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Human Terrain System (HTS)

Human Terrain System (HTS)

In response for a greater need to understand the Afghan population the Army decided to establish Human Terrain Teams or HTTs in Afghanistan (and Iraq). These HTTs were comprised of primarily civilian academics who would look at the "human factors" of Afghanistan conflict. The program ended in late 2014 with the end of the Iraq conflict and withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Human Terrain System (HTS) operated by embedding anthropologists and social scientists with military units - usually at brigade level - to provide the commanders and their staff with a cultural understanding of their operational environment. With the withdrawal from Afghanistan in full force the need for the HTTs diminished and the program was ended on September 30, 2014.

Human Terrain Team Key Leader Engagement in Kandahar, Afghanistan
Human Terrain Team Key Leader Engagement in Kandahar, Afghanistan
(Photo 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, April 3, 2011)

Origins. After fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan for a few years many military leaders came to the realization that the military units on the ground had little cultural understanding of the population of Iraq and Afghanistan. As the December 2006 edition of FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency pointed out - the population is central to winning the war against an insurgency. One of the prime movers for the establishment of Human Terrain Teams was Montgomery McFate. The HTS was first started in 2007 as a pilot program with only 5 teams of social scientists who were trained and sent to Iraq to provide cultural expertise to troops engaged in the surge. The teams were well-recieved and Central Command issued a Joint Urgent Operational Need Statement (JUONS) to obtain more teams. By 2008 the Army had 30 teams in theater and later in 2010 a peak of 45 teams.

Supporters and Detractors of Human Terrain Teams. There are a lot of people on both sides of the Human Terrain Team debate. One issue is whether anthropologists should work for the defense establishment in support of a counterinsurgency war. 1. In addition, there are detractors of the HTT program who state that the personnel hired to fill the positions were not qualified to do the job they were hired for and that some military commanders dismissed the value and expertise that HTTs offered. However, there are plenty of supporters who valued the HTS program and several studies provide support for the HTS and HTTs. 10.

Network of Concerned Anthropologists (NCA). The NCA is an independent ad hoc network of anthropologists seeking to promote an ethical anthropology and very much opposed to the Human Terrain System. 5.

Lack of Government Oversight. One of the criticisms of the Human Terrain System is the lack of government oversight. Some of these abuses centered on the inflation of hours on time sheets to maximize pay. 2. Under changes recently made in its later years this deficiency had been corrected.

Code of Ethics Violated. Some members of the anthropologist community suggest that the American Anthropological Association Code of Ethics 4. was being violated with the gathering of information that could be used for intelligence and targeting purposes. 3.

Human Terrain Analysis Teams (HTATs).  The HTATs were analytical teams attached to divisional staffs - whereas the HTTs were attached to brigade staffs.

Human Terrain Team Personnel. For the most part, the teams were composed of social scientists, analysts, language experts, and researchers. Many have former military experience as well - in particular Special Forces personnel.

How did Human Terrain Teams Operate? HTTs were typically five-person teams. They conducted research, analysis and wrote papers and briefings from their work stations (located somewhere within a brigade compound on a forward operating base or FOB). In addition they gathered information while embedded with patrols or on operations off the forward operating bases. Information gathered while accompanying a patrol would come from patrol debriefings, atmospherics (a census-like data collection method), and key leader engagements (KLEs) with village elders, tribal councils, or Afghan government officials. 8.

Reachback. The term reachback refers to the ability to access information through Internet portals or from personnel working in organizations in the states. HTTs had a reachback capability as well to the Reachback Research Center (RRC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 9.

Transition from Contract to Government Term Employees. As part of a restructuring of the HTS (partly in response to criticism of the program) the government changed the nature of the program - eliminating the contractors (who made good money) and replacing them (or transitioning them) to government term employees in 2009. The management was also brought more firmly under military control in 2010. 7.

Bottom Line. The military had made an honest effort to bring some cultural expertise to the COIN environment in Afghanistan. Although the program may have had its detractors and some commanders (and brigade staffs) did not fully utilized the HTTs; it was still a valuable program that attracted qualified personnel to fill the HTT positions.

Websites about the Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan

U.S. Army Human Terrain System. The Human Terrain System develops, trains, and integrates a social science based research and analysis capability to support operationally relevant decision-making, to develop a knowledge base, and to enable sociocultural understanding across the operational environment.

Human Terrain System Media. A variety of online news articles on the HTS portal.

Cultural Knowledge Consortium (CKC). The CKC is a joint and inter-agency effort that provides a Socio-cultural knowledge Infrastructure (SKI) to facilitate access among multi-disciplinary, worldwide, social science knowledge holders that fosters collaborative engagement in support of socio-cultural analysis requirements.

Human Terrain System by Wikipedia.

Publications about the Human Terrain System
(listed chronologically)


Connable, Ben, "Human Terrain System is Dead, Long Live . . . What?", Military Review, January - February 2018. A retired Marine Corps officer writes on building and sustaining military cultural competence in the aftermath of the Human Terrain System.


Davies, Michael C., "Institutional Failure: USA Today and the Human Terrain System", Small Wars Journal, March 28, 2016.

Sims, Christopher, "Academics in Foxholes", Foreign Affairs. An article about the life and death of the Human Terrain System.


Sims, Christopher, The Human Terrain System: Operationally Relevant Social Science Research in Iraq and Afghanistan, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College Press, December 2015. A 526 page report on the Human Terrain System embedded civilians that served primarily with the brigade combat teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tatham, Dr. Steve and Mr. Keir Giles, Training Humans for the Human Domain, United States War College Press, Strategic Studies Institute, November 2015. Posted on the Homeland Security Digital Library.

Striker, SJ, Ph.D., The Humanity of Warfare: Social Science Capabilities and the Evolution of Armed Conflict, Hollin-Phoenix Consulting, Inc., East Lansing, Michigan, November 2015.

Tornes, Dr. Robert R., "Socio-Cultural Intelligence and National Security", Parameters, Summer 2015, pages 61-76, Strategic Studies Institute.

Evans, Ryan. "The Seven Deadly Sins of the Human Terrain System: An Insider's Perspective", Geopoliticus: The FPRI Blog, July 13, 2015. Evans, the editor of War on the Rocks Blog and a former member of a Human Terrain Team lists seven mistakes of the HTS but also points out it was an effective program despite the attacks of critics.

Green, Clifton. "Turnaround: The Untold Story of the Human Terrain System", Joint Force Quarterly, 78, July 1, 2015. By National Defense University Press. A balanced look at the HTS - recognizing its failings but also how it adapted and became a valuable part of the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Briggs, Thomas. "The Third Order Effect: Understanding the Risks to Academia from Engaging with the SOF Enterprise", Small Wars Journal, June 29, 2015. Briggs explores the past problems associated with the Human Terrain System and provides recommendations on possible future arrangements between SOF and Academia in the Human Domain field.


Lawton, Joel. "How the Military Intelligence Community Has Failed to Incorporate Sociocultural Understanding of their Operational Environment", Small Wars Journal, April 23, 2014.

Lihou, Norman T. and Marisol Nieves. "Conceptualizing Human Domain Management", Small Wars Journal, April 4, 2014. This article explores the definition, utility, and application of Human Domain Management (HDM) and the principles of Human Network And Engagement (HNAE) operations.


Sands, Robert R. Greene. "Thinking Differently: Unlocking the Human Domain in Support of the 21st Century Intelligence Mission", Small Wars Journal, August 20, 2013.

Lamb, Christopher J., James Douglas Orton, Michael C. Davies, and Theodore T. Pikulsky. "The Way Ahead for Human Terrain Teams", Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 70, 3rd Quarter 2013. Pages 21-29.


Nigh, Norman. 2012. An Operator's Guide to Human Terrain Teams. CIWAG case study series 2011-2012, ed. Andrea Dew and Marc Genest. Newport, RI: US Naval War College, Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups.

Guilhot, Nicolas. "The Anthropologist as Witness: Humanitarianism between Ethnography and Critique", Humanity, Volume 3, Issue 1, March 2012. . . .

Page, Julia. Human Terrain Teams, Thesis at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, February 23, 2012. . . . 2012.pdf


MIPB, "Human Terrain System", Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, PB 34-11-4, October-December 2011.


Drozdowicz, Jarema, PhD. Human Terrain System and the Anthropology of Crisis,, 2010.

Edwards, David B., "Counterinsurgency as a Cultural System", Small Wars Journal, December 27, 2010. The author, a long-time student of Afghanistan, recognizes that " . . . one of the weaknesses of the American military has been their lack of knowledge of the social context in which they were fighting".

Garfield, Andrew. "Understanding the Human Terrain: Key to Success in Afghanistan", Small Wars Journal, July 16, 2010.  The comments at the bottom of the article are very informative! . . .

Golinghorst, MAJ Kevin R. Mapping the Human Terrain in Afghanistan. SAMS, CGSC, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, AY 2010.

Greanias, Jennifer. Assessing the Effectiveness of the US military's Human Terrain System".  Georgetown University.

Gusterson, Hugh. "War, Journalism and Professional Ethics", Global Studies Review, George Mason University, Spring 2010. A critique of the HTS by a founder of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.


Finney, CPT Nathan K., "Human Terrain Support for Current Operations", Professional Forum, Infantry, March - June 2009. . . . Infantry_HTT.pdf

Connable, Major Ben. "All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence", Military Review, March-April 2009. . . . pdf

McFate, Montgomery and Steve Fondacaro. "Reflections on the Human Terrain System During the First 4 Years", Prism, Volume 4, No. 2., 2009, pages 63-82.


Kipp, Jacob, Lester Grau, Karl Prinslow, and Don Smith. "The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century", Military Review, September-October 2006.

Movies about Human Terrain Teams

"Human Terrain: War Becomes Academic". 6.

"So You Want to Join Human Terrain Teams". A comic look at HTTs.

Books about Human Terrain Teams

The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice. The story of the Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan, by Vanessa M. Gezari , 2013. Learn more about the book The Tender Soldier.

News Stories about Human Terrain Teams

September 30, 2016. "Getting the Military and Social Scientists Back Together: The Need for Expeditionary Social Science", Modern War Institute, September 30, 2016.

August 22, 2016. "They Know Our Pain", Small Wars Journal. Nicole Heydari writes on her time on an HTT assigned to a French Brigade and working with a US SF team.

February 14, 2016. "Guest Post: Duncan Hunter and Human Terrain System by Turner", by Pete Turner, A former HTT member refutes Rep Duncan's claim in the Feb 9, 2016 USA Today news article.

February 9, 2016. "Army's rebranded social science program draws flak", by Tom Vanden Brook, USA Today. Another tiresome attack on the HTS by Vanden Brook and Rep. Duncan.

December 3, 2015. "Should There be a Human Warfighting Domain?", by Thomas Doherty, Small Wars Journal.

August 18, 2015. "The Quiet Demise of the Army's Plan to Understand Afghansitan and Iraq", The New York Times Magazine. Vanessa M. Gezari examines the role of the Human Terrain System, its failures, and the need for a DoD organization that can provide cultural intelligence to counterinsurgents.

July 15,2015. "Army's Anthropology Experiment Ends in Defeat". Bloomberg View.

July 10, 2015. "Pentagon's Decision to Cut Human Terrain System Short-Sighted", World Politics Review. Steven Metz writes about the unfortunate demise of the HTS.

June 29, 2015. "Army kills controversial social science program". USA Today.

June 29, 2015. "The Rise and Fall of the Human Terrain System". Counterpunch.

November 4, 2014. "Sorrow, Memory, and The End of the Helmand Campaign", by Ryan Evans, War on the Rocks. A former member of a HTT reflects on the departure of ISAF from Helmand province.

September 28, 2014. "Army Rethinks the Human Elements of War". Real Clear Defense.

January 2, 2014. "Military social sciences tab up to $726M since '07". USA Today. Unfortunately there are still some critics who don't want the Human Terrain System to continue despite the overwhelming support from battlefield commanders.

October 29, 2013. "Human Domain Operations: Institutionalising Eating Soup". Small Wars Journal.

September 23, 2013. "Army leaders warned about issues with social scientists". USA Today. Newly released documents spell abuses.

August 28, 2013. "Why The Army Matters: Human Factors and Killing". Breaking Defense. News story explores the importance of understanding human factors in a conflict such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

August 16, 2013. "When the Eggheads Went to War". By Vanessa M. Gezari, posted on The Daily Beast. "An innovative program sought to transform the Army from within. Then reality intervened.

August 13, 2013. "Is social science our silver bullet around the world?". The Boston Globe Opinion. Columnist Farah Stockman reviews Vanessa Gezari's book on HTS.

August 11, 2013. "Tender Soldier critiques Army's plan to get to know Afghans". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A former HTT member writes on her experiences in Afghanistan.

August 11, 2013. "How to Read Afghanistan". The New York Times Sunday Review.

July 22, 2013. "Sparta resident receives medals during deployment to Afghanistan". The Sparta Independent. Dr. David Sniffen worked in Ghazni province.

April 3, 2013. "Rep. Duncan Hunter Wants to Cut Funding for Human Terrain System (HTS) in Afghanistan". Matthew Waid Blog.

March 27, 2013. "Army defends battlefield social science program". Army Times.

March 25, 2013. "Displaying Items by Tag: Human Terrain Team". Diplomatic Courier.

February 28, 2013. "Army plows ahead with troubled war-zone program". USA Today. The HTS sends civilian social scientists to help U.S. troops understand Afghan society.

March 22, 2012. "U.S. Army's Human Terrain Experts May Help Defuse Future Conflicts". Defense News.

June 7, 2011. "Caldwell Fears Cuts to Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan". Talk Radio News Service.

July 1, 2010. "Should Anthropologists Help Contain the Taliban?" Time Magazine.

June 11, 2010. "Scholar soldiers in Afghanistan are on dangerous terrain". The Guardian. Lines blurred between independent academia and partisan militarism.

May 20, 2010. "Human Terrain Teams MIA in Afghanistan?" Danger Room The author explores the value (or not) of HTTs in Afghanistan.

May 1, 2010. "Mapping Afghanistan's Human Terrain". DVIDS.

April 25, 2010. "Human Terrain System". DVIDS. Dr. Richard R. Boone explains his role on an HTT in Logar province, Afghanistan.

April 16, 2010. "Army Researchers: Why the Kandahar Offensive Could Backfire". Danger Room at

March 17, 2010. "COIN and the Human Terrain". Defense Update.

February 20, 2010. "Dissenter's account of the US Human Terrain System from the Inside". Anthropology Works.

January 18, 2010. "Getting to Know You". The Weekly Standard.

December 28, 2009. "Anthropology shoots at military program for GI Jones to track cultures in combat zones".

December 4, 2009. "American anthropologists unhappy with HTS". Circling the Lion's Den.

December 4, 2009. "Anthopology and the Military". Inside Higher Ed.

December 3, 2009. "Military's Human-Terrain Program Might be Ethical, Philospher Says". The Chronicle of Higher Education.

December 1, 2009. "Human Terrain Systems, Anthropologists and the War in Afghanistan". Counter Punch. Story expounds upon the friction within the anthropologists community about HTS and asks ethical questions about the use of the program.

November 30, 2009. "Army Researchers Warn Against Tribal War in Afghanistan". Danger Room at

October 19, 2009. "The US doesn't understand Afghanistan". The Guardian.

September 1, 2009. "Social Scientists Deployed to the Battlefield". NPR. An interview with Dr. Karl Slaikeu (a psychologist on HTT in Afghanistan) and Ms. Vanessa Gerari.

August 31, 2009. "Oil Spot Spock and the Human Terrain Team". Danger Room.

August 20, 2009. "Rough Terrain: The Human Terrain Program Embeds Anthropologists with the U.S. Military in Afghanistan". The Washington Post.

March 13, 2009. "Inside the Brain of 'Human Terrain'". Danger Room at

March 13, 2009. "Her mission orders in Afghanistan: Map the human terrain". Story on HTT member Audrey Roberts.

March 2, 2009. "Human Terrain Teams Build Friendships, Future". American Forces Press Service. Jim Emery talks about HTTs in Afghanistan.

February 2009. "U.S. Army Response to Robert Young Pelton's 'The New War for Hearts and Minds'", Men's Journal.  Also see an interesting blog on the Pelton article on HTTs by Afghan Quest entitled "Picasso Pelton: Old Blue's Paint by Numbers" dated February 23, 2009 posted here. The blog Free Range International also comments on Pelton's hack job of the HTT here.

February 19, 2009. "The Why and How of Human Terrain Teams". Inside Higher Ed.

February 2009. "Afghanistan: The New War for Hearts and Minds". Men's Journal. An article on HTTs by Robert Young Pelton.

January 15, 2009. "The support troops are getting flak". Times Higher Education.

January 8, 2009. "Third 'Human Terrain' Researcher Dead". Danger Room Paula Loyd, HTT member, dies of injuries from attack in Afghanistan.

September 26, 2008. "McFate explains Human Terrain Teams". The Dartmouth.

August 2008. "Human Quicksand: For the U.S. Army, a Crash Course in Cultural Studies". Harpers Magazine. This article by Steven Featherstone was recognized by other Afghan War observers as an insightful piece of analysis of the HTTs (see Afghan Quest post here).

May 9, 2008. "Human Terrain Team Member Killed in Afghanistan". Small Wars Journal. Michael Bhatia, a social scientist, was killed by an IED.

November 29, 2007. "Army Social Scientists Calm Afghanistan, Make Enemies at Home". Danger room,

November 18, 2007. "Is the Human Terrain System Worth Its Spit?"

September 7, 2007. "US Army's strategy in Afghanistan: better anthropology". The Christian Science Monitor.


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1.  The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has come out strongly against the establishment of the Human Terrain System and deployment of Human Terrain Teams to Afghanistan. Read a report by the AAA on the Army HTS Program accessed here.

2. For more on allegations of pay inflation see "Problematic Human Terrain System continues despite criticism", Digital Journal, February 20, 2013 posted here.

3. Read a detailed critique of the Human Terrain System by David Price entitled "Human Terrain Systems Dissenter Resigns, Tells Inside Story of Training's Heart of Darkness", CounterPunch, February 15, 2010 posted here.

4. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) Code of Ethics can be read here.

5. Visit the Network of Concerned Anthropologists (NCA) website here.

6. The movie "Human Terrain" is the topic of a feature entitled "Hearts & Minds", Brown Alumni Magazine, September/October 2010.

7. Info on the transition from contract to term employee staffing comes from a letter from the Secretary of the Army to Representative Duncan Hunter dated March 15, 2013 explaining the history and cost of the HTS.

8. For an example of a typical HTT 'atmospherics patrol' see "Task Force Viking employs Human Terrain Teams", DVIDS, July 12, 2012.

9. HTTs have reachback for products on the Integrated Research Project Management Service (IRPMS) that integrates team research, the Reachback Research Center (RRC), and other HTS entities.

10. For more info on studies support the HTS and HTT program see The Truth about Human Terrain Teams: An Evidenced Based Response to Gian Gentile, by Michael Davies, e-International Relations, September 21, 2013. . . . gentile/



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