the country's "unamendable" constitutional articles -- one of which declares that the national language is Turkish.

This time around, though, the government has the army, a long-time rival, on its side. Realizing at last that the fight will never be won through purely military means, Turkey's leading general now supports greater cultural freedom for Kurds and wants to make it easier for PKK members to surrender. The National Security Council, traditionally a vehicle for the military to "advise" the government on political issues, also gave its blessing to the initiative.

Still, security and foreign-policy concerns complicate the issue. Numerous Turks are convinced that the U.S. government -- a friend to politicians and generals, a foe to most everyone else -- is behind the Kurdish initiative. They presume that the United States is desperate to ensure stability in northern Iraq as it prepares to withdraw from the country. Thus, they claim, the United States, after supporting the PKK for years, is now forcing Turkey to give in to PKK demands in order to foster peace with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The conspiracy theory is only two parts crazy. The PKK is based in the Kandil Mountains, in Kurdish Iraq. The United States, hesitant to upset Iraq's lone functioning region, has proven unwilling to take decisive action against it. But such U.S. strategic intransigence stokes anti-American sentiment in Turkey. Further, the KRG's refusal to prevent the PKK from launching attacks in Turkey has poisoned relations between Ankara and Erbil.

But in the past year, for Turkish policymakers the KRG has increasingly looked less like a threat than a potential ally. Turkish firms have been doing billions of dollars worth of business with Iraqi Kurds for some time now, in every field from construction to telecommunications. Moreover, if chaos follows the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, a peaceful Kurdistan would help protect Turkey from the spread of violence. On top of this, Turkey's new foreign minister is the architect of a regional policy awkwardly but succinctly rendered in English as "zero problems with neighbors." In practice, this has meant trying to mend fences with traditional rivals such as Greece, Syria, Russia, and even Armenia.

Recent developments have also left the KRG eager to improve relations with Turkey. The Kurds are increasingly concerned about being left friendless in the region, as Arab-Kurdish tensions mount, a confrontation over Kirkuk seems possible, and U.S. forces continue to withdraw. As the chief of staff of the president of Iraqi Kurdistan told the International Crisis Group, "If the Shiites choose Iran, and the Sunnis choose the Arab world, then the Kurds will have to ally themselves with Turkey." Economics figure in as well: The oil-rich Iraqi Kurds export their oil though a pipeline that leads to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

But what does all this intricate politicking mean for Ankara and the PKK?

The insurgent Kurdish group's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, continues to maintain a unilateral cease-fire and is no longer demanding independence. But he has also made proposals that no Turkish government would accept. For example, he has said Turks and Kurds must recognize Turkey and Kurdistan as a "joint homeland," whatever that means. He may also harbor dreams of transforming the PKK into a legitimate political party, like Ireland's Sinn Fein.

Even the most liberal Turkish politicians balk at any legitimization of the PKK. But why would the group give up its guns if that meant agreeing to disband? The United States could be one reason. As the Pentagon considers sending troops to northern Iraq to stem an armed Kurdish-Arab conflict, it could also pressure the KRG to crack down on the PKK's camps. In this scenario, PKK would have no safehaven in Iraq or Turkey. Then, it might accept amnesty without any politicians in Ankara having to appear to negotiate or concede too much.

Turkey is closer now than ever before to solving the problem that has kept it estranged from the United States, the European Union, and millions of its own citizens. Turkish politicians have started speaking the right language. With luck, action will follow.