Learning to Navigate Social Networks

by Joshua Foust on 12/1/2007

Wired‘s Noah Shachtman wrote a fascinating story about how the U.S. military’s over-reliance on technology nearly lost them Iraq, and still might have pushed it too far beyond the ability to save. He also wrote how their new focus on social networks—basically, understanding the people whose “hearts and minds” they want to win, and playing into their preferences and desires—is what shows such promise for turning the tide.

Iraq is obviously outside our mandate here, and we will not discuss the politics of that conflict, but it was a complaint remarkably similar to our complaints about much of the mission in Afghanistan: a misunderstanding of local cultures and concerns, coupled with insensitive and counterproductive and tech-heavy tactics such as aerial bombing and crop spraying, have been sending the countryside into the arms of the Taliban.

In essence, it was a profound critique of what is known as Network Centric Warfare (something I have touched on before with regards to Afghanistan). Of course, those who have invested heavily in the concept—such as famous powerpoint ranger Thomas Barnett—have reacted with what can only be called irrational hatred. Again, discussing the nuances of Iraq are far beyond our mandate here, but suffice it to say while Shachtman’s essay was not perfect (almost nothing ever is), it hasn’t warranted the harsh reaction by Barnett.

That being said, Shachtman might be guilty of misunderstanding some things in his follow-up piece on the Human Terrain System.

Zenia Helbig was a little surprised when she got a call last March asking her to join a controversial U.S. Army program to embed social scientists into combat units… Over the course of the next nine months, Helbig was hired for — and suddenly suspended from — the Human Terrain Team, or HTT, program. She asked Congress to investigate her firing. And, now, on Thursday, she’s joining up with the program’s most bitter foes, to fight the project she once was flattered to be considered for.

For starters, Human Terrain Teams are the units that are deployed to combat zones—Iraq and Afghanistan—to do local research and outreach. The Human Terrain System is the name of the program itself. That Shachtman, who protests his subtle understanding of counterinsurgency in his bicker-fight with Barnett, gets something this basic wrong is a bit confusing. But it doesn’t stop there:

Helbig’s challenge is an inconvenient black mark on the military’s promising effort to give battlefield commanders a set of cultural advisers. The idea behind HTTs is to take what a brigade already knows about the local population and combine it with social-science research, to produce a sense of how the society around them really works. The Army has set aside $41 million for the effort, which aims to deploy 150 social scientists, software geeks, and experts on local culture, split up and embedded with 26 different military units in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next year. Six HTTs are already on the ground…

Not long after, Helbig found her job in jeopardy, as well. To deploy with an HTT, social scientists had to obtain a secret-level security clearance. Helbig knew this wasn’t going to be simple. Her studies had twice taken her to religious conferences in Iran. During the first of the two meetings, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — then the mayor of Tehran — took the western scholars out to dinner. “We talked for like 10 minutes,” Helbig says.

Taken by itself, the meal was explainable; she even received an interim clearance. Then came complaints about a joke she had made during an exercise at Fort Hood, Texas. Over a beer in a base parking lot, Helbig laughed, “OK, if we invade Iran, that’s where I draw the line, hop the border and switch sides.”

Fondacaro told Helbig’s boss to tell her to be careful. But other members of the program were not amused. On August 7, she was suspended from the program; “due to numerous comments and questions, her allegiance to the United States and her preference towards the Iraqi government is in question,” a Defense Security Service report says — a puzzling charge, because Helbig’s comments were about Iran, not Iraq.

A few minutes after she was suspended, Helbig got a phone call announcing her security clearance had been revoked.

It really isn’t so puzzling. If someone is involved in work that requires a high level clearance and they talk openly of switching sides during a war, they lose their clearance and get fired. It is very simple; even joking about committing treason is reason enough terminate employment. So if she didn’t mean it, she’s just stupid and demonstrates remarkably poor judgment; if she did, then she has no business holding a clearance for anything.

Now, it is entirely possible the military overreacted; they tend to do that. But they also do not play around. It is not difficult to tell the difference between appropriate criticism and what Helbig did.

The more interesting news of Shachtman’s piece is what the Human Terrain System (not “Team program,” as he called it) is accomplishing in Afghanistan.

In September, a preliminary report seen by Wired News on the first Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan showed a major drop in violence, thanks largely to the team’s efforts… A “preliminary assessment” of the first HTT, obtained by Wired News, shows the potential impact these social-science groups can make. In western Afghanistan, the 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne had come under a steady stream of attacks, despite “a very aggressive outreach effort to village elders,” the report notes. The Human Terrain Team embedded with the brigade observed that the true power brokers in the area were the mullahs — the local religious leaders.

“After redirecting their outreach effort to the mullahs,” the 4th Brigade “experienced a rapid and dramatic decrease in Taliban attacks…. In the words of the brigade commander, ‘For five years, we got nothing from the community. After meeting with the mullahs, we had no more bullets for 28 days; captured 80 Afghan-born Taliban, 10 Pakistanis, and 32 killed or captured Arabs.’”

Despite whatever growing pains are apparent in a program that represents a major paradigm shift in how the military operates—the HTS is neither an intelligence program, nor civil affairs, nor public relations, but a strange hybrid of all three plus many other things that don’t come naturally to the DoD—that is an achievement worth celebrating.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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