Human Terrain: The New Counterinsurgency?

Since 2007, an experimental Pentagon program has been sending teams of civilian anthropologists and other social scientists into the hardest-fought regions of Iraq and Afghanistan to pursue a mission that's both deeply controversial and increasingly important to U.S. military strategy.

Social scientists work within frontline combat units to gather information and advise soldiers about the workings of the local economy, tribal structures, cultural norms and other elements of what the military calls the "human terrain." Known as the Human Terrain System, the $300 million initiative grew out of a realization within the Pentagon that soldiers didn't know enough about the cultures in which they were operating to win the hearts-and-minds battles that are crucial to a successful counterinsurgency. Culturally relevant battlefield approaches have moved to center stage in Afghanistan, where General David Petraeus, the Princeton-educated architect of the Army's counterinsurgency doctrine, took command of U.S. and NATO forces this summer, and where 30,000 newly deployed U.S. troops are struggling to show progress in the face of rising opposition and growing impatience among Afghans and Americans.

The Human Terrain program represents the most audacious attempt to combine the strength of the military with the wisdom of the soft sciences since Vietnam. But critics say that social scientists working alongside military units violate ethical strictures and could put local civilians at risk. How the military and social scientists handle these and other issues will determine the program's future and test the military's readiness to fight smarter wars.

How to Read Afghanistan

Vanessa Gezari, author of a new book on the Afghanistan murder of social scientist Paula Loyd, says the US military still stumbles through an Afghan culture it barely understands.

The Problem Of Memory: Why Launching A New Strategy In Afghanistan Is Harder Than It Looks

The Afghan army commander motioned the American lieutenant into his office. Lt. Col. Attaullah was 48, with gelled hair, blue-framed eyeglasses and the rigid bearing of a communist general. A Pashtun from Konduz and a veteran of Najibullah’s army in the 1980s, he wore his camouflage uniform buttoned tightly at the neck, displaying the gold braid on his collar to advantage. He shook the American officer’s hand and sent one of his soldiers to bring tea.

CBC Radio interviews Vanessa Gezari

While the White House considers whether to send more American troops into Afghanistan, it's also being asked to send in more anthropologists and social scientists.

They're part of an experiment to help U.S. forces understand the place and the people they're dealing with.

Civillian academics are embedded with front-line soldiers to advise on local customs and politics.

It's called "The Human Terrain System" and it began in Iraq two years ago. Not everyone approves. And it's not without dangers. Three of them have been killed in action.

Afghanistan: The Human Factor, 2/22-2/25

Moderated by Jon Sawyer, Executive Director, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting


Vanessa Gezari's forthcoming book assesses the US military's Human Terrain program, which embeds social scientists and anthropologists with troops in Afghanistan. Her reporting has been featured on NPR and in The Washington Post Magazine.

Afghanistan: Virtual Tour

The Pulitzer Center is presenting five panel discussions February 22-26, featuring Pulitzer Center journalists who have reported from Afghanistan. Entitled "Afghanistan: The Human Factor," the panels will be held at George Washington University, Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Wellesley.

The video presents a virtual tour through Afghanistan, taking you to the areas from which the journalists reported.

Pulitzer Center journalists cover Afghanistan

Tatum Taylor, Pulitzer Center

As the post-election drama continues and publicity over the US military's counterinsurgency strategies grows, journalists are increasingly turning their attention towards Afghanistan. Pulitzer Center journalists have been consistently reporting from Afghanistan in order to inform the conversation, and we wanted to share with you the range of their work.