Monday, July 12, 2010

'Human Terrain' hits rocky ground

I've been following the Human Terrain Systems information via the Open Anthropology blog so I thought I'd add the latest news here.

The US Army's controversial project for social scientists to serve alongside soldiers on the battlefield has suffered another setback with the loss of its director, retired US Army colonel Steve Fondacaro, who left on 11 June. Although no reason was given for his sudden departure, those familiar with the programme say that it is yet another sign of trouble for a project that has faced criticism since its inception four years ago.

Greg Mueller, a spokesman for US Army Training and Doctrine Command, based in Fort Monroe, Virginia, confirmed that Fondacaro is no longer manager of the Human Terrain System (HTS), but declined to provide details. He says that the army is now looking for a new civilian director. Colonel Sharon Hamilton will run the programme until a new director is found.

Fondacaro said in a phone interview that, although not technically fired, he had been pushed out of the position. He said that there had been "a lot of tension" between himself and senior army leaders, exacerbated by congressional pressure. "This is just a culmination of that," he said.

The HTS aims to help commanders to understand local culture and reduce violence. But critics, including the American Anthropological Association in Arlington, Virginia, see a contradiction between the goal of anthropology, to help local populations, and the goals of the army, which often wants to control them.

The programme has also suffered more concrete setbacks. It has struggled to recruit and retain social scientists. Several deployed social scientists have been killed, a translator was kidnapped in January (and later released) and one civilian team member pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter after executing an Afghan man who attacked social scientist Paula Loyd last year. Loyd later died of her wounds.

Roberto Gonzalez, an anthropologist and the author of American Counterinsurgency, a book on the HTS, says he is surprised that the leadership shake-up has been so long in coming. "Some argue that the HTS is suffering from poor management and lack of oversight, and that if these problems could be corrected it would be successful," he says. "I disagree. The entire programme is flawed because Human Terrain team members are thrust into an impossible situation in which they are torn between conflicting interests."

Funding for the HTS has increased from US$10 million to US$100 million a year since it began in 2006. But in May, a congressional panel said that it would limit funding until the project had been assessed by the army.

More changes lie ahead. The army has confirmed that it is seeking a new contractor to train Human Terrain teams. Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta, which currently provides training, has decided to end its involvement — but did not give details.

Fondacaro denied that problems with the programme were caused by his leadership, arguing that aspects such as contracting were beyond his control. "The record will show, if anybody cares to look, that the things I was able to manage worked quite well," he said.

Asked about the programme in a meeting with reporters in March, US secretary of the army John McHugh said that he was "neither happy nor unhappy" with the HTS. "Whether it's a long-term solution or one in which we can glean short-term lessons and then move forward is still something we're not able to judge," McHugh said.

Weinberger, Sharon. 2010. "'Human Terrain' hits rocky ground". Nature. Posted: June 22, 2010. Available online:

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