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Army Increasing Number Of Human Terrain Teams; Advising Allies

Posted: December 10, 2010

The Army is ramping up its controversial Human Terrain Systems program and will be sending more teams to Afghanistan this summer while simultaneously working with allied nations seeking to develop their own HTS capabilities, according to the program's director.

The Army is ramping up its controversial Human Terrain Systems program and will be sending more teams to Afghanistan this summer while simultaneously working with allied nations seeking to develop their own HTS capabilities, according to the program's director.

The HTS program operates by embedding anthropologists and social scientists with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan to help provide commanders with a sense of cultural understanding when making decisions. It has been controversial among some in the anthropological community who question its value and ethical practices.

But the program continues to grow, despite various criticisms from academia and government. Col. Sharon Hamilton said in a Dec. 8 interview that U.S. Central Command has issued a requirement for 31 HTS teams in Afghanistan -- an increase of nine teams -- by this summer.

"I use that definitely as a metric for the success of our teams," she said. "The fact that Central Command increased the requirement for the number of teams they would like on the ground says a lot. CENTCOM has a limited amount of resources it has been allocated, so any time they request a human terrain team, it's a zero sum, there's something else they cannot request."

There are now 10 HTS teams operating in Iraq and Hamilton said the Army has decided to keep them there as long as American forces remain in the country. "The fact that we have 10 teams there when many of the enablers and support elements have been withdrawn from country -- the human terrain capability is one they want to keep as long as U.S. forces remain," she said.

Hamilton also said her program has been working with allied nations that want to develop their own HTS programs. She would not say which countries were interested, but noted that a Canadian general was said to be very impressed with the program.

"We directly support six allied nations and they are all very interested," she said. "Several of the allies have approached the Department of the Army wanting to develop their own capability because they have our teams with them in Afghanistan. We're doing knowledge exchanges [and] we've have several representatives from other countries visit our training, visit our teams on the ground in Afghanistan."

The program, however, has been marked by controversy for several years, with troubling reports in academia and the media culminating in a House Armed Services Committee decision to direct a review of HTS earlier this year.

Shortly thereafter, HTS director Steve Fondacaro was released and replaced with Hamilton, who began serving as interim HTS director in June. Hamilton said the program is also no longer advised by Montgomery McFate, the once-celebrated social scientist who was instrumental in the development of HTS.

Hamilton said a new chief social scientist, Chris King, had been named to replace McFate and would begin in January once he returned from working with an HTS team in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the congressionally mandated report was conducted by the Center for Naval Analyses and presented to the House Armed Services Committee and the Defense Department in September. The report has not been cleared for public viewing, according to a Pentagon spokesman.

Hamilton said she could not discuss specifics in the report, but said its overall message was that the government needed to be more involved in the administration of the program and rely less on contractors.

"There were definitely some assessments we needed to respond to," she said. "Previously, we had very few government personnel in the structure of HTS and not a good situation as far as government oversight. I think it validated the fact that we needed to have processes and standards in place. What it really reinforced was that we truly were an organization that needs to switch from an entrepreneurial approach to a more established institutional approach, which means you put standards and processes in place so that you do have recurring actions, so that you do have normalcy with how you handle administrative processes."

Hamilton said several administrative changes had been made since she took the helm and brought on more government personnel. She has hired a senior civilian to oversee administration and logistics support of teams in theater, brought on an information technology director and hired a civilian training director and assistant training director.

"These are all new positions and all positions that were previously done by contract personnel," she said.

Hamilton said she also has stepped up the program's engagement with the academic community by attending conferences for relevant groups, namely the American Anthropological Association, an organization that has remained steadfastly critical of the program.

Robert Albro, a professor of international communication at American University and a member of the AAA commission that authored a 2009 report criticizing HTS, called the program a "non-starter."

"If you're going to say that you're bringing anthropologists to bear, then you have to allow the people you're calling anthropologists to work in ways that meet their own professional obligations," he said in a Dec. 9 interview. "Human terrain teams operate in a context where it's very hard to understand how ethical considerations aren't made deeply problematic. It's hard to do ethnography at the point of a spear. It's done over long periods typically measured in years, not even months."

A congressional source who had knowledge of the CNA report told ITA that it mainly criticized the program for managerial issues.

"In reality, the program office until very recently was pretty thin and that actually accounted for a lot of the problems," the source said. "The HTS management office didn't have a great interface with TRADOC and that resulted in not having a lot of the back office support you would have expected. The Army is going back now and professionalizing it. It brings it more into the TRADOC fold."

The source also said the report identified many problems with training HTS personnel, mostly the high number of candidates who "washed out" late in the process because they were not properly evaluated by the Army.

"The problem with using that [Army evaluation system] with a brand new specialty is that it has a high false-positive rate," the source said. "They were kicking out a lot of people who subjectively appeared qualified." -- Tony Bertuca

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