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Human Terrain Teams Build Friendships, Future

By Army Cpl. John Zumer
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, March 2, 2009 – Though coalition forces have been successful over the last seven years on the battlefields of Afghanistan, true and lasting success lies in understanding Afghans. Toward that goal, “human terrain teams” could become a large building block for victory, officials here said.

The teams were developed in 2005 to provide field commanders with the relevant social and cultural understanding necessary to meet daily operational requirements.

The teams operate in the field, and corresponding human terrain analysis teams are attached to divisional staffs and largely analyze field data and other information.

“Much can be accomplished by approaching things as a social, rather than a security, problem,” said Jim Emery, lead social scientist of a human terrain team attached to Task Force Warrior in Bagram, Afghanistan. The Department of the Army contracted social scientists, analysts and researchers to join military personnel in the teams’ composition.

Five pilot teams were created at the program’s beginning. Four went to Iraq, and the fifth was attached to Task Force Fury in Afghanistan’s Khowst province in January 2007. Teams have embedded with Army and Marine units, and while normally attached at the brigade staff level, they also provide general support for subordinate units.

The embedded teams of social scientists, analysts and researchers gather and update institutional knowledge on Afghanistan, research background and historical documents and conduct research in the field. These efforts already have yielded many successes.

The teams have contributed to a reduction in violence in one Afghan province, according to Army Col. Scott A. Spellmon, brigade commander, Task Force Warrior. Problems in Kapisa province had been tied to the difficulty in understanding numerous local dynamics. The population was mixed with Pashtun and Tajik peoples, a fact which can be problematic, Spellmon said. Tensions in the air were reduced when team members talked with local elders.

Emery said he believes the success has yielded an even greater reward.

“One of the measurable qualities in Kapisa is that you have people coming forward now with information,” he said.

The Afghan army is taking much more prominent roles, Emery said, noting that success largely is measured by the respect and cooperation of villagers.

“If you provide hope for the future, then you provide viable alternatives,” he said.

The human terrain team process of defeating the enemy is neither quick nor trouble-free, however.

“Sometimes it takes six to eight months to build that trusting relationship,” said Larry Rice, research manager of the human terrain analysis team attached to Combined Joint Task Force 101. “It is important to target key villages as if they were spokes on a wheel.

“Success can then emanate outwards if natural lines of communication are developed and maintained,” he added.

Nonverbal cues that reinforce the verbal message are vital to success in forging relationships, Rice said. Body language of coalition forces can be interpreted differently by Afghans, he explained.

Spellmon said he wishes the human terrain team concept had arrived even sooner, considering the visible successes.

“I would have loved to have had this team in our train-up prior to coming to Afghanistan,” he said. Information and guidance the teams provide at combat training centers on what deploying troops can expect provide a deeper understanding of the Afghan people, he added.

Despite the many successes, challenges remain. The size of Afghanistan limits the amount of time the few human terrain teams can spend in villages. Quality time spent in villages is the most pressing need, Emery said.

“Just going out on a postcard run and not really talking to people does us no good,” he said.

Time spent on the ground in days, not minutes, is vital in building friendships, Rice said.

“Afghans don’t like to be treated poorly and only be showered with provisions,” Rice added, echoing a frequently heard complaint that some commanders gauge mission success by the amount of food and supplies distributed.

“Tribes don’t always behave as co-ops in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and that has to be taken into account,” Josh Foust, a senior analyst for the program, said. “Differences and the way they’re handled matter.”

Negative and inaccurate stereotypes of Muslims and Afghans on the part of coalition forces also need to be overcome.

“Friendship, hospitality, good manners, honor, loyalty, respect for elders, and love of children are core values of Afghan culture,” Emery said. “It is important that our soldiers learn these and other positive characteristics of the Afghans in order to have a positive change in how they plan and carry out missions. The main goal in Afghanistan is security, stability and prosperity, but you have to establish good personal relationships first.”

(Army Cpl. John Zumer serves with the 40th Public Affairs Detachment.)

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Related Sites:
U.S. Forces Afghanistan


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