Human Terrain System

This piece first aired in June, 2010, as part of the show, “The Human Terrain”

Listen here.

    Host Intro: In Iraq and Afghanistan U.S forces are employing social scientists to aid in the efforts to more effectively fight the war. However, the program has faced fierce criticism by some in the Anthropology community. Kyle Crawford reports.

    KYLE CRAWFORD: General David Petraeus said “the core of any counterinsurgency strategy must focus on the fact that the decisive terrain is the human terrain, not the high ground or river crossing.” With this in mind, the military has been embedding social scientists with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2006 so that the military can better understand the local culture they are operating in. The program that the military has employed to do this is called the Human Terrain System, or HTS.

    However, for almost as long as the program has existed there has been strong opposition to it. The American Anthropological Association, has deemed the program as an unacceptable application of anthropology. And the Network for concerned anthropologists says that the program does not work, is a waste of money and is dangerous. The military on the other hand, argues that the program is a valuable tool in fighting a more effective war against the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Steve Fondacaro has been the project manager of HTS since its creation. I asked him to give an example of how HTS has been able to help military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. One example he gave was of a common activity he says occurs often in the middle east – celebratory gunfire that is associated with marriages.

    STEVE FONDACARO: A US military unit operating in that area may not know that it is very possible that that unit could mistake that celebratory gunfire as an act of violence. Or an act of agression against their presence in the area. Particuarly units on the ground or attack helicpoters in the air. And not knowing that they could mistake that celebratory gunfire for an aggressive act that they then take counter violent actions against…an attack upon a peaceful celebration of a marriage and would result in thousands more of the population moving towards support of insugent groups and against the American or coalition military mission in country.

    KYLE CRAWFORD: The American Anthropological Association, however, sees serious ethical problems with the program. Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at Brown University and founding member of the Network for Concerned Anthropologists, describes how HTS violates one of the most basic principles of research. That it should do no harm.

    CATHERINE LUTZ: One of the basic premises of all social science research is that prior to doing the work one has to certify, think about and certify that the information will be collected in ways that will not lead to harm of the subjects. And obviously in this case that this can’t be assured and if anything one can be quite assured that just the opposite will be the case.

    KYLE CRAWFORD: But Fondacaro doesn’t agree with Lutz’s take on do no harm

    STEVE FONDACARO: I understand the concept of do no harm but for HTS we are dealing with a problem that is resulting in the violent death primarily not just of our service members but of vast numbers of members of the civilian populace. That in and of itself something that requires proaction on the part of somebody.

    KYLE CRAWFORD: Fondacaro provides an analogy to help explain why the do no harm doctrine is not realistic.

    STEVE FONDACARO: It’s I mean virtually its like telling somebody who makes hammers. You shouldn’t make hammers unless you can guarantee that no one will use that hammer for a violent purpose.

    KYLE CRAWFORD: Another ethical concern that some raise relates to another principle of research. That subjects involved must provide informed consent.

    CATHERINE LUTZ: Some of the anthropologists will have gone into the field with side arms and or certainly will be surrounded by and clearly allied with the men and women with the large guns and so the idea that anyone would be free to, would feel free in their ability to say yes or no to cooperate with the US.

    KYLE CRAWFORD: Fondacaro explains that the federal regulation which requires researchers to protect human subjects does not apply to HTS but even though that is the case HTS is creating an ethics code of its own.

    STEVE FONDACARO: We’ve taken that to our legal authorities and they have ruled that we are HTS in terms of its activities are exempt under those requirements.

    HTS is and is very near completion of developing our own ethical guidelines even though we are exempt under 32CFR219.

    KYLE CRAWFORD: Catherine Lutz, wanted to make it clear that her concerns with the program were not just ethical ones.

    CATHERINE LUTZ: those ethical concerns are quite secondary to the political concerns that most of us have, which is to say the ideas that counterinsurgency war, occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan are themselves wrong. So to aid in that project is wrong.

    KYLE CRAWFORD: Keith Brown, a colleague of Lutz’s at Brown University has many concerns of his own about HTS though he thinks thinks that the response anthropologists have given may have been premature.

    KEITH BROWN: I am a skeptic in terms of taking very strong and final positions before the data is in. And so I was I felt that the initial position of the AAA which condemnded the Human Terrain System early on, I can’t imagine from my point of view it didn’t do justice to our own traditions of empiracally grounded position. In other words I found it odd that we take on face on claims on what it was and wasn’t and make our final judgement.

    KYLE CRAWFORD: Perhaps, Brown will soon get an empirically grounded judgement on HTS. The House Armed Services Committee will limit further funding for HTS until an independent assessment of the program is delivered. The committee said that the army has not paid enough attention to certain concerns surrounding the program. Fondacaro, though, was not worried when asked about the committee’s words.

    Only days after speaking with Fondacaro, I learned that he had left the program. The army would not go into details about his departure only saying that Fondacaro was valuable in turning HTS from concept to reality.

    Max Forte, a professor of anthropology at Concordia University sees the House Armed Services Commitee’s recent statement and Fondacaro’s departure as possibly connected.

    MAX FORTE: This very sort of luke warm statement from the House Armed Services Commitee which in the past has been very enthusistic about HTS and now is speaking in terms of perhaps looking elsewhere and not continuing any further funding. So a lot of very serious things are happening all at once. Whether that had a role in his being removed from the program we can’t know for sure.

    KYLE CRAWFORD: Forte went on to say more about the Committee’s recent position on the program.

    MAX FORTE: There has been a definite change in the language of the House Armed Services Commitee. Something I have traced in the two or three years that they have actually issued statements about HTS. And this one in particular speaks about the army not having paid sufficient attention to addressing certain concerns.

    KYLE CRAWFORD: Fondacro said that the report should be delivered soon and the funding limit which is for 2011 would be lifted.

    Currently 30 Human Terrain Teams are operating with 14 in Iraq and and 16 Afghanistan. As the U.S draws down troop levels in Iraq there will be fewer teams there and more in Afghanistan. But with the leadership of the program and funding in jeopardy it seems that HTS is approaching a critical time.

    For War News Radio, I’m Kyle Crawford.