In Macapaca world, the HTS reigns supreme

First a word on torture, and the news story yesterday. I’m not sure I’m in anything other than the smallest minority on this (certainly in the academic world) but my reading of yesterday’s news stories about our main agencies and their alleged role in torture (and the future investigation into rendition and Libya) was firstly ‘insufficient evidence? No shit!’ would be poor practitioners who left enough. But secondly that the period from 1998 to 2010 will mark a distinct period. The courts, and the old and new media have done, in a patchy way,  an effective job of bringing these episodes to light and holding the government to enough of an account to see this end as a distinct period. Whilst I am personally opposed to the use of acts recognised internationally as torture, and prefer the methods that were successful in the past, I can see – from a purely pragmatic and empathetic stance – that officers placed in particular structures, networks of contacts and relationships with other agencies who were able to produce information quickly… might have felt the need to, er, cut a corner, if that cut was offered to them. A few years ago it was suggested that the 70% of the CT intel provided into the European area was provided by the US. Such a relationship of dependence (and by God the Americans must be fed up of providing us with endless security blankets.. coming up for a century now!) will of course require some kind of reciprocity. If we want to criticise the methods that have helped keep us safe, then we really need to step up to the plate (as a European area). Only when have sufficient capacity can we start suggesting terms.  In an obviously uneven relationship, there will inevitably be a price for cooperation, that price Is usually accepting the terms of the stronger party.

But the main plot.. Macapaca and HTS. The world of the Macapaca is a simple one. He or she categorises objects in two ways. Things to be cleaned. Things that have been cleaned. There’s a great deal of squeaking and guffawing surrounding this process, but that appears to be to pad out the scene, and to encourage the young viewers to expand their own attempts at squeaking and guffawing.


Things in Afghanistan seem more Sweevo’s world than Macapaca world. Things are endlessly complicated. If only us mere mortals understood just how complicated it all was, we’d probably repose to the nearest toilet to read War and Peace for some light relief. Breaking a state (well, a uneven system of governance at best), policing it, and then trying to encourage enough of a local effort to rebuild it to make people believe in it is clearly not desperately simple, but I think we’re making a meal of it. The good people at International Affairs were kind enough to send me a copy of Frank Ledwidge’s book ‘Losing small wars’. I don’t agree with it all, but I still have it as a must read. His account of the absence of strategy is damning. But we might embrace that absence of strategy with a drop-dead simple approach. What do we want for Afghanistan in 2016 (when we should have all left)?

We want no return of terrorist training camps keen on transporting nightmares to our shores, or those of our European and American friends.

We want the pipelines across the country to still be piping things without trouble or interruption. It might also be a good earner for all of us.

And we’d prefer it if large amounts of white powder didn’t arrive in Europe to addle the brains of the morons who insist on sticking it up their noses. Go and buy a Playstation, chill out, and drink a cup of tea.

And that is it.

There are objects waiting to be cleaned, there are objects which have been cleaned.

What? No mention of democracy? No, don’t care. If the locals want it they’ll find a way. They’ve had ten years to think about it.

What? No mention of thriving education systems or economic prosperity? No, again, the locals will need to mobilise, and find a way. You can’t save everyone. We’ve given it ten years.

But why the mention of the Human Terrain System (HTS). Well, it’s been years since the storm erupted over this programme, and having had now years to think about it, I still think it was – in theory – a well thought out programme. It was a way of utilising area-specialism, and academic specialism but without having to agonise over whether the specialist was on side or not. The classic tools of working out who the expert really wants to win, or who they are carrying messages for were almost entirely eradicated by the HTS. The programme also had the potential to add needed knowledge lubricant to the entire command chain – from the company commander with the specialist in team, to the reporting chain ‘back at base’ , to the returning expert walking into the high towers of power. This is infinitely preferable than sitting back in the high towers receiving various streams of information and trying to discriminate between and amongst them. The potential to over-read the fortuitously acquired, must be all too real, particularly in combat theatres where the micro-nuance of individuals ascendant and descendent in the influence stakes looks all too important.

No harbouring problematic people.

Nice pipelines, unmolested.

No white powder.

Objects waiting to be cleaned, objects that have been cleaned.


10 thoughts on “In Macapaca world, the HTS reigns supreme

  1. Ed (the real one) says:

    And we’d prefer it if large amounts of white powder didn’t arrive in Europe to addle the brains of the morons who insist on sticking it up their noses.

    You’re probably thinking of South America. Afghanistan (and Pakistan) produce heroin, which idiots either inject or smoke.

    I would say one of the major ways to let all the air out of the Taliban (and the FARC, etc) would be to legalise and regulate cocaine and heroin. Especially since by far the most socially destructive drug is ethanol (legal), and the most lethal is tobacco (legal). The monetary savings would be nice, too.

    ps Since the West has notably failed to stop the locals murdering each other and us, what chance do you actually think there is of persuading them to stop with their nice little earner of heroin production?

  2. Mike Few says:

    Ah, that meddlesome gap between theory and practice :).

    Instead of limiting collaboration to simply Defense and HTS, I would suggest looking into other interdisciplinary working groups that focus on problem solving. The best that I’ve seen in practice is the CORE Lab run by the Defense Analysis Department at NPS.

    If I were king for a day, I would extend that model to hand select a team of social scientists as well as others (scientists, historians, artists) each providing their unique lens into the world much like Google and Apple do.

  3. davidbfpo says:


    Rather late for a full response, so I’ll stick to your three wishes regarding Afghanistan: 1) No harbouring problematic people; 2)
    Nice pipelines, unmolested and 3) No white powder.

    1) As unlikely now as it was in 2001 I fear. Note AQ who remain the main focus as ‘problematic’ have mainly been for years across the border in Pakistan.
    2) Pipelines one day far away, in prospect are two large mines, but they have not moved far beyond dreaming and the investment is huge as Afghanistan has nothing to help.
    3) No white powder. Not a hope. Growing opium is too profitable for all inside Afghanistan, there are too few alternatives and in fact it appears production is growing.

    I see little sign that the Western establishment (inside and outside governments) recognise the strategic rationale to exit Afghanistan by 2014-2016, nor the financial burden – in billions – to continue support and declining public / electoral support for such a long ‘small war’.

  4. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    Rob, interesting post. It reveals a great deal about how you spend (and spent) your time.

    When I wore a younger (and slimmer) man’s clothes, we used to conduct ‘terrain analysis’ according to a process embodied in the acronym FLOCARK, which meant looking at the map and identifying Features, Lanes, Obstacles, Canalizing ground, Avenues of approach, Rating those approaches, and locating Key Terrain. This was supposed to help us figure out go/no-go areas, likely attack routes, important objectives and the like. (Perhaps it was invented by a ‘joint task force’ of the French and Belgian general staffs in their assessment of the terrain in the Ardennes…)

    What did it mean in practice? Taking an assortment of grease pencils and colouring in the green parts of the map (forests) green; shading the blue parts of the map (water) blue; cross-hatching the brown parts of the map (steep contours) brown; and tracing the fields, fairways and superhighways in black. Done and dusted, brew up, and wait for the DS to correct your work. Never saw it done by experienced commanders outside of staff college settings.

    From what I have seen of most human terrain work, I cannot see an appreciable difference, to be frank. Don’t look the local in the eye, except when you should. Always accept offers of tea, except when you shouldn’t.

    Macapaca would be proud.

  5. I think on reflection I disagree re: HTS. While I agree that employing area specialists is a good thing, and I would agree with most of what you say about HTS employment, I think there’s a larger problem which is the limits of knowledge in a warzone. If we look at the type of knowledge that the “Chicago School” of COIN is after, and the extent of that knowledge which is required in order to operationalise it on a sound basis, we run head first into the limits of social science itself.

    Take this for a project outline:

    “We’d like you to accompany the police as they walk around some of London’s gnarliest estates and produce for us an accurate survey of the inhabitants’ hopes, dreams, and perceptions of personal safety. To make this more interesting, you’ll only be able to talk to people via an interpreter, and you won’t be able to talk to them all that much, anyway. At the end of this process we would like you to produce a report which enables the police commander to outline all the various disputes and squabbles that cause problems in the area. Good luck.”

    Now, without being too snarky, what they’re asking for is impossible, and probably less so if we were to swap sink-estates for Helmand. But you get my point. I once heard Lawrence Freedman talk of the role of academia in policy as this: “I’m very qualified to talk of certain subjects, but on those outside my areas of speciality, my opinion is no more than anybody else’s, and shouldn’t be valued any higher.” (Not his exact words, but pretty much the drift). I have no doubt that given enough social scientists, they could conduct the type of surveys and so on to produce quite small amounts of knowledge that might prove useful. As it is, it seems that the program is sending smart people into a warzone to figure things out, without having the onus of killing people as well. They can probably put their skills to good use, and maybe figure out some undercurrents that military commanders miss. However, the basis of their being there is that they can survey the “human terrain” much in the same way that a surveyor can. Any social scientist worth their salt would tell you that this is impossible, particularly in an environment where bullets are flying about.

    At the end of the day, I think their employment is an attempt to roll back the fog of war in an unsustainable manner. Traditional military knowledge is rather rudimentary in this respect: If the guy has a gun, and he’s not one of yours, he’s a threat. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in that black box of a brain of his.

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