'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Research on Human Terrain System

With US and coalition forces in phased draw-down in Afghanistan, the period in which scholars can first begin to make capped assessments of the Iraq and Afghan theatres is beginning. Within that large sphere of study, the Human Terrain System, which first deployed an Human Terrain Team to Afghanistan in February 2007, merits particular interest because it has bridged academia and the military, thus existing at that historically significant boundary between scholarship and soldiering.

HTTs were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of Phase Four and Phase Five operations there, working alongside US Army, US Marines and coalition forces. Significant previous studies on the HTTs and the wider programme have been undertaken by authors at Westpoint; the Center for Naval Analyses (as part of a congressionally-directed assessment); and the Institute for Defense Analyses.

A new study conducted by Christopher J. Lamb, James Douglas Orton, Michael C. Davies and Theodore T. Pikulsky at the National Defense University has attempted to answer the question: what accounts for the apparent variation in HTT effectiveness? In answering, the authors have conducted interviews with approximately 100 former or serving HTS personnel and brigade staff, going further than previous studies and charting the historical trajectory of the programme in hitherto unseen depth.

At the same time, the journalist Vanessa Gezari has published an account of the Human Terrain System, also drawing on a considerable range of interviews with key members of the programme. This journalistic account centres upon the story of Paula Loyd and Don Ayala in Afghanistan whilst placing it within a wider critique of the programme.

Centring on the NDU study, an article critical of the HTTs was penned recently by Gian Gentile. A detailed response was published by one of the NDU authors, Michael Davies, which rebuts Gentile's argument point by point.

Broadly, the continued interest which HTS holds for stakeholders is due to the unresolved notion of academic assistance to the military structure: Can it help or hinder? How can it help? How has this relationship developed through history? What does HTS mean for the future direction of social science approaches to warfighting more generally? Is this future direction a "good" or a "bad" thing for the United States military and partner forces?

One of the more interesting developments from the HTS architecture in the future may be the trajectories of those former HTT members as they continue in their careers - possessing a mixture of academic expertise, area specialty - and because of their participation in HTTs, having enhanced, invaluable authority from their experiences downrange in Phase 4 and Phase 5 operations - these individuals will offer the US government remarkable insight into future threats and planning, legitimated by scholastic intellect coupled to warzone experience. In combining these two prized commodities, some may come to influence the future direction of US foreign policy and in so doing, inevitably fuse at some intersections the spheres of social sciences and the military.