Marcus Griffin had never been to the Middle East before he arrived in Iraq last fall, as part of a project to help the U.S. military decipher the country's intricate social nuances. An anthropologist from Christopher Newport University in Virginia, Griffin knew much more about the Philippines, having accompanied his social-scientist father on a two-year research project there as a teen. In Virginia he'd been studying Freegans, those superenvironmentalists who forage for food in restaurant and supermarket Dumpsters. And so, during a recent outing with the unit he's attached to in Baghdad, Griffin rummaged through the trash of an Iraqi sheep rancher, looking for patterns that would tell him something worthwhile about the neighborhood—and by extension, about Iraqi society. "Well, they're drinking a great deal of Pepsi," he said dryly to a NEWSWEEK correspondent. When a man in a checked kaffiyeh emerged from one of the homes, Griffin peppered him with questions. Where did he get his electricity? (A generator.) Did his children attend school? (No, they're too young.) How did he make a living? (From his sheep.)
Though he wears Army fatigues and carries a gun, Griffin is a civilian, part of a controversial program known as the Human Terrain System. According to a Pentagon blueprint from 2006, the idea is to recruit academics whose area expertise and language skills can help the military wage a smarter counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. These specialists, among other things, are meant to map the population of towns and villages, identify the clans that matter and the fault lines within them, then advise U.S. commanders on the right approach for leveraging local support.
But implementation of the $40 million project, which was handed to BAE without a bidding process, has fallen short, according to more than a dozen people involved in the program and interviewed by NEWSWEEK. Of 19 Human Terrain members operating in five teams in Iraq, fewer than a handful can be described loosely as Middle East experts, and only three speak Arabic. The rest are social scientists or former GIs who, like Griffin, are transposing research skills from their unrelated fields at home.
For their services, the anthropologists get up to $300,000 annually while posted abroad—a salary that is six times higher than the national average for their field. (The teams also include some active-duty service members who are paid their regular military salary.) Most team members admit they are hampered by an inability to conduct real fieldwork in a war zone. Some complain that the four-month training they underwent in the States was often a waste of time. Matt Tompkins, who returned home in January after five months in Iraq, said he thought his team provided helpful input to its brigade, but the contribution was more superficial than planners of the program had conceived. "Without the ability to truly immerse yourself in the population, existing knowledge of the culture … is critical," he said in an e-mail. "Lacking that, we were basically an open-source research cell."
Recruitment appears to have been mishandled from the start, with administrators offering positions to even marginally qualified applicants. The pool of academics across the country who speak Arabic and focus on Iraq, or even more broadly on the Middle East, is not large to begin with. Some of the best potential candidates probably grew leery of the program when the American Anthropological Association declared participants would most likely be violating the ethics tenets of their profession if they signed up (because they would be contributing data that could be used in military operations). Several team members say they were accepted after brief phone interviews and that their language skills were never tested. As a result, instead of top regional experts, the anthropologists sent to Iraq include a Latin America specialist and an authority on Native Americans. One is writing his Ph.D. dissertation on America's goth, punk and rave subcultures.
At the training in Fort Leavenworth, Kans., the relationship between civilian academics and military or ex-military team members was sometimes strained. Zenia Helbig is a 31-year-old doctoral student at the University of Virginia with a concentration in Islamic studies and proficiency in both Farsi and Arabic; she had one of the more impressive résumés of all the recruits. But her language skills and the fact that she had been to Iran twice to attend academic conferences made her suspicious to some in the military crowd. "The running joke was that I was clearly a spy and the only question was which country I worked for," she says.
The banter turned ugly when, over beers one night, team members began speculating whether the U.S. military would eventually be called on to invade Iran. In the jocular spirit of the moment, Helbig made what she now describes as a careless remark: "I said, 'OK, if we invade Iran, that's where I draw the line, hop the border and switch sides'." In an academic setting, the comment might not have been particularly shocking. Her supervisors settled for a rebuke. But an officer in the program complained to security officials at Fort Leavenworth whose investigation led to her dismissal. (Helbig is fighting to have the results expunged from her record so that she can get a security clearance for future jobs.)
Another Arabic speaker whose work was roundly praised by colleagues was also forced out earlier this month. Omar Altalib was one of only two Iraqi-Americans in the program—a sociologist who specialized in the Middle East and had worked previously in Iraq. During a home visit after seven months in Iraq, Altalib says, BAE informed him his interim clearance application had been rejected by the government because he had sought psychological counseling after a previous stint, and he was out of a job.
Those still with the program have certainly made contributions. Griffin says he's learned to read certain "indicators of well-being" in his area of operation—how well stocked the local market is, for example—which helps troops of the 1-75 Cavalry's Charlie Company assess the level of stress among residents. Capt. Terrance Higgins, the company commander, says he initially didn't know what to make of Griffin—this 40-year-old expert on trash—but now thinks he's a "cool guy." Tompkins, who headed another terrain team and is a former Army captain, says his teammates helped troops come up with a strategy for getting a Shiite police commander to crack down on men under his authority who were colluding with Shiite insurgents. Tompkins's team suggested that troops appeal to the Iraqi commander's pride, by pointing out that the corrupt subordinates were mocking his authority. Weeks later a training officer told Tompkins that he noticed the police commander got visibly angry when examples were brought to his attention.
But Tompkins, who is 29 and working on a doctorate in political science, says that for every success in Iraq, he has suffered multiple frustrations and failures. And he doesn't believe his team members were uniquely qualified to provide the input they did. Tompkins says many of the officers and grunts he worked with had more-relevant knowledge and experience than the anthropologists, having served in Iraq twice or three times before. "These are dedicated individuals who are often intimately familiar with many of the nuances of the society and culture they are trying to engage with," he wrote in an e-mail. (Tompkins left the program in January to help Helbig through her ordeal—the two met while training at Fort Leavenworth and are now engaged to be married.)
Steve Fondacaro, who heads the Human Terrain program, admits it has shortcomings. A retired Special Operations Force officer, Fondacaro says overseers had to rush through the start-up phase because Pentagon planners wanted the terrain teams in Iraq quickly. He and other managers have just returned from an assessment trip to Iraq, and he promises that adjustments will be made.
But Fondacaro, whose program recently received an additional $120 million in funding, does not necessarily believe it was wrong to send over anthropologists with no background in the region. "Research methodologies are universal," he says. Interpreters help fill in the gaps. That he clings to this concept raises concern among people who want the program to succeed, including Thomas Johnson, an Afghan expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Johnson served in Afghanistan on a pilot Human Terrain team last year. He spent much of his time there interviewing Afghans in their homes. "If you don't have a good knowledge of the actual country and language, all the methodology can go for naught," he says. Johnson was shocked to hear Human Terrain had received a huge funding increase while other military programs face cuts. He says it shows just how much faith Pentagon planners have in the idea that real experts can help America win the war in Iraq. If only someone would make the effort to find them.