The Life and Death of the Human Terrain System
Christopher Sims, Foreign Affairs, 4 February 2016
The U.S. government’s controversial effort to harness the social sciences in support of its counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in an initiative known as the Human Terrain System, was one of the most ambitious and innovative efforts of the post-9/11 era to help warfighters make sense of conflict’s inherent chaos. . . . More than 1,000 personnel were deployed during its duration, from 2007 to 2014 at a total cost of nearly $750 million, making the Human Terrain System the largest investment in a single social science project in U.S. government history.
ROBERT STEELE: The Human Terrain System (HTS) was a well-conceived program badly executed that collapsed from a mixture of contractor corruption, a lack of integrity among many uniformed officers in the field, and the all-too-often professional incompetence of both. Diverse sources tell me that control over the recruitment and validation of HTS participants was ceded to the big business contractors who quickly destroyed all semblance of quality control and often fielded people who were at best marginally qualified and often ethically challenged. As one of the best officers put it to me when I was in Afghanistan: many of these people (the contracted HTS participants) are academically, professionally, and experientially unqualified, ignorant and liars. HOWEVER, the program also suffered from several failures in government leadership. At one level, the HTS folks were often not allowed out — they were locked up in the camps. And even when they were and produced quality studies, their reports often went unread and thereby not acted upon. At another level they were not fired and ordered home when their lack of professional competence and integrity was discovered; they were simply tolerated as part of “the HTS system.” And at a third level, in those rare instances when a real star made a real difference (for example, the Green on Blue study that reduced US casualties by 80% 18 months after it was belatedly accepted for action) such personnel were purged from HTS as “non-team players” and threats to the system. The deep-seated “Regular Army” prejudice against this concept, as well as the arrogance of brigade staff and many mid and senior officers who substituted their persistent ignorance for what they might have learned killed many people unnecessarily, both Afghan civilians and Coalition Force personnel. All this, and no accountability.
I wrote the first major article in this era (in 1989) forecasting the emerging threat, and I subsequently wrote the most important articles identifying the four threat classes and what we needed to change in the way of strategy, policy, acquisition, and operations if we were to be successful. No one wanted to hear it. Everyone appears to lack integrity and be committed to keeping “the system” alive — corrupt, expensive, ineffective, and wasteful.