Kansas to Kandahar: The Making of a Human Terrain Team

by Bob Edwards and Chad Campbell, senior producer

For generations, the American military has sent troops to foreign lands to enforce authority on people who don’t know our language or culture. Likewise, the troops haven’t known theirs either - presenting infinite possibilities for mistakes and misunderstanding. And in combat, a misreading of a gesture or exclamation can have deadly consequences. The good news is that the U.S. military now embeds cultural anthropologists with combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Army proof-of-concept program is called the Human Terrain System. A typical team is composed of an active military officer, two former military personnel and two “academic embeds.” The civilian social scientists go out with interpreters and with those combat units to gather research, conduct interviews and build relationships with locals. Then they take that data and apply it to what the commander needs to know, adding to his understanding of the “human terrain” in the battle space. Many academics have protested the military’s use of social scientists. You can read about the American Anthropological Association’s opposition to the program here. We reference the topic in our interview with senior social scientist Montgomery McFate and with the program manager Colonel Steve Fondacaro. They stress that the Human Terrain System and the information gathered by social scientists is not turned into targeting information, as it sometimes was during the Vietnam war.

The team we follow is designated AF7, the seventh team deployed to Afghanistan. They are team leader John Foldberg, research manager Major Maria Vedder, analyst Jared Davidson and civilian social scientist Kristin Post. We met with them in July of 2009 during their three weeks at the Army’s National Training Center in the Mojave Desert of southern California (click here for more information on the NTC and to hear our documentary from last November). We also talked with them a month later at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas where HTS team members receive about three months of classroom training. The team deployed to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan last September and its work there is concluding soon. We’ll speak with members of the team in the coming weeks to hear about their experiences and how well the training prepared them for the deployment.

In the short history of the Human Terrain System, the program has lost three social scientists, Michael Bhatia, Nicole Suveges and Paula Loyd. Click here to read more about the program’s three social scientists killed in action.

To see pictures and descriptions by Major Maria Vedder from her time at Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan, click here.

And here are some frequently asked question (and the answers) about the Human Terrain System.