The Why and How of Human Terrain Teams
Inside Higher Edrecently published an interview with Roberto González, an associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University, on the Human Terrain System (HTS), a U.S. Army program in which social scientists are embedded with military units. The questions were thoughtful and well asked, but the answers bear little resemblance to the work I conducted as a field social scientist deployed by HTS. I would like to explain what the goals of the program are, what we do, and why we do it, as well as try to clarify misperceptions that arise from unfamiliarity with military culture, terminology, planning and practice.
My job in Iraq was to represent the population to promote nonlethal planning and operations. When a mission is conceptualized, when course of action recommendations have to be made, when decisive points are identified for the commander, my job is to present what the population wants and expects, how it will react, and at all times promote nonlethal options.
This last portion, the promotion of nonlethal options, is of exceeding importance for two reasons. The first is the nature of my mission, and the overall mission of the HTS – we have an ethical responsibility to bring quality socio-cultural information and nonlethal possibilities to the commander’s attention. This is related to the second imperative, which goes to the heart of Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. The three most important elements of COIN are 1) to empower the lowest level (the population), 2) to work from the bottom up (the population) and 3) nonlethal operations accomplish more than lethal ones. In a nutshell, my job is to keep the population, the effects of military operations on the population, and nonlethal options front and center in the commander and command staff’s awareness.
There are a number of ways that an HTT can keep the population and nonlethal options on the front burner. In the case of my team, we used very standard research and analysis methods to get at both primary and secondary open source data. At all times we endeavored to engage in best practices, both in terms of methodology and ethics. We essentially used four basic methods of collection: archival, process observation, participant observation, and semi-structured elite level interviews.
Our archival research had three different purposes. The first was to do our homework about our brigade’s operating environment before we deployed with them to Iraq. The second was to then go through the information on the population already archived by the brigade that we were replacing. The final component was to keep abreast of political, social, religious, and economic events in our operating environment, Iraq, the Middle East, and in some cases, the U.S., which could affect the host nation population that we, and the Army, had to interact with on a daily basis. We also process and participant observed a wide variety of meetings and events. At all of these we identified ourselves fully, explained who we were, what we were doing (serving as socio-cultural advisors for the Army), and asked for permission to ask questions and to attribute or not. At all times we used standard, basic protocols for conducting process and participant observation.
When conducting our elite level interviews, part of a four-month-long tribal study and history, we used formal, documented informed consent. The documents were prepared in English, translated into Arabic, and the interview subject retained one copy and I, as research director, retained one. When requested, anonymity was granted. The Army personnel we worked with never had access to these, to the internal ethical review process of the team, or to the raw information of someone’s identity when anonymity was requested. In fact, because of the social science backgrounds of many of the officers we dealt with daily, they not only understood the protocols, but respected them. Moreover, on one occasion the protocols actually allowed me to provide necessary information to a battalion commander. The sheikh I had just interviewed had consented to my attributing his information, which allowed me to answer the commander’s questions without feeling like I was boxed in. Ethical and methodological best practices actually enabled me to properly do my job. On another occasion, information that I collected was useful in helping the battalion commander, as I provided information that presented a set of nonlethal options for resolving a problem regarding a local mosque.
The results of this four-month study, in combination with data acquired from engaging in participant observation with everyday Iraqis, as well as internally displaced persons, provide very important insight and findings regarding Iraqi tribal behavior, Iraqi politics, religion, rule of law, as well as the stabilization and reconstruction that is being undertaken. The results are being prepared for peer review and publication.
The information we obtained was also packaged and provided to our brigade, the battalions, maneuver companies, as well as the embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team and the U.S. Department of State/U.S. Embassy. Had this information been available when Operation Iraqi Freedom was conceptualized, there would have been a greater chance of the initial stabilization and reconstruction being done in a better informed, more productive, and less lethal manner.
One of the other important points raised by Dr. González – and which I would like everyone to understand -- has to do with Army terminology. I went out on patrol as often as I could. Going on patrol means going out with a combat element, but it does not automatically mean going out to engage in combat or lethal operations. I went out on every mission I could that involved taking humanitarian assistance to the local Iraqis. And here’s the thing to remember – most of these involved going door to door. That’s right: The Army sends soldiers to towns, villages, and settlements to go door to door to deliver food, water, water purifiers, dental prophylaxis, toys, and other items on a regular basis. I also accompanied Civil Affairs teams to conduct assessments of infrastructure, attend meetings, and engage in medical operations among the local population.
In fact, while out on patrol my teammates and I were able to identify several archaeological sites. We brought this to the attention of brigade and battalion staffs, as well as the Cultural Heritage Officer at the U.S. Embassy and the head of the U.S. Army’s Archaeological Unit. We were able to preserve one site that was slated for development. And through collaboration with archaeologists at Penn State, University of Chicago, Harvard, the Army, and State Department, we created a comprehensive list and maps of all the sites in our operating environment so that the Army would know where construction could and could not take place.
The hallmark of good human terrain fieldwork lies in the reduction in the number of lethal operations, casualties inflicted and received. By doing our research, both primary and secondary, we were able to directly or indirectly conceptualize and influence virtually all of our brigade’s problem sets and provide nonlethal options to resolve them. My teammates and I were heavily involved with helping to write the brigade’s campaign plan. Every session always began with the Plans Officer and/or the Line of Effort (LOE) Chief asking what “does right look like for the Iraqis in our OE [operating environment] and how do we get them there?” Our job was to answer that question by taking our research and packaging it in a way that military personnel could easily and quickly digest. When we did this, we were able to ensure that the Army focused on the three most important aspects of COIN that I outlined above. This all translates into fewer injured or killed locals and, of course, fewer injured or killed American and Coalition Forces.
We do not do targeting, intelligence collection, or engage in any part of lethal and kinetic operations, although we do, like everyone, retain the right to self-defense. Contrary to the program’s most vocal critics, we are not using social science methodology to enable the Army to kill more Iraqis and Afghanis. In fact, one of our biggest successes was getting the Shriner’s Hospital in Boston, as well as a local Boston charity, to agree to treat a burned Iraqi boy and house and feed his family pro bono. When our Commander decided it was better for Iraqis to treat him we worked with a sister team in another OE to facilitate his access to treatment within the Iraqi Ministry of Health system.
This goes right to another point on terminology: The Army calls everything they engage in “targeting.” For instance, when the Commander goes to have dinner with a sheikh, that is referred to as targeting. This can easily lead to confusion by those who do not work with the military, so we have been encouraging them to use the terms “engage” and “engagement” instead of “target” and “targeting” when engaging in nonlethal operations. This is, actually, more than just a matter of semantics. By changing the way the military talks about nonlethal operations, we change the way they think about them, which further promotes nonlethal options.
In a nutshell, we are using our methodological skills to help the Army learn how to achieve their goals without having to use force. As someone with extensive methods training, in five different disciplines, and who has taught research methods, I can think of no more noble use than to use these skills to preserve life whenever possible. How many research and teaching academics can say the same about how they use their skills?
There is one set of related items that Dr. González mentions in his interview answers that I would like to address here. Despite what some personnel from the Foreign Military Studies Office wrote, we are not a “CORDs for the twenty-first century.” CORDs, a Vietnam-era initiative, was a full-fledged counterinsurgency program, utilizing both military and civilian advisors who lived with the local populations that they were working with and trained them on all aspects of government and governance. Moreover, they were training these populations in regards to stabilization and reconstruction. Importantly, because the CORDs personnel actually lived among the host nation population, they lived and died with them, so, when necessary, they fought with them. Human Terrain personnel do not live with the host nation population, nor do we fight with them. Rather we live on the military bases, go out with a military security escort, and return home to base after our engagements. We also are not involved with training the population, and we do not engage in stabilization or reconstruction projects. We are enabling advisors, not actors. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which are a State Department initiative, are the closest thing we have today to CORDs. The article that Dr. González mentions was published in the September/October 2006 issue of Military Review. As the first HTT did not deploy until February 2007, it was prepared well in advance of HTS becoming operational, and therefore cannot be construed as an accurate representation of HTS or its mission.
Project Phoenix, a separate Vietnam-era program, which too often is confused with, or mistakenly rolled into CORDs, is also not an applicable historical analog to HTS. This was a program advised by the Central Intelligence Agency and it largely involved Vietnamese trying to root out VietCong political cadres with the help of a small number of civilian advisors – mostly law enforcement personnel, not researchers. Unlike Project Phoenix, HTS is not engaged in identification and neutralization of targets.
I also want to make it very clear: The U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System is not connected or affiliated with other programs that have adopted the terminology of human terrain. This is important as Dr. González conflates HTS with these other initiatives and as such it is both inaccurate to confuse them, as well as unfair to HTS to try to paint us with the same brush.
While it is absolutely right to be concerned about learning the lessons of the past, the simple truth is I have yet to see or experience any evidence of the neo-colonial counterinsurgency that Dr. González describes. Regardless of whether you supported the politics and/or policies that led us into our current conflicts, as Americans we have a moral responsibility to leave Iraq and Afghanistan in as functional and stable a state of existence as possible.
Regardless of your politics regarding the war, if one has the skills and knowledge to help out, even a little bit, and one chooses not to, what does that say about that individual or organization? This is the question that the many academics who have found it easy to criticize the Human Terrain System, either from ignorance, misinformation, or political opposition to the policy decisions that led us into the war in Iraq, need to ask themselves.
Adam L. Silverman holds a doctorate in political science and criminology, masters' degrees in religion and international relations, and a bachelor's in Middle Eastern studies. He was the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division field social scientist and socio-cultural advisor assigned to HTT IZ6 and is currently a social science advisor with the Human Terrain System. The ideas and opinions expressed in this essay are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the brigade, division, U.S. Army, or the Human Terrain System.