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Getting to Know You

The U.S. military maps the human terrain of Afghanistan.

Jan 18, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 17 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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Another indication of the U.S. military’s determination to improve its knowledge of our Afghan friends is General Petraeus’s creation of an intelligence unit at CENTCOM that will train military officers, agents, and analysts who commit themselves to Afghanistan and Pakistan work for at least five years. Their training will emphasize cultural and language immersion. To lead the new Center for Afghanistan Pakistan Excellence, Petraeus chose Derek Harvey, a retired colonel working in the Defense Intelligence Agency who had gained a reputation for prescience in his work on Iraq. A longtime reporter recently called Harvey “the most intelligent man” he had dealt with in the U.S. government.

In the same spirit, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, established the Af-Pak Hands last fall. The purpose, again, is to build regional expertise by having a core of some 300 officers specialize in a single area and type of work. Whether they are stationed in the United States or deployed “downrange,” they can maintain relationships and steadily deepen their knowledge of the relevant languages, players, and problems. 

But no innovation better captures the military’s will to shed its blinders about local populations than the aptly named Human Terrain Teams (HTTs). Embedded with units in the field, these teams consist of five to nine civilians with, among them, considerable military or intelligence experience, social-science expertise, analytical skill, and cross-cultural training. Ideally, each team includes at least one Afghan-American, one or more women, and a Ph.D.-level social scientist. Their mission is to “fill the socio-cultural knowledge gap” in ways that are valuable to the soldiers they advise. They are specially charged with helping devise nonlethal approaches to improving security in a given place. These are not civil affairs units, off building schools and digging wells, but eyes and ears for the military officers who plan and lead operations. 

HTTs are to learn all they can about the people among whom their units operate—their tribal background and power structures and livelihood, their recent experiences with local government and with Kabul, their contacts with the Taliban and warlords and coalition forces, and any -matters of special concern to the commander. They are to do this by developing personal relationships in the surrounding communities and systematically interviewing Afghans. As they go, they are to analyze their findings and then package them in forms digestible by soldiers.

HTT members receive four to six months’ training before they deploy. Most of this happens at Fort Leavenworth. But for three weeks they attend a cultural immersion seminar at this country’s only Center for Afghanistan Studies, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I visited for a couple of days this fall to observe their training.



The first thing that struck me on taking my seat at the back of a crowded classroom on the Omaha campus was the amount of gray hair. The median age of the 30 or so HTT students must have been 40. The teacher, Thomas Gouttierre, qualified for some gray himself having been dean of international studies at Omaha and director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies since 1974. Before that, he and his wife lived for a decade in Afghanistan, during the hopeful years when a liberal constitution was adopted and women were among those elected to parliament. The Gouttierres went to Kabul as Peace Corps volunteers and stayed on with Tom as a Fulbright fellow and later executive director of the Fulbright Foundation. All through, he also coached the Afghan National Basketball Team.

For three hours that morning, Gouttierre unspooled a panorama of 2,500 years of Afghan history and culture, punctuated with slides of art, historic buildings, and dramatic landscapes as well as with comments on the recent election, a digression on the Pashtun honor code, examples of Afghan humor, and lessons distilled from his center’s extensive work with Afghans over 35 years. This made for a somewhat kaleidoscopic experience. Just as the founder of the Mughal empire, Babur, was coming into focus and one was making a mental note to delve into his autobiography beginning, “In the province of Fergana, in the year 1494, when I was twelve years old, I became king,” suddenly the Kajaki Dam was center stage.

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