Intelligence: Screw The Academics


September 27, 2015: For decades the U.S. Army Special Forces pushed the idea of including “human terrain mapping” when preparing for combat operations, especially in areas where the local civilians were a potential help, or hindrance, for American troops. This concept gained some fans in the intelligence community, who always paid some attention to the locals. But few senior commanders were all that interested. After September 11, 2001, as the United States became very involved in Afghanistan and Iraq and more dependent on Special Forces for all sorts of battlefield chores, the human terrain mapping became very popular. But the Special Forces was stretched thin and did not have enough operators to get the job done for everyone that suddenly wanted it.

So the army decided to use contractors. What it came down to was using anthropologists and other social scientists to develop maps of the local population showing attitudes and loyalties. This is pretty standard stuff for marketing researchers. Want to put a new fast food outlet somewhere? Call in the market research experts to build and study maps showing who (in terms of what they eat and where they prefer to eat it) live there and what food outlets are already there. The military applications are more concerned with identifying the "opinion leaders." This is another marketing innovation, based on the idea that it's more effective to pitch the few people who most influence everyone else than it is to try and reach everyone with your message.

At that point the U.S. Army encountered some nasty problems with academics they hired to help them sort out the situation in Afghanistan. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The U.S. military has long been keen on adapting business innovations for battlefield use. The teams were supposed to map the attitudes, values, and power structure of Afghanistan (or at least parts of it) and Iraq. The U.S. Department of Defense spent over $250 million on the Human Terrain Teams since 2005 and the results were not very useful. Poor management and inept leadership led to much waste and poor performance by the anthropologists and other civilian specialists hired to do the work.

Up to 31 Human Terrain Teams (of 5-8 people) were in action at one time. Each team usually contained one person who spoke the local language, and that enabled commanders to get a briefing from someone who is just a bit closer to the locals. Some of the teams had military reservists who also had the necessary academic or professional credentials. This has caused much static in academia, where working for the Department of Defense is frowned upon although being a reservist is more readily tolerated. But these same academics often work for commercial firms doing the same work and many of them see no difference. Alas, those who did sign on for the Human Terrain Teams never heard the end of it from their academic critics. This despite the fact that many were attracted by patriotic attitudes or simply a rare opportunity to do research in a war zone. Most of those recruited were simply in it for the money and often did second rate work by working the system for all they could make.

The army ended up going back to Vietnam experience where something similar to Human Terrain Teams was used successfully by depending more on military personnel given training in what to look for, rather than hiring academically qualified civilians and trying to get them to do what the army needed done. The army has now set up a program for intelligence specialists to do some of the work of Human Terrain Teams and keep adding more detail using techniques that work. What doesn’t work gets discarded. The army can call on Special Forces (who are army troops) and the huge collection of data from previous operations to build a human terrain mapping capability that won’t be dependent on academic politics for success. The army also renamed the activity as human domain mapping. The Special Forces have an additional incentive to make this new program work because in the last decade SOCOM troops have regularly used soldiers, marines and non-SOCOM support troops to assist in SOCOM missions. Having the regular army and marine combat units trained to do effective human terrain mapping would be a big help for the Special Forces troops who usually have to do it for complex and difficult missions.






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