The Quiet Demise of the Army’s Plan to Understand Afghanistan

In Commentary

One dreary winter day in 2010, I joined a Georgia National Guard unit on a routine patrol in Zormat, a ragged mountain town in eastern Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistani border. With us were two American civilians in military uniforms who worked for a United States Army social-science program called the Human Terrain System. The Army had begun developing the program as an experiment in 2006; it expanded quickly as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan foundered and American policy makers cast about for novel approaches. The idea was to send teams of social scientists, including anthropologists, to gather ethnographic, sociocultural and economic information and advise front-line soldiers on a range of delicate topics, from the mechanics of forging tribal alliances to how to respond to local offers of hospitality.

In the snow-covered Zormat bazaar, one of the civilian social scientists struck up a conversation with a shopkeeper. They talked about the state of the war, Afghan government corruption and America’s longstanding support for the warlords whom many Afghans view as war criminals. Since the invasion in 2001, the United States military had been making choices about which Afghan leaders to support, which companies to reward with contracts, whom to trust and whom to kill. These choices, the shopkeeper said, were the key to why so much had gone wrong. “You are making mistakes,” he told his American interlocutor. “You have been making mistakes for eight years. I tell you one thing, different people tell you something different. There’s no right person with you to advise you. So all the people working with you are wrong.”

The Army created the Human Terrain System — at the height of the counterinsurgency craze that dominated American strategic thinking in Iraq and Afghanistan late in the last decade, with much fanfare — to solve this problem. Cultural training and deep, nuanced understanding of Afghan politics and history were in short supply in the Army; without them, good intelligence was hard to come by, and effective policy making was nearly impossible. Human Terrain Teams, as Human Terrain System units were known, were supposed to include people with social-science backgrounds, language skills and an understanding of Afghan or Iraqi culture, as well as veterans and reservists who would help bind the civilians to their assigned military units.

On that winter day in Zormat, however, just how far the Human Terrain System had fallen short of expectations was clear. Neither of the social scientists on the patrol that morning had spent time in Afghanistan before being deployed there. While one was reasonably qualified, the other was a pleasant 43-year-old woman who grew up in Indiana and Tennessee, and whose highest academic credential was an advanced degree in organizational management she received online. She had confided to me that she didn’t feel comfortable carrying a gun she was still learning how to use. Before arriving in Afghanistan, she had traveled outside the United States only once, to Jamaica — “and this ain’t Jamaica,” she told me.

She was out of her depth, but at least she tried to be professional. Two days earlier, another member of the Human Terrain Team casually told a sergeant that he could have sex with me if he gave the team member some supplies he wanted. The Human Terrain Team member claimed to be joking, but the sergeant and I were mortified.

The shortcomings I saw in Zormat were hardly the extent of the Human Terrain System’s problems. The project suffered from an array of staffing and management issues, coupled with internal disagreements over whether it was meant to gather intelligence, hand out protein bars and peppermints, advise commanders on tribal conflicts or all three — a lack of clear purpose that eventually proved crippling. It outraged anthropologists, who argued that gathering information about indigenous people while embedded in a military unit in active combat posed an intractable ethical conflict. Once the subject of dozens of glowing news stories, the program had fallen so far off reporters’ radar by last fall that the Army was able to quietly pull the plug without a whisper in the mainstream media. (The news was revealed in June by Roberto J. Gonzáles, a San Jose State University anthropologist and longtime critic of the Human Terrain System, on the website of the left-leaning magazine CounterPunch.)

By the time the Human Terrain System was shut down in September, the program had cost American taxpayers more than $700 million and was bereft of purpose; with the war in Iraq purportedly over and deployments to Afghanistan dwindling quickly, it had run out of soldiers to advise. The program isn’t entirely gone; a five-person remnant, including three anthropologists, continues at Fort Leavenworth. Known as the Global Cultural Knowledge Network, it’s a “reachback” center: a United States-based organization that conducts research to help deployed troops with sociocultural questions. Its purpose is, in part, to act as a placeholder. “Should we ever need to ramp up and expand capability, we have this nucleus,” said Gary Phillips, a senior intelligence adviser in the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. But Phillips said his command should never again deploy social scientists to the battlefield, because it lacks the administrative and support infrastructure to manage them. “I think we learned a heck of a lot,” he told me.

Military leaders might have learned these lessons more quickly had they read their own history. In the 1976 book “The Best-Laid Schemes: A Tale of Social Science Research and Bureaucracy,” Seymour J. Deitchman, who held key positions in the Defense Department during the Vietnam War, describes how the United States government and defense establishment came to realize that the culture and beliefs of the people Americans were fighting among and against in places like Vietnam remained utterly mysterious — and that this lack of understanding was hurting efforts to convince locals to support America’s cause. “The philosophical underpinnings of the political and economic theories on which we based our actions were complex and more specific to our culture than to that of the Vietnamese — or, for that matter, the culture of other countries with which we had become involved,” Deitchman writes.

The book chronicles a proliferation of government-funded efforts to learn about the world that unfolded during the Vietnam War. One sent American researchers to interview North Vietnamese prisoners and defectors about what had motivated them to support the Viet Cong. Another embedded a social scientist in a South Vietnamese village to learn how the Viet Cong, Vietnamese officials, the Vietnamese Army and the people interacted. Project Camelot, probably the best-known military social-science debacle of the period, proposed sending social scientists to Latin America and elsewhere at the Army’s expense to explore the potential for “internal war” — a thinly veiled attempt to get ahead of leftist rebellions breaking out in developing countries around the globe. In Thailand, researchers on American government contracts gathered information about local people suspected of pro-Communist leanings in an effort to safeguard the American-backed regime.

As a counterinsurgency expert in the Defense Department, Deitchman was involved in many of these efforts. He and his colleagues were trying to make the United States military smarter about its enemies, but most of their attempts backfired. Congress shut Camelot down after enraged Latin-American leftists complained. A rising tide of antiwar sentiment on college campuses opened a rift between anthropologists and the government that has endured to this day. Deitchman called the social-science experiments of the 1960s “painful” and concluded that, for the government, the practical and political risks of conducting such research, especially in wartime, far outweighed the gains. The government “should support less, not more, research into the workings of society,” Deitchman wrote. “In the area of learning about societies, their values and their behavior, I now believe that government can be most effective when it follows, rather than leads.”

While I share Deitchman’s misgivings, I don’t agree that the military can afford to get out of the cultural-knowledge business altogether. The Army lost years and many lives in Iraq and Afghanistan because it had to relearn the lessons of Vietnam, among them the need for better cultural intelligence. And the need for cultural understanding isn’t going away. The rise of drones and sociocultural modeling, which uses data to simulate and sometimes predict human responses to conflict and crisis, have given some in the defense establishment the idea that we can do all our fighting safely, from a distance. But we’ve had this idea before, in the decades following Vietnam, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have reminded us of its falsity.

Some military leaders understand this, but solutions that seem easy and bloodless have a broad and powerful appeal. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former Army Training and Doctrine Command commander, said recently that the Army’s experiment with the Human Terrain System was a sign of progress. “Now the question is whether can we sustain it,” Dempsey said. “Or is the institution likely to forget that the understanding of culture, religion and economics of a local society is important? I hope not, and with all the chiefs we seem to be committed to making sure that we don’t forget those lessons, but often the institution will. It is like a rubber band: You stretch it, and then you let it go, and it will go back to its normal form or shape. I’m afraid some of that might occur, if we are not careful.”

First published in The New York Times Magazine.

Source: The Quiet Demise of the Army’s Plan to Understand Afghanistan and Iraq – The New York Times

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Vanessa Gezari
Vanessa M. Gezari has reported from four continents for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and others. Her book on the war in Afghanistan, The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice, was published in 2013. A visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, Vanessa is a former Knight-Wallace Fellow and a three-time Livingston Award finalist. She has received grants from the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism; an International Reporting Project fellowship; and a MacDowell Colony writing residency.

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