Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing David Edwards, Professor of Anthropology at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Professor Edwards, according to the college’s anthropology and sociology website, holds expertise in the areas of humanitarianism and post-conflict societies, Near East and South Asia, and documentary film and visual culture. Afghanistan has been the primary focus of his research since the mid-1980s when he first conducted doctoral research on the Islamic political parties that had set up shop in Peshawar, Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad of that period. He is also a student of and subject matter expert on the Human Terrain System (HTS)—the subject of our interview, and you can read a great article that he wrote on COIN for Small Wars Journal in December 2010 here.

I was able to gain some great insight into the history, purpose, and uses for HTS—along with some great stories about his time in Afghanistan—which began around 1975 and continues to today. By the end of our interview, I also had an understanding of how HTS can and should be effectively applied to counterinsurgency (COIN) and why it currently may not be working out the way it was envisioned.

The Human Terrain System, according to the Army’s website, has the following mission statement:

“The U.S. Army Human Terrain System functions as the primary and enduring social science-based human domain research, analysis, and training capability, focused on enabling leaders to remain adaptive when shaping current and future complex strategic and operational environments which support Unified Action Partners worldwide.”

Wikipedia defines HTS as:

“A United States Army, Training and Doctrine Command support program employing personnel from the social science disciplines–such as anthropology, sociology, political science, regional studies and linguistics–to provide military commanders and staff with an understanding of the local population in the regions in which they are deployed.”

Army Shuts Down Human Terrain System

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So this is where Professor Edwards comes in. As an expert in his field, Edwards is the kind of scholar/researcher that HTS originally envisioned trying to recruit as an HTS social scientist. Such a job would include schooling military personnel on how, to put it simply, to interact with and understand the points of view, interests, and concerns of the indigenous people within a given area of operations without embarrassing themselves and the United States and without provoking them and getting their people hurt or killed. Sounds simple right? Well, not so much.

Right off the bat, there was resistance, and it was mainly not from the military. (Except the Marine Corps. Dr. Edwards noted that many Marine Corps leaders had and have a very negative attitude toward HTS, preferring to develop cultural competence in-house rather than bring in civilian outsiders to do the job.) Many other experts in the fields noted above were against the program, believing that there were ethical and moral concerns that should preclude the academic world from participating.

But Dr. Edwards believed that the program should be given a chance to show what it could do. And he wanted to see a democratic and prosperous Afghanistan come into being after the great suffering the Afghans had endured through three decades of conflict. So between 2008 and 2009, Dr. Edwards conducted research on HTS, spending time at the training center at Fort Leavenworth and traveling to Quantico Marine Corps Base and other military bases and colleges to conduct a series of interviews and gain a better understanding of HTS and its applications to COIN. (He wanted to deploy with a unit as an independent anthropologist studying HTS in the field, but was ultimately denied permission for reasons that were never explained to him.)

There are some in the military who understand and accept the concept of HTS and COIN, and for the most part, got it right. Former Special Forces Major Jim Gant, subject of the bestselling book “American Spartan” and author of “One Village at a Time,” (and the subject of a future article) understood the fundamental importance of personal interaction with local people. While he made mistakes in his dealings with local Afghans that would ultimately contribute to his own personal and professional downfall, Gant’s use of HTS concepts demonstrated the importance of treating people with respect.

Based on his research, expertise, extensive travels, contacts in the region, and the interviews conducted, Dr. Edwards came to a simple but alarming conclusion: HTS is a concept that offers a better alternative to search-and-seize tactics that have alienated many indigenous people, but in practice, it is flawed for a number of reasons. The first issue is the incompatibility between military doctrine and the needs of COIN, and the second is the absence of time. Let’s face it, the U.S. military runs on strict doctrine, and metrics play a huge part in forming that doctrine, both strategic and tactical.

Anthropology, one piece of the HTS puzzle, is by nature quite the opposite. It is highly amorphous, qualitative in nature, and does not readily reduce to a few simple formulas or metrics. Most importantly, it is highly relational, based on building trust face-to-face, and in order to do this, total and prolonged immersion is crucial. If HTS is to be successfully applied to COIN, we must be willing to suspend that rigid adherence and allow our personnel to do the same. Military operations, for the most part, are not designed for this.

As important as doctrine is, if we are not willing to expend the time necessary for HTS to work, then we have lost before we’ve even gotten started. The British, out of design or necessity, practiced a version of HTS. As an imperial power, the Brits found it necessary to set up and maintain military garrisons and outposts to keep the peace and quash the occasional rebellion. Strategically, when the British launched a campaign to add a territory to its empire, they did so with no plans to leave. When an officer received orders to one of these posts, he did so knowing that he could very well spend his entire career there, and so did his superiors. It was not uncommon for an officer to send for his wife, and for more than one child to be born at the post.

Other than our Special Operations forces, whose members tend to be older and more attuned to this type of work than the average infantry platoon, applying the concept to ‘regular’ military forces would be a challenge. A 10-month deployment just won’t cut it.

So in the world of the Human Terrain System and counterinsurgency, total or near-total immersion is the name of the game. Along with that is the realization and acceptance that in our strategic planning, we must be willing to commit to a quasi-imperial doctrine, much like the British in India, parts of Africa, and China. (Yes, I know how they fared in Afghanistan.) The story has not changed. Fast jets, UAVs and Oakleys cannot and should not take the place of a complete understanding and healthy respect for the people and cultures in the areas in which we intend to operate.