An Update from Iraq

I have spent the past week traveling around the Kurdish Region of Iraq conducting research on the behalf of FPRI and the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. For the past two days, IRIS held the Suli Forum. Now in its fifth year, the Suli Forum has emerged as one of the top policy forums in the Middle East. The Forum mostly looked ahead to the strategic landscape facing the region after ISIS. However, we also received updates on the current situation in Mosul from Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, who commands Iraq’s venerable Counter Terrorism Service and thus leads Iraqi counter-ISIS operations. We also heard news about Mosul from the Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider Al-Abadi, various Kurdish Peshmerga Commanders, and a representative from the controversial Popular Mobilization Forces (which have been accused of carrying out a number of atrocities). Many of the views that these figures expressed were challenged by fellow participants and audience members, but the picture that they presented about the current status of the operation to retake Mosul is generally as follows:

Everyone acknowledges, at least tacitly, that the human cost of Iraqi operations to take other cities in the campaign against ISIS has been unacceptable. The military used heavy weapons in densely populated areas. The Popular Mobilization Forces, which consist mostly of Shi‘i militias that were created (or at least reinvigorated) following the ISIS assault on Iraq in 2014, have been undisciplined and unaccountable. Thus, operations to take cities such as Tikrit and Ramadi over the past couple of years nearly destroyed those cities. Had the same tactics been used in the much larger city of Mosul, the result would have been a humanitarian nightmare. Therefore, the Iraqis are attempting a different strategy. Lt. Gen Shaghati insists that no Popular Mobilization Forces have entered the city and that only light weapons are being used (though these points were disputed by some other participants). The Iraqi Army is also applying well-worn counterinsurgency tactics quite effectively for the first time. They are moving slowly to prevent the destruction of infrastructure (the battle for Mosul began in October and it is still ongoing). And the general insisted that civilians in Mosul were his number one priority. He claims that Iraqi forces regularly put their own lives in danger to win the respect and trust of the local population. This required not only new tactics, but also significant changes in the structure of the Army. For example, under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Counter Terrorism Service had been considered a sectarian arm of the Shi‘i led government, but recent reforms have changed its essence. The service now consists of members from all of Iraq’s sects, and if any member openly touts their sectarian identity, they are removed from the unit.

While there are good reasons to be cynical about many of these claims, the operation to liberate the sections of Mosul on the eastern bank of the Tigris River have been much more successful than Iraqi operations in other cities. Over 80 neighborhoods in Mosul are now controlled by the Iraqi Army, though ISIS sleeper cells remain and attacks are still common. Unlike in Tikrit, Fallujah, or Ramadi, the civilians in liberated eastern Mosul have largely remained in their homes and neighborhoods.

These facts mark a real and positive shift in the manner in which the Iraqi military is operating. However, there are still a number of challenges ahead as well as many unanswered questions. The Iraqi Army has yet to liberate Mosul’s old city, which everyone agrees will be much more difficult due to its narrow, winding streets and dense population. Seventy-five percent of Mosul’s population lives in this unliberated part of the city, and it is considered ISIS’s stronghold. One could easily see the Iraqi assault bogging down there. Moreover, some participants challenged the rosy picture of a “clean” operation in eastern Mosul that the Iraqi government and military presented. Some unofficial casualty reports reach into the thousands, and recent stories have leaked claiming that heavy weapons were indeed employed in Mosul, leveling homes and infrastructure (though the government and military deny these claims). Moreover, while the government insists that it takes human rights violations seriously, Lt. Gen Shaghati was only able to provide one instance in which soldiers or militia members were punished for such abuses. Finally, the Yazidis do not feel that the military or the Iraqi government has done enough to find and free the captured Yazidi women who ISIS has been using as sex slaves. One Yazidi leader lamented the fact that thousands of these women were in Mosul and nearby towns, but that rescuing them has not been a priority for the government forces.

So, to sum up, the general feeling here is one of cautious optimism. Most stakeholders seem to believe that the military, while far from perfect, is successfully refining its strategy to fight ISIS. They also believe that the liberation of Mosul, while moving slowly, will ultimately succeed. What will happen in Iraq following that liberation remains a matter of wild conjecture.

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The Seven Deadly Sins of the Human Terrain System: An Insider’s Perspective

The Human Terrain System (HTS) – a U.S. Army program aimed at helping U.S. and allied military forces understand the people around them in Iraq and Afghanistan – is dead. And anthropologists are dancing ritualistically around its corpse.

The idea behind HTS was simple and promising: embed social scientists with military units and give them the resources to unearth operationally relevant socio-cultural data and findings. Its founders, Dr. Montgomery McFate, an anthropologist by training, and former Army officer Steve Fondacaro stood the program up and served as its leaders and missionaries for its first few years of existence. At the height of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan most ground-holding brigades and special operations units had Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) supported by Human Terrain Analysis Teams (HTATs) at the division level.

So what went wrong? When Tom Vanden Brook broke the story of the death of HTS he focused on fraud, racial and sexual harassment, as well as ethical issues related to the program’s roots in anthropology. His sources for the story, his most recent of several on the program, were a predictably bland statement by an Army spokesman, Dr. Roberto Gonzalez – an anthropologist at San Jose State University who, like many of his disciplinary colleagues, has been a consistent critic of the program, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif), who has waged war against HTS for years.

I was surprised and disappointed that Brook did not dig a little deeper. He did not get any of the hundreds of people who worked for HTS to comment on the record, even though a number of us write for public consumption these days and probably would have been happy to talk to him. He did not reference any of the four major studies (briefly reviewed at e-IR by Michael Davies) that sought to assess the program’s effectiveness. He did not seek out any scholars who have conducted pathbreaking research on HTS, such as Christopher Sims who recently finished his doctoral work at the King’s College London War Studies Department on this very subject.

Instead, Brook went to an anthropologist who had no association with the program (but wrote a stinging critique of it in 2009) and a Member of Congress who is a known foe of the program. He tried to go to the Army and it is unfortunate they did not offer anything substantive.

One cannot get at why HTS failed without looking at all the information at hand. This actually matters because understanding socio-cultural issues in war zones remains an important endeavor. I spoke to several of my former Human Terrain System colleagues, some of whom I did not actually get to know until after I had come home, to identify the seven deadly sins of the program from an insider perspective. What were they?  

  1. Calling it anthropology

One of the program’s founders was McFate – a trained anthropologist who was also involved in developing Field Manual 3-24 on counterinsurgency. When the program started receiving media coverage in 2007 as an anthropological program, the American Anthropological Association was livid. They called it “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise” and launched what amounted to a jihad against HTS.

Anthropology is a valuable academic discipline that has helped to shed light on diverse cultures around the world, however it tends to attract and foster those with opinions on the far left of the political spectrum. At the risk of over-generalizing, Western anthropologists as a group are skeptical of the U.S. military and generally politically opposed to U.S. wars. This is a cultural departure from the earlier history of the discipline, which some say was overly intertwined with imperial projects and ambitions – a legacy that is deeply regretted by many present day scholars of this discipline and feeds their skepticism of many western military operations.

It was therefore no surprise that the American Anthropological Association came after the Human Terrain System with everything they had, even producing a highly critical 73-page report on the program in 2009. But HTS was not an anthropological effort and never should have been called one or defended on that basis. HTS officials spent a great deal of focus trying to “engage” with the anthropological community and make nice. HTS leaders insisted the program was not an intelligence effort (also untrue, as I discuss below) to appease crunchy academics. But that was an unwise and unnecessary effort.

HTS drew on social scientists from a variety of disciplines (not, as some think, primarily because of its rejection by the anthropological community) as well as historians. Field research and ethnography are not the exclusive domains of the anthropologist. And HTS personnel did not even have the time or opportunities to do proper ethnography (as discussed eloquently by David Edwards).

So what were they doing?

  1. Denying it was an intelligence program

HTS leadership constantly denied that it was an intelligence program (read this semi-ridiculous FAQ) to the media, representatives from the anthropological community, and those of us who went through HTS training because someone decided that “intelligence” is a dirty word.

HTS was absolutely an intelligence program and the Army and HTS leaders should have embraced it from the start. All “intelligence” means is information gathered and analyzed at the institutional level to inform decision-making.  What’s more, the program fell under the G2 (“2” indicates “intelligence”) at the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). This U.S. Army budget document called it a “Military Intelligence Program.” As an HTS employee (and Department of the Army civilian), I fell under the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System (DCIPS), as did my HTS colleagues. Many Human Terrain Teams, including my own, worked closely with and were embedded within the intelligence staff sections in the brigades they served. Does that mean we were involved with lethal targeting? No, of course not. But we absolutely collected and analyzed information that informed military operations.

  1. Flawed recruitment

There were generally three types of people who joined HTS. The first were people who believed in a mission (although not necessarily the ones our forces were in Iraq and Afghanistan for) and wanted to contribute to it. The second were people who saw such a deployment as an opportunity for self-actualization, escape, or adventure. The third were people looking to make a buck (HTS was a well-paid gig, even after the program switched from employing contractors to government personnel).

All three categories had their problems. You had special ops-wannabes, a guy who had previously worked in Afghanistan (and got kicked out) but wanted to return solely to get some locals funding to build a doll factory (no joke), another guy who wanted to introduce Christianity in Afghanistan… I could go on.

My job interview for HTS was a joke. It was two ten minute phone interviews and, as far as I know, they followed up on exactly zero of my references. I have no reason to believe that this was not typical, especially once I met some of the people with whom I was in training, to include fantasists and fraudsters who routinely and obviously embellished their experience (many – but not all – of the worst were weeded out during training and did not make it to deployment). Once one made it past this ridiculously low hurdle, we were hired as contractors and told to show up at Ft. Leavenworth, where we would be trained and, eventually, “transitioned” into the ranks of the Department of the Army as civil servants.

What they did not tell us was that this transition process was actually a whole separate job application process. Once we arrived in Leavenworth, we were told we had to apply for the government version of the job and if we did not make it through, we would be sent packing. I accept that they couldn’t just let us into the ranks of government service without some sort of process, but they should have told people ahead of time that this would be the case. People had left their jobs and even sold their homes with the expectation that they had a real job.

As it turns out, the government application process was also absurd (but far more cumbersome) and we were told pretty directly by a Department of the Army civilian official that they would not have the time to check our references. Still, many people were weeded out at this point. Unfortunately, they were often the wrong people. Most Afghan-Americans and Iraqi-Americans in the training program did not make it through this process. One colleague who had done his graduate work at Oxford got turned out at this point because Oxford was not recognized by the Department of the Army (no joke). Some of the wash-out survivors were the most troublesome and the biggest perpetuators of sexual harassment.

Take a breath before you attack the contracting companies that brought in misfits and oversaw an ineffective recruitment process. They were executing the contract as it was written and it was written poorly. True responsibility sits with the Army.  

  1. Awful training and deployment processes

Maybe two weeks of useful training was spread out over five and a half months.  Our training schedules changed on a daily basis, introducing a frustrating element of unpredictability that did not set HTS trainees up for success. We also received way too little language training. And for you taxpayers out there, the entire time we were in training, we were staying in nice hotels, had rental cars provided for us (complete with reimbursed gas), and received per diem on top of our generous salaries.  

Training would have been a great opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of candidates. While efforts were made along these lines, they were ineffectual. One huge missed opportunity was the failure to capitalize on prior in-country experience by U.S. military personnel and civilians in HTS. People with experience in one part of Iraq or Afghanistan should have been enabled to go back to those areas, where they would have had the most value. No efforts were made in that direction. People did not usually know where in Iraq or Afghanistan they were going until a couple weeks before they deployed, which deprived them of a chance to do in-depth research on the provincial and district levels of analysis – which is where HTTs did all their work. 

  1. Deploying personnel who were unprepared to survive in a combat zone

Up until at least late 2010, HTS trainees received no practical training on how to safely use firearms and to survive in combat, despite the fact that many of us would be expected or given the opportunity to carry firearms and get shot at. The official line was we could be trained and certified for these sorts of things downrange by the brigades we were working with – a form of on the job combat training.

One former HTTer conveyed an all-too-common experience to me:

My on the job training in Afghanistan included: riding in an MRAP for the first time; riding in a helicopter for the first time; shooting an M4 and M9 for the first time.  I “qualified” on an M4 at a strong point overlooking an abandoned village by shooting at a house with a suspected sniper inside. Luckily he wasn’t shooting back at the time. The first time I wore NODs [night observation device] was on a night time patrol and I’m lucky I didn’t fall on my face let alone step outside the cleared path. 

Ridiculous, right?

While I had fired rifles and pistols a few times before HTS, I had never been that into guns. While in training, I went to the range with current and former military personnel in my training class who kindly showed me the ropes as well as they could. I also spent a sizeable amount of my own money to fly to the U.S. Shooting Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma during my pre-deployment leave to take a private class with a former recon Marine on handling and firing a carbine and a pistol.  Luckily, I had an amazing and responsible team leader (an Army reserve officer) who insured once we were in Afghanistan that those of us who wanted to carry firearms (I carried an M9 on most missions) were trained and appropriately equipped to do so.

After my training was complete, HTS started to send its people through more rigorous training at Ft. Polk.

  1. Broken leadership and organizational culture

This is a bit misleading, because to call the HTS organizational culture “broken” implies that it was once whole. It never was. There was a pervasive sense that leadership did not care much for the well-being of the people in the program during training and especially once they were deployed. Sexual harassment was a big problem, both in training and downrange, but it should be noted that this was (and remains) a broader U.S. military problem – not just an HTS problem – yet the fact that accountability mechanisms in HTS were so messed up (and sometimes just absent) made it worse.

  1. Trying to become the COIN poster boys and gals hid the real success stories

The problems of HTS were rooted in the early public narrative on the program, which started with the major media attention it started to receive in 2007. HTS advocates in and out of the Army tried to sell the program as the thing that would make counterinsurgency work. You know those hearts and minds you are trying to win? Well here are the folks that will help you see inside them and tell you what you’ll have to do. This was never a realistic aim and it was rooted in a fundamental misconception of how and why counterinsurgency operations can be successful (read my chapter in this book).

Human Terrain Teams were never going to “fix” counterinsurgency or make it work, but at their best, a functioning team could provide a sharper lens through which their brigades could see their area of operations. The saddest part about the Human Terrain System legacy is that many teams were successful at this (as confirmed by four authoritative studies of the program) and provided real value to their brigades, but this was all lost in the public discourse because so many mistakes were made in recruitment, training, management, and everything else I discuss above.

I am proud of the work I did in Afghanistan on a Human Terrain Team and so are most of my HTS comrades. It is crucial that we understand the seven deadly sins of HTS, but I hope journalists also talk about the good things. They happened too and they matter. 


Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. He worked as a U.S. Human Terrain Team social scientist in Helmand province from November 2010 to August 2011. 

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When Worlds *Don’t* Collide

Working at a think tank I spend a good portion of my days (and many evenings and weekends) reading, listening, talking, or writing about foreign and defense policy issues. In my free time, among other activities, I pay a lot of attention to the Philadelphia Phillies and enjoy good, and sometimes not so good, film and television. In the main I subscribe to George Costanza’s “Worlds Theory”* and don’t like to mix up entertainment with my professional life. Sometimes, however, these “worlds” are impossible to separate—for instance when films like Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, or Zero Dark Thirty come out. Other times people use elements of pop culture to explore the goings on in world affairs by analogy. When done poorly these sorts of analyses can be terrible, but when done well they can be quite useful. Two such useful pieces were recently published.

Erin Simpson over at discusses the lessons of urban revolutions in a post about Les Misérables. She notes as a student of political violence that she was “…more interested in the structural integrity of the barricades and the poor substitution of tenors for tactics” and that “…it provides a blueprint for understanding the relationship between cities and violence.”

While she notes that the student uprising was crushed, the physical terrain of Paris was favorable to “armed insurgents.” Eventually, however, the government learned its lessons. As Simpson points out:

The French authorities eventually learned their lesson. Following the collapse of the Second Republic in 1851, Napoleon III established the Second Empire. Among his most significant reforms during this period was commissioning Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to redesign Paris, transforming it into the city we know today. Though aesthetic considerations drove demand for green spaces and new building facades, the desire to exert better control over rioting Parisians played a significant role. One of the central design elements of Haussmann’s Paris is wide boulevards — specifically, the width of a cavalry squadron in extended line.

This is where urban planning intersects with military plans. In addition to its boulevards, Paris’s famous circles are spaced to allow for interlocking fields of (cannon) fire. Haussmann isolated the most rebellious neighborhoods from the 1848 July Days by filling in a canal. He also placed Paris’s grand railway stations so that they would be rapidly accessibly by government troops, and designed urban blocks so that corner buildings were set back from the intersections — making them next to impossible to barricade, while simultaneously bringing light and air into city streets. After 1968, most of the city’s cobblestone roads were also paved over to prevent the pavers from being used as projectiles in future protests.

Although she concedes that it had long been conventional wisdom in counterinsurgency circles that urban revolts where very difficult and were typically detected and put down due to factors such as the “[c]oncentration of state security forces in built-up areas and the isolation of urban populations from potential sources of support …[make] it difficult to organize, recruit, and operate in cities”, this received wisdom is now changing. Experiences in places such as Baghdad, Fallujah, and Ramadi show the potentialities of urban insurgencies. As she states

It may now be possible to organize and train virtually, allowing networks and capabilities to grow without attracting the attention of modern-day Javerts. Rapidly growing urban spaces like Karachi and Lagos combine weak governance, informal settlements, and choking population density, which offer sanctuary to proto-insurgents. Add to this the ready availability of modern telecommunications, global finance networks, and regional and international transport, and these mega-cities present a perfect storm of means, motive, and opportunity for modern insurgents.

This is similar to an observation that Frank G. Hoffman pointed out in the summer 2007 issue of Parameters when he argued that

…rural insurgencies have not vanished, but the complex terrain of the world’s amorphous urban centers is fast becoming the insurgent and terrorist’s jungle of the twenty-first century….

Today, distance is exchanged for density. Urbanization presents an environment with populations and infrastructure so dense that law enforcement, intelligence, and conventional military assets may not be as effective. Dense urban centers provide the urban guerrilla or terrorist with many of the same advantages as the classical setting, as well as the added dimension of lucrative targets. Where political systems are brittle, the combination of population growth and urbanization fosters instability and ever-increasing challenges to political control and public security. Modern insurgents exploit these environmental factors to their advantage.

Simpson concludes by stating that while modern day urban counterinsurgents may be aided by tools such as “[i]nnovations in aerial surveillance, big data, and network mapping…” they will not necessarily cope with the underlying grievances that lead to such uprisings. With this in mind one might easily see a future where cities and mega-cities will take two idealized forms: (1) cities where urban planning is carefully done and advanced industrial or information capabilities permeate society and have, in effect an unblinking eye**; or (2) cities where sprawl and unplanned housing makes establishing control very difficult outside of small business districts or walled luxury housing compounds.

Switching gears, over at Kings of War Ryan Evans of the Center for National Policy wrote an interesting post entitled “Hell on Wheels as State or Nation-Building.”*** For those who haven’t seen it, Hell on Wheels is about the construction of the United States’ first continental railroad as it moves west.  Drawing on Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Tilly, and Khald Fahmy he explains how the show deals with the issues of the time to discuss the re-building of the American nation after the Civil War.  As he puts it the show is

…a microcosm of the state building process.  The show portrays entrepreneurs (of violence, industry, and commerce) and ‘big men’ trying to knit together a new collective – laborers, foremen, merchants, and prostitutes – toward a common commercial and industrial goal – the building of a railroad.  These actors are constantly challenged by managing the divided interests and agendas within this collective defined by race, religion, and politics.  These multiple, fluid solidarities are constantly erupting into conflict. The Irish laborers despise the newly liberated black former slaves.  Contempt is mutual between the Yankees and the Confederates who only recently laid down their arms and turned west.  Non-immigrant Americans look down on the Irish ‘papists’ – who make up most of the labor force.  Everyone fears and hates the Cheyenne Indians, who lurk in the plains waiting to strike – the enemies of ‘progress’ and ‘modernization.’

The biggest big man is Colm Meany’s Thomas Durant (a real person).  He is the businessman driving the tracks across the plains – his national project – leveraging the resources of outside powerbrokers – investors, a U.S. Senator, and banks – paying and intimidating laborers, and, above all, looking after himself.  Building the railroad is his war.  Durant induces, persuades, divides-and-conquers, and coerces. He performs these four activities, which, according to Tilly, all fall under the umbrella of organized violence: war making (fighting external rivals), state making (fighting internal rivals), protection (fighting the enemies of his clients), and extraction (‘acquiring the means of carrying out the first three activities’).

He notes that questions relating to the legitimacy or illegitimacy of such violence and political control are hotly debated and have been throughout history. Obviously, as we know now, the methods used in Hell on Wheels worked, no matter how unseemly they may seem to our 21st century sensibilities. Of course, expanding the focus to 21st century Afghanistan and such sensibilities might explain the problems of state-building there today.

I’ll keep my eyes open for other analyses like these and report them in this space from time to time. Perhaps I can even get Roger Carstens to do an analysis of SOF employment lessons learned from The Dark Knight Rises….


*“Worlds Theory” is explained in the Seinfeld episode “The Pool Guy” which first aired in November 1995. Worlds Theory posits that people need to keep certain portions of their lives compartmentalized. In George’s case this meant keeping his relationships with his friends (“Independent George”, his sanctuary) and his girlfriend Susan (“Relationship George”) separate or else his worlds would collide and blow up.

** See for instance a program such as Luther where CCTV pieces together things in near real time in London or how Dubai authorities pieced together the members of an alleged Mossad hit squad after the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

*** Evans provides another plausible explanation for mixing up entertainment with work: “When I first discovered Hell on Wheels, a TV show on AMC, I spent large part of a couple days watching the entire first season. In an effort to tie this into what I do and stave off my guilt over binging on TV when I should have been working, here we go: Hell on Wheels as nation-building.”

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