The relationship between the Human Terrain program and the academic social science community has been strained from the start. The executive board of the American Anthropological Association, for instance, was calling the program unethical while there were only a handful of Human Terrain Teams on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. What kind of social science research can take place, the Association asked, when everyone involved is carrying a gun?
The Ivory Tower opposition to Human Terrain only grew louder, after whistleblowers charged the program's chief contractor, BAE Systems, with improperly vetting and training its employees. More concerns were raised, when two Human Terrain social scientists were killed in separate incidents, seven weeks apart.
July's tentative endorsement in Nature seemed to provide a counterbalance to the academic groups' misgivings. "Outrage at the current administration should not derail efforts that have potential to be a win–win for all concerned — including, most especially, the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and regions of future conflict," the journal said.
The project also won praise from American military leaders in Afghanistan, as well as from General David Petraeus, the new chief of U.S. Central Command. "The concept is still relatively new, and the contributions of the teams obviously vary based on the quality of the teams' members," he told Danger Room, over the summer. "But a good team -- and there are many -- is invaluable.”
Then, in September, Human Terrain social scientist Paula Loyd was set on fire during a research foray in Afghanistan. Her teammate, Don Ayala, shot the attacker -- and then was charged with second-degree murder in U.S. court. Days later, Human Terrain employee Issam Hamama was indicted for spying on America, on behalf of the Saddam Hussein regime.
For Nature, these incidents were the final straws. "In theory, [Human Terrain] is a good idea," the editorial says. "In practice, however, it has been a disaster.
The immediate problems with the Human Terrain System can be traced to BAE Systems, the military contractor based in Rockville, Maryland, that screens potential employees, then trains those it hires. It has failed in every one of those functions, and army management has failed in its oversight of BAE...
We continue to believe that the insights of science have much to offer strategies in a war zone — not least through training combat troops to understand the local cultures within which they operate.
But as currently constituted, the Human Terrain System is not the way to do this. Unless the programme can be reborn in a format less plagued by deadly mistakes, it needs to be closed down.
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