This time, however, social scientists are being swapped with refugees fleeing US-created terror in the region, according to increasingly widespread reports within the vulnerable population.
Advocates of HTS said it would reduce US and foreign causalities by increasing cultural understanding between American forces and the local population. As Roberto Gonzalez, an American anthropology professor, wrote in Counterpunch: “The reality was more complex.”
“The program also served a more insidious function: It became a propaganda tool for convincing the American public–especially those with liberal tendencies–that the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were benevolent missions in which smart, fresh-faced young college graduates were playing a role. It appeared to demonstrate how US forces were engaged in a kinder, gentler form of occupation. Department of Defense photos portrayed HTS personnel sitting on rugs while drinking tea with Afghan elders, or distributing sweets to euphoric Iraqi children. Here was a war that Americans could feel good about fighting,” he wrote.
Despite lasting only for eight years, the program burnt through over $725 million with much of that funnelled to BAE Systems among others.
Gonzalez pointed out that HTS’ rise coincided with that of David Petraeus, who was pushing his Counterinsurgency (COIN) theory hard. HTS fit perfectly into his strategy of securing areas by winning over the local population through interaction and select bribery. His shock demise as CIA director – a result of mishandling sensitive information while engaging in an extramarital affair – had a negative effect on HTS as journalists’ began digging deeper into his ideas.
“Some journalists began to acknowledge that their enthusiasm for counterinsurgency warfare was due in large part to “hero-worship and runaway military idolatry” centered around Petraeus’s personality cult,” Gonzalez wrote.
The program was already under heavy attack, however, Rampant sexual harassment, racism, and corruption tarred its public image. More than any of these factors, however, it was the quality of the applicants themselves that raised the most concern.
“It soon became clear that BAE Systems was on a hiring binge and was inadequately screening HTS applicants. Most of the academics who were hired had no substantive knowledge of Iraqi or Afghan culture. Very few could speak or understand Arabic, Pashto, Dari, or Farsi,” Gonzalez wrote.
Ryan Evans, editor-in-chief of the popular War on the Rocks blog, worked as a Human Terrain Team social scientist in Helmand province from November 2010 to August 2011.
He wrote about his experiences, saying: “You had special ops-wannabes, a guy who had previously worked in Afghanistan (and got kicked out) but wanted to return solely to get some locals funding to build a doll factory (no joke), another guy who wanted to introduce Christianity in Afghanistan… I could go on.
“Maybe two weeks of useful training was spread out over five and a half months... We also received way too little language training. And for you taxpayers out there, the entire time we were in training, we were staying in nice hotels, had rental cars provided for us (complete with reimbursed gas), and received per diem on top of our generous salaries.
“One huge missed opportunity was the failure to capitalize on prior in-country experience by U.S. military personnel and civilians in HTS. People with experience in one part of Iraq or Afghanistan should have been enabled to go back to those areas, where they would have had the most value. No efforts were made in that direction. People did not usually know where in Iraq or Afghanistan they were going until a couple weeks before they deployed, which deprived them of a chance to do in-depth research on the provincial and district levels of analysis – which is where HTTs did all their work.“
Social scientists, were not silent either, publicly and fiercely raising their voices in protest. The American Anthropological Association expressed its “disapproval” of the program in a harsh statement in November 2007.
In the statement, they said: “In the context of a war that is widely recognized as a denial of human rights and based on faulty intelligence and undemocratic principles, the Executive Board sees the HTS project as a problematic application of anthropological expertise, most specifically on ethical grounds. We have grave concerns about the involvement of anthropological knowledge and skill in the HTS project. The Executive Board views the HTS project as an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise.”
Back from the dead?
Gonzalez wrote that a Pentagon correspondent told him that once such programs become permanent, “these things never really die.”
He continued: “Although HTS has officially ended, questions still remain about its future. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2015 allows the Army to carry out a “Pilot Program for the Human Terrain System. . .to support phase 0 shaping operations and the theater security cooperation plans of the Commander of the United States Pacific Command. . .this section shall terminate on September 30, 2016” (US Congress 2014: Section 1075).
Furthermore, a March 16, 2015 letter from Army General Ray Odierno to US Representative Nita Lowey includes HTS on a list of unfunded requirements for fiscal year 2016. Odierno’s letter describes HTS as an unfunded program to be used by the Pacific Command as suggested in the NDAA. Yet no job advertisements have been posted to recruit employees for the program. Only time will tell if HTS will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes, or if it has truly disintegrated.”
Immigrants and intelligence
Recently, there have been increased reports of refugees from Syria and Iraq being approached by intelligence gatherings outfits asking pointed questions about their home countries and regions.
This has caused understandable fears within the vulnerable refugee communities. Failure to comply may lead to harsh treatment by immigration officials in what is already a hostile environment against refugees in the West. The information they pass over may be traced back to them, which could lead to repercussions from their governments, local militias, terrorist groups, or the local population either against them abroad or their families at home.
It is no secret that HTS was an intelligence asset as far as the US military were concerned. In 2014, Army Secretary John McHugh defended the program saying the information the teams provided was "actionable and useful for decision-making."
Evans, editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks, said: “HTS was absolutely an intelligence program and the Army and HTS leaders should have embraced it from the start. All “intelligence” means is information gathered and analyzed at the institutional level to inform decision-making. What’s more, the program fell under the G2 (“2” indicates “intelligence”) at the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). This U.S. Army budget document called it a “Military Intelligence Program.” As an HTS employee (and Department of the Army civilian), I fell under the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System (DCIPS), as did my HTS colleagues. Many Human Terrain Teams, including my own, worked closely with and were embedded within the intelligence staff sections in the brigades they served. Does that mean we were involved with lethal targeting? No, of course not. But we absolutely collected and analyzed information that informed military operations.”
When the previous failures of HTS recruitment are taken into account, it is clear why the US army are now recruiting from refugee communities. And when the shady circumstances regarding its continued inclusion in US army documents even after it supposed closing down in 2014 are taken into account, it is clear that there is merit to the refugees’ claims of exploitation.
Above all, however, it is an unconscionable exploitation of the groups made vulnerable by US policies in the region in the first place.