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Commentary: Bad 'News' on a Good Program

Jan. 7, 2014 - 10:20AM   |  
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Human terrain teams are back in the news — and it is not good news. Over the past year some news articles have promoted the claim that the teams are poorly managed and ineffective. One article early last year claimed such reporting caused Rep. Duncan Hunter to question the value of the program, and more recently the same source said Hunter now wants the program terminated.

Leaders charged with the difficult task of deciding what military capabilities to sacrifice under fiscal austerity are accustomed to partisan pleas for clemency for targeted programs. The request here is more fundamental: Please don’t rely on bad reporting to make this important decision.

The program works by taking small teams of US Army civilians and former military members armed with social science skills and training and deploying them with military units to obtain sociocultural insights to support military operations. It is a tough but critically important job that reflects a key lesson from the past 10 years of war, which is that mission success and the safety of our troops require deeper sociocultural knowledge of foreign populations and adversaries.

At issue is whether the teams are effective, and some of these critical news reports over the past year have not been helpful on this topic. Some claim the Army has plowed ahead with the program despite “myriad” problems, or asserted that many commanders have deemed reports from the teams “worthless — or worse.” What number constitutes “many commanders” is left unstated, but one thing is clear: The reporting is ignoring all the best evidence on the subject.

Every serious study of human terrain team performance notes that the large majority of commanders found the teams useful (about eight times as many as thought the teams were ineffective), and there is no reason to think commanders were anything less than candid.

Another major problem with the recent reporting on human terrain teams is that it is old news. The articles use historical documents provided by the Army to dredge up allegations of fraud and mismanagement that dogged the program almost five years ago. Congress was well aware of these issues and in the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act rightly insisted they be investigated, which led to a series of penetrating evaluations of the program.

If Congress wants to know how the program is performing on the eve of 2014 it needs more current sources of information.

Congress also should consider the costs of eliminating the program. The teams serve a necessary purpose, one that does not end with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. After studying the program for two years, we believe it could be more productive if placed under the management of special operations forces commanders who regularly field high-performing small teams and who consider sociocultural knowledge a core value.

However, the key point is that the program should be improved and exploited, not eliminated.

Throughout its history, the military regularly has been forced to develop sociocultural expertise on the fly at great cost and often too late to ensure success. And just as regularly, military leaders have abandoned hard-won capability because of post-conflict budget reductions or out of deference to prevailing American strategic culture, which ignores sociocultural insights to focus on technology, small-unit combat skills, large-scale military maneuver training and other factors.

Currently, however, senior leaders from the Army, Marine Corps and the Special Operations Command are emphasizing the importance of the human domain and sociocultural knowledge of foreign populations and forces. This atypical development should be welcomed rather than discouraged.

Hunter, a staunch friend of the US military and a veteran, reportedly has argued it might be necessary to cut the program to save money for more important capabilities, “even if it worked perfectly, and commanders said it was saving lives.”

Tough calls must be made on what post-conflict capabilities will be preserved or sacrificed. Yet it would be a shame if Congress intervened to eliminate an innovative sociocultural program that field commanders value, particularly if it does so based on misleading news reports.


Christopher Lamb and Doug Orton are research fellows at the National Defense University, Washington, and co-authors of “Human Terrain Teams: An Organizational Innovation for Sociocultural Knowledge in Irregular Warfare.” Another co-author serves on a human terrain team in Afghanistan.

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