Commentary

Have Ph.D., Will Travel

For more than six years, Iraq has served as a test case of the strengths and weaknesses of private military and security contractors. They most often operate well. At times, they are primarily bad. But most of the time, they have elements of both — meaning that even if a contractor does exactly what it is supposed to do, the end result may still be negative.

In that regard, it is worth considering the Human Terrain System, an attempt to bring cultural awareness to the military. When the United States is fighting counterinsurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan, such knowledge is priceless and indispensable. One has to win the population over, not kill them. Knowing the local customs is vital. Indeed, one of the lead advisers to Gen. David Petraeus was David Kilcullen, a former infantry-company commander with a Ph.D. in political anthropology.

In fact, it was prominent civilian anthropologists who assisted in composing and compiling the new U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24, which governs counterinsurgency operations and was co-authored by Petraeus, then a lieutenant general, just prior to his serving as commander in chief of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.

Human Terrain Teams are essentially civilian anthropologists and support staff “embedded” with military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to provide on-site knowledge, interpretation and practical advice regarding local cultures and practices.

HTTs have been controversial among civilian academics, which is where the teams get their lead personnel. Groups like the American Anthropological Association have had fierce debates in past years concerning the morality and appropriateness of “military anthropology.” Critics have asked, if teams interview Afghans or Iraqis about the intimate details of their lives, what prevents combat teams from using the same data to kill suspected insurgents? What would impede the transfer of data collected by social scientists to commanders planning offensive military campaigns?

Despite this criticism, HTTs have increased in number, and they operate in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their use has not been without cost. Team members have died. Nicole Suveges, a political scientist, was slain in June in a bombing in Sadr City, Baghdad. A month earlier, social scientist Michael Bhatia suffered a similar fate in Afghanistan. Last November, a man in Afghanistan doused social scientist Paula Loyd with a flammable liquid and set her on fire. She subsequently died in January. Don Ayala, one of her teammates, chased and restrained the man and subsequently shot him in the head. Ayala was subsequently charged under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and pleaded guilty to manslaughter in February.

And like other contractors, the Human Terrain System is being affected financially and legally by the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq. A February fact sheet circulated via e-mail by BAE Systems, which runs the HTS program, noted that “to prevent (Department of Defense) contractors from being subject to Iraqi laws and administrative requirements USG (TRADOC G-2 HTS leadership) is converting all deployed and/or deploying HTS contractor employees to appropriate (Government Grade) term positions within the USG employment system” in order to mitigate the risks and issues surrounding the Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement.

Pay will also go down, though it is hardly paltry. A social scientist GG-15 at Step 1 will earn $98,156 annually — $47.03 an hour. Those assigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where deploying personnel get training, will be authorized an additional 13.86 percent of basic pay rate as locality pay. So the social scientist receives $111,760, or $53.55 an hour. Lower-ranking personnel at the GG-12 and GG-13 levels also receive an hourly overtime rate — up to 20 hours per week — of $36.90 and $38.53 an hour, respectively.

They also receive danger pay, which by law is 35 percent of annual basic pay each year. For the scientist, that is $34,354.

There is also post-differential pay — again, by law, 35 percent of annual basic pay — so another $34,354 for the GG-15. Yet federal pay is currently capped by law at $212,100 annually. This means no federal employee can receive compensation that exceeds this figure in a single calendar year.

These figures do not include the cost of medical or dental coverage, insurance or the federal Thrift Savings Plan — the government 401(k) equivalent — coverage decisions made by all employees, each to suit their own personal situation. So their ultimate pay is lower.

Under federal law, government civilian salary earned overseas is subject to federal tax. Tax exemptions on salary earned overseas in war zones currently enjoyed by contractors and uniformed soldiers have not yet carried over into law for government civilians.

Therefore, assuming a GG-15 works 60 hours a week, over 12 months his possible annual pay is $236,160. That exceeds the pay cap, but a standard maximum tour in theater is nine months, and thus the cap is avoided.

But the biggest question about HTS goes to the heart of the debate over using contractors. It was raised most recently in an unexpected source, the current issue of Military Review, a publication of the U.S. Army. Marine Corps Maj. Ben Connable, a Middle East foreign area officer who served three tours in Iraq, agrees that cultural awareness is critical but argues that “soldiers, marines, and combatant staffs must become cultural-terrain experts. Cultural-terrain considerations must be closely woven into the full spectrum of military training and operations. The excessive focus the Department of Defense has placed on the extraordinarily expensive Human Terrain System has, and may continue to, come at the expense of precisely those long-term programs that will develop this mandated, comprehensive level of expertise.”

In Connable’s view, the HTS originators took a requirement that called for a comprehensive and sustainable solution — training combat units to navigate the cultural terrain — and instead created a costly quick-fix response to an immediate need. In effect, the fundamental flaws in the HTS concept put the system at cross-purposes with the services’ short-term goals and future needs.

Connable notes that we have been at war for eight years and asks, “When do the ‘quick-fix’ solutions give way to long-term, doctrinally sound programs?”

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of the book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.