Message to HTS Anthropologists: You Need an Experimental Control

Colonel Martin Schweitzer testified before two House Armed Services Committee Subcommittees on April 23 about the Human Terrain Team operating in Afghanistan. After reading it, I was not sure whether to jump up and down and yell yippee! because the military is discussing the role of culture in rural Afghanistan, or simply groan because so little of how social scientists think seem to have gotten through yet.
The statement was interesting for outside social scientists to read for a number of reasons, especially for how the military talks about culture, how the military’s understanding of culture works, and general social science research methods.

The first thing that struck me was the language of the military sub-culture. Much of what Colonel Schweitzer writes is an attempt to force what he and his HTT observe into pre-existing ways the military defines social situation. The terminology is replete with references to the military sub-culture, and their views of Afghanistan as being the focus of first security concerns, rather than issues of human relationships, power, kinship, ritual, etc., and other issues social scientists usually think about first But, the oddest terminology for me was his frequent reference to “kinetic operations” which by and large goes undefined, except to note that HTT cultural knowledge means that you have fewer of them. (I think that kinetic operations though has something to do with a type of search and seizure action that the military orders on its own criteria, and then conducts).
Moderately surprising for me was Colonel Schweitzer’s revelation that there might be more than one source of authority in a village, clan, etc. Apparently the army has always assumed that only one particular village elder is “the boss,” and Colonel Schweitzer’s pleasure—and surprise—that approaching a mullah is also effective. This struck me as Anthro 100 level stuff, but if a five member HTS team is what it takes to get across the idea that authority in “tribal” communities might be diffuse, ok, great. After six years in Afghanistan, it is about time that the military understood that such communities do not necessarily operate using the same type of command structure found in an American police force, for that matter, the US Military.
But, the biggest question I had after reading Colonel Schweitzer’s testimony was whether the HTS concept worked or not. Despite the fact that he is speaking to Congress as an advocate for a program which celebrates the use of social science, the data he presented were only anecdotal, and do not reflect systematic evaluation. It may well be that the decline in the number of “kinetic operations” is due to HTS. But, as they say in research methods classes, “correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” Meaning, that just because two things happen at the same time, one does not necessarily cause the other. The classic example illustrating this principle is that you may eat carrots at dawn, and two hours later see more clearly, but it does not necessarily follow that the carrots cause improved eye sight. In the case of a reduced need for kinetic operations, the causes for that over the last year might have included bad weather, poor crops, good intelligence, bad intelligence, new commanders, a switch in Taliban strategy, switch in American strategy, etc. etc. The point being that just because the number of kinetic operations declined, it does not follow that it was caused by HTS.
The odd thing is that in a pilot program such as HTS, a “natural experiment” is easy to develop. The question to ask is, did the number of “kinetic operations” decline any quicker in the area controlled by the brigade, than it did in areas controlled by brigades which did not have HTS? This would presumably be easy to do in Afghanistan where not only are there more than one American brigades, but other countries also have a military presence. Such other sectors as a “control” and then draw conclusions about HTS effectiveness. Such data is also open to the perils of interpretation, but using it is far better than relying on the vague feelings and anecdote alluded to in Colonel Schweitzer’s testimony. The data is probably already in military files somewhere. I hope that it is analyzed before the next Congressional testimony on HTS.


2 thoughts on “Message to HTS Anthropologists: You Need an Experimental Control

  1. Tony Waters

    Michael Innes commented on this article in the blog from The Complex Terrain Lab. The link is here.

  2. Tony Waters

    Hi Mike:

    Thanks for the clarification on the meaning of “kinetic activities.”

    In general I agree with your assessment that no one measure determines “success” or “failure” of a particular program. Causality in the social world is as you say complex, and the choice of measures, etc., are inevitably embedded in the definitions and values. Those of us in academia have the luxury (and responsibility) to question the underlying assumptions behind real world situations, and you raise this point well in your response to my posting. I hope that the importance of questioning the nature and meanings of success and failure is communicated by the HTS people on the ground.

    However Col. Schweitzer is working in a bureaucratic world, in which the pressure is always to evaluate success or failure, and justify short term program effectiveness. This happens in a political context in which goals and values may change quickly. Given this real world demand, how success or failure is “operationalized” is important, particularly because nuance cannot always be recognized. Colonel Schweitzer implicitly does this in his Congressional testimony when he correlates the arrival of HTS teams with the decline in the number of kinetic activities. In my mind, the question is how effectively does this measure the effectiveness of HTS? As I wrote in the post, I am not sure that the question is answered as well as it could be by the techniques described by Col. Schweitzer to Congress. I would hope that the HTS social scientists are already raising similar questions (and in the context of the points that you raise in your post) with army officers !
    like Colonel Schweitzer.

    Having said that, I doubt that kinetic activities as you define them are the best measure of HTS success or failure. As you point out, there may be many reason that commanders decide to order such actions, only some of which are related to cultural analysis such as that provided by HTS. This does not mean that HTS is effective or not, only that I cannot tell given the type of testimony published to the web by Colonel Schweitzer.

    Tony Waters

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