The CSS Blog Network

The Seven Deadly Sins of the Human Terrain System: An Insider’s Perspective

A social scientist with the Human Terrain Analysis Team speaks with the displaced women of the Tagab District. Image: DVIDSHUB/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on 13 July, 2015.

The idea behind HTS was simple and promising: embed social scientists with military units and give them the resources to unearth operationally relevant socio-cultural data and findings. Its founders, Dr. Montgomery McFate, an anthropologist by training, and former Army officer Steve Fondacaro stood the program up and served as its leaders and missionaries for its first few years of existence. At the height of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan most ground-holding brigades and special operations units had Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) supported by Human Terrain Analysis Teams (HTATs) at the division level.

So what went wrong? When Tom Vanden Brook broke the story of the death of HTS he focused on fraud, racial and sexual harassment, as well as ethical issues related to the program’s roots in anthropology. His sources for the story, his most recent of several on the program, were a predictably bland statement by an Army spokesman, Dr. Roberto Gonzalez – an anthropologist at San Jose State University who, like many of his disciplinary colleagues, has been a consistent critic of the program, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif), who has waged war against HTS for years.

I was surprised and disappointed that Brook did not dig a little deeper. He did not get any of the hundreds of people who worked for HTS to comment on the record, even though a number of us write for public consumption these days and probably would have been happy to talk to him. He did not reference any of the four major studies (briefly reviewed at e-IR by Michael Davies) that sought to assess the program’s effectiveness. He did not seek out any scholars who have conducted pathbreaking research on HTS, such as Christopher Sims who recently finished his doctoral work at the King’s College London War Studies Department on this very subject.

Instead, Brook went to an anthropologist who had no association with the program (but wrote a stinging critique of it in 2009) and a Member of Congress who is a known foe of the program. He tried to go to the Army and it is unfortunate they did not offer anything substantive.

One cannot get at why HTS failed without looking at all the information at hand. This actually matters because understanding socio-cultural issues in war zones remains an important endeavor. I spoke to several of my former Human Terrain System colleagues, some of whom I did not actually get to know until after I had come home, to identify the seven deadly sins of the program from an insider perspective. What were they?

  1. Calling it anthropology

One of the program’s founders was McFate – a trained anthropologist who was also involved in developing Field Manual 3-24 on counterinsurgency. When the program started receiving media coverage in 2007 as an anthropological program, the American Anthropological Association was livid. They called it “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise” and launched what amounted to a jihad against HTS.

Anthropology is a valuable academic discipline that has helped to shed light on diverse cultures around the world, however it tends to attract and foster those with opinions on the far left of the political spectrum. At the risk of over-generalizing, Western anthropologists as a group are skeptical of the U.S. military and generally politically opposed to U.S. wars. This is a cultural departure from the earlier history of the discipline, which some say was overly intertwined with imperial projects and ambitions – a legacy that is deeply regretted by many present day scholars of this discipline and feeds their skepticism of many western military operations.

It was therefore no surprise that the American Anthropological Association came after the Human Terrain System with everything they had, even producing a highly critical 73-page report on the program in 2009. But HTS was not an anthropological effort and never should have been called one or defended on that basis. HTS officials spent a great deal of focus trying to “engage” with the anthropological community and make nice. HTS leaders insisted the program was not an intelligence effort (also untrue, as I discuss below) to appease crunchy academics. But that was an unwise and unnecessary effort.

HTS drew on social scientists from a variety of disciplines (not, as some think, primarily because of its rejection by the anthropological community) as well as historians. Field research and ethnography are not the exclusive domains of the anthropologist. And HTS personnel did not even have the time or opportunities to do proper ethnography (as discussed eloquently by David Edwards).

So what were they doing?

  1. Denying it was an intelligence program

HTS leadership constantly denied that it was an intelligence program (read this semi-ridiculous FAQ) to the media, representatives from the anthropological community, and those of us who went through HTS training because someone decided that “intelligence” is a dirty word.

HTS was absolutely an intelligence program and the Army and HTS leaders should have embraced it from the start. All “intelligence” means is information gathered and analyzed at the institutional level to inform decision-making.  What’s more, the program fell under the G2 (“2” indicates “intelligence”) at the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). This U.S. Army budget document called it a “Military Intelligence Program.” As an HTS employee (and Department of the Army civilian), I fell under the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System (DCIPS), as did my HTS colleagues. Many Human Terrain Teams, including my own, worked closely with and were embedded within the intelligence staff sections in the brigades they served. Does that mean we were involved with lethal targeting? No, of course not. But we absolutely collected and analyzed information that informed military operations.

  1. Flawed recruitment

There were generally three types of people who joined HTS. The first were people who believed in a mission (although not necessarily the ones our forces were in Iraq and Afghanistan for) and wanted to contribute to it. The second were people who saw such a deployment as an opportunity for self-actualization, escape, or adventure. The third were people looking to make a buck (HTS was a well-paid gig, even after the program switched from employing contractors to government personnel).

All three categories had their problems. You had special ops-wannabes, a guy who had previously worked in Afghanistan (and got kicked out) but wanted to return solely to get some locals funding to build a doll factory (no joke), another guy who wanted to introduce Christianity in Afghanistan… I could go on.

My job interview for HTS was a joke. It was two ten minute phone interviews and, as far as I know, they followed up on exactly zero of my references. I have no reason to believe that this was not typical, especially once I met some of the people with whom I was in training, to include fantasists and fraudsters who routinely and obviously embellished their experience (many – but not all – of the worst were weeded out during training and did not make it to deployment). Once one made it past this ridiculously low hurdle, we were hired as contractors and told to show up at Ft. Leavenworth, where we would be trained and, eventually, “transitioned” into the ranks of the Department of the Army as civil servants.

What they did not tell us was that this transition process was actually a whole separate job application process. Once we arrived in Leavenworth, we were told we had to apply for the government version of the job and if we did not make it through, we would be sent packing. I accept that they couldn’t just let us into the ranks of government service without some sort of process, but they should have told people ahead of time that this would be the case. People had left their jobs and even sold their homes with the expectation that they had a real job.

As it turns out, the government application process was also absurd (but far more cumbersome) and we were told pretty directly by a Department of the Army civilian official that they would not have the time to check our references. Still, many people were weeded out at this point. Unfortunately, they were often the wrong people. Most Afghan-Americans and Iraqi-Americans in the training program did not make it through this process. One colleague who had done his graduate work at Oxford got turned out at this point because Oxford was not recognized by the Department of the Army (no joke). Some of the wash-out survivors were the most troublesome and the biggest perpetuators of sexual harassment.

Take a breath before you attack the contracting companies that brought in misfits and oversaw an ineffective recruitment process. They were executing the contract as it was written and it was written poorly. True responsibility sits with the Army.

  1. Awful training and deployment processes

Maybe two weeks of useful training was spread out over five and a half months.  Our training schedules changed on a daily basis, introducing a frustrating element of unpredictability that did not set HTS trainees up for success. We also received way too little language training. And for you taxpayers out there, the entire time we were in training, we were staying in nice hotels, had rental cars provided for us (complete with reimbursed gas), and received per diem on top of our generous salaries.

Training would have been a great opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of candidates. While efforts were made along these lines, they were ineffectual. One huge missed opportunity was the failure to capitalize on prior in-country experience by U.S. military personnel and civilians in HTS. People with experience in one part of Iraq or Afghanistan should have been enabled to go back to those areas, where they would have had the most value. No efforts were made in that direction. People did not usually know where in Iraq or Afghanistan they were going until a couple weeks before they deployed, which deprived them of a chance to do in-depth research on the provincial and district levels of analysis – which is where HTTs did all their work.

  1. Deploying personnel who were unprepared to survive in a combat zone

Up until at least late 2010, HTS trainees received no practical training on how to safely use firearms and to survive in combat, despite the fact that many of us would be expected or given the opportunity to carry firearms and get shot at. The official line was we could be trained and certified for these sorts of things downrange by the brigades we were working with – a form of on the job combat training.

One former HTTer conveyed an all-too-common experience to me:

My on the job training in Afghanistan included: riding in an MRAP for the first time; riding in a helicopter for the first time; shooting an M4 and M9 for the first time.  I “qualified” on an M4 at a strong point overlooking an abandoned village by shooting at a house with a suspected sniper inside. Luckily he wasn’t shooting back at the time. The first time I wore NODs [night observation device] was on a night time patrol and I’m lucky I didn’t fall on my face let alone step outside the cleared path.

Ridiculous, right?

While I had fired rifles and pistols a few times before HTS, I had never been that into guns. While in training, I went to the range with current and former military personnel in my training class who kindly showed me the ropes as well as they could. I also spent a sizeable amount of my own money to fly to the U.S. Shooting Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma during my pre-deployment leave to take a private class with a former recon Marine on handling and firing a carbine and a pistol.  Luckily, I had an amazing and responsible team leader (an Army reserve officer) who insured once we were in Afghanistan that those of us who wanted to carry firearms (I carried an M9 on most missions) were trained and appropriately equipped to do so.

After my training was complete, HTS started to send its people through more rigorous training at Ft. Polk.

  1. Broken leadership and organizational culture

This is a bit misleading, because to call the HTS organizational culture “broken” implies that it was once whole. It never was. There was a pervasive sense that leadership did not care much for the well-being of the people in the program during training and especially once they were deployed. Sexual harassment was a big problem, both in training and downrange, but it should be noted that this was (and remains) a broader U.S. military problem – not just an HTS problem – yet the fact that accountability mechanisms in HTS were so messed up (and sometimes just absent) made it worse.

  1. Trying to become the COIN poster boys and gals hid the real success stories

The problems of HTS were rooted in the early public narrative on the program, which started with the major media attention it started to receive in 2007. HTS advocates in and out of the Army tried to sell the program as the thing that would make counterinsurgency work. You know those hearts and minds you are trying to win? Well here are the folks that will help you see inside them and tell you what you’ll have to do. This was never a realistic aim and it was rooted in a fundamental misconception of how and why counterinsurgency operations can be successful (read my chapter in this book).

Human Terrain Teams were never going to “fix” counterinsurgency or make it work, but at their best, a functioning team could provide a sharper lens through which their brigades could see their area of operations. The saddest part about the Human Terrain System legacy is that many teams were successful at this (as confirmed by four authoritative studies of the program) and provided real value to their brigades, but this was all lost in the public discourse because so many mistakes were made in recruitment, training, management, and everything else I discuss above.

I am proud of the work I did in Afghanistan on a Human Terrain Team and so are most of my HTS comrades. It is crucial that we understand the seven deadly sins of HTS, but I hope journalists also talk about the good things. They happened too and they matter.


Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. He worked as a U.S. Human Terrain Team social scientist in Helmand province from November 2010 to August 2011.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit ISN Security Watch or browse our resources.