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Guest Post: Duncan Hunter and Human Terrain System by Turner

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

ZP is pleased to bring you a guest post by Pete Turner, co-host of The Break it Down Show and is an advocate of better, smarter, transition operations. Turner has extensive overseas experience in hazardous conditions in a variety of positions including operations: Joint Endeavor (Bosnia), Iraqi Freedom (2004-6, 2008-10), New Dawn (Iraq 2010-11) and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan 2011-12).


by Pete Turner

Today I was sent this USA Today article about Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca) and Human Terrain System with a request for comments. An excerpt:

….A critic of the program, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, demanded answers about the program from Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy in a letter sent Monday. Hunter noted “striking similarities between the two programs” and called on the Army to explain how the Global Cultural Knowledge Network differed from Human Terrain System. He also asked for an accounting of its cost and the number of people it employs.

“Unless the Army can show real differences between programs, then there should be no doubt that this constitutes a blatant attempt to rebrand and reboot a failed program under another name and a launch it with a reworded mission statement,” Hunter told USA TODAY on Tuesday. “What’s obviously lost on the Army is that it wasn’t just the implementation of HTS that was the problem, it was the whole thing, to include the program’s intent and objective.”

I have no faith in TRADOC’s ability to get Human Terrain System or HTS 2.0 any more right than last time.  The program was full of prima donnas, liars and academics who lacked the ability to relate to the military and commanders.  Also, commanders aren’t trained in how to best use HTS assets either – and that matters. For example:

COL: “Pete, I want you to tell me who the most influential person in our region is….can you do that?”  

Pete: “Yes Sir, I have the answer already…it’s you…until the people recognize their own governmental leaders, police and military, our focus has to be in ramping your influence down while we enable them to ramp up, Sir.”   

That statement is the essence of what an HTS does – we identify and translate the intersection of the ramps.  There is no book on how to do it well. The ground truth is where the best work is done.  It’s a shame that Rep Duncan Hunter and DoD cannot see that.

For those who aren’t familiar with my work, I have 70+ months of time working in combat zones.  I’ve worked most of this time at the lowest level interacting with locals on well over a 1000 patrols.  A great deal of this time I worked in the HTS program mentioned in the article.

Rep D. Hunter questioned the need and was critical of the original HTS program.  Like any program we absolutely had our share of fraud, waste and abuse.  Here’s the thing…the HTS program even when legitimately run is expensive.  Units work hard, long hours and a relentless schedule.  On numerous occasion, I’d work a 20 hour day followed by an 18 hour day followed by a string of 16 hour days.  An 84 hour week is the minimum I’d work.  Working at the minimum pace of 12 hours a day 7 days a week, a person will “max out” on their federal pay for the year and accumulate “comp time” or paid days off.

Since there are always things to do, lives at stake, command directives to pursue…missions to go on, planning to complete, analysis to run, reports to write, meetings to attend…it’s not hard to work 90+ hours a week and be seen as not doing enough.  How about this – some units will practice for a meeting for hours prior to the actual meeting?  If a unit is going to spend 6 hours prepping for and executing a meeting, that’s just ½ of a day…yes, legitimate work will result in paid leave.

If my patrol leaves at 3AM because there is a full moon and we move up and over a mountain arriving at a village before dawn…then spend the rest of the morning patrolling more and finally return to base at 2 in the afternoon…I still have to report on what I saw, a report may take 3-4 hours to write….and then prep for the next day’s patrol…unless your unit is doing 2 patrols a day.

I recall one specific time when a brigade from the 82nd that I was attached to was going to rotate home.  The brigade commander wanted to provide the new unit with the best possible handoff in terms of data, relationships etc.  To facilitate this handoff, my team was tasked to improve a “smart book” of dossiers on prominent Iraqis.  At one point I sat in the same chair for 24 hours writing, rewriting and then updating the book…simply because we HAD to work – the books weren’t getting better, just being constantly reworked.

Why do I bring this up?  Two reasons: First, the 82nd works HARD and if one is attached to them, that person works hard too, or suffers from irrelevance.  The 82nd spent a lot of taxpayer money on HTS people writing those books with the best intentions.  Secondly, the next unit came in and literally, never used the books.  When I asked why,  the new unit said, “we really don’t do that.”

When Rep Hunter originally questioned, the need for the program, I reached out to him to illustrate how when done properly, HTS work saves money and creates the kind of wins that unit’s cannot do without a HTS capability.  I also sent several notices to the my district’s congressional rep Mr. Mike Thompson.  Both he and Mr Duncan are veterans; I thought, surely they’d value my unique “ground truth” based knowledge.  I was wrong, both representatives ignored my offer to provide feedback.

The answer to Rep Duncan’s question about the need for this program is this:

Commanders need an outside element to translate what the US is doing for locals; in this case Afghans.  Meanwhile the HTS person also translates back to the US military what the locals are experiencing.  What an HTS person really does is works as a cultural translator allowing the different sides to understand the reality of their “partner.”

I worked in a valley that had a steep narrow canyon.  The local US Army agricultural development team (ADT) a truly myopic, xenophobic program that commonly created instability more than anything else, decided to build a check dam.  The dam was supposed to elevate the water in the river high enough to charge the irrigation ditches that ran the length of the river valley.  Over the course of 18 or more months the ADT fought with locals to improve the dam, while the locals rejected it and attempted to destroy it on several occasions.

The Dam Project

I was able to talk to locals who reasonably explained why the dam was an issue.  Simply put, they didn’t want it – and it was predicted to fail as soon as the first rain came.  Further, the region had an Afghan leader chosen to handle water issues for the families.  He agreed that the dam was a bad idea; and also predicted it would fail with the first rain.  We never effectively engaged the water elder–instead the ADT insulted this person and ignored his position and influence with the farmers.  A commander can’t know these things without an HTS person on the ground studying the human terrain.

I spoke with the ADT engineer responsible for the final “upgrade” to the dam.  I mentioned the concerns of the people and the water elder about the long term viability of the dam, which was visibly failing – the ADT hydrologist said, the elder may be right. Exacerbating this further, the dam project was done, updated and repaired all without any planning with the local Afghan governor.  All in all, the dam cost well in excess of $100k

Then the first rain came…

If one was to look at the ADT reporting, the dam was a hit.  It was accomplishing great things for the valley’s farmers.  Without an human terrain operator like myself, the ADT and the local US commander likely would never have found out how miserably they’d failed.  Rep Duncan, you want to fix things? Give me a call and I’ll show you where the money is really being wasted.

It gets worse…not only did the dam fail; when locals began to engage the governor about his plan to deal with the dam (this BTW is a small win, as most farmers a month prior saw no benefit from the government) the governor had no capacity to change anything.  This in effect confirmed for many locals that the governor had no ability to help them and therefore,  the Taliban would remain the dominant force in the region.  Ultimately, the ADT had closed the books on the region and meanwhile security further eroded.  Our efforts to create capacity resulted in us undermining the fledgling power of the governor.  Within a few months of my leaving the region, a district once considered to be a model of stability, had three service members assassinated by their Afghan partners.

Without an HTS asset, we never learn these lessons.  This is one of dozens of tales I was able to illustrate as an HTS operator.  Of course, since Reps Duncan and Thompson can’t be bothered with the ground truth – its all fraud waste and abuse, isn’t it?

9 Responses to “Guest Post: Duncan Hunter and Human Terrain System by Turner”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Zen — an important guest post, this.

  2. larrydunbar Says:

    When BushII went to war he basically took his MBA, opened the US treasury to corporations and told them to fix it. So now they are.

    So in that context, it is not that the Human Terrain System is a failure, and the effort put into it just. The story is in the transition operations. Maybe in transition, the corporations have chosen a brand and that brand is the Tali-brand.

    Not much need for a Human Terrain System, by any name, if the Taliban is going to run everything in Afghanistan, ahead of the IS.

    And the money saved is not only going into corporate coffers, via the MICC, but towards buying a few good men like Duncan Hunter.

    I mean it looks to me like that is the way things are going, but I could be wrong. Russia is giving intelligence to the Taliban in the Taliban’s effort to stop ISIS, and maybe the US would like to get in on the deal by supplying them expeditionary weapons as well, at least before the Russians do. As I remember one Afghan soldier saying in a piece not too many years ago, “We were all once the Taliban.”

  3. carl Says:

    Mr. Turner:
    I have two questions. First, what happened to the “smart book” you helped prepare for the unit that followed the 82nd? Is it available now if only for purposes of historical interest, or is it someplace in SIPRland, lost forever?
    Regarding the dam, long ago very many U.S. Army officers seemed to be able to perform the HTS function themselves. Lt. Johnston and Capt. Pershing in the Philippines and very many others on the plains knew all about the people they worked with. Now it seems they can’t or the system is structured such that they are not permitted to. Do you agree with that and is it possible to ever get back to where were 100 years ago?
    The dam story was great, filled with lessons that should have been learned but probably never will be.

  4. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    You are aware that the HTS’s heyday was at the end of the Bush presidency and the beginning of the Obama presidency, right? I guess the current POTUS gets a pass. Otherwise it’s BDS all the way down. The current POTUS only fights good wars, right?
    There’s a word for people who won’t change their mind and also refuse the change the subject.
    And since you’re impugning the MICC these days, please recall that Duncan Hunter is part of that MICC. Even so, Congressmen tend not to look highly on seeing that unauthorized appropriations being spent.
    I will agree a bit that so much depends on the transition from one unit to another. I’ve RIPed on 7 occasions (never to the Taliban, though)–you can do your best to pass on the information that you have, but if the receiving unit doesn’t want to hear it, there’s not much that can be done. It’s tough. And it’s a friction unique to long campaigns. Yet another reason to not fight wars of long duration.

  5. Pete Turner Says:

    Carl, The books are on a server somewhere, but behind a SIPR wall. The next unit killed the books and no follow on unit ever revived them….but likely did make their own.

    I’ve seen a LOT of units RIP/TOA. The reality is this. None of the units arrived trained to fight this fight. None of the units accomplished what they thought…If units did this stuff well a 100 years ago, that capability is lost. The only way to get these types of conflicts right is to leverage people like me who have ground truth and can externally measure…and report to a commander. We won’t do that…

    Frankly, we are bad, as an organization (Dep of State or Dep of Defense)in these conflicts that we should simply avoid them and accept that we are not willing to develop the capacity to help.

  6. larrydunbar Says:

    “You are aware that the HTS’s heyday was at the end of the Bush presidency and the beginning of the Obama presidency, right? I guess the current POTUS gets a pass.”


    I wasn’t trying to be time specific, nor judge Bush. It just seemed to me that Bush was being himself, a MBA graduate, who tried to run the country like he did his baseball team. I am not sure exactly how he ran his team, but it sounded to me like he got a lot of corporate help.

    As I tried (and failed) not to be judgemental, no one gets a pass, because they don’t need one from me. To me, Obama has carried over much of the same strategy Bush started with, but has been concentrating on the drone war, while keeping troop levels at a low enough number that Congress will still support. The trouble with strategy is that, like it was said of opera, “it’s not over until the fat lady sings”. I think that lady has sung about all she is going to, through these two administrations.

    Most likely it’s the covert stuff that is going on over there, trying to keep the whole area from a literal meltdown, that is running this and the next administration’s strategy.

    As I contemplate it now, my thinking was more along the lines that the HTS was like a dragon eating its own tail, and is now suffering the same fate.


    I mean if corporations are going to turn Afghanistan over to the Taliban (if they could and why they would), Where did they get their information that something like that would work, and considering the amount of money needed for a HTS, why would they keep spending to keep it alive?

    I am thinking, in the first part, the HTS beast told them, and second they wouldn’t.

  7. George Says:

    Thanks Pete and Mark.

    I’m not in your line of work and was not there, so I’m struggling to understand the context. Did the U.S. train and equip warriors and then give them a quasi-nation-building mission without clear goals, insights, methods, tools and training? Then, after becoming aware of the inherent difficultyion, deploy social scientists to adapt on-the-fly to support an ill-defined military mission without effective integration into existing military systems? If so, what could not go wrong?

    Nation-building should be a job for the U.S. State Department, when we choose to do it. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) monitors, prepares and, when necessary, destroys aggressors. Nation-building is not the same as holding terrain taken during combat, building fortifications or repurposing logistics systems. Believing so seems to be a fallacy reinforced by U.S. victories and reconstruction successes following previous world wars.

    If what the U.S. set out to do in Iraq and Afghanistan was similar to what we did in Germany and Japan after 1945, we went about that work without communicating intent, building popular support or having effective strategy and tactics. We then left DoD to hold the bag.

    Alternatively, if what HTS supported was primarily a Foreign Internal Defense (FID) mission with partners who were difficult to identify, communicate with or who played for two or more teams, I believe we had special forces that specialize in, among other things, building effective relationships with locals.

    We really need to decide next time whether or not to rebuild a nation. If we decide to go forward with that, we need to deliberately create, train and equip a force to accomplish a deliberate, preferably popular, mission. If HTS was about knowing the human terrain for combat purposes, we should employ the great capability we’ve already created for that and stop confusing military missions with nation-building.

  8. david ronfeldt Says:

    an illuminating post. shows patterns that keep plaguing our performance. many thanks.

  9. Dylan Says:

    Disgusting ideas. All youre doing is enhancing the kill chain. No words change that fundamental reality.

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