Intelligence: Human Terrain Teams

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May 7,2008: The U.S. military has long been keen on adapting business innovations for battlefield use. One of the more recent examples is the formation of Human Terrain Teams to map the attitudes, values and power structure of Afghanistan (or at least parts of it) and Iraq. The U.S. Department of Defense is spending about $150 million this year on the Human Terrain Teams, which basically use anthropologists and other social scientists, to develop maps of the local population showing attitudes and loyalties. This is pretty standard stuff for marketing researchers. Want to put a new fast food outlet somewhere? Call in the market research experts to build and study maps showing who (in terms of what they eat and where they prefer to eat it) live, and what food outlets are already there. The military applications are more concerned with identifying the "opinion leaders." This is another marketing innovation, based on the idea that it's more effective to pitch the few people who most influence everyone else, than it is to try and reach everyone with your message.

The Human Terrain Teams (of 5-8 people) usually contain one person who speaks the local language, and that enables commanders to get a briefing from someone who is just a bit closer to the locals. Some of the teams have military reservists (who also have the necessary academic or professional credentials), but are from universities. This has caused some static in academia, where working for the Department of Defense is frowned upon. But these same academics often work for commercial firms, doing the same work, and many of them see no difference. Others are attracted by patriotic attitudes, or simply a rare opportunity to do research in a war zone. That experience can provide material for articles, or even books.

 


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