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    Mapping Afghanistan's Human Terrain



    Story by Sgt. Spencer Case 

    Combined Joint Task Force - 82 PAO

    BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - Anyone who has spent time in Afghanistan knows about its rugged geological terrain, but it takes a team of experts to understand the obstacles posed by its equally complex and rugged human terrain.

    "Human terrain" refers to the beliefs, values and many-layered social interactions of a host nation population. Like any kind of unfamiliar terrain, one should not attempt to navigate it without first consulting a map. Human terrain analysts are the Army's social cartographers whose "maps" are meticulously drawn from their interactions with locals.

    The Army began the Human Terrain System project in 2006 to help U.S. forces and allies in Iraq and Afghanistan conduct counter-insurgency operations, said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Raphael Howard, a research manager for the Task Force Wolverine Human Terrain Team at Bagram Airfield who hails from Worcester, Mass.

    The project, which falls under U.S. Training and Doctrine Command intelligence, assembles information gathering-teams of people educated in social sciences, regional languages and history, and embeds them with deployed military units. While the information the teams collect is not considered traditional military intelligence, it does provide information for future operations, Howard said.

    Howard said after the first experimental HTT was fielded in Iraq in 2007, the project rapidly expanded. Now it is the norm for every brigade deployed to combat zone to have an HTT, which are typically five-person teams including at least one social scientist, one team leader and one language expert. Given reports of success from brigade commanders, who saw improvements in their relations with locals, the HTS project is expected to be given program status in June, meaning that it will be considered to be a permanent part of the Army.

    Human terrain analysts obtain information through two primary methods: atmospherics and key leader engagement missions. Atmospherics refers to a census-like data collection method, while KLE refers to any meeting of a particular important person or group of people, such as a village elder or a tribal council.

    Both methods of collecting information require that trust relationships with locals be established beforehand, so there is no substitute for spending "quality time" in the villages, said James Emery, a social scientist for the TF Wolverine HTT, who is an expert on Islam and worked for the Islamic media in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation in the 1980's.

    Trust relationships usually begin with a simple introduction. Report is established slowly, through shared conversation, meals, and sometimes cigarettes. If an area is frequented enough, the analysts will take off their armor to show trust.

    "In Afghanistan you will garner little in the way of loyalty and support regardless of the number of projects and [amount of] humanitarian aid given unless you have first established portals of friendship through which everything good will come," Emery said.

    Roya Sharifsoltani, a research manager for the Combined Joint Task Force-82 Human Terrain Analysis Team, added, "They know if you're faking it so you have to be sincere."

    Information collected by human terrain analysts is stored at the Reachback Research Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where it is available to other government agencies and academics via Freedom of Information Act request, Howard said.

    Since analysts' work is not used for targeting, its influence on the ground situation in Afghanistan tends to be indirect. Nevertheless, the relationships they develop during KLEs sometimes make them important as de facto ambassadors for ISAF.

    For instance, Cyrus, a language and economics expert with the TF Wolverine HTT, met with the heads of Dewanah village, Parwan province near Bagram Airfield, March 15. Until then, the village was considered hostile. Two men in the village had been shot and wounded when they attempted to launch an indirect fire attack against BAF. Many locals believed ISAF had acted unjustly in wounding the two men. After Cyrus had spoken to them in Dari, the members of the village had a better understanding of why ISAF acted the way they had and tensions seemed palpably lessened.

    "We're finally beginning to see the fruits of our labors," Cyrus said of the HTT's interaction with Dewanah village.

    In addition, HTT participation in an April 29 meeting with land owners from Bagh-e-Alam village helped smooth over a conflict over property accidently damaged by U.S. troops. The incident occurred early morning April 23 when a convoy of Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicles strayed from the road and through farmland, resulting in a damaged irrigation system, wall and two acres of farmland. The land owners informed the Afghan national police of the incident and the ANP conveyed the message to U.S. troops April 28.

    Cyrus happened to be on a KLE mission to the village of Qal'eh-ye Dewanah with 3rd Plt., A Company, 1st Bn., 172nd Cav. Regt. when an ANP captain told him of the incident. The following day, Cyrus and U.S. Army 1st Lt. Austin Barber, the platoon leader for 3rd Plt., met the land owners at the Qarah Bagh district center. During an hour-long conversation in Dari, Cyrus assured the men they would be compensated.

    "We are very pleased they came and listened to our pleas," said Khalil Rahman, one of the land owners present at the April 29 meeting, through the aid of an interpreter. "They maintained our honor and showed respect."

    Despite these apparent successes, the HTS project has come under controversy from some in academia who are suspicious of social scientists' involvement with the military, and with counterinsurgency operations in particular.

    Howard said he believed the criticisms of the HTS project to be misguided, insisting that HTS research does not characteristically harm subjects.

    "What we do is to help people, not undermine them," Howard said.

    Howard added that criticism of the program was sharpest when it was in its very early day of field use. He expects the criticism will continue to decline as more evidence of the positive effects of their work comes to light.

    "In the beginning it was a scandalous thing," he said. "It's not such a scandalous thing anymore, especially as so many social scientists have thrown in support to the project."

    Despite the controversy, the HTS will continue to map the human terrain to help conduct better counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.



    Date Taken: 05.01.2010
    Date Posted: 05.01.2010 21:30
    Story ID: 48992
    Location: BAGRAM AIR FIELD, AF 

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