Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Josh Foust's book launch - a couple takeaways (UPDATED)

For those of you who didn't know, yesterday Josh Foust (of Registan fame, Central Asia expert, and a great guy) held a launch for his new book, Afghanistan Journal: Selections from I bought the book at the event and thus haven't yet read it, so hopefully a review will happen once I've finished it. However, the event was very good, with Ambassador Ronald Neumann (US Ambassador to Afghanistan 2005-2007) conversing with Josh. Their discussion covered off on a number of topics related to Afghanistan: the Human Terrain System (HTS), the Afghan people, Karzai and the presidency, the ANA, and US policy and operations. All of which was very interesting. As was the idea of Just World Books turning his blog and other writings into a book.

There are a couple of things that stood out for me from this talk that were probably peripheral to the main talk. The first was Josh talking about the inability of the military to transition their records and knowledge of their area of operations to their follow-on units. Josh recounted that the U.S. Army's Center for Lessons Learned has to send people to units that had rotated home to get copies of their hard drives to provide data to units in the field. This simply blows my mind. I hope this info is dated and doesn't still occur, but the idea that transfers of authority are or have occurred in Afghanistan without digital records is damned near criminal on the part of both units involved. The outgoing needs to provide that info and the incoming needs to ask for it if they don't get it. It's simply common sense. Hopefully, some of you who are there now or recently can let us know if this has changed and transferring data is SOP in a transition.

The second topic that really hit me was the discussion of the HTS and their Human Terrain Teams (HTT) embedded at the brigade level. Josh had worked for them until 18 months ago and had some interesting perspectives. Like all organizations have to deal with, he reported that some teams were really good and some were really bad. Recently, DoD has been moving from a contractor solution to an institutionalized civilian solution to propagate HTS beyond our current wars. I'm actually slightly distressed at this.

I'm a big supporter of the work that the HTS does even if I never had them supporting my units in Iraq. Understanding the locals seems like a pretty good idea to me in any conflict. However, I do question the need to keep large numbers of civilian personnel on the rolls to study areas that we may have conflicts with in the future. Some regional or cultural experts, sure. But not lots. It seems to be a large expenditure that has a small likelihood of ever being practically used.

This may be the former military side of me, but I've always looked at "human terrain" as an intelligence function. Intelligence used to assist the unit commander in making decisions on what activities his unit should conduct. Understanding that a lot of intelligence agencies employ cultural experts, this needs to be done in the military at the unit level. Military intelligence needs to be able to analyze non-combatant locals like they do the enemy. We don't keep civilians who are experts on every enemy we might face and deploy them with BCTs - we train our intel folks to be able to analyze an enemy, however he is and irrespective of that analyst's previous knowledge of them and their organization, so that analyst can give the commander the best information he has. I don't understand why the military is still failing to do this with human intelligence. Granted, there are my intel officers who are leaning forward in the saddle and are doing this on their own, but it needs to be an institutionalized process. Otherwise all that touchy-feely human stuff will remain a civilian role and quite possibly civilians who don't necessarily understand the commander's intelligence needs.

So those are my take aways from the talk. There was, of course, much, much more. Followed by even more engaging discussion at the after-party (#foustfest for your twitter types) with lots of smart and fun people. It was great to meet all of you who I've only conversed with over the interwebs and to see some old friends. Now go buy the book.

UPDATE: Josh has posted a very helpful and insightful response to this post at Registan.


  1. Jason:

    I concur HTS fulfills a largely MI function. I think it tries to shy away from stating this, though, because of the hullabaloo over anthropologists collecting intelligence.


  2. To what ADTS wrote above: anyone interested in seeing this argument better fleshed out should read an article called "All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket" by Ben Connable. Will link to it when I'm nott on BlackBerry.

  3. After a quick glance, it seems like a good read and certainly delves more in to the topic than my limited knowledge would allow. Here's the link:

  4. I share your concern over the institutionalization of the HTS. I think we should avoid counterinsurgency; keeping around the tools of counterinsurgency make it more likely that we will use them.

    I suppose, though, it is important to understand other cultures, but that seems only obliquely related to national defense. Let academia, intelligence, and the State Department take on that role.

    I had an emergency at home so I missed Foust's book talk, but it sounded like it went well and I am in debt to the #foustfest twitter hashtag.

  5. Keith:

    I'm somewhat confused by your post, and hope you can clarify. Are you arguing that we should understand other cultures only outside of war, rather than during war? If so, I take issue with that proposition, at least - or maybe especially - during a counterinsurgency effort. I am, however, sympathetic to the argument that tools tend to get used (hammers, nail cliche) - I just (1) don't think understanding cultures is a bad tool, and (2) I don't think it's sufficiently potent to drag us into a counterinsurgency.

    As far as academia, I think (1) there's a lot of opposition to helping the military by some and (2) a lot of the institutions are already in place - students can get FLAS grants from the Department of Education, etc., but may not be scalable. Indeed, I think the stumbling block for all three entities you mention is scalability. How many FAOs and Olmstead scholars can the military produce? (This is one sticking point for me in the Connable article.) Also, remember when the State Department thought it might have to assign FSOs to Baghdad, because none wanted to go? How many FSOs are available to, say, be on a PRT? And for that matter, since we only reopened the US Embassy nine years ago, how much cultural expertise about Afghanistan resides at State?

    I think HTS functions are good, and best performed by civil affairs, psychological operations, and (of course) military intelligence. I also think, though, that HTS came about because said (1) entities either lack the scale to perform the functions required, or (2) lack the capacity. I'm more inclined toward (2). I essentially think of HTS as "temps" for the military, providing a needed function temporarily. Finally, it's important to recognize HTS was originally part of JIEDDO (hopefully I got the acronym right) and evolved from there; hence, to use political science terminology, its form might be a path dependent institutional legacy and hence suboptimal for its current purposes.


  6. To backtrack, I imagine a lot of expertise *does* exist at State and elsewhere, by now, about Iraq and Astan by people other than anthropologists. My bad.


  7. ADTS,

    I don't disagree with either (1) or (2). I just question if the military needs to develop a robust HTS function (a new career field maybe?) rather than (1) avoiding situations where human terrain is critical and (2) hiring the "temps" you mentioned when necessary.

    I would also point out that if we commit the DoD to the social science of human terrain, it begs the question: Is there any limit to the DoD's mission? It is already overburdened by being the main (only?) tool of American foreign policy.

    If there is going to be a systematic effort by the US Government to study cultural and human terrain, it ought to be located in the State Department. At least, that's my opinion.

  8. Keith:

    Thanks for the clarification.


  9. Jason's link doesn't seem to work, so here's the Connable article.

    All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence. (pdf)

    You can probably get the idea from the title, but Connable's assertion is basically that in bringing in outside experts to perform roles and missions that are assigned to various military personnel and codified in orders and regulations, HTS impoverishes those professional communities in the services (FAO, intel, and so on) and makes it easy to excuse failure when it comes to institutionalizing those skills within the uniformed military.

  10. I think the back-and-forth between Keith and ADTS on this subject is very interesting, and I've got some thoughts on the matter without really being able to contribute much in a confident or conclusive way. But maybe I can get to that in a later post. For now:

    I share your concern over the institutionalization of the HTS. I think we should avoid counterinsurgency; keeping around the tools of counterinsurgency make it more likely that we will use them.

    I don't think this is the way we ought to operate, and it's certainly not the services' job to say "we don't want to operate in this way in the future, so we're not going to develop the DOTML-PF, TTPs, etc that would support that method of operation." That's an abdication of the military's responsibility to prepare for those roles and missions to which it might be assigned by the nation's leaders.

    To get into what ADTS has written about supply and demand just a bit, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we use Iraq and Afghanistan as exemplars or proofs-of-concept when it comes to future steady-state operations, security cooperation, security force assistance, foreign internal defense, and so on, and so I think when we say "the military can't provide enough guys with enough skills to do this human terrain stuff in a counterinsurgency like the ones we've got going on right now," it's 1) probably right, and 2) probably not terribly relevant. Do we need to be able to surge these capabilities when we get into a stability operation with 150K troops on the ground somewhere across the world? Yes. Does it do us any good in 2025 to have 10,000 Afghanistan FAOs or experts on the human terrain of Helmand province? No. What DOES help us is if we've developed the org structure, processes, doctrine, training, etc etc. (what we sum up in DOTML-PF) and understand how to do this mission. It's probably not realistic to imagine that we can ever have enough guys in uniform who are sufficiently trained, educated, and organized to do what needs doing from a HT/intel perspective in Afghanistan, but at least making a run at using those guys whose responsibility it SHOULD be will help us to adjust fire in the future.

    I think you get all this, and I think you're basically saying the same thing, but I wanted to get it out there. So to come back to Keith...

    I just question if the military needs to develop a robust HTS function (a new career field maybe?) rather than (1) avoiding situations where human terrain is critical and (2) hiring the "temps" you mentioned when necessary.

    Again, 1) ain't the military's job, and we probably couldn't accomplish it even if we were trying to (with apologies to Gian Gentile). And 2) seems to be the way to satisfy the surge requirement, but institutionalizing the basic competencies in a uniformed community seems important to me.

    If there is going to be a systematic effort by the US Government to study cultural and human terrain, it ought to be located in the State Department. At least, that's my opinion.

    I have mixed feelings about this. Like I said before, I need to think through this some more before I write anything conclusive. But I tend to agree with you that the proliferation of authorized roles and missions in the DoD is a bad thing, both for the department itself, for the whole of government, and for our understanding of what's appropriately done by whom in our form of civilian-led republican government.

  11. Gulliver,

    I think you're right.* If the military is going to be tasked with COIN, then I suppose they should prepare to execute that mission.**

    I think it still runs into the problem of the limit of the DoD's mission. If the pols wanted to send the Marines to Argentina to build houses for the poor, then DoD would probably, rightly, say "huh?" Or maybe not--that's the best and worst thing about the military, they salute smartly and go try and accomplish that mission.

    *This is why I'm usually reticent to comment on blogs: I'm an idiot.

    ** I think that's the way it is supposed to work, but we both know that the DoD pushes missions up from time to time. I tend to agree with Bernard Finel--Civil-Military relations are way out of balance right now.

  12. Gentlemen, coming from an Army BCT perspective and sort of echoing ADTS, why not expand and elevate the civil affairs branch and put civil affairs companies in the STB?

    No offense, but MI people are perpetual staff officers and NCOs. Their work feeds operations (and vice versa), which are executed by the maneuver units (at company and platoon levels). Aside from an S-2 attending joint targeting meetings with his host-nation Army/Police counterparts, and HUMINT specialists conducting interrogations of detainees, the MI folks are in their hole pouring over their many data streams and building fancy PPT slides for the next week's targeting meeting.

    Civil Affairs officers and NCOs, on the other hand, can perform the human terrain function in gathering local data (and working with their S-2 shop to better develop that data), but they can also "execute" non-kinetic operations like attending local government council meetings and overseeing and implementing CERP.

    Based on my own experience as a battalion fire support officer who was in charge of our attached CA and PSYOP reservist teams in Baghdad (2008-09), I'd recommend the Army invest heavily in its Civil Affairs branch. Put it on par with the MI branch. Maybe cross train with MI in data collection management. Keep their school house at Bragg, but institutionalize Civil Affairs within the BCT organization by creating a CA company in the STB. Detach the CA teams from the STB before a unit heads to their MRX, and push the CA company commander (still a major) up to the BCT staff to overwatch and synch the CA effort with the PRT.

    We need to think from a company/battalion perspective. I think this was one of the big points from MG Flynn's CNAS report. I also think one of his recommendations was to create cells led by CA folks at the BN/BCT level that would organize and disseminate "human terrain" data down to the lowest levels.

    This comment is a little disjointed, and probably has some holes in it, but I think my basic point is clear as mud.

  13. Matt Valkovic, agree with your comment. I think HTT training and functions need to be incorporated into HQs and ISR at the company, bn, bde, div and corps levels. Ideally unit commanders and their G3s, G2s and other senior officers should be trained in HTT.

    You comment about integrating HTT to the company level [which is how I interpreted it] was very perceptive.

    The largest function of the US military over the next couple generations [Gulliver might disagree] will likely be:
    1) building the capacity of allied nation institutions
    2) assisting allied nation institutions conduct their own operations [stability, disaster relief, COIN, full spectrum combat what have you]

    Increasingly in the future the US military is likely to operate in international coalitions.

    For all of these reasons we need to give serious consideration to building HTT capacity in friendly nation institutions, and we need to retain the long term capacity to train allies in HTT [which in turn means that we will retain the capacity to employ HTT directly in the future if necessary.]

    To change the topic, I am puzzled by the failure of ISAF to train ANSF in HTT. Aside from one COIN school that is able to train less than 300 ANSF at any given time.

    Warnings, about to begin an off topic sch-peel below ;-)

    This is part of a broader refusal on the part of the international community to resource MG Karim's ANA Training Command [ANATC or AA-na-tec] and MG Pattang's ANP Training Command [ANPTC.]

    Within ANATC there has been a failure to resource Afghan Defense University [ADU] and its NMAA [National Military Academy of Afghanistan] component.

    It is bizarre that NMAA was only admitting 300 candidates a year before Obama became President, and even now only admits 650. It isn't like there is any shortage of applicants to NMAA. It is as if ISAF is broadcasting to Pakistan and Afghans that ISAF wants a weak ANSF.

    One aspect of investments in military capacity is that the RoI of long term investments is far greater than the RoI of short term investments.

    To give a oversimplified example, if developing "X" in capacity 1 year from now costs $1 billion; it might cost $10 billion to generate comparable capacity 1 year from now.

    We as Americans and our military specialize in making many rolling investments with short term payoffs while making very few investments with long term payoffs. As a result we end up spending several times as much money to achieve a result comparable to what we could have achieved had we made long term investments.