Army’s Anthropology Teams Under Fire, But in Demand
By Grace V. Jean
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The military’s lack of knowledge of the Iraqi population and its socio-cultural dynamics was one of the key failings of U.S. policy that led to the rise of insurgency there.
To avoid making the same mistake again, the Army in 2007 responded to “urgent operational needs” requests from the war zones by deploying small “human terrain” teams to Iraq and to Afghanistan. The teams form the backbone of a larger Army program, called human terrain system, which includes research centers here and at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
“The mission of the human terrain system is to support the combat unit,” said Col. Mark Crisci, director of project development for the program.
Ranging in size from five to nine people, teams are embedded with Army brigades and Marine regiments. The mixed group of military and civilian social scientists, researchers, human terrain analysts and team leaders travel with tactical units into the field to talk to the local population.
So far, 27 teams have been developed and fielded with more on the way to support the troop increase in Afghanistan.
But deploying social scientists to a war zone has caused much controversy. A November report by the American Anthropological Association’s Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities found that “constructive engagement between anthropology and the military is possible.” But it urged the association to “emphasize the incompatibility of the [human terrain system program] with disciplinary ethics and practice for job seekers” and to “recognize the problem of allowing HTS to define the meaning of ‘anthropology’ within” the Defense Department.
Crisci insisted that teams are careful about walking the fine line between conducting research and collecting intelligence.
“Some people say it’s a slippery slope. I think it’s very clear: intelligence is information about the enemy,” said Crisci, who deployed for nine months to southwest Baghdad as a team leader of one such unit. Whenever his team encountered someone willing to impart intelligence about an alleged bad guy, its members would bring in a military commander to take the information, he said.
The program has deployed a larger team to a division-level commander to provide analysis. A proof-of-concept “theater coordination element” for corps-level headquarters is in the works.
Officials said that the military’s global command leaders have expressed interest in the concept. So far only one other organization — U.S. Africa Command — has actually requested a team, said officials. The five-person team deployed to support the Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa commander.
“We believe that ‘phase zero’ is the best time to do human terrain, before we get involved in conflict,” said Bob Reuss, deputy chief of staff at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, which is running the program.
“If we had had this information about Iraq, we might have made different decisions about whether it was a good idea to get rid of the [Iraqi] army,” Crisci pointed out. Those troops may have been only soldiers following orders and not necessarily true believers in Saddam Hussein’s regime, he explained.