Anthropologists lend military insight into customs, values of foreign cultures

Small teams of social scientists and anthropologists working with American units to map the "human terrain" in Iraq and Afghanistan and use "soft power" to engage local populations have saved lives and are an important tool in nation building, according to military officials.

In today's irregular wars, "battlefields are often civilian neighborhoods" where American troops face an "indistinguishable mix" of enemy fighters and innocent civilians, said Andre van Tilborg, deputy undersecretary of Defense for science and technology, at a hearing on Thursday before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities. Social scientists can help provide the cultural knowledge that could mean the difference between gun battles and peaceful outcomes in troops' daily interaction with foreign cultures, van Tilborg said.

He said the Pentagon intends to spend roughly $150 million this year on social science research to better understand tribal cultures and social networks. The military wants to use part of that money to increase dramatically the number of Human Terrain Teams operating with military units. The proposal is highly controversial in the academic community, which believes it's an ethical violation for social scientists to work hand-in-hand with troops in war zones.

The program is small, with only eight HTTs -- six in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. The 5- to 8-person teams work with country-specific experts located at a Reach-back Research Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

The largely civilian scientific teams, using laptop computers and human terrain mapping software, conducted village assessments that provide commanders with a detailed data repository on the social groups within tribal communities: their interests, beliefs, motivating factors and leaders. "We learned that the population is the center of gravity, the enemy is hiding among the people and we must understand the culture to win," said Army Col. Martin Schweitzer, who recently returned from a 15-month combat tour in Afghanistan and whose brigade of paratroopers was the first to use an HTT.

He said the teams functioned not just as cultural advisers, but identified the key players within tribal communities whose power structure and patronage networks often confound Western minds. The scientific team questioned the aggressive and firepower-heavy tactics the American troops had used to combat Taliban insurgents in a particular Afghan province, Schweitzer said. That approach was based on a misreading of the local tribes, he pointed out.

The HTT learned that the true power brokers in the area were not the village elders, who were mostly Taliban supporters, but rather the local mullahs, who were Islamic clerics. After redirecting their outreach efforts to the mullahs, Schweitzer said his troops saw a dramatic decrease in Taliban attacks. "For five years, we got nothing from the community," he said. "After meeting the mullahs, we had no more bullets for 28 days, captured 80 Afghan-born Taliban and 32 foreign fighters." The "shadow Taliban" government in the area was eliminated, he said.

Addressing the concerns of the academic community about social scientists working in counterinsurgency operations, Schweitzer said: "The team is not an intelligence tool used to target individuals," and are not qualified or trained to aid in identifying or selecting enemy fighters to be either killed or captured. He said that role is performed by intelligence officers.

The Afghan population is exhausted by the constant fighting and deaths of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, Schweitzer said, so any combat operation, even those that target the Taliban, can be seen as a "step back." The scientific team's impact was "exponentially powerful" he said, leading to a 60 percent to 70 percent reduction in combat operations in his area. The scientific teams typically work with Provincial Reconstruction Teams, small units made up of civil affairs troops and economic development experts from the Agency for International Development and the State Department, that operate in local communities.

Schweitzer said a PRT commander told him that before the HTT arrived, team members were just "ricocheting around," talking to random people, until they identified the power brokers in each village.

While some military personnel might serve with the HTT's, usually reserve officers, the teams are built around social scientists. Much more important than knowledge or expertise in the local Afghan culture, he said, was their scientific training and experience as anthropologists. That allows them to conduct the human dimension analysis and decipher a local culture's norms and values, Schweitzer said. At least one HTT should accompany each battalion-sized unit, roughly 800 troops, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

In a speech last week to the Association of American Universities, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon must further its understanding of foreign countries and cultures with the help of the social science research community.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.