The Army created the Human Terrain System ”” at the height of the counterinsurgency craze that dominated American strategic thinking in Iraq and Afghanistan late in the last decade, with much fanfare ”” to solve this problem. Cultural training and deep, nuanced understanding of Afghan politics and history were in short supply in the Army; without them, good intelligence was hard to come by, and effective policy making was nearly impossible. Human Terrain Teams, as Human Terrain System units were known, were supposed to include people with social-science backgrounds, language skills and an understanding of Afghan or Iraqi culture, as well as veterans and reservists who would help bind the civilians to their assigned military units.
On that winter day in Zormat, however, just how far the Human Terrain System had fallen short of expectations was clear. Neither of the social scientists on the patrol that morning had spent time in Afghanistan before being deployed there. While one was reasonably qualified, the other was a pleasant 43-year-old woman who grew up in Indiana and Tennessee, and whose highest academic credential was an advanced degree in organizational management she received online. She had confided to me that she didn’t feel comfortable carrying a gun she was still learning how to use. Before arriving in Afghanistan, she had traveled outside the United States only once, to Jamaica ”” “and this ain’t Jamaica,” she told me.
She was out of her depth, but at least she tried to be professional.