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The US Army's Human Terrain System (HTS) is a controversial program [1] and [2] that sought to hire experienced anthropologists and other qualified social scientists and have them serve as cultural advisors to combat brigades operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The primary purpose of the HTS was to attempt to "map" the human/cultural terrain, using social science and geospatial practices and procedures, not unlike another TRADOC sponsored program called the Mexico Indigena [3] MAP HT was to have been a key work product of HTS but technological troubles and user issues evidently hampered its development.

US warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, or wherever else the USA intends to use elements of national power, must have sufficient knowledge of the geographic and cultural environment. HTS was billed as the headline program to dissect these environments. However, as others have pointed out, it is one more in a long line of efforts marrying social science expertise with military/political necessity. In that sense, HTS was not a novel program [4]

Counterinsurgency programs like HTS--or even the acclaimed Provincial Reconstruction Teams effort--that promise a kinder, gentler militarized way of winning the hearts and minds in war torn and poverty ridden countries like Afghanistan, have recently come under fire from non-governmental organizations. [5]

In early 2010, The website was updated to include Impact Statements [6].

Mr. Steve Fondacaro and Ms. Montogmery McFate are the senior managers of the HTS.

Between July 2005 and August 2006, under the guidance of Ms. Montgomery McFate, the US Army developed HTS as a proof-of-concept counterinsurgency program. The program’s foundation was five-person teams (Human Terrain Teams or HTTs) assigned to brigade combat team headquarters in Iraq and Afghanistan. These teams consisted of regional studies experts and social scientists. HTT's were to input data from their interviews/observations of the indigenous populace (noting geographic grid location) into a MAP HT software program. In February 2010 it is unknown if MAP HT exists as originally intended.

HTS utilized personnel recruited from social science disciplines (anthropology, sociology, political science, geography), regional studies, linguistics, and intelligence. HTS ostensibly provided military commanders and staff with an understanding of the local population by conducting research, interpreting, and archiving cultural information and knowledge. What value this information was to US warfighters remains unknown.

The oldest member of HTS is a 65 year old who is deployed in Afghanistan (see Axe article above).

The goal of the HTS was to provide commanders with cultural, human geographic information in order to enhance operational effectiveness. Many argued that this function made HTS just another intelligence gathering effort to accelerate the kill-chain rather than a noble program to reduce military and civilian casualties.[7] Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) were forward-based with soldiers, providing advice to brigade commanders on local customs and traditions, political systems and tribal structures, and economic development.

Contents [hide]

  • 1 Background
  • 2 Controversy
  • 3 HTS Design
  • 4 Efficacy
  • 5 Success Stories
  • 5.1 Operation Khyber
  • 5.2 Operation Maiwand
  • 5.2.1 HTS Casualties


The Human Terrain System was a proof-of-concept program under the control of TRADOC, G-2 Intelligence. It apparently has taken up shop at the Army Corps of Engineers [] It was developed in response to US political and military leadership's insufficient knowledge of the Iraqi and Afghan cultures. US political and military leaders did not adequately prepare US ground forces for the cultural terrain they were about to invade and occupy. Ms. Montgomery McFate appeared to have a solution to those deficiencies and it was HTS. The first HTT's deployed in 2007 appeared to have matched concept with action and there appears to have been evidence of success. But by 2008, internal troubles beset the program (see Stanton articles above). In March 2009, the US Army opted to institutionalize some of the capabilities of HTS. In early 2010, HTS appeared to have found a home at the US Army Corps of Engineers Geospatial Center.[] for a short time but the website is no longer active.

COIN/Human Terrain Analysis is now, arguably, the centerpiece of US military strategy and, as such, the public must be educated and engaged. [8]l

Former JIEDDO program manager, Colonel Steve Fondacaro (Special Operations, retired) joined the program and advocated embedding social scientists with US combat units. US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in September 2007 authorized a $40 million expansion of the program. Controversy

HTS is controversial primarily within its own ranks as former and current HTS personnel have repeatedly complained that senior management has damaged what was once a promising concept. Allegations of recruitment and training flaws, fraud, waste and abuse have been aired and reported in a series of 25 articles written between July 2008 and February 2010 by John Stanton. Elements within the US military are incensed in that civil affairs units located in the uniformed services already have the ability to divine the cultural terrain of adversaries who operate within population centers in Iraq and Afghanistan. [9]

The three year old program has consumed the lives of M. Bahtia, N. Suveges, P. Loyd and an Afghan national murdered by D. Ayala (charges reduced to manslaughter) upon learning that the Afghan had doused P. Loyd with flammable liquid and set her ablaze. Ayala's family and the Afghan family of the man murdered are linked in that tragic event. Wesley Cureton and Scott Wilson, HTS personnel, were shipped back to the USA in late 2009 for treatment of their injuries sustained while with HTS. In January 2010, 60 year old Issa Salomi, an HTS member, was taken hostage by one of the many Iraqi insurgent groups. Unknown are the number of those who may have been injured while escorting HTS personnel who themselves were killed/wounded.

As of February 2010, there are few professional anthropologists employed by the US Army's HTS program or, as some report, qualified social scientists. The American Anthropological Association played a key role in bringing HTS into the light of day by publishing a statement opposing the Human Terrain System. [] They denounced the program in October 2007, concerned it could lead to compromise of ethics, disgrace anthropology as an academic discipline, and endanger research subjects.

Some academics denounced the program as “mercenary anthropology” that exploited social science for political gain, fearing HTS could cause all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence-gatherers for the US military. Some academics draw comparisons to the Phoenix Program and Project Camelot during the Vietnam War. According to Richard Shweder, "Anthropologists feel almost polluted by contact with certain parts of the government. There's a breach-of-trust issue there that hasn't been repaired." The American Dialect Society named "Human Terrain Team" the most euphemistic phrase for 2007.[]

In 2009, the University of Chicago Press published American anthropologist Roberto Gonzalez's book, American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain, which criticized the historical roots, methodologies and ethics of the Human Terrain project. In April 2009 anthropologist David Price published a list of ten critical flaws in the Human Terrain program that the press have failed to seriously address.

David Matsuda, an academic embed, countered the reactions of the anthropology community: "I came here to save lives, to make friends out of enemies." The late Michael Bhatia contended that the social science community at large had a lack of understanding of what the HTS did. But as anthropologist and HTT critic David Price observes, other HTT anthropologists do not say they joined HTS to "make friends" as Matsuda claims. For example, HTS anthropologist Audrey Roberts told the Dallas Morning News: "‘If [HTS is] going to inform how targeting is done – whether that targeting is bad guys, development or governance – how our information is used is how it's going to be used,’ she said. ‘All I'm concerned about is pushing our information to as many soldiers as possible. ‘The reality is there are people out there who are looking for bad guys to kill,’ Roberts said. ‘I'd rather they did not operate in a vacuum.’"

On December 2, 2009, the American Anthropological Association released an exhaustive, lengthy, report [10] based on a year long research project that interviewed several dozen individual associated with HTS and HTS critics and concluded that HTS was such a poorly conceived and executed program that “When ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment -- all characteristic factors of the [Human Terrain System] concept and its application -- it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology,” This independent assessment and the detailed accounts of how Human Terrain has refused to address ethical problems, and the report’s finding that HTS data is used as intelligence by the military has clarified how the program is a severe distortion of anthropological research and principles.

HTS Design

The initial HTS approach was to place the expertise and experience of social scientists and regional experts, coupled with reach-back, open-source research, directly in support of deployed units engaging in military operations. HTS was to inform decision-makers at the tactical, operational and strategic levels.

Human Terrain Teams were conceived as five-member teams (see AAA report): two civilian anthropologists and three military personnel and are deployed at the Brigade/Regimental-level. This included a team leader who advises the commander and represents the population at unit planning, a research manager, a cultural anthropologist/sociologist who conducts ethnographic/social science research, another social scientist who conducts research and runs focus groups with the locals, and an analyst from coalition forces. Often the teams carried personal side-arms.

HTT's have ranged from three to eight members, composed of a mix of civilians who had uniformed military experience or some sort of academic credentials. Social scientists generally had come from fields other than anthropology. The teams were integrated into unit staffs, providing advice on how to interact productively with the local population and navigate and dominate the “human terrain” in planning, preparation, execution and assessment of operations.

At higher (eg. Division) echelons in the field, larger teams called Human Terrain & Analysis Teams (HTATs) were deployed. HTS proponents have claimed that the Human Terrain System teams do not collect actionable military intelligence, nor do they participate in lethal targeting. That claim has been disputed repeatedly.

HTTs were supported by a Research Reachback Center (RRC) performing in-depth, long-term cultural research and analysis. The RRC was a CONUS based element consisting of cells of regionally focused social scientists and uniformed and civilian analysts providing access to a wide body of academic knowledge in order to rapidly address social, political, economic, historic and cultural issues in their area. Located at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and Oyster Point, Virginia, the RRC supported teams in Afghanistan and Iraq though insiders have claimed that the mismatch between overseas operations that are 24/7 and an RRC that is 9 to 5 causes difficulties.

The Human Terrain System advertised a network of Subject Matter Expert (SMEs) consisting of on-call, micro-regional focused academic and civilian sector experts. In theory, they were to provide specific support to the RRC including planning, training, role-playing and research. The SME network, however, never reached the status of network as SME's were difficult to find and retain.

HTT tours of duty were intended to bridge unit unit replacement cycles, ensuring a smooth and complete transfer of local area Human Terrain knowledge and cultural understanding as new units replaced old ones. However, HTS has been plagued by recruitment and training troubles according to many reports. Efficacy

The effectiveness of the HTS program remains in question though no one doubts that the military needs a better read on the cultural terrain. It is unclear whether HTS is a program capable of that given its past performance. The US House Armed Services Committee (HASC) had planned to have the DOD conduct and Independent Assessment of the program but that effort was sidelined due to the release and importance of the Quadrennial Defense Review--a US military document required by law that outlines the US military strategy to support the President's national security strategy. As of February 2010, HASC has remained silent on whether it will conduct an Independent Assessment. HTS proponents claim that it has improved understanding of social connections in the tribal cultures encountered during military stabilization operations but how that measure of effectiveness was produced is unknown (operations aimed at stabilizing an area of operations in the aftermath of major combat).

According to Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 4th BDE,82nd Airborne, the unit’s combat operations were reduced by 60 percent over a period of eight months but there are many factors besides HTS activity that could have led to that result.

Success Stories

Operation Khyber

During a 15-day drive in late summer of 2007, 500 Afghan and 500 US soldiers tried to: clear an estimated 200 to 250 Taliban insurgents out of much of Paktia Province and secure southeastern Afghanistan’s most important road and put a halt a string of suicide attacks on US troops and local governors.

An HTT member identified an unusually high concentration of widows in poverty, creating pressure on their sons to join the well-paid insurgents. Citing HTT advice, US officers developed a job training program for the widows. HTT member also interpreted the beheading of a local tribal elder as an effort to divide and weaken the Zadran, rather than mere intimidation. As a result, Afghan and US officials focused on uniting the Zadran, one of southeastern Afghanistan’s most powerful tribes, thereby hindering the Taliban's operations in the area.

Operation Maiwand

800 Afghan soldiers, 400 U.S. soldiers and 200 Afghan policemen took part in the operation, in which Afghan soldiers raided houses of suspected militants.

Stars and Stripes reported that in one Pashtun village, Kuz Khadokhel, HTT made it possible for the negotiator Captain Aaron White to understand body language in the context of the culture, to identify leaders during negotiations, and to reinforce a perception of leadership by not conferring with fellow officers and by demonstrating good faith through projects facilitated by the Ghazni Provincial Reconstruction Team, including roads, a visit by the PRT’s mobile medical clinic, the construction of a deep well for irrigation, and the beginnings of a road to Afghanistan’s main Highway 1.

HTS Casualties

  • Paula Loyd-killed/died of wounds
  • Nicole Suveges--killed
  • Michael V. Bhatia--killed
  • Wesley Cureton--wounded, status unknown
  • Scott Wilson--wounded, status unknown
  • D. Ayala--guilty of manslaughter
  • A. Salam, Afghani National killed by Ayala
  • Issa Salomi--Hostage, status unknown

Related Fields

  • Combat Ethnography
  • Intelligence


  • Needs links to websites, older articles within text.


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