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Human Terrain Systems Dissenter Resigns, Tells Inside Story of Training’s Heart of Darkness


I first came into contact with cultural anthropologist John Allison a couple of years ago when he invited me to join a session of a global organization of archaeologists presenting innovative papers at the World Archaeology Congress in Dublin, including themes related to military uses of anthropology and archaeology.  I couldn’t make the conference, but we corresponded occasionally after that.  I hadn’t heard from John in a while, and then last November I suddenly got an email from him telling me that he was writing me from inside the Human Terrain Systems training program in Leavenworth, Kansas.

My initial inclination was to wonder if this was a gag, or, having written several critiques of the Human Terrain Systems program describing why it is an ethical and practical anthropological disaster, whether someone was setting me up.  While I’ve had several other Human Terrain social scientists write me with complaints about the program, it didn’t seem likely that Human Terrain Systems (HTS) would hire someone with John’s politically progressive views.  But the email address was the same one John had used for years, and John’s story checked out and made sense, so I approached our correspondence along the lines of his initial request to help him organize his focus and to understand critiques of HTS. As he undertook his HTS training, we corresponded and I passed along articles, and offered friendship and critiques of what he was learning in this training; not that John needed help with this critique, the flaws in the program were pretty obvious to him.

John explained to me that a few weeks earlier he had lost his job working as a Cultural Resource Management archaeologist. He had been terminated for fulfilling his duties as a Program Manager, which led to him being accused of failing to follow the Chain of Command after having consulted with the California State Historic Preservation Officer. Within minutes of posting his resume on a job hunting website, he was contacted by a HTS contractor and recruited to begin training as a HTS social scientist.  The contractor indicated John was just what they were looking for because he had conducted anthropological fieldwork in Afghanistan in 1969-70 while working towards a PhD in anthropology.  So, the Human Terrain program recognized him as potentially a very valuable asset to the program.  All this for a handsome salary during the pre-deployment training stage at a rate that is twice the salary I earn as a full professor.

Given the public claims that the Human Terrain program is saving lives of Afghan civilians, it made sense that John Allison would consider joining Human Terrain Systems (HTS).  HTS proponents claim that it mixes ethnographic fieldwork and troop education in ways that will reduce violent interactions between troops and occupied/enemy populations.  But the claims of what Human Terrain Teams (HTT) accomplish are far different from the reality; and anthropologists’ ethical commitments to secure voluntary informed consent and to not harm studied populations creates insurmountable ethical problems for anthropologists in the HTS program.  A recently released detailed report written by a commission of the American Anthropological Association (of which I was a contributor) found that HTS was an ethical and practical failure that sloppily mixed education, research and intelligence gathering functions and had such poor safeguards that it inevitably contributes to the targeting of populations.  This report concluded that, “when ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment – all characteristic factors of the HTS concept and its application – it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology.”  Yet, the well orchestrated PR campaigns pitching HTS to the public has made it an inviting program for many.

From the beginning, John was skeptical of the claims offered by the Human Terrain Systems program.  While his research in Afghanistan, not to mention the deaths of Afghan friends  made the possibility of reducing harm a personal issue; he was skeptical that the military could use anthropological knowledge in ways that would serve the Afghan people.  Given the range of claims about the Human Terrain program and conflicting reports that its social scientists did or didn’t engage in targeting or collect intelligence, he knew he was in a unique position to observe how the training program approached these issues; and the closed door reports from HTS team members reporting in from “down range” could provide a clear view of these and other issues.

Since mid-October I’ve heard from John several times each week.  Sometimes John wrote me, asking for links to articles and sources on HTS; things like the American Anthropological Association’s 2009 report on HTS, and articles written by Roberto González and other members of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. Other times he wrote with brief reports on the day’s activities.

Early on, a lot of my correspondence with John consisted of just sending him journal articles, drafts of papers I was working on or the same news clips that I regularly sent to friends.  A few days after his initial email, I sent John a link to a pretty typical, uncritical HTS story that had come out in World Politics Review, writing that I thought “it reads like the dozens of uncritical propaganda pieces that have come before it.  Anything that you can gather on how the forty or fifty of these uncritical hegemonic press reports keep coming off the assembly line might be interesting–it isn’t really a mystery how it works, it just might be interesting for you to watch how these reporters are corn-fed the party line from the inside.”

John replied, that the function of these ongoing uncritical feature profiles on Human Terrain was clarified for him earlier that day when a retired Colonel had spoken to the group about the status of HTS, explaining that,

“the program is still in the status of a Project. Projects are funded from year to year as non-recurring line items. They are trying to get the status of ‘Program,’ which is a recurring budget line item.  So, all these articles that are published in the military press and in public media, are attempting to influence both the military budget decision-makers and anyone in the civilian sector who might be able to influence the military decision-makers.  That is what it is all about: budget turf wars.”

Some of what is told to the media in these PR stories is simply not true.  But the impossibility of Human Terrain Teams ever achieving most of the claimed outcomes, such as establishing local rapport and being the patient listening face of a harsh military occupation, so regularly fed to the American public, was made very clear to HTS trainees.  In late November John wrote that,

“One interesting fact that was revealed today is that the time that an anthropologist or social scientist has to finish an interview before the probability of a sniper attack becomes drastically high, is about 7 minutes. How deep an understanding, rapport or trust develops in 7 minutes?  It seems that the ‘data’ sought is very limited to operationally tactically useful stuff. For anything deeper, they “reach back” to the research centers for work from anthropologists that they will use without permission and without attribution.”

Classical ethnographic research usually takes a year or more of fieldwork before anthropologists begin figuring how things work. Given HTS’s difficulty in hiring culturally competent social scientists, seven minutes isn’t even enough time for an ethnographer to get properly confused.  John’s reference to a “reach back” to Human Terrain research centers refers to the program’s theoretical practice (theoretical, because the technology doesn’t work as designed) of HTT field social scientists linking with US based HTT staff accessing published and unpublished social science data for use by HTT social scientists down range, with or without consulting with and getting permission of the researcher for using their data for this purpose.

Several emails from John detailed how the training used a classroom setting with a pretext of “teaching” and fostering “discussions” as a way to impart heavy-handed distortions about topics ranging from counterinsurgency, history, anthropological research methods and norms of ethical anthropological practice.

Some Human Terrain Team classroom training tried to address questions of ethics.  But John wrote me that these classes were “strictly pro forma as, no doubt, required; but not much relevant discussion of the salient moral/ethical questions about what we would be required to do as integral part of a platoon.”   But John wrote me that anthropological ethics conflict with HTS mission, and rather than focusing on ethics, the training focused on:

 “the pressure to conform to the military mindset by the dominant and majority of the class that is military, either in uniform or in civilian clothes. If you don’t join the lockstep notion that a US life is much more valuable than an Afghan life, then you will get marginalized and stigmatized in the class and down-graded during the peer review process. Most civilian ‘social scientists’ (which include historians, psychologists and industrial psychologists) have merged into that military mindset. The few who have not are being made to feel our separateness. If I was allowed to go downrange, those who would be my Team Leader would relish to opportunity to get rid of me at the first difference of opinion.”

John wrote that one of the training instructors, a Ph.D. anthropologist who worked mostly with statistical sociological methods as a public relations consultant teaching the class in “Ethnographic Field Methods” – that never touched on the central methods of ethnography – dismissed the ethical complication of HTS ethnography telling the class that, “Consent is implied by the continued participation” of the ‘informant’, and also, by those who join in the discussion without an invitation.”   Not only is this a predatory standard of consent, but it runs counter to the Nuremberg Code, the Belmont Report, and US federal research consent guidelines.

Human Terrain Systems is desperate to hire anthropologists, but the ethical problems presented for anthropologists working on HTS counterinsurgency operations makes it difficult to keep actual anthropologists in the program.   John had important insights into the program’s failures to hire anthropologists or social scientists with pertinent cultural or linguistic experiences:

“Though they want to have an anthropologist be the HTT Social Scientist, they are happy to get anyone with what could be remotely considered an ‘advanced’ degree in a social science.  So, although we have five anthropologists, we also have several historians, an economist, an industrial psychologist, etc; and only one for the Iraq group and one (me) for the Afghanistan group has any previous experience in the region of their destination.”

There are good historical reasons why anthropologists find HTS’s practices to run counter to their disciplinary commitments to the people with whom they share their lives when doing fieldwork.  Historians and industrial psychologists often approach the people they study as “objects,” or in ways that are more distant, or are fundamentally different than anthropologists.  After reading these observations about the program’s difficulties in finding anthropologists, I wrote to John that,

“Though the HTS dream is to use anthropologists, it will have a next to impossible time hiring any (or at least any decent ones, esp. not ones with actually field research in the areas where HTS will work—today Afghanistan, tomorrow AFRICOM), so they will grab historians, religious studies, political science, accountants etc. to fill the gap, but these people won’t come from disciplines that champion ethnographic fieldwork.”

John wrote me that HTT personnel are given cursory lectures on research ethics, including information on the basics of the Nuremberg Code and ethical principles by professional organizations such as the American Anthropological Association, but that the specifics of how to negotiate ethical research in armed, occupied settings are not made clear to students.  But such discussions are by far overshadowed by the demands of the larger military mission which HTS personnel exist to support.  John wrote,

“Clearly [HTS] does not give its participants [the] luxury [to] consider whether the orders they comply with consider the ethical obligations to those they interview in the presence of their armed Team Leaders; some of whom have a deep dislike for “the enemy” which includes most Muslims.  And this is why they are hiring economists, historians and others as “social scientists” who, initially, were intended to be cultural anthropologists.”

These issues have such significance to professionally trained anthropologists that the military is increasingly becoming aware that the unethical nature of the everyday procedures makes it difficult for them to hire Ph.D. anthropologists with normative understandings of ethical practices.  One choice for the military facing this problem would be to halt a program that necessitates engaging in ethically problematic behaviors; the other choice for the military could be to start training their own “ethnographers” and “anthropologists,” with a different standard of ethical behavior.  According to John Allison, the military appears interested in the second of these two choices; in early December he wrote me that he concluded, “that the military is beginning to do an end run by producing its own anthropologists/social scientist PhDs at West Point, the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy and other cooperating institutions; thus marginalizing the criticism.”

This makes a lot of sense.  It fits with larger institutional moves in which the military (through programs like the Minerva Program, the Intelligence Community Scholars Program and the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program) is trying to bend independent scholarship in ways that will recruit scholars ready  to will tell them what they want to hear or what they already believe.

This military university system can be used to produce social scientists operating with different ethical commitments, where military scholars can be trained to do the military’s bidding without raising the sort of fundamental ethical questions that members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and other groups have raised.  They can develop their own “ethics codes” that can warp ethical commitments in ways that will align with military missions.  Allison wrote,

“If military academies want to displace the AAA’s ability to advise and sanction through resolutions, by providing degrees to career military officers who will not question the chain of command, then they will have their way … for awhile. When the results of the HTTs in providing “data” to the brigades are shown not to be what they had been anticipating, the “HTS Project” will be denied “Program” status, and the military will again turn to PsyOps, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and the other standard military options for COIN.   In the end, David, it is all really about profit and control.”

Huge profits for the military contractors running the program (HTS training is managed by CLI contractors) and control for the army commanders directing HTS activities in the field.  Promises of profit and control are the sort of desired outcomes that will keep HTS funded long after internal military evaluations show the program to be an abject failure.

John wrote me that in a class covering Information Operations (InfoOps) they were told that HTTs are used to “measure the change in the population’s mental image after a PsyOps propaganda pamphlet drop.”  John wrote that “part of HTS’s job is to devise such measures and make such an evaluation to be presented to the commander as a brief PowerPoint slide presentation.” Such mercenary acts transform anthropological sensitivities into mechanical instruments measuring the efficiency of military occupations.

Throughout our correspondence John’s hopes for the program came and went.  He began with hopes that HTS could shift the military’s focus away from violent “kinetic engagements” towards engaging with the population without force.  In early January he wrote me an enthusiastic email after engaging in some training role-playing when he had,

“asked one of the two Arabic-speaking HTT woman who where the interviewer and the interviewee, whether she would feel more safe if she were there with the woman alone, rather than accompanied by armed, uniformed soldiers. Her answer was “yes” (she has done fieldwork in Yemen for couple of years). I went on to make two suggestions that were well-received:

1. That HTT’s job is as much to shift the ‘Center of Gravity’ (COG, in COIN-speak) of the military, including those military who are participating in HTTs, from the Kinetic to the COIN position. That is, to get them to see the world and their role in it differently. That they need to do that before they can effectively try to shift the COG of how Afghans perceive them from negative to positive. In other words, their intent toward the Afghan people needs to become positive, not that of forceful occupiers.

2. That this would best be achieved by putting the HTT social scientist as resident with the local people, not embedded in the military and ‘inside the wire.’

I was shocked at the response – quite positive, even from hard-nosed career soldiers.

Subversion, it may be; but for improving things so deeds match words.”

I replied to John pointing out that the political issues raised by military-anthropologists embedding with villagers or the political and ethical issues raised by anthropologists becoming agents of occupation and counterinsurgency.  I wrote him that this proposal sounded,

“like the dream of panoptical control of the enemy: becoming the all seeing eye; surveillance ethnography brought to a new level.  The counterinsurgency dream is to understand and control the other by shifting COG from the external shooting and threatening with harm by the military, to other means of cooption and control.   The key is that the military still seeks to control local populations, not through hard power, but through soft power.  The problem is found in what one means by ‘become positive’ in your sentence reading ‘the intent toward the Afghan people needs to become positive, not that of forceful occupiers.’  Notions of what would entail ‘positive’ would be measured not only by local standards (if this were the case, then ‘positive’ might include in some instances enabling insurgents to remove foreign occupiers by force) but by US military standards; in other words, if the US presence in Afghanistan, Iraq, (coming soon: Yemen, Nigeria, etc.) has anything to do with issues of empire (it does), then these issues remain elements of what a ‘positive’ outcome would be.

Moving HTT social scientists into local settings isn’t some form of social work; it is a form of social control.  The HTT project seeks to blur what COIN is, so that we internalize it as humanitarian assistance and cross-cultural understanding; but counterinsurgency remains counterinsurgency.  Soft power in these circumstances remains military power.  It leaves less obvious dead bodies in the streets, but it remains a tool of empire.”

But even as John was working to keep his hopes for Human Terrain Systems alive, he – who had worked for five years as the Tribal Anthropologist for the Klamath Tribes – was engaging in some serious internal arguments with HTS personnel in which he openly compared the outcomes of HTS enterprises to other disastrous American campaigns.  John wrote to HTS training personnel that this,

“is not so different from what the European-Americans did to the Native Americans in the USA.  Now, several generations later, the stories are passed on and are deep in the collective consciousness of those Indian peoples and colors their way of seeing the European-Americans today, having its effect on how they view “government programs”, attempts to change their view of work, alcohol & drugs, etc.”

In January, John wrote that his HTT training group was undertaking intense role playing where Human Terrain social scientists advised commanders about whether or not the US military should undertake an air strike on a specific northern Afghani village.  Johns said the information used for these decisions, in the classroom and in Afghanistan, was mostly whatever they could muster from Google, but in one role-playing scenario assigned to him: the village under consideration in this instance was one he knew from his dissertation research.  John wrote me that one team was ask to advise on a training scenario set in the Waigal Valley of Nuristan; the HTT social scientists assigned this case,

“based all his information on internet resources – as did everyone; and, as would be necessary for the real situation, since the air assault was necessary because the people their were not receptive to our occupation.

Waigal Valley is the next valley east from the Ashkun area, where I did my doctoral research. When he finished, I gave a brief summary of the reality of Nuristan, told them that the suggestion of attacking them because they resisted invasion as they had against Islam, against the British and against the Russians, made me want to cry. I suggested that there has to be another function for the HTTs than simply to loyally and without direct knowledge of the people, subscribe to such an attack. I made it clear that I understood that the Air Assault would have to be followed by air support fire because the Nuristanis WILL RESIST. Afterward some of the career military folks and career CIA folks came over to try to explain the difference between an air assault and an air attack; and I told them that I understood the difference and also knew that the assault would be followed by air support if there was resistance; and that there would be resistance.”

Insofar as Human Terrain seeks to connect hearts and minds, it is doomed to fail for all the dynamics played out in the above training scenario: the voice of anthropological knowledge and moderation was plowed under by the dominant military approach.  If such failures were the rule in the classroom, there is no chance these views could hold sway in the battlefield.

John and a second anthropologist dissenter regularly raised questions about ethical and political issues related to HTS’s mission in class.  In the beginning this was welcomed as normal classroom discourse.  With time these dissenters became increasingly marginalized within the cohort.  Two months into the program John wrote me that the program was,

“getting tighter on those who don’t buy into the military’s version of what HTT should do.  Now, it is becoming highly pressured to begin private lessons with firearms; and the image is that we will actually be soldiers who also do a little intel work as prescribed by the commander. The truth of the situation in the field is not quite that, as told by some who have recently returned, but the various career guys make it out that way: that you have to carry a weapon because you are bumping a soldier from the vehicle going on a mission that is exclusively military, and they are being so kind as to maybe allow you a few minutes to do some interviewing; but you better have a gun so as to be able to fill in for the soldier whose place you took in case of attack.  The old Stockholm Syndrome pressures are increasing.”

I wrote him back that,

“from the outside, the timing of now introducing firearms lessons seems pretty smart: at this point you have all been indoctrinated with enough stories about what ‘really happens down range’ that whatever logical resistance to becoming armed members of a counterinsurgency team that would have naturally been vocalized by many in your class will have been pushed below the surface.  The notion that you are all ‘taking the seat of a soldier’ on a mission where you may have to kill those you are trying to defeat with soft power is just another way of establishing how HTS social scientists are soldiers.  I can only imagine how nasty the subtle and not so subtle group dynamics with all this can get.”

During the past month, John’s descriptions of the program increasingly presented a picture of an inflexible program that turns against individuals offering advice aligned with perspectives outside the narrow limits of military doctrine.  During the first week of February, John described how the range of acceptable views was rapidly narrowing and adherence to military doctrine became an objective unto itself, writing that the most important of:

“the Targeting indoctrination presentation by the contractors, was that we all need to adopt the doctrinal language and viewpoint. Only by doing that can we successfully influence the tactical and strategic decisions of the commander and the planning team.  When I tried to point out – again – that by being limited to talking and thinking like one of them the social scientist loses his own perspective and cannot really make the changes in perspective of the military – that is, to move the military’s Center of Gravity toward a more human terrain, anthropology-focused viewpoint. Of course, then I had to put up with facing the usual solid wall of musk oxen telling me that I would be excluded from the Team if I tried to approach it with that suggestion.”

Wargaming Against Radical Greens in Kansas and Missouri

John’s last day of HTS training was the first day of MARDEX, a military role playing exercise designated as “Weston Resolve.”  For the exercise, the class was presented with a training scenario in which the fictional nation of “Lakeland” was located in an area to the northeast of Kansas City was the focus of operations.  John wrote that,

“In the PowerPoint slide presentation laying out the background for the “operations”, the Wargame role-playing is represented by staff as merging into the real world drug, crime, and environmental “contention” within the community. The whole mission is represented as bringing a military state control of the local population which has recently elected a local government that is a “permissive” (supportive) environment for US Army activities after the previous local government had withdrawn from the US as a sovereign society. Now the US military is taking over the area to reestablish public security.”

The class was then told that the mission they were training to support was one in which the military was establishing order in a setting where environmentalist-separatists had taken over.  John explained that in this hypothetical training scenario,

“IATAN, a coal-fired power plant on the Missouri side of the river is one of the main military foci due to “contention within the community” over the environmental pollution it is causing. Sierra Club and other, more radical groups have been active in this area: ELF is one such radical group.  Even though there is an elected government and rule of law in Lakeland, there are some ‘insurgents’ who are opportunistic.’ That is why the US Army has moved into this area that has broken away from US control.

Staff Assignment to the several Human Terrain Teams that make up the class of the November Cycle were issued as follows: 1. ‘Find out more details on the criminal activity.’  2. Find out the best conduits to pass ‘information’(PsyOps and InfoOps) to the local population.  3. HTT is assigned to produce a ‘Research Plan’ to understand the situation at the IATAN power plant – people’s concerns, desires, etc., and identify those who were ‘problem-solvers’ and those who were ‘problem-causers,’ and the rest of the population whom would be the target of the information operations to move their Center of Gravity toward that set of viewpoints and values which was the ‘desired end-state’ of the military’s strategy.

As I thought about what was being done in this activity, and the way it adapted COIN strategy for Afghanistan/Iraq to be applied by the US military in situations in the USA where the local population was seen from the military perspective as threatening the established balance of power and influence, and challenging law and order, I began to think back on stories that circulated among the ant-war movement in the 1960s-70s, about concentration camps being developed just for imprisoning such protestors an “problem-causers”. And I wondered who would be working on the Human Terrain Teams to enable the US military’s actions against unruly segments of their own countrymen; perhaps Afghan and Iraqi anthropologists who had specialized in US ethnography?”

Human Terrain Teams practicing training scenarios set in regions actually within the United States bring the very notion of “human terrain” back home to its domestic counterinsurgent roots.   As anthropologist Roberto Gonzalez documents in his book, American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain, the very phrase “human terrain” grew out of domestic counterinsurgency initiatives.  Gonzalez describes how in 1968 the US House Un-American Activities Committee released a report entitled “Guerrilla Warfare Advocates in the United States” which warned that the Black Panthers and other militant groups threatened the country’s political stability.  HUAC warned that “irregular forces…possess the ability to seize and retain the initiative through a superior control of the human terrain.”  The clear implication was that the control of civilians in America’s cities was vital to winning the counterinsurgency struggle at home.

When John resigned from the program last Wednesday, he submitted a summary critique of HTS to those directing the program.  John’s words convey his hopes and disappointments for the Human Terrain Systems program, and clarify the deep systemic problems with this flawed program.  Below is the critique he submitted upon his resignation:

Summary Critique of Human Terrain Systems from a Trainee’s Perspective

John Allison, Cultural Anthropologist.  (Resigned from the Human Terrain System Training Program, November 2009 Cycle, effective February 10, 2010)

“I volunteered for the HTS program because I had done my doctoral research in the Hindu Kush area of Afghanistan known as Nuristan long before the train of disasters, caused by foreign forces over the past 35 years, ran through this land of diverse peoples, historic sites and monuments, and ecosystems. I had hope that I could help to save the loss of any more innocent Afghan lives. Several of my Afghan friends had died, some having been executed because of their associations with US agents there.

After beginning training in the HTS program, I was shocked when I first mentioned that this was my purpose and one of my classmates expressed contempt for that motive and said that he was only there because he didn’t want to see one more US soldier’s life lost; didn’t want to have to take the US flag to the door of an US mother and tell her that her son was killed. And, when I asked about Afghan mothers whose sons were killed by US errors of judgment causing “collateral damage” in their kinetic warfare, he responded that he didn’t ‘… give a fuck about those people. I would just drive through their village in my Humvee and throw money at those mothers.’ This was a Colonel who is a doctoral candidate in a military history program at a military-funded university; a Team Leader. Although this man was more out-spoken than most of his military colleagues, my impression now is that he expressed what almost all of them think and feel.

My experience in the program included both instruction in such things as military culture, military language, military decision-making process, Counter-Insurgency doctrine, and many other topics intended to socialize the trainees into the world as seen by the military. During this time, more than once, the majority of the class – who were either current or retired career military or those with former military service who were hoping to convert into an intelligence role such as CIA – would speak about the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. This refers to how the majority in a group can shape the values and perception of the minority. Apparently, in most ‘cycles’ (six-month long training group schedules up to deployment), the majority of the HTT candidates are such military personnel as were in our November 2009 Cycle, which actually began mid-October. It became clear that the majority saw their job as to expedite the acculturation of the rest of us – those who had the skills and credential that were needed to support the ‘soft’ warfare image that HTS advertises – an image of winning the hearts and minds of the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq –  to win the anthropologists over to their military culture’s world view and values; or to marginalize and force the non-compliant to resign.

In addition there were a couple weeks of ‘Introduction to Anthropology’ and three weeks of ‘Ethnographic Method’. The Introduction to Anthropology was cursory and quick. Some important terms were introduced – e.g. ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ – but not taken to enough depth in examples to drive home the deeper implications. Holt, who served on an HTT in Afghanistan and wants to return, is a cultural materialist, and limited his perspective to mostly the etic. He was the dominant voice.  He soon transitioned into a scenario in which he assigned the several class teams to provide a 5-slide PowerPoint presentation (with a maximum of 5 bullet ‘points’ on each slide) to the Commander to advise him on what to do when he has troops on the ground in a village area that he has heard is ‘hostile’, based on HTT research. Of the seven teams, only one dared to suggest that the commander should wait until the HTT had done further field research before launching the assault. This was clearly the Stockholm effect of the Team Leader and others forming the behavior of the Social Scientist.

There were several weeks of ‘Ethnographic Method’, in which there was no introduction to real participant-observer methods or anything really related to ethnographic method. Instead, this was a rapid fire, cursory presentation of a myriad of methods used in sociological statistics; but not in enough depth in any one of them to really become functional if the student did not already have a strong background. It was also rooted in computer software that might not be available ‘downrange’. It gave colorful, simplistic representation of complex social facts – in US society – that fit well into the PowerPoint presentations of five slides, each with a few bullets or a single, simple graphic.

On the one hand, HTS contractors make a concerted effort to recruit and hire cultural anthropologists because these are the obviously most qualified professionals to participate as social scientists on the HTTs in the theaters in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for the anticipated expansion of COIN to sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia and other places in the Islamic world.  In the November cycle, I was the only social scientist on 5 teams who had previous experience in Afghanistan. Among those teams scheduled for Iraq, there was also only one social scientist who had such experience.

Yet, on the other hand, the prevailing military culture, and the nature of the operations at the Brigade and lower unit levels at which HTT’s are assigned, subordinate the judgment of these anthropologists and other ‘social scientists’ (which include such as historians, psychologists, and economists who have absolutely no training in cross-cultural field research) to the dictates of the Brigade or Battalion command.

The command is dominated by the military (specifically US Army) culture and the related inclination to use the HTT to aid in gathering intelligence useful for supporting kinetic operations; which is strictly forbidden in the surface representation of the HTS. Yet, it is made clear in training that this is the fact of life on the Team. Since the Team Leaders are part of the military culture, the social scientist has no recourse. One presenter from the Reachback Research Center (RRC) estimated that 30% of the HTTs become tools for such intel needs of the Brigade rather than to provide needed information for moving the population’s Center of Gravity from favoring the resistance forces’ agenda to favoring the occupying ‘Coalition’ forces and their agenda, as represented in the public representation of HTS.

There is a great distance, an effective separation, between the HTS ‘Directorate’ and the training staff and the trainees. This was emphasized in my exit interview with my Seminar Leader, XXXXXXXX. When I told him that I had only one other possibility other than entirely resigning, he told me in so many words, ‘forget it’; explaining that there was not a lot of interest at the Directorate level in talking with trainees about such things.  XXXXXXXX clearly regrets this fact.

This was reinforced in my telephone conversation with my CLI supervisor XXXXXXXX when I told her of this conversation with XXXXXXXX. She reciprocated with a story from a returning social scientist who had served a tour in Afghanistan. He told her that he had many suggestions for improving the program that he hoped to communicate to the HTS Social Science Directorate. However, when he got to his debriefing interview and attempted to relate his thoughts and suggestions to the upper echelons, the interviewer (either Montgomery McFate or Jennifer Clark) simply blew him off and cut him short, not allowing him to really express himself in less than ten minutes allotted to him after a year of service.

You, yourself, Mark, told me that this was consistent with your impressions: there is not a lot of receptiveness to feedback from the rank and file if it runs against the grain of military culture – especially US Army culture, as contrasted with US Navy, Air Force or even US Marine culture, that still is the dominant kinetic perception of the purpose of deployment. Even though Generals McCrystal and Petraeus have made the transition to the “soft” strategy of modern COIN, the predominant US Army mindset is still deeply set into the kinetic approach.

Until the Center of Gravity of the brains of the US military’s ‘boots on the ground’ is moved to understand the value of a cultural anthropologist’s in-depth research to really helping the US military and civilian assistance to enable a nation such as Afghanistan to achieve self-determined stability and sovereignty, the money spent on HTS will be greatly a waste of US taxpayer money. This includes the need for the military as well as the US Department of State to understand the reasons behind the ethical concerns of anthropologists regarding this program.”

The significance of John Allison’s insider account of HTS training is found in the details he provides about the program’s inability to address basic ethical or functional issues.  While John was open to the possibility of reforming a program with so many structural shortcomings, I remain convinced that the program’s flaws are too fundamental for a course correction; the ethical problems alone will make it impossible for the program to recruit competent anthropologists.  As the Human Terrain program is now under review by the House Armed Services Committee, I would hope that John Allison is called before the House Armed Services Committee so that his first person account of the failures of the program will add some serious weight to those informed voices who are calling for the termination of the Human Terrain Systems program.

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

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David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

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