by DAVID AXE
Two years after its formation, a controversial military program to embed civilian social scientists inside combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan is scrambling to recover from a string of crises. How the so-called “Human Terrain System” responds to a spate of combat deaths and a disastrous employee pay cut will determine whether the program survives in its current form.
Human Terrain System, headquartered at Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, is the brainchild of Montgomery McFate, a Harvard- and Yale-trained anthropologist. In a series of journal articles(.pdf) in 2005, McFate outlined the basic shape of what would become HTS. The organization’s mission would be to “understand the people’s interests, because whoever is more effective at meeting the interests of the population will be able to influence it,” she told Wired magazine.
The underlying assumption is that civilians trained for cultural engagements are better equipped than soldiers to communicate with the local populations affected by U.S. wars. “I can get people to like me because I’m old,” 57-year-old HTS member Ed Campbell told World Politics Review, only half-jokingly.
HTS deployed its first six teams — each numbering fewer than 10 people — to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007. Today there are some 20 teams. In the spring of 2008, the organization lost two academics in bombings, one each in Afghanistan and Iraq. In November, anthropologist Paula Lloyd was fatally injured when an Afghan man dumped burning cooking oil on her. Lloyd’s death, especially, rattled HTS.