Our Shooty-Shooty and Talky-Talky Teams in Afghanistan

In the February 2009 issue of the Men’s Journal, Robert Young Pelton goes inside our new and brainier strategy in Afghanistan and finds that, on the front line, scientists and soldiers don’t always mix. Afghanistan: The New War for Hearts and Minds, has been called “an absurdist tale of modern warfare,” and there is a good reason for that.

Pelton’s piece focused on the subject of human terrain teams, or HTTs, the idea of putting a small army of civilian social scientists (apparently anthropologists are the ideal ones) and intel-savvy military officers into the field to give brigade commanders a better understanding of local dynamics (social structures, linkages, tribal implications, etc). This is reportedly all part of General Petraeus’s doctrine of a smarter, management-style counterinsurgency.

Pelton reports that there are now “six five-to-nine-person human terrain teams in Afghanistan and 21 teams in Iraq. If the concept proves successful, the $120 million–plus program would grow to 700 HTT and support staff in those countries and other hot spots.”

The man charged with managing the program is retired special operations colonel Steve Fondacaro who freely admits that one of the biggest obstacles to injecting social science into the military will be the military itself. “We are like a virus infecting the host,” he told Pelton. “Either the army will be inoculated and be stronger, or they will expel us in a torrent of puke.” Okay, if that is not a quotable quote, I don’t know what is.

Pelton situates us in Bagram and gives us a feel of the “many tribes” there from the dominant ones “identifiable by their digital camo and bad haircuts,” to the “contractors recognizable by their Fu Manchu mustaches,” and an invisible tribe of about 600 aka prisoners. With Burger King, DQ, and Subway in addition to premium cable available for $115 a month and massages from young Kyrgyz ladies for $15, he calls Bagram “America’s duty-free space station in the war on terror and may be the most culturally isolated outpost on the planet. The world’s most effective killing machine has ensconced itself in a hastily constructed replica of a Midwest strip mall.”


Some more interesting stuff:

A scientist did not want to be photographed or named: Pelton speculates “It seems that within left-leaning academic circles, hanging out with the military is the equivalent of a movie star doing infomercials.”

The research manager, Army lieutenant “Indiana Jones” makes about $30,000 before danger pay, while a top-tier scientist can make $250,000 a year in the program. The interpreter makes four times what the lieutenant earns. Think how much will be in this pot if there is one scientist for each of the 700 HTTs at $250,000 a pop.

Read about a team of three burly, geared-up men known only as Peter, an Afghan-American translator named, Joseph; and Peter’s partner, who calls himself “Paris Hilton;” Their team also called HTT, for HUMINT or human intelligence are the “shooty-shooty guys” according to Paris. Apparently the scientists of the human terrain teams are the “talky-talky” guys. They threw around other acronyms like THT for tactical human terrain teams and CTTs for cultural terrain teams to avoid confusion but gave up on it after a while.

Halfway through the piece, Pelton writes:

“Imagine if dudes with guns like that come into your house at 2 am,” Jones says. He has stumbled across the dirty secret of “human terrain” mapping. In order to snip the connective tissue between the network of evildoers, someone has to figure out who they are. Whether you snip the web by being nice or nasty is irrelevant. The information Jones and his team collect with good intentions is all part of a massive database that may eventually lead to Paris Hilton knocking on someone’s door.”

And like any writer in search of a story, he wastes no time while waiting for a ride. Pelton asked his company to name who are the good guys and the bad guys. You have to wade through many more acronyms but he was kind enough to explain each one. Somebody put JAG, the U.S. military’s investigation unit in the bad guys’ column. Jeez!

He closes his article with a quote from an MBA grad, Masood Karokhail, “You can’t be in the military and expect to work with the very people they are attacking,” and decided that Karokhail has captured the crux of the problem.

“My time with Jones taught me more about how Americans think and operate in Afghanistan than how Afghans think and operate. The resurgent Taliban is thrilled to see the Americans make many of the same mistakes the Russians did here: worn-out troops isolated in hardened forts defending a weakened central government promoting a foreign agenda. HTTs are supposed to bring down the cultural barrier between the military and the locals, but the biggest enemy is the natural inclination of troops to be troops, not social workers. Strangely enough, the Taliban is far more expert at meeting the basic needs of Afghans: namely, by fighting the corrupt central government and providing justice and security. Until that changes the Afghans will be more inclined to identify with the “enemy” than the well-intentioned guests.”

Our national security strategy stands on the three legs of defense, diplomacy and development. Leaning on one leg for much of the last eight years has made for a wobbly stool to put it mildly. As Afghanistan heats up once more, I think this one makes for a very serious reading. I am curious as to how much of the Afghanistan strategy is going to change with the new national security team in place. How much control/oversight will the new Obama team and 111th Congress exercise over the execution of new programs like this, especially one that is part of the Petreus Doctrine.

You’ve got to read the whole thing here.

Danger Room has more articles on the Human Terrain Teams here.