Small Wars Journal

Counterinsurgency as a Cultural System

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Counterinsurgency as a Cultural System

by David B. Edwards

Download the Full Article: Counterinsurgency as a Cultural System

Beginning in 2008, when news of the development of the Human Terrain Systems (HTS) program first came to public attention, a number of anthropologists began a systematic campaign to dismantle the program or at least ensure that it would never receive the imprimatur of legitimacy from professional organizations. Since the premise of HTS was that it would bring the insights of academic anthropology to the practice of military counterinsurgency, what might normally have constituted an irrelevant gesture (like the shy 9th grader deciding that she simply would not to go to the prom with the football captain, even if he asked) had some clout, in that many anthropology graduate students and unemployed PhDs who might otherwise have considered joining the program chose not to join for fear of being black listed and never landing a job in academia.

Download the Full Article: Counterinsurgency as a Cultural System

David B. Edwards is a professor of social science at Williams College, Williamston, MA.

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Former HTS Res… (not verified)

Tue, 12/28/2010 - 11:22am

Based on some googling, I've found that HTS has become a topic on a lot of syllabi for college intro anthropology courses. This essay should certainly become one of the assigned readings.

I worked for about a year as an HTS researcher (in Leavenworth, not down range), and everything here rings true. HTS as a program is much more about making civilian researchers think like Army doctrine interpreters (and less about making them think like David Edwards). Speaking for myself, I appreciated learning a lot about how the military functions. But it is still not clear to me how to do useful "anthropological" work on quick day-trips off the FOB. I did see some useful work done by HTTs that had been presented to commanders, but very little relative to the grand scheme of the program.

A couple of things that I would have emphasized more: first, the quality of recruits. It appeared to me, at least, that the academic recruits (for "social scientist" and "analyst" positions) were weaker in their fields than were the military recruits (the "team leaders" and "research managers"). There were a few qualified academics, but the tendency to incompetence among them quickly created a culture in which those who had military experience ran the show. The former director of HTS has since come out and admitted that recruiting was a big weakness of the program, but that also lines up with his interested in shifting blame toward the recruiter (a big defense contractor, BAE).

Second, the four-month training course was terrible. Part of that was due to a culture of waste (in one class I witnessed a manager come in and declare a half-day off because of poor organization) and part of it was because it didn't take the idea of anthropology seriously at all. Four months is a woefully short amount of time, and it included only a pitiful bare minimum of language training. When I was there, trainees didn't even know if they were going to Iraq or Afghanistan a few weeks before deployment.

One could imagine a cycle of 9 months training in language, anthro, and military skills, then 9 months of deployment, and 9 months of teaching and "writing up" one's findings. If you could somehow attach it to a nearby university and hand out masters' degrees at completion, that might make the thing more attractive to younger aspiring social scientists who haven't yet been indoctrinated by the older anthros' ideological seething hatred for working with the military.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 12/28/2010 - 2:12pm

The Stability Operations Information Centers (SOICs) are now providing far more human terrain reporting as part of their district support/understanding role than the entire HTS effort currently in Afghanistan.

If that is the case then why is the HTS still functioning as it is a massive cost to the taxpayer.

I regularly read the responses on here and often feel woefully ill-prepared to add my thoughts lest I reveal how woefully ill-prepared I am given the usual group of respondents, hence my lack of postings. But I'll give this one a shot.

I found this article quite informative and even a bit amusing (PowerPoint, anyone? Calling COL Sellin!). Dr. Edwards identifies many of the sources of frustration that scores of staff officers, unit leaders, and military advisors have seen (and are enduring), namely a lack of understanding of what COIN is and calls for despite being articulated in several venues, like FM 3-24, and an apparent unwillingness by our military leaders to actually apply those COIN techniques preferring instead to "give lip-service" to the ideas espoused by COIN practitioners (we're going to work with the local population but only from inside of our MRAPs & MATVs!).

It is at the end of the article that I think Dr Edwards really sums up what is really at the heart of our problem in prosecuting our current war (and perhaps subsequent ones): what are we really doing? What is our overarching strategy?

Others on SWJ have addressed this but I'm not aware of anyone identifying it (isn't this the job of the DoD/ DoS/ NCA?). I thought the reference to the British Empire/ Raj was appropriate for it is one that I think applies to us. Like it or not, we are THE global power, in many ways influencing the world like the British Empire of the 19th Century. Given this, let's start acting like it. I don't mean invading countries and striping them of their valuables, or colonizing them and enslaving their peoples. I mean intervening in countries/ areas where the effects of failed governments and non-functional societies negatively impact our affairs and those of our allies.

Countries devastated by natural disasters call on (and often get) US assistance (see Indonesia Quake, Pakistan floods, etc) because we are the only ones with the resources, equipment, and personnel capable of providing such assistance (and thank you to the UK, Australia, Japan, and other allies for their essential contributions to such efforts). We are fairly quick to jump on such missions. We ought to demonstrate the same level of commitment when identifying countries where overt lawlessness & violence threaten our interests and those of our allies (strong ones and luke-warm ones) because, again, we are the only ones who really can do anything about it.

As an advocate of Thomas Barnett's works, I think it is our responsibility to "shrink the Gap" and bring the disconnected, "third-world countries" into the western system as much as possible and allowable, preferably through peaceful means but militarily if necessary. Accepting our role as global dominator, albeit with the help of numerous allies and even some rivals, should help to focus our efforts and our vision of what our government and military ought to be doing in "shrinking the Gap" and assisting struggling countries stabilize themselves and become active participants & positive contributors in the global network.

Occasionally, that will mean our forces going into places to fight insurgents/ terrorists/ criminals/ guerillas looking to maintain some kind of medieval status quo and assisting elements in attacking us and/ or our allies. Changing our "operational culture to connect with the people" by "earning their trust" will assist us in finding, fighting, and defeating those who undermine stability. The line that I think says it best is, "Under COIN, the first requirement shifts from seeking out enemies to seeking out friends". Will this be risky? Yes. Will it take time? Quite a bit, far longer than we Americans, certainly those in the military, are accustomed to. Is it worth it? That depends on our willingness to accept our role as global dominator and the responsibilities that come with it. I think it is. If this article does anything, I think it demonstrates a need for our military to become something of a "human terrain team" in order to better understand and operate in a COIN environment.

Shahmahmood Miakhel (not verified)

Sun, 01/02/2011 - 1:53am

IT is a very good paper. In COIN, you have to know about your partner, your enemy and your environment but unfortunately,there is less understanding or no understanding about all these three factors. Even, if someone know about all these three different sets of actors, they don't know how to deal and how to adjust their COIN operation according to reality on the ground. COIN is important to achieve political objectives but unfortunately, political objectives have not been defined in Afghanistan by policy makers or at least, they are not communicated to Afghans. International community is in Afghanistan for the last 9 years (longer than the Soviets) but they have had nine different strategies or even four different seasonal strategies in each year. Therefore, people believe on perception and perception become reality. Reality on the base of perception change to conspiracy theories and even in very high level of Afghan government officials believe conspiracy theories. I would like to mention that I am originally from Afghanistan. I am active and involved for last 32 years in Afghanistan but I don't know what is going. I would like to tell a story of famous Mullah Nusrudin. Most funny stories people in this region attribute to him. Once upon a time, he was riding on a donkey and the donkey was running. Someone asked him, Mullah Nusrudin where are you going? he told him, don't ask me, ask the donkey where he is going because he is only riding it. I personally don't know which direction we are going. I hope, we all speak out and play active role to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan and the rest of the world and share our experience, concerns and convince policy makers to make right decision.