Understanding the Human Terrain: Key to Success in Afghanistan
by Andrew Garfield
General Petraeus, in his recent Senate Confirmation Hearing, reminded everyone that in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, "the key terrain is the human terrain." Taking and holding the human terrain is the essential prerequisite for ultimate success in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq. This battle for control of and support from a contested population can only be won if we understand the Afghan people, whose cooperation, trust and support we are trying to secure. Armed with this understanding, we can navigate the human terrain successfully. Without it, we continue to be confused by the complexities of their culture, faith and society; oblivious to their desires, grievances and opinions; distracted by the lies and distortions of our enemies; and blind to opportunities to enhance our reputation.
In much of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan today, the Taliban hide, recruit, train, prepare and attack from safe havens provided by the local Pashtun population. They remain hidden for extended periods simply by hiding in plain sight; well known to elements of the local population who are un—or unable to challenge their presence. If we are to challenge the Taliban in Kandahar and elsewhere in Afghanistan, and enhance the influence and effectiveness of the Afghan Government, our soldiers and diplomats must understand fully the society and culture in which they operate.
To develop an in depth understanding of the human terrain, one must first conduct comprehensive, systematic, timely, and ethically appropriate social science research and analysis. In order to do so, one must operate in the field and conduct primary face-to-face research, utilizing all available sources. One cannot learn how to navigate the human terrain in Afghanistan from the Internet.
Social Science research, which is primarily face to face research, helps our military understand why so many Kandaharis support the Taliban or are —to turn a blind eye to their activities. It tells them what Afghans' expect from their Government and what they need to survive and prosper. It tells our military how to avoid cultural missteps and explains the narratives that they must understand and utilize in order to communicate effectively with the population. It identifies Taliban behaviors and excesses that the population rejects and can be exploited, while providing Afghan perspectives on how to exert pressure on, and reconcile with, the Taliban.
Yet, far too little effort has been dedicated to the systematic, on-the-ground collection of this essential socio-cultural information. This type of human terrain data is being collected, however the budget for its collection is minuscule in relation to its importance. In addition to budgetary constraints, such research collection is attacked regularly by ivory tower academics that falsely question research ethics and methods based on personal ideologies, instead of defending the lives of Afghans, and U.S. military and civilian personnel.
Our military and diplomats must be given direct access to the full range of Social Science field research capabilities as a means to protect themselves and the people they engage and support. If this access is denied for budgetary, ideological or methodological reasons, many more Afghan civilians, and American and Allied soldiers will die, allowing the Taliban to prevail.
Andrew Garfield is the Founder of Glevum Associates, a Massachusetts-based social science research and analysis company that conducts extensive multi-disciplinary face-to-face research in Afghanistan and Iraq on behalf of the Department of Defense and other clients.