I want to thank everyone who came out to my book launch Tuesday night at the Stimson Center. I apologize for not writing about that earlier, or the conference I attended over the weekend in Prague, but I’ve been both jet lagged and quite sick in the interim.
The discussion, after my drug-adled ramble about What Afghanistan Means To Me, reminded me of why I love blogging so much: interacting with some incredibly smart, experienced people on difficult topics is rewarding in a way I could never monetize (really). For the record, meeting and conversing with Amb. Ron Neumann, who ran Embassy Kabul from 2005-2007 whilst Karl Eikenberry was the commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, was a genuine honor and pleasure. Colin Cookman smartly created the #foustfest hashtag on Twitter, so you can read that to get an idea of where the discussion traveled.
Jason Fritz, however, raises an interesting point I want to address in a bit more detail. In his review of the launch, he argued:
The second topic that really hit me was the discussion of the HTS and their Human Terrain Teams (HTT) embedded at the brigade level. Josh had worked for them until 18 months ago and had some interesting perspectives. Like all organizations have to deal with, he reported that some teams were really good and some were really bad. Recently, DoD has been moving from a contractor solution to an institutionalized civilian solution to propagate HTS beyond our current wars. I’m actually slightly distressed at this.
I’m a big supporter of the work that the HTS does even if I never had them supporting my units in Iraq. Understanding the locals seems like a pretty good idea to me in any conflict. However, I do question the need to keep large numbers of civilian personnel on the rolls to study areas that we may have conflicts with in the future. Some regional or cultural experts, sure. But not lots. It seems to be a large expenditure that has a small likelihood of ever being practically used.
I don’t often talk about my employment with HTS for a variety of reasons, including a desire not to burn my former employers, but this is an important point. Before 2010, I would have argued that HTS’ biggest weakness was it essentially destroyed a great deal of its own intellectual capital: most of the people who deployed on HTTs were told they should simply quit, or go back to their universities, at the end of their tour. A smaller number—unfortunately, they seemed to be the ones least likely to be employable at a university—stayed around to train future teams.
Such a flight of experience is, in my view, as unforgivable as Jason noted the Army’s habit of ignoring previous units’ experiences in an AOR is. But that ignores a grander point I didn’t make very well on Tuesday about the role of human understanding in modern warfare.
See, from the start, the Human Terrain System was, in effect, a stop-gap measure: a way for the Army to fill a critical intelligence gap in Iraq and Afghanistan—the soldiers know a lot about the insurgents, and about the weapons and tactical situations they face, but comparatively little about the context in which these insurgents and tactics exist. As General Flynn noted in his much-discussed paper for CNAS, many in the operational world still think the Intelligence Community badly fails to fill that gap. In that sense, we can say HTS has in a grand sense failed in its mission.
But it is important to note the military has failed as well. This past April, I attended a conference about culture in Tucson organized by TRADOC, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (which has sponsored, and now administers, HTS). The takeaway from it was utter depression on my part: apparently these conferences have been taking place since 2006, yet still the generals and admirals who run training in the various service branches are still at the stage of saying “culture is important” (one general said he views culture as “just another weapons system,” which put chills of anger and fear down my spine). There are halting efforts to incorporate the idea of cultural awareness into military career tracks, and even a nascent attempt by TRADOC to make a Cultural Adviser an actual job that an Army officer can specialize in. But these efforts are scattered, uncoordinated, and actually step on other job tracks (for example, how would a Cultural Adviser be all that different from a Foreign Area Officer?).
The Intelligence Community, too, has had a hard time adjusting to the idea of cultural awareness. Almost every agency I can think of has a branch or group within it that has “human terrain” in the title, even though that term itself is defined so many ways as to be meaningless in a practical sense. Some interpret it to mean the literal terrain of humans—cultural geography. Others consider it to be another word for studying “militant Islam” (though many organizations also have groups devoted to studying “militant Islam”—what does that even mean?—as a separate topic). Some have simply renamed the general field of HUMINT (human intelligence) so that is now says “human terrain.” And so on.
Missing in all these efforts to incorporate culture or human terrain or whatever the various stakeholders want to call it is a basic idea that to influence an area non-violently, you must understand it on its own terms. Both the DoD and the IC view a concept like culture only in terms of exploitation—studying a society to seek points of fracture, weakness, or controversy for the purpose of exploiting the emotions around those points to achieve some goal. It is an inherently self-limiting process.
One of the reasons HTS still has value, despite its many failures and faults (and trust me, there are more than even the harshest critics of the program can discuss), is because it can fill that gap. The people in HTS have an obvious purpose, which is to enable counterinsurgency operations. But they also (by and large: team performance is uneven to say the least) focus on understanding communities in their own contexts—not just seeking important locals to influence, but also understanding broad themes and forces in play at the societal level. When that understanding is added to the planning process at the Brigade level, the results can be truly remarkable—better, faster results in specific areas, with far less violence.
Yet HTS is dying. I will be surprised if it exists past the war in Afghanistan, due to the many political and policy mistakes of its leadership. And so, rather than having a centralized place within the DOD for developing a comprehensive doctrine for training people to understand cultures, there is growing a mishmash of only vaguely connected military and intelligence groups that kind of sort of “do culture” but don’t really talk with each other. That, to me, is the biggest tragedy of what HTS has become: a broken promise.
None of this, by the way, is in my book. But it was the context of our discussion about it on Tuesday. Maybe sometime, there will be a chance to have more of one… or, if I ever get some free time again, I can organize these rather inchoate thoughts on the topic into something structured with arguments and evidence. Here’s hoping!