New US Military strategy in Afghanistan
Full-Metal Research: Lieutenant Jeremy Jones, a member of the human terrain team, gets some rare time with the locals during a public ceremony.
Credit: Photograph by Jason Florio

The portal to America's war on terror is gate three at the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, a six-and-a-half-square-mile blast-wall fortress surrounded by a wasteland of dust. From inside, up a long alley of concrete barriers and out of the haze, comes the visual equivalent of space aliens: flak-jacketed, helmeted, sunglassed, digital-camo-wearing National Guardsmen from Mississippi, who motion for me to get into their air-conditioned white SUV. We soon pull up to a plywood shack, where I hope to get my first look at America's latest instrument of warfare: anthropologists.

A lady press officer is professionally happy to see us. "We didn't even know what a 'human terrain team' was until you called," she chirps as another soldier carefully cleans the Afghani dust out of her nose with rolled-up Kleenex. Then she adds, kindergarten-teacher style, "You are helping us to learn about these people."

The idea behind human terrain teams, or HTTs, is to put a small army of civilian social scientists (ideally anthropologists) and intel-savvy military officers into the field to give brigade commanders a better understanding of local dynamics. The teams are charged with "mapping" social structures, linkages, and priorities, just as a recon team might map physical terrain. By talking to locals the teams might help identify which village elder the commander should deal with or which tribe might be a waste of time; which valley should get a roads project and whether a new road might create a dispute between villages. It's all part of General David Petraeus's doctrine of a smarter, management-style counterinsurgency.

There are now six five-to-nine-person human terrain teams in Afghanistan and 21 teams in Iraq. If the concept proves successful, the $120 million-plus program would grow to 700 HTT and support staff in those countries and other hot spots. The man charged with managing the program is retired special operations colonel Steve Fondacaro. He is so passionate about it that when I interviewed him back in the States, he held forth for nine hours straight. Seven hours in, he walked into a door, breaking his jaw, but resumed talking. Fondacaro freely admits that one of the biggest obstacles to injecting social science into the military will be the military itself. "We are like a virus infecting the host," he told me. "Either the army will be inoculated and be stronger, or they will expel us in a torrent of puke."

Already there have been problems. The academic community has been critical of giving traditionally "do no harm" anthros combat uniforms and letting them carry guns. It hasn't helped Fondacaro's recruiting efforts that in the past nine months two HTT civilian scientists have been killed on the job, one in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq. Another HTT scientist was booted from the program after joking that if America invaded Iran she might "switch sides."

Still, getting a handle on the human landscape made a dramatic difference in Iraq. It helped Petraeus and his Ph.D. cadre convert enemies into allies, recasting a conflict that looked as if it would drag on for decades into one that could essentially be over within a year. Now the white-hot center of the war on terror is once again Afghanistan. U.S. forces there gets 20 "tics" a day – or Troops in Contact with the enemy – compared with one or two in Iraq.

But Afghanistan is not Iraq. It's a fractious nation whose dirt-poor people are scattered mostly outside of cities, across a harsh landscape of deserts and mountains, making it much harder to win hearts and minds. This is a country, remember, that some of the most daunting forces in modern history – the Russians, the British, and now the Americans – have been unable to conquer. The recent refrain from even our own retired generals is that not only are we losing the war, but we don't even know what's going on there.

So could Fondacaro and his army of eggheads solve this? That's what I'd come here to find out. But what I would get over the next two weeks would be a much larger, more bizarre, and in many ways more disturbing glimpse of what happens when 21st-century warfare is waged in a Third World country.