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U.S. Seeks to Calm Terrain Team Controversy

May. 3, 2012 - 04:55PM   |  
By BEN IANNOTTA   |   Comments
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U.S. Northern Command wants the world to know it has no plans to send U.S. Army human terrain experts to Mexico, and that if such planning were initiated it would be done together with the government of Mexico and the U.S. State Department.

Northern Command was reacting to an April 25 article posted online by the C4ISR Journal, “New Tool Eyed by U.S. for Anti-drug War.”

The article said human terrain experts arrived at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., in April to participate in a five-month pilot project to see whether there are gaps in the military’s understanding of Mexican culture that might warrant sending Army experts.

The article quoted a conference presentation given April 24 by Col. Sharon Hamilton, director of the Human Terrain System, the teams of social scientists hired by the Army initially to gather cultural information in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hamilton and other human terrain advocates want to broaden the use of human terrain teams to other regions to ensure that commanders and troops have accurate information about local populations. The teams rely on digital maps and reporting tools to record and share information.

The article struck a nerve at Northern Command, which wants to maintain smooth relations with its partners at the U.S. State Department and in the Mexican government.

“We know that any support provided to Mexico is at the request of the government of Mexico,” said John Cornelio, a spokesman for Northern Command. “There’s no plans at all to send human terrain teams.”

Cornelio said some U.S. service members work in the embassy in Mexico City on behalf of Northern Command but that proposing to place additional troops is “something that we know is very, very sensitive.”

He confirmed that two members of the Human Terrain System are now working at Northern Command, but he said that is not necessarily a precursor to sending experts to Mexico. If gaps in cultural knowledge are found, they could be filled other ways, he said.

When the Army began setting up the Human Terrain System in 2006, the move sparked strong criticism from the American Anthropological Association, which says it is unethical for anthropologists to gather information for military commanders in war zones.

Hamilton has been working on a plan to expand the Human Terrain System to other regions, such as Africa and Latin America. The teams would participate in “phase zero” operations, which refers to collaborating with local authorities to try to prevent wars or insurgencies.

As for sending experts to Mexico, Hamilton said it would up to Northern Command to coordinate such a decision.

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