Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies

Anthropologists at War: The United States Army’s Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan

Christopher Sims, King's College London

14 April 2015

Christopher Sims

This seminar was presented by Chris Sims, King's College London


In this seminar Chris Sims discussed the origins of the Human Terrain System. Chris started by talking about a mixed military and civilian team embedded with a brigade of the United States Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province in Afghanistan, in February 2007. Designated ‘AF1’, they were tasked with collecting socio-cultural information to aid military commanders’ decision-making. This was the first of many teams embedded by the Human Terrain System, an ambitious and controversial United States Army programme that saw civilians conduct research in Iraq and Afghanistan using ‘anthropological and sociological methods’ in order to influence the planning of military units.

Subsequently criticised by the American Anthropological Association, which concluded it was not a legitimate exercise in professional anthropology and contravened their Code of Ethics, the Human Terrain System acted as a focal mechanism for a larger debate in the United States surrounding the legality of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the appropriation of academic methods to aid military enterprise.

Asking to what extent the concerns of the American Anthropological Association were valid, this seminar examined the origins of the Human Terrain System, the academic controversy surrounding it, and the experiences, insights and research of former Human Terrain Team social scientists that embedded with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan.