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Army's Anthropology Experiment Ends in Defeat

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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It was probably doomed from the start: the battlefield marriage of a left-wing academic discipline and the hidebound U.S. Army. The military has now confirmed that the Human Terrain System program, which sent anthropologists into the Afghan combat zone, has been terminated. Yet with no shortage of asymmetric conflicts and foreign insurgencies in America's future, it's worth examining why the Pentagon's foray into the social sciences failed in order to see how it can do better.

QuickTake Leaving Afghanistan

HTS, which cost taxpayers more than $700 million over seven years, had an intriguing premise: The sociocultural insights of academics embedded into special operations and other units in Afghanistan could give commanders on the ground an edge in fighting the Taliban and encouraging cooperation from local citizens. Most importantly, a better understanding of local culture and mores could lead to less pointless bloodshed. 

And to some extent, it worked. Officers surveyed for a study by the National Defense University said the program was effective in training soldiers on the "dos and don'ts" of Afghan culture and that census work by the academic experts was helpful in compiling detailed profiles of villages in the combat zone. A 2013 Army survey found that that 89 percent of commanders and their staffs considered the program's Human Terrain Teams helpful in making decisions and that 92 percent of the information they supplied was "actionable."

For example, one team member persuaded U.S. forces to stop hampering a group of irrigation workers he studied whose work was vital to local residents. During the effort to clear insurgents from the Shabak Valley in eastern Afghanistan in 2007, a social scientist pointed out that the area had a high preponderance of widows whose sons, duty bound to care for them, were easy recruiting targets for the Taliban, which paid them to fight. This led team members to look for ways to get the women involved in the local textile trade, freeing the sons to travel to areas with better employment opportunities.

But for the most part, poor planning and execution fatally hindered the project. The military made two major public-relations blunders: first by framing it as an anthropological effort, and then by insisting it wasn't an intelligence operation when it was exactly that. (The Orwellian-sounding name didn't help, either.) After the Pentagon announced the program in 2007 -- noting that one founder, Montgomery McFate, was a Yale- and Berkeley-trained Ph.D. anthropologist -- the American Anthropological Association called it "an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise." Given that the Venn diagram of anthropologists and Bernie Sanders supporters is probably a perfect circle, this should have been expected. The botched rollout put the military on the defensive, and the program never shed the implication that it was up to something nefarious.

The biggest mistakes, however, occurred in training and recruitment. Ryan Evans, a civilian who spent nine months deployed with the program and now edits the Web magazine War on the Rocks, writes that his job interview consisted of just two 10-minute phone conversations and that he received little or no language training or guidance on firearms and surviving in combat. (Evans says he spent his own money on private weapons training from an ex-Marine.) Many of the social scientists had no real knowledge of Afghanistan, and because they were often given little notice about where they would be posted, they had no chance to do adequate research before deploying.

In the end, the death blow came because of corruption and severe mismanagement. Army documents obtained by USA Today in 2013 confirmed "substantiated instances of sexual harassment and racism, potential fraud in filing time sheets and indifference to the reports team members had produced." An Army "climate survey" discovered grounds for at least 14 Equal Employment Opportunity complaints. The Army's internal investigation found that supervisors abetted contractors in claiming maximum overtime and comp time, resulting in some being paid more than $280,000 a year and given months of paid leave after returning stateside. This led to the program being pared down, from 41 teams in 2011 to 20 in 2013, and eventually deep-sixed last September. 

Giving up on the idea of battlefield social scientists would be a mistake. (The military does have some similar, smaller programs, but HTS was the highest-profile and most significant.) The key to success is reducing the Army's total reliance on contractors -- which was also a problem with the CIA's enlisting of psychologists for its severe interrogations of suspected terrorists.

The good news, according to Evans, is that the military already has a uniformed cadre of professionals ready to step into the breach: the Army's civil affairs officers. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, these "warrior diplomats" -- often working in four-person teams made up of a captain and three noncommissioned officers -- have most often been involved in soothing relations with local officials and in projects such as digging wells and building schools, but they have rarely been used to their full potential. Given adequate training in the basics of social science, or even sent back to college for master's degrees, they would bring a military rigor to the task of winning hearts and minds.

For the military, which understandably likes to pick only the fights it knows it can win, dabbling in anthropology will always be awkward. The social sciences are relatively immature compared to the hard sciences. Moreover, when applied to effect change, they are in the end dependent on the uncertainties of the human mind. Yet the idea that they have a beneficial role in warfare is hardly new: General William Yarborough, known as the father of the modern Green Berets, often brought in top anthropologists, psychologists, historians and other academics to lecture at the Army's Special Warfare School in the 1960s. He knew that that in counterinsurgency, you have to get into the heads of both the enemy and the people you are trying to help.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net