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.”

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.