Human Terrain Systems: cultural deciphering as weaponry

Yesterday the administration of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University sent out an email titled "Subject: Social Scientists needed - Army Human Terrain Systems program." The email reads as follows:

My name is [redacted], I am a recruiter for Aerotek in the Government
division. Through some research I have learned that Harvard has one of the top Graduate Programs in the nation, so I wanted to reach out to see if we may be able to work together in finding jobs for your past graduates or faculty.  We are a subcontractor on the Army’s Human Terrain Systems program, and looking for Master’s or PhD qualified Social Scientists to work alongside the military to help identify cultural differences.  The ultimate goal is to reduce violence and create more peaceful interaction while we spend time in other countries.  The current country of interest is Afghanistan, and the job would involve working out of a military base there, after completing paid training in the U.S.   I have attached a job description and copied below is compensation information.  If anyone would be interested in discussing the openings with me, they can send resumes and/or CV’s to  [redacted] .  I sincerely appreciate your help, and hope you have a great day!
 
·         Social Scientist 2 – Requires a Master’s Degree in a Social
Science field with a minimum of 1 year of paid research experience (post graduate). Pay while in the United States is based on a salary of $68,809. While in Afghanistan the pay is based on a salary of $116,975.
 
·         Social Scientist 1 – Requires a PhD in a Social Science field and more than 2 years of paid research experience (post graduate). Pay while in the United States is based on a salary of $96,690.  While in Afghanistan the pay is based on a salary of $164,373.
 
All candidates must be able to pass medical requirements for deployment and have the ability to obtain a United States Security clearance.
(Here is a screenshot of the email.)
 
Human terrain systems and US military dominance
 
The US Department of Defense has taken a 'cultural turn' in its approach to the science of military domination. As Stephen Graham points out, "broad-brush discussions within the US military about urban warfare are now being supplemented by discussions about how to colonize the intimate inflections of urban culture within the main couterinsurgency cities" in its scopes. This shift in doctrine has produced the "Human Terrain System" model, aiming to, in the Pentagon's words:
Recruit, train, deploy, and support an embedded, operationally focused sociocultural capability; conduct operationally relevant, sociocultural research and analysis; [and] develop and maintain a sociocultural knowledge base.
The recruitment and field deployment of elite US sociologists, Middle East scholars and anthropologists works towards the end of supporting US military "operational decision-making, enhanc[ing] operational effectiveness, and preserv[ing] and shar[ing] sociocultural institutional knowledge." 
 
The human resources contractor Aerotek, recruiting for the Pentagon's Human Terrain System project at Harvard (and likely at other prestigious US university programs UPDATE: word is NYU and Georgetown programs received the letters, too), is here looking for scholars to help the US army decode the Afghani cultural and political landscape, the better to shape the local population towards the winning execution of US policy in the region.
 
The deployment of academic foot soldiers to Afghanistan isn't the first time the US has deployed strategic operations aiming at the decoding of the target culture. Graham wrote about a similar process unfolding during the US occupation of Iraq:
US soldiers are being given rudimentary training in the appreciation of Iraqi cultural traditions, Islamic urbanism, Iraq's complex ethnic make-up, and local mores and customs. Specifically military studies of the Islamic city are being done, laden with Orientalist cliches. The goal of collecting anthropological and ethnographic data about the human terrain of US counterinsurgency operations is apparently....'to help win the "will and legitimacy" fights' (perhaps through propaganda), to 'surface the insurgent IED networks' (presumably for targeting), and to serve 'as an element of combat power' (i.e. as a weapon). The concern here....is that 'in the near future, agents might use cultural profiles for pre-emptive targeting of statistically probable (rather than actual) insurgents or extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or other countries deemed to be terrorist havens.
Cultural knowledge as weaponry. Thus we get headlines like this one:
 
The military’s evolving approach to culture may be one of the legacies of the post-Sept. 11 era. After the early days in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army and Marine Corps established cultural training centers in 2005, the Air Force in 2006, and the Navy in 2007. Some of the signposts since then: The GAO report found that the military had spent about $12 million sending 800 soldiers through 16 weeks of Afghan language training between 2010 and the summer of 2011. Hundreds of thousands of other troops who’ve cycled through those war zones have been given “smart cards” detailing topics like the five pillars of Islam, local religious celebrations, and cultural customs.
The US army says that the Human Terrain Analyst
  • Provides socio-cultural situational awareness and socio-cultural training to the supported unit.
  • Provides the supported unit with an understanding of the population, which can be general or specific as required by the situation.
  • Develops and maintains connections with the local population in support of operationally directed research.
  • Acts as a liaison to the local population as required by the HTS team or supported unit.

The social scientist working for the Human Terrain Systems project

  • Plans and designs operationally directed research projects.
  • Determines the methodological feasibility of research efforts, defines the research objective, formulates the research questions, analyzes knowledge gaps, selects collection and analysis methods, and develops appropriate research instruments such as interview protocols and surveys.
  • Engages in the collection of primary and secondary-source data in conjunction with other members of the team to develop a common operating picture of the socio-cultural environment.
  • Performs qualitative and/or quantitative analysis of data using a variety of tools, in conjunction with other members of the team.

In other words, the social scientists and analysts gather information about the people and cultures under their microscopes; function as cultural liaisons between the military and the target population; teach combat units about the people they are occupying; design research projects into the cultural particularities of the target groups; and analyze data about the indigenous population.

What could go wrong?

On one side of the equation, there are die-hard militarists who think that the US military's Human Terrain Systems project is a terrorist coddling maneuver that has no place in military doctrine. On the other, there are critics of neocolonialism like Stephen Graham who see the US military's reaching into anthropology and social sciences as an imperial attempt to understand target populations the better to dominate them and achieve US military goals through violence. 

Whatever it is, it is a hot topic at the Pentagon. The military's Human Terrain Systems website contains links to a variety of reports and data sets containing information about the Iraqi and Afghan populations. 

Maybe you are wondering: what's the big deal? Why is it troublesome for the US military to engage in this kind of socio-political research and education? 

The US military is a war body; its purpose is to achieve political ends by way of violent means. So when the military gets into the business of deciphering cultural and historical geographies in the battlefield, the study of culture becomes a weapon. While it might not literally be a weapon as is a bomb, it enables a technocratic, research-based manipulation of cultural landscapes that can lead to targeting -- with actual weapons -- based not on actual violence or threats, but rather cultural aptitude, or other projections.

A perfect example of how this kind of thing goes wrong is the practice of "Human Terrain Mapping" -- similar to what the FBI is doing in Muslim neighborhoods nationwide and what the NYPD has done (to great protest and outrage) in the Tri-State area. 

Human Terrain Mapping has an interesting boomerang history in the US. It was invented by the FBI during the COINTELPRO era, to enable the Bureau to better track, influence and disrupt Black power organizations in the 1960s and '70s. The practice was then adopted by military theorists and applied to populations under the thumb of US domination abroad. It has now come back to the US, full circle, to track and map Muslims in the United States.

Let's take the NYPD mapping as an example. Does anyone think that the NYPD's "Muslim Zagat Guide" to Arab, North African, and Asian Muslim restaurants and businesses in the Tri-State area serves a purpose other than to enable the NYPD to control and surveil those populations? 

The preface to "Through the Lens of Cultural Awareness: A Primer for US Forces Deploying to Arab and Middle Eastern Countries," a paper published by the US military about decoding Iraqi culture, reads in part:

Conducting the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) and projecting 
United States (US) influence worldwide has meant an increasing number of US diplomats and military forces are assigned to locations around the world, some of which have not previously had a significant US presence. In the current security environment, understanding foreign cultures and societies has become a national priority. Cultural understanding is necessary both to defeat adversaries and to work successfully with allies. As indicated by recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, understanding Islamic cultures is particularly important. This document defines a way US military leaders can prepare for and conduct military operations through the lens of cultural awareness. It provides a method for helping military commanders, staffs, and trainers engage successfully in any type of operation with an emphasis on postconflict stability operations. It also suggests modifications to the traditional intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) and the military decisionmaking process (MDMP) to address the analytical difficulties posed by the conduct of military operations within and among different cultures.
Drones enable the detachment of the soldier from the gruesome realities of blowing people up -- and the threats of being blown up oneself. In a similar manner, the cultural decoding of target populations obscures the real endgame of politics by other means -- violence.
 
The US military is not a humanitarian organization. When Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies grads sign up for the extremely lucrative job of helping the US army better understand the local populations they are occupying, they are doing something quite apart from "reduc[ing] violence and creat[ing] more peaceful interaction while we spend time in other countries," as the Aerotek recruiter euphemistically describes their role in his email to soon-to-be graduates. 
 
In fact, they may be doing the exact opposite. Instead of preventing violence, the social scientists could be enabling the military or CIA to enact it pre-emptively. Given that the CIA has been accused of deliberately targeting funerals and rescue workers in drone strikes in Pakistan, stranger things could happen. 
 
UPDATE: A reader points out that some social scientists formed the Network for Concerned Anthropologists upon hearing about Congressional plans to fund the Human Terrain Systems (HTS) program. Among their concerns:
HTS is unethical for anthropologists and other social scientists.  In 2007, the Executive Board of the AAA determined HTS to be “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise.”  Last December, the AAA commission found that HTS “can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology” given the incompatibility of HTS with disciplinary ethics and practice.  Like medical doctors, anthropologists are ethically bound to do no harm.  Supporting counterinsurgency operations clearly violates this code.  Moreover, the HTS program violates scientific and federal research standards mandating informed consent by research subjects. 
Read more about their advocacy efforts. (h/t @thurnandtaxis)
Sign up for email alerts // Contact us

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer