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Cover Story: U.S. Army’s Human Terrain Experts May Help Defuse Future Conflicts

Mar. 22, 2012 - 06:39PM   |  
By JIM HODGES   |   Comments
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With Iraq behind it and the end of its role in Afghanistan scheduled for 2014, the operative term used by U.S. Army Human Terrain System managers these days is “Phase Zero.”

The term refers to sending small teams of Army human terrain experts to gather information about local populations — their customs and sensitivities — perhaps in peacetime and certainly before areas boil over into a conflict that might require a larger number of U.S. forces.

Human Terrain System advocates see Phase Zero as a way for the program to survive in a more austere military, the likely result of flattened defense spending. That military “will not retain force structure in the ground forces for large and prolonged stability operations such as have been required in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said at a reporters’ briefing in January.

Though conceived with stability operations — and, in particular, counterinsurgency — in mind, the Human Terrain System can help prevent them, too, according to U.S. Army Col. Sharon Hamilton, who directs the program.

The Human Terrain System consists of software tools and about 60 reservists and 100 civilian social scientists trained to gather and disseminate information about local populations. “If we raise the level of understanding [among U.S. troops], we establish a context baseline of beliefs, values, dreams and aspirations, needs, requirements, security — if we can do all of that in Phase Zero, we might not be talking about being somewhere else for 10 years,” Hamilton said.

The Phase Zero concept calls for sending human terrain teams to regions as part of theater-engagement and security-cooperation plans, and to exercises and humanitarian assistance missions — anything involving the military in an area in which it needs socio-cultural information.

“Whether it’s counterinsurgency, or whether it’s Phase Zero pre-conflict, there are critical questions to ask before you decide on a course of action or if you decide to take any action,” Hamilton said. “You need to understand who is there already. What influence is there, and what do they want?” With that in mind, human terrain teams are working in a pilot project with the U.S. military’s Africa Command, and Hamilton has talked with other combatant commands about similar projects in the Pacific and Latin America.

A task force that drafted the report “Counterinsurgency Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Operations” in 2011 identified potential trouble areas in those regions.

Spawned by requests from commanders in 2005 to fill a gap in knowledge needed for counterinsurgency operations, the Human Terrain System was established as a pilot project two years later under the Army’s G-2 intelligence staff. Its mission was to engage the population to learn what it would take to make people feel secure, even to govern themselves.

While some of this information was available through nongovernmental organizations, the commanders wanted data relevant to their areas from teams embedded in their units. Rather than doing so with uniformed civil affairs people, recruiters went to academia, seeking people who knew the subject and were used to doing field research.

The goal was to determine the effect of action — or inaction — before it was conducted. The problem initially was that the Army and the social scientists it hired were not sure how go to about collecting the right information.

“We didn’t know what kind of questions to ask that would be useful to the military,” said Joshua Foust, a political scientist and a fellow with the American Security Project, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C. In a previous incarnation, the Army hired him to gather human terrain information about Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army “decided it wanted [socio-cultural information], but they really couldn’t articulate how they wanted it or how they wanted to use it.”

The Army and researchers struggled to understand and trust each other. “The people who designed the program called it ‘building an airplane in flight,’” Foust said. “Especially during the first two years of its existence, there was a lot of flying by the seat of one’s pants.”

The HTS was criticized by some of the military as being frivolous and a waste of money. Some said it was unnecessary because the work already was being done by civil affairs.

The HTS also ran afoul of anthropological organizations that believed their scholars were becoming spies and that their work was being used to undermine the population rather than help it. The anthropologists also said their first ethic — “do no harm” — was being violated by the work of the HTS teams.

The American Anthropological Association condemned the program in 2007, and in a letter to Congress in 2010 the Network of Concerned Anthropologists questioned HTS’s effectiveness and called it “dangerous and reckless” and a “waste of taxpayers’ money.”

The deaths of three social scientists working for HTS seemed to support the anthropologists’ concerns. Bombs killed Nicole Suveges in Afghanistan and Michael Bhatia in Iraq, and Paula Loyd died two months after being set on fire by an Afghan man. A colleague, Don Ayala, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for killing her attacker shortly after the incident.

Less publicized, in the view of advocates, were the success stories. An HTS team member, Tracy St. Benoit, found a large group of widows living in poverty in an Afghan village, and the U.S. established a job program for them so their sons wouldn’t feel pressured to join insurgents to feed their families. And an HTS team counseled an Army captain to watch body language to determine a Pashtun village’s leaders, and to show strength by not conferring with other Army officers during negotiations to get recruits for the Afghan police.

In the wake of all of the criticism, the Army fired HTS director Steve Fondacaro, a retired colonel, then turned to Hamilton, then the deputy Training and Doctrine Command G-2, in 2010 and told her to clean up the mess.


By emphasizing some of the success stories, and by seeking clarity among noise surrounding the program, Hamilton is working to change the perception of the Human Terrain System.

It is not an intelligence program, she said, but rather an “intelligence support” program. Once funded by the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, its money now comes from the Army’s intelligence budget.

It is not, Hamilton said, an anthropological program. Rather, it involves social science. There are, Hamilton said, only nine anthropologists among the 99 social scientists from 25 disciplines on the 31 HTS teams in Afghanistan.

“The social scientists are everything from anthropologists to urban planners to economists to sociologists to lawyers to veterinarians to political scientists to international relations experts,” she said.

The controversy has cooled. The HTS will have a recruiter at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco in November.

The Army adapted social scientists’ methodology to the military, which at first created confusion and generated some changes in training and deploying HTS teams. “They take a big leap“ by working with the Army, Hamilton said of the academics. “The military is the first culture they have to learn. Their first training is ‘welcome to the Department of the Army.‘“ The HTS has worked to build relationships among the other services and governmental and nongovernmental organizations. The office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence has identified more than 30 such organizations doing socio-cultural research, and HTS alumni populate some of those bodies.

“There are some great organizations throughout Department of Defense, throughout TRADOC, who can support this effort,” Hamilton said. “But they need to understand what we do so we can leverage some of the information they have. How do they share data?” Data sharing has become a point of emphasis for HTS. It is unclassified by its nature, but it is mingled with classified intelligence data in the Distributed Ground System-Army computer system.

The primary toolkit is Map-HT (Mapping Human Terrain), a suite of computer tools to record and transmit data. “Within the next 12 months we will be operating with Map-HT tools from a cloud environment,” said Chip Retzlaff, who directs the HTS’s knowledge management program.

“We’re leveraging what’s called a DGS-standard cloud environment and working closely with them to assure that the widgets and applications have the same foundation and capability that we have in Map-HT.”

That will make it easier to exchange information between teams in the field and the HTS Reach-back Research Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., as well as with other military and nongovernmental organizations.

The Human Terrain System added nine weeks of training at Fort Polk, La., that includes qualifying with a 9mm pistol and environmental adaptation to its regimen at Fort Leavenworth. Researchers serve nine months in the field to complete a 13-month HTS stint.

They are protected by military security while in the field and generally can choose not to wear side arms. They also learn combat lifesaver training.

“Two of our team members have already used that since they graduated and were in situations where soldiers were injured and our personnel were able to go in and help the medics,” Hamilton said.

Still, critics remain.

“I think the HTS has had a tumultuous enough history to where no one is interested in seeing it anymore, or interacting with it anymore,” Foust said. “I have a sense that once the war in Afghanistan really winds down, so does HTS. It’s not going to have the same imperative that it had.”

Hamilton disagreed.

“We aren’t waiting for 2014 to look ahead,” Hamilton said. “We’ve already had discussions over the past two years with other combatant commands as to what our future is. ... We’re working with them through Army G-2 to help them identify capability gaps and show them how we can apply recruiting, training, the Reach-back Center we have, the knowledge management capability and management structure, the whole enduring piece, in Africa, in the Pacific, in Mexico — wherever the requirement is.”

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