It’s been an age since I looked at the US military’s attempt to ‘weaponise culture’ in its counterinsurgency programs (see ‘The rush to the intimate’: DOWNLOADS tab), but Roberto Gonzalez has kept his eyes on the ground – or the ‘human terrain’ (I’ve borrowed the image above from Anthropologists for Justice and Peace here).
In a special report for Counterpunch a month ago, Roberto noted the demise of the Human Terrain System:
The most expensive social science program in history – the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS)–has quietly come to an end. During its eight years of existence, the controversial program cost tax payers more than $725 million…
HTS supporters frequently claimed that the program would increase cultural understanding between US forces and Iraqis and Afghans–and therefore reduce American and civilian casualties. The program’s leaders insisted that embedded social scientists were delivering sociocultural knowledge to commanders, but the reality was more complex. HTS personnel conducted a range of activities including data collection, intelligence gathering, and psychological operations. In at least one case, an HTS employee supported interrogations in Afghanistan.
The program also served a more insidious function: It became a propaganda tool for convincing the American public–especially those with liberal tendencies–that the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were benevolent missions in which smart, fresh-faced young college graduates were playing a role. It appeared to demonstrate how US forces were engaged in a kinder, gentler form of occupation. Department of Defense photos portrayed HTS personnel sitting on rugs while drinking tea with Afghan elders, or distributing sweets to euphoric Iraqi children. Here was a war that Americans could feel good about fighting.
The program had its critics, inside as well as outside the military, and US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) eventually confirmed that HTS had been terminated on 30 September 2014. In his report, Roberto traces the rise and fall of HTS, and attributes its demise to US troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the fall from grace of the ‘new’ counterinsurgency’s champion David Petraeus, the incompetence of many of the HTS teams, and – crucially – to the precipitate shift from ‘cultural’ to geospatial intelligence.
The last, impelled by the desire to substitute air strikes for ‘boots on the ground’ and to rely on computational methods rather than human intelligence, is the key: as Oliver Belcher put it in his PhD thesis on The afterlives of counterinsurgency, “It’s algorithms, not anthropology, that are the real social science scandal in late-modern war.”
I’ve been exploring this shift in my ‘Dirty Dancing’ essay – in relation to the American production of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan as a space of execution, a code/space in which data surveillance and computational methods are activated to assert an extra-territorial claim over bodies-in-spaces – but it’s become clear to me that this continues to rely on (and in some respects even extends) the weaponisation of culture. It’s an appropriate metaphor: after all, weapons are inherently dangerous, they can be misdirected, they do misfire and they can cause grievous harm far beyond their intended target.
In a follow-up post on ‘Re-making the Human Terrain’, Roberto says as much:
The gaps in military knowledge that HTS claimed to fill still remain. The desire to weaponize culture is as old as dreams of counterinsurgency, and such dreams do not die easily.
It would be premature for those concerned about the militarization of culture to breathe a sigh of relief. The needs of empire—especially an empire in denial—are far too great to ignore cultural concerns. HTS’s sudden death can obscure the fact that elements of the program continue to survive, though in distinct and sometimes unrecognizable forms. The basic idea behind HTS—to equip the military with cultural expertise for battlefield operations—has not been eradicated. If anything, the concept has firmly taken root.
He traces its off-shoots through the development of a Global Cultural Knowledge Network – which I can’t help seeing as the cultural version of the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World – and the role of private corporations in providing ‘human terrain analysts’ to support US special operations (see also Max Forte here on what I think of as the Military-Academic-Industrial-Media complex: MAIM). Interestingly, Whitney Kassel – who is adamant that ‘shuttering HTS will almost certainly be a mistake’ – notes that ‘the National Defense University conducted a detailed study of HTS [summarised in JFQ] in late 2013 and recommended that the function be moved and permanently housed at U.S. Army Special Operations Command … which has the lead for irregular warfare and other Army functions that make the most frequent use of sociocultural knowledge.’
Roberto also provides a more detailed analysis of the US military’s investment in socio-cultural modelling and (this is truly vital) predictive forecasting in two linked essays on ‘Seeing into hearts and minds’: Part 1 is ‘The Pentagon’s quest for a social radar’, Anthropology Today 31 (3) (June 2015) 8-13 and Part 2 is ‘‘Big data’, algorithms, and computational counterinsurgency, Anthropology Today 31 (4) (August 2015) 13-18.
The second part is most directly relevant to what I’ve been working on because it describes the conceptual development of so-called ‘Social Radar’ (see image above: ‘sensor systems for the 21st century‘; see also here) and the morphing of the NSA’s Real Time Regional Gateway for Iraq – which integrated data surveillance from multiple sources and domains with visual feeds from drones – into Nexus 7 in Afghanistan.
Similar fusion systems have surely been working across the border, and in his Unmanned: drones, data, and the illusion of perfect warfare (2015) William Arkin provides a fascinating glimpse into other genealogies that have produced what he calls ‘the Data Machine’:
Today, the Data Machine doesn’t care where it is fighting. It doesn’t matter whether targets are hiding in Hindu Kush caves or in villages of the Fertile Crescent. Nor does Predator care, or Reaper, or Global Hawk, or any other of our other aptly and awkwardly named all-seeing eyes. In fact, they don’t care about anything: they are machines. But the men and women … behind the entire Machine also don’t care, for every place is reduced to geographic coordinates that flash across a screen in seconds. Nations, armies, and even people are reduced to links and networks.
Loitering drones and geolocating weapons just need the data. Everyone needs the global information grid and the Internet—or, more precisely, an internet. Actual battlefield geography and culture have become immaterial. The node and the network sentry become the determinant and the provocateur of action—all the way to the edge of the world, anywhere.