Human Terrain Teams Build Friendships, Future
(March 5, 2009)
|BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, March 2, 2009 – Though coalition
forces have been successful over the last seven years on the battlefields of
Afghanistan, true and lasting success lies in understanding Afghans. Toward that
goal, “human terrain teams” could become a large building block for victory,
officials here said. |
The teams were developed in 2005 to provide field commanders with the relevant
social and cultural understanding necessary to meet daily operational
The teams operate in the field, and corresponding human terrain analysis teams
are attached to divisional staffs and largely analyze field data and other
“Much can be accomplished by approaching things as a social, rather than a
security, problem,” said Jim Emery, lead social scientist of a human terrain
team attached to Task Force Warrior in Bagram, Afghanistan. The Department of
the Army contracted social scientists, analysts and researchers to join military
personnel in the teams' composition.
Five pilot teams were created at the program's beginning. Four went to Iraq, and
the fifth was attached to Task Force Fury in Afghanistan's Khowst province in
January 2007. Teams have embedded with Army and Marine units, and while normally
attached at the brigade staff level, they also provide general support for
The embedded teams of social scientists, analysts and researchers gather and
update institutional knowledge on Afghanistan, research background and
historical documents and conduct research in the field. These efforts already
have yielded many successes.
The teams have contributed to a reduction in violence in one Afghan province,
according to Army Col. Scott A. Spellmon, brigade commander, Task Force Warrior.
Problems in Kapisa province had been tied to the difficulty in understanding
numerous local dynamics. The population was mixed with Pashtun and Tajik
peoples, a fact which can be problematic, Spellmon said. Tensions in the air
were reduced when team members talked with local elders.
Emery said he believes the success has yielded an even greater reward.
“One of the measurable qualities in Kapisa is that you have people coming
forward now with information,” he said.
The Afghan army is taking much more prominent roles, Emery said, noting that
success largely is measured by the respect and cooperation of villagers.
“If you provide hope for the future, then you provide viable alternatives,” he
The human terrain team process of defeating the enemy is neither quick nor
“Sometimes it takes six to eight months to build that trusting relationship,”
said Larry Rice, research manager of the human terrain analysis team attached to
Combined Joint Task Force 101. “It is important to target key villages as if
they were spokes on a wheel.
“Success can then emanate outwards if natural lines of communication are
developed and maintained,” he added.
Nonverbal cues that reinforce the verbal message are vital to success in forging
relationships, Rice said. Body language of coalition forces can be interpreted
differently by Afghans, he explained.
Spellmon said he wishes the human terrain team concept had arrived even sooner,
considering the visible successes.
“I would have loved to have had this team in our train-up prior to coming to
Afghanistan,” he said. Information and guidance the teams provide at combat
training centers on what deploying troops can expect provide a deeper
understanding of the Afghan people, he added.
Despite the many successes, challenges remain. The size of Afghanistan limits
the amount of time the few human terrain teams can spend in villages. Quality
time spent in villages is the most pressing need, Emery said.
“Just going out on a postcard run and not really talking to people does us no
good,” he said.
Time spent on the ground in days, not minutes, is vital in building friendships,
“Afghans don't like to be treated poorly and only be showered with provisions,”
Rice added, echoing a frequently heard complaint that some commanders gauge
mission success by the amount of food and supplies distributed.
“Tribes don't always behave as co-ops in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and that
has to be taken into account,” Josh Foust, a senior analyst for the program,
said. “Differences and the way they're handled matter.”
Negative and inaccurate stereotypes of Muslims and Afghans on the part of
coalition forces also need to be overcome.
“Friendship, hospitality, good manners, honor, loyalty, respect for elders, and
love of children are core values of Afghan culture,” Emery said. “It is
important that our soldiers learn these and other positive characteristics of
the Afghans in order to have a positive change in how they plan and carry out
missions. The main goal in Afghanistan is security, stability and prosperity,
but you have to establish good personal relationships first.”
By Army Cpl. John Zumer
40th Public Affairs Detachment
Special to American Forces Press Service
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