Counterinsurgency and the Human Terrain in Afghanistan-13

Counterinsurgency and the “Human Terrain” in Afghanistan


This paper is on a discussion on the counterinsurgency system and the “Human Terrain” in Afghanistan and the US involvements, which has brought in many debates. The paper shows that counterinsurgency hardly works and that the use of human terrain system is socially harmful to some professions and should not be obtained from university students or lecturers. The contrast in this case is that counterinsurgency was suggested as the most effective way of leading to success of the US militants but everything seemed to fail practically. At the same time, the human terrain layer at the battlefield, which involves military intelligence programs, was found to be inappropriate as far as the 2010 Afghanistan case was concerned. This issue in this paper becomes the ethical importance of recruiting individuals from the universities from levels of students and professors to incorporate them in the human terrain system.


Counterinsurgency is an operation that involves a recognized national government action in containing an insurgency taken against the government. In this case, there has to be insurgents who act by destroying or erasing the possible political authorities of those authorities in the country acting as defendants in a given population over which the authorities seek to lay their control. Human terrain has also been incorporated to play a significant role in the US army. The importance of the human terrain system is that it consists of personnel form various field especial the social sciences such as sociology, anthropology, linguistics, regional studies, as well as political science (Hammes, 2013). The human terrain is meant to assist the militants in their intellectual capacities and increase their capacity to succeed in war. Most of the military involvements in war are based on strategy of kill and capture.

The US military makes use of counterinsurgency in which case the strategy is today facing various aspects of oppositions based on a number of reasons. Some experts and professionals in the US military claim the use of the counterinsurgency strategy to be based on less serious examination than it is literary required. The concept of counterinsurgency often referred to as the COIN, can be understood by fully defining the concept of insurgency. In this case, insurgency is said to be a rebellion armed as a guerilla group mainly against a government authority that has been fully established like the case of Afghanistan. It is also termed as an organized and armed political struggle with a key goal of gaining seizure of power in a revolutionary way of taking over and replacing the already existing government. This is a bit different from counterinsurgency, which is a military group or a paramilitary group and their actions that could as well be initiated through political, economic, and psychological mechanisms in order to defeat insurgency (Price, 2008). The issue or problem that has been facing Afghanistan is insurgency in which case a certain group has been attempting to overthrow the existing government. The US role through a counterinsurgency strategy has been being initiated to ensure that the insurgency efforts fall in bare hands.

The issue of insurgency has not been witnessed in Afghanistan alone but the case has been happening in various countries around the world and the US has attempted the application of the same strategy to mitigate the progress or effects of insurgency. In general, insurgency practices are initiated with a key aim of weakening the control or operations of a given government after its full establishment. In this case, insurgency comes out a struggle done politically and is mainly between the challenger and the authorities in power. In this system of political struggle, violence is mainly used as the best tool of struggling to achieve the main objective, which is to overthrow the government (Rreguin-Toft, 2007). Various tactics could as well be used but the main tactic used in this case is the Severa Tactic, which involves provocation of authority through nihilistic attacks on several targets in the civilians. The case here could be the use of provocative action to make the government react by using military force. Counterinsurgency works under the rule that the initiators of violence or attack against innocent civilians have to face persuasion and it may be completely wiped out through military efforts and strategies. Counterinsurgency makes use of measurable force in which case the military force and efforts used are enough to settle the key problem. The force used is measured to be of an extent of stopping possible future attacks or any attempts to overthrow the government. The US military professionals and intelligence believe that a response is always positive since failure to respond would generate more problems from the insurgents in a given case (Rreguin-Toft, 2007). The same attempt to maintain silence may be interpreted as weakness. This brings the need to respond through the application of a counterinsurgent force of the military. Counterinsurgents work under power and authority unlike the case of insurgents whose activities are based on no authority making it a weakness to the insurgents. However, people may not just unite to rebel their government, a factor that brings the point of a problematic issue. This aspect calls the need for the incorporation of human terrain in military attacks.

Failures of the COIN in Afghanistan

While the COIN strategies were thought to succeed smoothly in Afghanistan, various issues could hardly make the strategies come out greatly as expected in writing. The application of the US military COIN strategies are said to have not yet gained full recognition as having been successful (Svet, 2012). Svet (2012) notes the negative implications as being tremendous and painful. The loss of life while attempting to restore peace in Afghanistan can now be approximated to be at least two thousand. These deaths are not for ordinary people but for the United States military groups since the war started. The key concern about the failure of the COIN strategies is that about one thousand military personnel lost their lives in a period of nine years before the US decided to implement the counterinsurgency strategy. It was then too shocking to point that the other half of the two thousand deaths occurred in less than a year’s period, immediately after the establishment of this COIN strategy (Svet, 2012). Svet (2012) goes on to point that; almost all attempts by the United States military to practice the COIN strategy have failed. The loss of lives to those soldiers and HTS specialist was a great loss to their families back in the United States. Counting the latter section of the deaths is even more traumatizing since all is a mistake placed on a smaller group of the militants in the management level but they can hardly be blamed since they acted in the best way possible. The United States is considered the world’s super power but this case in Afghanistan portrays the US has having been a failure in mastering small wars and the art in these wars like the case of Afghanistan (Svet, 2012).

The COIN implementation was done in Iraq in 2006 through a field manual written by General David Piraeus assisted by several advisors. In this case, there was the incorporation of unusual case of brilliance, an aspect that contrasted the strategy used to capture and bring down Saddam Hussein and his regime. However, this high level of intelligence required higher level of financing and military expenditure as the use of the Human Terrain System was advocated as part of the strategy (Svet, 2012).

The COIN strategy involves many adjustments in the US expenditure due to the introduction new professional in the field of national defense systems. The future success of the COIN strategy will therefore lie on the hands of the government and its willingness to finance the researches in the program including the HTS program. The only fear is that the HTS program is highly objected by professionals especially anthropologists due to its working conditions and ethical issues, which are in contrast to the code of ethics in most of its social science professions. Beside the provided reasons, there are endless reasons why the US attempts to make use of the COIN strategies are failing and there is no hope of succeeding in the future. The supporters of the COIN strategy suggest that ISAF hardly used a COIN strategy in Afghanistan. The proponents suggest that there has been increasing peace and security between Afghanistan forces and the US forces in the recent past (Hammes, 2013). Hammes (2013) argues that counterinsurgency is hardly a strategy but only a possible way of generating the concept of a strategy. He further points out that the COIN strategy only fights with the real strategies that the US military should be using and therefore can hardly apply now or in the future.

The Human Terrain System

The need for human terrain is seen where a lot of diplomacy is required as part of the COIN strategy. Military groups do not only go attacking their opponents, in this case the insurgents, without analyzing the problem. The use of human terrain by the US militants aids in promoting the intellectual capacity of the military group carrying out their counterinsurgency strategy. The first application of this kind of human terrain system was in Vietnam War but had been suggested first in 2005 through an article under the title, “An organizational Solution for the Department of Defense’s Cultural Knowledge Needs.” This article by Montgomery M. and Andrea J. provided a clue on the importance of special intelligence body in the US military. Human terrain in the US army continues to widen the gap between the system and strategies used by the United States militants and other armed forces from other nations or any kind of insurgent group like the case of Afghanistan. The team of human terrain involves experts in various fields whose mission is to conduct an intensive empirical research and carry out various analyses on the environment in terms of social cultural aspects of the battlefield (Price, 2008). This could be done for specified social groups found on the operation grounds while at the same time trying to maintain relevant knowledge that has to be usable in all the strategic grounds of the military groups. The experts could b used as the close advisor of the military commandants in which case they are usually expected to provide the required information necessary in guiding the process of decision-making. Their researches can also be used to determine the winning position of the military and indicate any possibilities of defeat. Commandants can therefore use the information gathered to make their decisions towards their counterinsurgency attacks.

The main purpose of recruiting specialist in the Human Terrain System is aid the commandants in their understanding on some social concepts about people’s behaviors in the warzones. Through the specialists in the human terrain system, commandants could understand why many people in Afghanistan, were in the frontline to guide their government enemy, which turn out to be the US enemy as well as hostility the people towards the United States army. Their researches are key success factors to the United States army at any given time but the risk factors are too many given that most of the human terrain members have less superior fighting tactics than not only the US army personnel but also the enemy to the US army. In many cases, the human terrain team remains back in the green zone while working on their findings from the group being researched on and the experience of the military personnel for an effective analysis (Fick & Nagl, 2011). The Human Terrain System has since its establishment been placed in a point of providing guideline to the brigade commandants in their way and position of understanding and addressing the cultural characteristics of the Afghanistan population in terms of tactics and operational levels of their militaries.

The key focus in this case was on social, ethnographic, economic, political, and cultural elements of the Afghan communities in which the insurgents operated. The same system led to many revolutions such as changing the initial idea of intelligent system into a system whose focus is on cultural dimensions including values, language of the Afghan community in this case, and other cultural traits of the local community. The efforts in all researches are meant to boost the military efficiency in its mission and operation. The military leaders are able to get clue of key leaders of local communities, tribal problems or disputes, political turmoil, economic issues, as well as social problems that can aid them in resolving their problem that had led them into the mission (Fick & Nagl, 2011).

Ethical Issues in the Human Terrain System

The human terrain system has been effect in many ways and making the US arm gain success not only in Afghanistan but also in other areas such as Iraq and Vietnam. The application of the system has however faced critiques from various people and organizations due to its ethical value in the recruiting and operation of its personnel. There have been criticisms mainly from anthropologist on ethical concern of reporters who are generated by the program. The ethical issue in this case involves the use of these reporters by intelligent agencies and military in a way that makes them and the research specialists susceptible. There has hardly been and ethical safeguard for any of the populations being researched. At the same time, the resources being used by the system create an aspect of unethical practice. There have been increased reports of financial mismanagements with wrong interpretation of financial expenditure in order to benefit some top member of the system (Price, 2008). The case here could be analyzed from the point that subjects of the human terrain system have no ethical skills or values like the military personnel are. There would b cases of confusion in which case such human terrain member would be mistaken as being part of the military group while most of them are working as private contractors. Expansion of the program was faced with public negative view and comments from both the government’s financial perspectives and the risk factors in recruiting individuals with little or no military fighting skills to take part in military wars like in Afghanistan.

The US military project in human terrain system makes use of anthropologists mainly as contractors but not part of military system. There work is to set research for the various traits on the target communities but their setting is compromised in a way that it would difficult to distinguish them from the military personnel (Price, 2008). This aspect has been criticized and compromising their role and taking part fully in their ethical role as anthropologists. All what they are doing could be mistaken for military mission and places them into the risk of being executed just like any other military personnel. These specialists are also charged with responsibility of negotiating for relations among various members of the groups in a conflict. They would face it difficult to carry out negotiating efforts for peace or relations between the local community and groups with the United States military units specifically in war zones (Price, 2008). This issue brings in conflict between them and the people on which they are basing their research or study. The human terrain personnel are required by their stipulated codes of ethics to ensure a situation whereby thy cause no harm to the subjects of their research. Due to the confusion involved in which case they could be mistaken for the military personnel, this code of ethics may fail to apply whereby they may be forced to cause harm while trying to protect them from any attempted attack by the subjects of research.

The conditions of work by the HTS professionals is cruel and causes much difficulty in which case they may find it hard to get informed consent as they expected. Sometimes it may require the use of force to get information that is highly required in order for the military units to proceed with their missions. This aspect compromises the idea of ethical conduct with the locals and could bring more problems or make it even more difficult to obtain the required information. Specialist of the Human Terrain System are required to acquire information from voluntary respondents, an factor that fails whenever it comes to collecting the information under tough situations. This compromising condition may end up risking the lives of some researchers working as HTS under the United States Military (American Anthropological Association, 2007).

This system of human terrain as part of the US military strategy seem to fail due to its indistinctive nature in which case professionals working as part of the military as the Human Terrain System extents their risks to other similar professionals not working in the military. It would be too cruel of the insurgents in Afghanistan to extend their attack to other anthropologists in the United States in the name of being part of the military group that is currently acting Afghanistan or has ever taken part in the COIN strategies aimed to stop their insurgent efforts in their country (American Anthropological Association, 2007). The information these specialists provide to the locals could as well be risky in that the same information can be subjected to using the provision of basics for decision-making in identifying as well as selecting specifically targeted populations for the US military operation (American Anthropological Association, 2007). This risk could be posed during the short-run or the long run period of the US military Stay in Afghanistan, which is a major concern for the establishment of the program. The fact that the Human Terrain system may lead to the threatening of the lives of other specialist having the same professional backgrounds as those in the Human Terrain System in Afghanistan makes it unethical to recruit university students or professors of the United States Universities.

According to the American Anthropological Association (2007), the Human Terrain System in Afghanistan is bound to fail in the near future due to people reaction on the program and the risks it poses to other professions and particularly on anthropology. The Association of Anthropologist is also not in support for the program since the program seems to violet the American Anthropological Association Code of ethics. In this case, given that students and lecturers in the field of anthropology would be recruited into the program, it would add more into violating the code of ethics of the profession as well as risking danger to other anthropologists and students pursuing their study programs in the field back in the US universities. The executive board of the American Anthropological Association completely disapproves the programs as far as the HTS member working as anthropologists and other specialists are concerned (American Anthropological Association, 2007). The argument of the association is that war as widely recognized denies people their human rights, which is against the ethical practice of some specialties such as anthropology and thus is completely unacceptable to apply anthropology expertise in the HTS program. The main work of anthropologists is to help in improving the work of the United States government and its policies but not support in the creation of differences between the US government and the international communities. Anthropology as one of the many specialties in the HTS program should be used as a tool for enhancing global peace but the conditions of work hardly allow this to happen and therefore the future of the program is not promising (American Anthropological Association, 2007).

Another key reason why recruiting students and professors from the US universities would be an unethical action is the experience in Iran. The Iranian case saw that the counterinsurgency efforts that made use of the Human Terrain System as part o the US military strategy where faced with a serious attacks by those groups helped or supported by the Human Terrain System (Price, 2008). The attacks are even more sophisticated that it could have been projected and seemed to originate from a centralized power that increasingly provides access to the documents used in the military research. This aspect should b alarming any attempts to recruit new specialists especially students from the universities and lecturers from the same field used by the military HTS of the United States. Given that the attack took control over the media and those involved were able to access information, the attempt to recruit university students would be compromising their future in their dream careers as more on their dear lives. The fact that there is no apparent distinction between the Human Terrain System and other military activities puts all members at risk, which is also extended to other professionals who hardly took part in the missions (Price, 2008). The work of these specialists in the Human Terrain System is hardly to engage in the attacks but to create an understanding between the US military groups and the enemies but the confusing aspect of the program generates risk of those generating peace to be attacked. The program becomes even more painful on imagining that those prone to the effects of the attacks are those with no military skills and no other than the members of the HTS (Price, 2008). This image postulates that it would be unethical to recruit university student whose dreams are far from military activities and who may have their dreams shuttered by the mistakes of other specialists in the military all in the name of promoting peace in Afghanistan or any other similar case in another country.


The COIN strategy is highly portrayed as a failing strategy as seen during its application in Afghanistan. Within the strategy, there is the Human Terrain System, which is also failing due the many challenges facing the system. The Human Terrain System is meant to generate peace but the professionals working on this aspect end up facing challenges such as being threatened and the threats being extended to other professional and students in the same career fields. The US as the world super power has to be understood as to be involved in confronting insurgencies not only in Afghanistan but also in other parts of the world continuously. Counterinsurgency efforts by the United States may be faced with even more future problems given that no adjustments are made in the COIN strategy or any other strategy. The issue here is to make a clear distinction between specialists working in the US military Human Terrain System and the military personnel as a way of distinguishing the activities of the two cases. Again, it would be a great idea if the recruits of the HTS program are given military training like any other US military person and completely distinguish them from other professional not in the military but working as civilians (Fick & Nagl, 2011). This including other critical adjustments of the COIN strategy may brighten the future of the strategy.


American Anthropological Association. (2007, October 31). Statement-on-HTS: Executive Board Statement on the Human Terrain System Project. Retrieved April 23, 2013, from

Fick, N., & Nagl, J. (2011). The Long War May be Growing Shorter. The New York Times, February 21, 2011, 19 .

Hammes, T. (2013). Counterinsurgency: Not a Strategy, But a Necessary Capability. Retrieved April 23, 2013, from NDU Press Blogspot :

Price, D. (2008, December 12). The Leaky Ship of Human Terrain Systems. Retrieved April 23, 2013, from

Rreguin-Toft, I. (2007). How to Lose a War on Terror: A Comparative Analysis of a Counterinsurgency Success and Failure, in Jan Angström and Isabelle Duyvesteyn, Eds., Understanding Victory and Defeat in Contemporary War. London: Frank Cass.

Svet, O. (2012, August 31). COIN’s Failure in Afghanistan. Retrieved April 23, 2013, from HYPERLINK “”