Social Science Team Aids Army in Afghanistan

Army, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Social Science Team Aids Army in Afghanistan


The first-ever human terrain team (HTT), a five-member group of social scientists, has helped the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division reduce violence in eastern Afghanistan. The HTT, a new counterinsurgency "weapon," is part of an experimental Pentagon program that assigns civilian anthropologists and other social scientists to advise combat units about cultural and tribal customs and beliefs.

According to the International Herald Tribune, Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, said that his unit's combat operations have been cut by 60 percent since the HTT arrived in February. His brigade's focus has shifted from kinetic operations to improving security, education and health care. Schweitzer tracks 83 districts in the five provinces-Paktika, Paktya, Logar, Ghazni and Khost-for which the 4th Brigade Combat Team is responsible. He reports that about 60 of them are now in "direct support" of the government, an increase of more than 20 districts from 2006.

The embedded cultural advisers have helped soldiers see events from the perspective of an Afghan citizen. In one village, for example, the HTT noticed an unusually high percentage of widows who had to depend on their sons for financial support. Because that burden could tempt the young men to become paid insurgents, the HTT developed a job training program for the widows so that they could support themselves.

In another instance, an anthropologist who saw the beheading of a tribal elder by the Taliban interpreted the event as more than just an act of intimidation. The HTT, reported the International Herald Tribune, saw that the Taliban's goal was to divide and weaken one of southeastern Afghanistan's most powerful tribes-the Zadran-and advised officials that if they could unite the Zadran, the tribe could block the Taliban from the area. Based on input from the HTT, Col. Schweitzer deployed small groups of paratroopers into remote areas, where they organized Jirgas-local councils-to resolve long-standing tribal disputes and win the support of local populations.

The HTTs have been so effective that Defense secretary Robert M. Gates has authorized a $40 million expansion of the program. Since September, five new teams have deployed to Iraq to join a team in the Baghdad area. Eventually, HTTs will be assigned to each of the combat brigades in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Citizens Helping. In a news briefing with reporters in Baghdad in late October, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, said that local citizens have helped reduce violence in Iraq. "Attack levels continue their downward trend that began in June and are now at their lowest level since January 2006," he noted, and improvised explosive device attacks were "down well over 60 percent in the past four months."

A citizens' movement that began west of Baghdad in primarily Sunni Anbar Province, where citizens formed neighborhood watch groups at the urging of tribal and religious leaders, is crossing sectarian lines and moving into Shiite areas. Col. David Sutherland, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, in Iraq's Diyala River Valley, told journalists in an online conference call that citizen volunteers have been crucial in cutting violence in half in the area that sweeps eastward from Baghdad to the Iranian border. "Unlike al Anbar, which is predominately Sunni, in Diyala we have 25 major tribes from all sects. ... we also have over 100 subtribes within this province," Sutherland continued. Locals are contributing in urban northwestern Baghdad, too, where Col. J.B. Burton, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, reported an 85 percent drop in violence since May. Lt. Col. Val Keaveny, commander, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry (Airborne), told the Boston Globe that information provided by citizens has contributed to a sharp decrease in attacks in the agricultural area on Baghdad's southern border. …

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