Human Terrain Systems, Anthropologists and the War in Afghanistan

“Agricola first laid waste the land. Then he displayed to the natives his moderation.”

— Tacitus

A core feature of the Obama administration’s plans for victories in Iraq and Afghanistan has been an increased reliance on counterinsurgency, as Americans try to win the hearts and minds of peoples whose countries they’ve invaded. Some critics highlight similarities between Kennedy’s and Obama’s interest in counterinsurgency as a tool to conquer peoples who have historically been difficult, if not impossible, for outside colonial powers to dominate. President Obama’s reliance on old Harvard hands to socially engineer conquest justifies many of these comparisons.

Even counterinsurgency’s lustiest cheerleaders, such as the political scientist David Kilcullen, admit that historical instances of successfully using counterinsurgency for military victories have been extremely rare in the past half-century. But Washington’s counterinsurgency believers share a certain hubris, or vanity, that they are clever enough to overcome this daunting record of historical failure.

While political science was the academic discipline which the wars of the twentieth century drew upon, the asymmetrical wars of the twenty-first century now look toward anthropology with hopes of finding models of culture, or data on specific cultures to be conquered or to be used in counterinsurgency operations. But anthropology is not political science, and anthropologists have different commitments to those who share their lives and vulnerabilities with them.

The counterinsurgency program generating the greatest friction among anthropologists today is Human Terrain Systems (HTS) – a program with over 400 employees, originally operating through private contractors and now in the process of being taken over by the U.S. Army. Human Terrain embeds anthropologists with military units to ease the occupation and conquest of Iraqis and Afghanis – with plans to extend these operations in Africa through expanding units with AFRICOM. Some HTS social scientists are armed, others choose not to. In the last two years, three HTS social scientists have been killed in the course of their work, and HTS member Don Ayala recently pled guilty in U.S. District Court to killing an Afghan (whom Ayala shot in the head-execution style while the victim was detained with his hands cuffed behind him) who had attacked HTS social scientist Paula Loyd.

The anthropologist Montgomery McFate has become the public spokesperson for Human Terrain, and while she has increasingly pulled back from public discussions of the workings and implications of Human Terrain, in reading her early writings on British counterinsurgency operations against the IRA, we find a model of how she (and, it appears, her military sponsors) view anthropology working as a tool for military conquest. Supporters of HTS claim the program uses embedded social scientists to help reduce “kinetic engagements,” or unnecessary violent contacts with the populations they encounter. The idea is to use these social scientists to interact with members of the community, creating relationships to reduce misunderstandings that can lead to unnecessarily violent interactions.

HTS sells itself to the public through remarkably well-organized domestic propaganda campaigns that have seen dozens of uncritical articles on HTS, with personality profiles, as a “peaceful” means of achieving victory.

Today, in Iraq and Afghanistan, anthropologists are being told that they’re needed to make bad situations better. But no matter how anthropological contributions ease and make gentle this conquest and occupation, it will not change the larger neocolonial nature of the larger mission; and most anthropologists are troubled to see their discipline embrace such a politically corrupt cause.

Human Terrain Systems is not some neutral humanitarian project, it is an arm of the U.S. military and is part of the military’s mission to occupy and destroy opposition to U.S. goals and objectives. HTS cannot claim the sort of neutrality claimed by groups like Doctors Without Borders, or the International Committee of the Red Cross. HTS’s goal is a gentler form of domination. Pretending that the military is a humanitarian organization does not make it so, and pretending that HTS is anything other than an arm of the military engaging in a specific form of conquest is sheer dishonesty.

Human Terrain Systems and other counterinsurgency projects raise serious political, ethical and practical problems for anthropologists and other social scientists. Central to anthropologists’ criticisms of the HTS program are concerns that HTS social scientists’ reports can be used by military and intelligence agencies in ways that can make studied populations vulnerable. Safeguards protecting gathered data for use by military or intelligence agencies are absent. The leaked Human Terrain Systems Handbook, available on Wikileaks, clarifies the program’s lack of ethical precautions to protect studied populations. In November of 2007, soon after HTS became public knowledge, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association denounced HTS for its failure to assure that fundamental principles of anthropological ethics were being followed to assure the safety and protection of people being studied by HTS in the theaters of battle and occupation where HTS operates.

Because of HTS’s obvious ethical problems and the American Anthropological Association’s blunt condemnation of the program, HTS has had a difficult time recruiting qualified anthropologists to work on the program. Most HTS anthropologists have no significant regional fieldwork prior to their employment with the program. Over the last few months, so many managerial problems with HTS have come to light that it is being discontinued as a program run by private contractors, BAE Systems, and, as noted above, plans are underway for the program to be taken over by the Army. Whether or not HTS continues to exist as a program in the future is unclear, but regardless of the program’s future, the military’s appetites for ethnographic information and intelligence for counterinsurgency operations will continue. Because counterinsurgency has become the Obama administration’s alchemical solution for the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan, we should consider the philosophical roots supporting the sickly promise of military victory, not simply stability, through culturally informed counterinsurgency. An examination of some important, ignored roots of the Human Terrain project can shed light on some of the ways that HTS and ethnographically informed counterinsurgency programs fit in with the larger developments in robotically dominated battlefields.

McFate’s “better killing”

While working on her doctorate in anthropology at Yale in the early 1990s, Montgomery McFate undertook fieldwork and library research focusing on the resistance of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and British military counterinsurgency campaigns in Northern Ireland. She was not yet married to stability operations specialist and retired army officer, Sean McFate, and her dissertation appears under her maiden name, Montgomery Carlough. She focused on the 1969-1982 period, and British army changes away from strictly tactical military responses to more culturally callibrated counterinsurgency campaigns during those years. McFate’s research was supported by a mix of fellowships ranging from the National Science Foundation, Mellon, and several Yale-based fellowships directed toward international security issues.

McFate recently explained that her dissertation examined “how cultural narratives, handed down from generation to generation, contributed to war,” and “how people justify violence.” This resume might lead one to assume her research was balanced between the positions of the Irish insurgents and British counterinsurgents. Such an impression would be false. Her dissertation reads as a guide for militaries wanting to stop indigenous insurgent movements.

This was not a cultural study designed to give voice to the concerns of an oppressed people so that others might come to see their internal narrative as valid; it was designed to make those she studied vulnerable to cooptation and defeat.

For her dissertation fieldwork, McFate made multiple trips to Ireland and met with members of the occupying British military and of the Provisional IRA, but when she wrote up her dissertation, she made a conscious decision not only not to identify whom she had spoken with, but also not to directly quote from these interactions. In her dissertation, McFate claimed that her decision not quote from these fieldwork experiences was done for disciplinary ethical reasons.

McFate’s proclaimed concern in 1994 over the ethical protection of research participants is admirable, and stands in stark contrast to Human Terrain’s later disregard of such ethical protections. It remains unknown what happened to her notes and other records from interviews with IRA members, but given McFate’s current work in environments requiring security clearances, such past contacts and records would have raised many questions when she applied for her security clearance. It would be standard operating procedure during a security clearance background investigation to ask about the identity of her 1990s contacts with the Provisional IRA and other groups, as it would be to ask such a clearance applicant for field notes and other such material.

McFate’s early counterinsurgency years provide a significantly less guarded glimpse at her (then) understanding of the promise of anthropology’s role in counterinsurgency. This younger, less prudent McFate avoided the sort of softening language with which she now calls her “mercenaries” of yesteryear “independent military subcontractors”. While she now avoids linking militarized anthropology with killing, in her dissertation days, she more openly asked if “one could conclude that ethnocentrism – bad anthropology – interferes with the conduct of war. But does good anthropology contribute to better killing?” Though an affirmative answer to this rhetorical question is implied, McFate left this question unanswered. McFate today categorically rejects claims that Human Terrain Teams are involved in using anthropology for what she referred to in 1994 as “better killing.” But HTS anthropologist Audrey Roberts recently told the Dallas Morning News that she does not worry that her data may be used by the military when “looking for bad guys to kill.”

McFate’s dissertation identified two counterinsurgency elements requiring anthropological skills. The first involved psychological warfare operations, where cultural readings could be used for defining perceptions of one’s enemy because “creating a mask for the enemy to wear is essential for psychological warfare,” while the second argued that “knowledge of the enemy leads to a refinement in know-
ledge of how best to kill the enemy”.

The desire to understand and re-humanize an enemy and the rationalizations of the enemy’s motivations is at the heart of counterinsurgency operations, and McFate argued these goals hold vital roles for anthropology, writing that:

“The fundamental contradiction between ‘knowing’ your enemy in order to develop effective strategy, and de-humanizing him in order to kill efficiently is a theme to which we will return. Suffice to say, that the dogs of war do have a pedigree, which is often ‘anthropological’ and that counterinsurgency strategy depends not just on practical experience on the battlefield, but on historically derived analogical models of prior conflict. Paraphrasing Lévi-Strauss, enemies are not only good to kill, enemies are good to think.”

Here McFate expressed a desire for PSYOP anthropologists to use anthropological conceptions of cultural relativism to understand how enemies view the world and to use this information to better understand how one’s own actions or use of symbols will be interpreted by enemies. McFate insists on ethnographies of enemies in order to out-think them, because “understanding the possible intentions of the enemy entails being able to think like the enemy; in other words, successful pre-emptive counter moves depend on simulating the strategy of the opponents.”

McFate wanted military forces to understand how their actions have undesired consequences that they cannot understand, unless they learn to see things from within the enemy’s mindset. This approach is often spun by McFate and her supporters as being a desire to use anthropology so that less violence will be used by U.S. forces. But McFate and HTS supporters desire minimal force because they believe it leads to a more efficient occupation, cooption and conquest of enemies, not because they object to occupation, cooption and conquest. This presents serious political problems for most anthropologists, and given anthropology’s often odious past role as a handmaiden to colonialism, these issues easily move from the realm of individual politics to disciplinary politics, and properly raise the attentions of disciplinary professional associations.

Drones and  Human Intelligence

Today, reliance on military robotics and drones in Iraq and Afghanistan progresses at a startling rate. In the span of the past six years, the robotic presence in these theaters has increased from a state when there were no military robotic units to today’s total of over 12,000 robotic devices in use, with over 5,000 flying drones in use. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) like the Predator, with a flight range of over 2,000 miles, an ability to remain airborne at high elevations for over 24 hours at a time, advanced optical surveillance capabilities with the remote pilots linked by satellite half the world away, can track and kill humans on the ground. Other earthbound robots like the PackBot and Talon detonate landmines or roadside bombs, while some like Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System have options of being armed with M-16s and other weapons.

The impact of this tactical shift has radically changed the U.S. military’s ability to track and control occupied and enemy populations. As P.W. Singer shows in Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, battlefields and occupations are being revolutionized in ways that are quickly progressing beyond strategists’ ability to understand how these increases in remote tracking, controlling and killing are impacting the cultures they are physically dominating. But, unsurprisingly, increases in robotic-panoptical monitoring and control have negative consequences for American interests, as mechanical manipulation reveals deep divisions between the worlds of machines and humans. To her credit, a decade and a half ago, McFate understood how such dynamics would play out, though her “practical” solution to such dilemmas is mired in irresolvable political and ethical problems for the anthropologists that would become the sensors for the machines dominating these battlefields.

Early-McFate’s most insightful statements concerning military needs for anthropological knowledge focus on high-tech warfare’s inability to decipher or address the human reactions and problems created by warfare. McFate understood that “global positioning systems and cruise missiles won’t pay for your ammunition in Kurdistan. Low-intensity conflict requires human generated intelligence, local knowledge, and mission-oriented tactics. Atavistic modes of intelligence collection – espionage, infiltration – take precedence over more sophisticated techniques in these conditions. Thus, an interesting inversion occurs: as the technological sophistication of the enemy declines, reliance on intelligence derived from human sources (HUMINT) increases.”

McFate was correct. While battlefields become increasingly dominated by high-tech gadgetry and panoptical drones, iris-scanners and computer tracking software, something like the currently attempted Human Terrain Teams will be needed to gather human knowledge on the ground. McFate’s early writings clarify why those designing counterinsurgency campaigns crave anthropological knowledge – and given the economic collapse’s impact on the anthropological job market, I would not preclude the likelihood of some measure of success, especially as these calls for anthropological assistance are increasingly framed in under false flags of “humanitarian assistance” or as reducing lethal engagements.

Nabokov riddles his novel Lolita with references to a form of destiny referred to as “McFate,” which are cruel turns of apparent coincidence that set characters upon paths linking their destinies with larger themes. In Nabokov’s world, the “synchronizing phantom” of McFate arranges what might have been chance events into patterns revealing if not providence, then at least a recurrence of trajectories. In only a partial Nabokovian sense, anthropology’s McFate merges old anthropological and military themes together in ways revealing new uses for anthropology that the core of the discipline will be increasingly unable to control regardless of how offensive these uses are to core anthropological values.

It’s not that anthropology and warfare haven’t merged before; they have fatefully merged in all sorts of ways that have been historically documented. One stark difference is that today’s counterinsurgent abuses of anthropological knowledge occur after the discipline of anthropology has clearly identified such activities as betraying basic ethical standards for protecting the interests and well-being of studied populations. Anthropologists’ professional activites in the Second World War occurred without the existence of professional ethical codes of conduct, and it was a direct result of anthropological misconduct during the Vietnam War that the American Anthropological Association developed its first formalized Code of Ethics in 1971. It insisted that anthropologists’ primary loyalties be to those studied, that research not lead to events harming research participants. There was to be no secret research. There were mandates for voluntary informed consent. That HTS throws up weak sophistic arguments claiming that their involvement in warfare reduces harm changes nothing.

The notion of using anthropologists and other social scientists to gather information, probe and soothe the feelings of those living in these environments, increasingly monitored and controlled by machines, strikes me as an anthropological abomination. Given what we know anthropologically about the complexities of how culture works, it also seems doomed to failure.

Simple notions of mechanical, disarticulated representations of culture can be found in the Army’s new Counterinsurgency Field Manual, in which particular forms of anthropological theory were selected not because they “work” or are intellectually cohesive but because they offer the promise of “managing” the complexities of culture, as if increased sensitivities, greater knowledge, panoptical legibility could be used in a linear fashion to engineer domination. Such notions of culture fit the military’s structural view of the world. It is the false promise of “culture” as a controllable, linear product that drives the COIN Team’s particular construction of “culture.” Within the military, the COIN Team is not alone in this folly: I’ve just finished a critique of the recently leaked Special Forces Advisor Guide (TC-31-73), and found a widespread adoption of dated anthropological notions of culture and personality theories, being selected and used to produce essentialized reductions of entire continents as having a limited set of uniform cultural traits.

What McFate’s writings and those of fellow-counterinsurgency supporters do not address is just how difficult it is for anthropologists, or anyone else, to successfully pull off the sort of massive cultural engineering project, needed for a counterinsurgency-based victory Afghanistan. Those advocating anthropologically informed counterinsurgency are remarkably silent concerning just how difficult it is to bring about engineered culture change. There is no mention of applied anthropology’s failures to get people to do simple things (like recycling, losing weight, reducing behaviors associated with the spread of HIV, etc.) – basic things that are in their own self-interest. These counterinsurgency advocates think they can leverage social structure and hegemonic narratives so that the occupied will internalize their own captivity as “freedom.”

Beyond Human Terrain Systems, the Pentagon and the State Department can come up with other counterinsurgent uses for anthropologists – many of which will not alarm anthropologists in the ways that HTS, with its armed presence, does – but, given the manipulative forms of cultural engineering goals behind these projects, many of the same ethical and political issues are raised by anthropologists’ participation in this work. Anthropologists and others being recruited to try and enact these counterinsurgency dreams risk confusing a supportive role in the wake of military decimation with engaging in humanitarian work. And the reliance of “soft power” on building hospitals, schools, supplying microloans and other agents of apparent gentle persuasions will help bring many liberals into the counterinsurgency fold, but it doesn’t resolve the problems of the larger project, even if the machines seeking our help are armed not with bombs and bullets but with the dolling of needed loans, food, water, health and infrastructure.

DAVID PRICE is a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologist.  He is the author of Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, published by Duke University Press, and a contributor to the Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ new book Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual published last month by Prickly Paradigm Press. He can be reached at

David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.