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Soft Counterinsurgency: Human Terrain Teams and U.S. Military Strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan

“Soft” Counterinsurgency: Human Terrain Teams and U.S. Military Strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan by Paul Joseph. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 110 pp.

In 2007 the US Army began implementation of the Human Terrain System (HTS), which trained and deployed academically trained social science teams to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of military operations, a controversial attempt to “soften” the military’s approach to counterinsurgency. The program’s initial success, catapulted ahead as part of the “cultural turn” characterizing new strategy in both wars, was tempered by accusations of fraud, incompetence and irrelevance, facing opposition from anthropologists, and from segments of the US military opposed to counterinsurgency in general or the effectiveness of the softer “hearts and minds” approach.

Much of what has been written thus far is polarized, either laudatory or condemnatory, a situation complicated by the program’s uneven performance but also colored by political perspectives on the wars and US military policy. As a result, the existing literature is difficult to navigate, and, while the future of the program has now been decided with its cancellation at the end of FY 2014, Tufts University sociologist Paul Joseph has done yeoman’s service with his sociological study, blending interviews taken at the Human Terrain System training facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with a close reading of the literature written about the program and a large number of informal discussions with HTS personnel. The result is an intriguing, balanced analysis that contributes significantly to our understanding of the challenges not only faced by HTS but also by the US military in modern counterinsurgency operations.

Joseph does not offer a historiography or literature review, but he does make use of the existing studies, notably David Price’s historical works and the worthwhile 2013 NDU study by Christopher Lamb, James Orton, Michael Davies, and Theodore Pikulsky Human Terrain Teams: An Organizational Innovation for Sociocultural Knowledge in Irregular Warfare, drawing also from articles written by HTS founder Montgomery McFate and Steve Fondacaro and a number of other former human terrain team (HTT) members. Refreshingly, he does not follow the hypercritical line of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, though he reasonably cites from their works to illuminate the American Anthropological Association’s 2009 charges against the program. All in all, a nuanced use of the published literature augmented by significant quotes gathered from his own interviews.

This is not a history but an analysis and critique of the American approach to counterinsurgency. Joseph begins his work with a brief look at the history of US counterinsurgency operations, though this is perhaps the weakest section from the historian’s perspective, reliant as it is on secondary works by David Price and other program critics who sees US intervention through a particular set of lenses. He does illuminate the distinction between what he terms the “overwhelming force” versus the “counterinsurgency” approaches, but this section would have benefitted from a broader survey of the historiographical literature; even alternative treatments of the counterinsurgency problem—such as Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents, a review of the joint Army/US Marines 3-24 COIN manual, David Galula and Rogier Trinquier’s treatises, David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla, balanced by Gian Gentile’s Wrong Turn—could have given this section a much better grounding. The result is that the author does not offer a rich enough historical framework. As a result, the mosaic nature of modern insurgency is not noted, and this reality hobbles the author’s search for evidence of higher level policy effects of HTS’s work.

Fortunately, the author’s sociological training shines as he illuminates and contrasts competing cultures within the US military and the academically trained social scientists deployed on HTTs. He demonstrates differences within teams as well. These sections, which comprise the bulk of the monograph’s content, offer valuable, sensitive, and insightful analyses based on the interviews. Joseph skillfully distills the experience of many HTT members, citing their observations and showing how bureaucratic turf wars, flawed internal team selection and dynamics, rotating deployment structure, information silos, faulty assessment system, and challenges of conducting meaningful research in a conflict environment make it close to impossible to do more than to provide “awareness,” rather than the urgently needed intelligence.

While noting the charges of fraud, waste, and abuse and ethical challenges of “do no harm” articulated by the American Anthropological Association, Joseph does not dwell upon them. Rather, he maintains his focus and looks for signs of success, first measuring it by the HTS mission statement, then by success as redefined by HTT members and the Brigades in which they served, and finally, according to the very high bar of their influence of American policy and strategy.

Joseph concludes that a good deal of insightful work was done by a high-performing subset of HTS personnel, perhaps changing the tactical or operational behavior of some commanders and earning the praise of others who found these contributions invaluable. But he’s uneasy with concluding the program was a success, measuring it according to a very high standard: did the program measurably contribute to stability promised through the “cultural” turn and enable the “soft” approach to deliver results in Iraq and Afghanistan. He concludes that it did not. By some accounts, however, the American efforts were successful—especially in Iraq—but according to this line of thought, success was wiped out by events following the departure of the allied force in 2011, a line of argument not addressed by the author.

Joseph concludes that the program did not meet its stated objective of providing sociocultural understanding that influenced the strategic conduct of the war. The reviewer wonders if this is an appropriate yardstick for an organization operating primarily at the tactical level of a brigade, but the author asks an important question: given the organizational culture of the US military, the silo-oriented structure of the intelligence and information apparatus, and the broad separation between the ground experience and strategy/policy prescriptions, was there ever a chance for success? Joseph concludes that there was not but offers that the increasing cultural awareness provided by HTTs might indeed have affected the war to an unknowable degree, which is a misfortune, he writes, because their insights could have, if percolated up the chain of command and met with political will, changed how the United States approached in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Paul Joseph’s “Soft” Counterinsurgency will take its place as a must-read window into counterinsurgency from the social scientists’ perspective.


Brian R. Price

Hawaii Pacific University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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