Rough terrain for social scientists in Aghan war

An anonymous ex-member of the Human Terrain System, the team of social scientists deployed with the US Military, is now writing on the Wired Danger Room blog about role of the service in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first article notes how in several recent operations the HTS has been notable by its absence.

As we’ve discussed before, the HTS project has been a source of some considerable controversy with fellow social scientists denouncing the project as ‘weaponised anthropology’ that violates the ‘do no harm’ principle.

The military intend the service to help understand the local population and complex alliances that define the social landscape in which they’re fighting but the Wired piece suggests that the Human Terrain System is being sidelined, either due to ignorance of its purpose or dislike of its approach amid the ranks.

How do you properly vet the insurgents you’re trying to “win over” to your side? Is simply promising not to attack your forces enough, or should you press for a formal integration with the government? At what point do a militant’s activities make him irredeemable?

Those are just some of the difficult choices facing U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan – questions explored in a fine, fine dispatch by the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe. In it, he tells the tale of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Brown, who led a group of soldiers during last year’s insurgent assault on Camp Keating, in Kamdesh district of Nuristan province. After the attack, Lt. Col. Brown faced a difficult choice: whether or not to align himself with a local warlord and militant, Mullah Sadiq, who promised to repel future Taliban attacks.

It seems like the sorts of question were designed to be answered by the Human Terrain System. HTS is the famously controversial U.S. Army program to embed various types of social scientists with Brigade Combat Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ostensibly, these Human Terrain Teams should be out, canvassing the local population to gauge their interests, feelings, and preferences. The local HTT is conspicuously absent from Jaffe‚Äôs account of the events following the Kamdesh attack…

In theory, the HTTs would able to offer advice and informed analysis to the various commanders making decisions about how to relate to these communities. Often, the commanders don’t even know enough to ask, and in at least a few cases, the HTTs don’t know how to “pitch” their services. As events in Nuristan indicate, even if there is an HTT in the area, their advice could fall on deaf ears. Worse still: if they are deliberately or even unintentionally excluded from the very process they were deployed to influence—then HTS as a whole is facing a much more serious problem: just what, exactly, are they expected to do?

The Danger Room series from the pseudonymous writer of piece, named ‘Security Crank’, should be an interesting insight into the project although the byline mentions that he or she is currently working in the ‘national security establishment’ so we can probably expect that criticism will only go so far.

Link to Wired Danger Room on HTA in Afghanistan.

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