U.S. Army Response to Robert Young Pelton’s ‘The New War for Hearts and Minds’

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Photograph by Jason Florio

We are writing to clarify and correct a number of points in the February 2009 ‘Men’s Journal’ article ‘The New War for Hearts and Minds‘ by Robert Pelton.

In our opinion, Mr. Pelton’s behavior in Afghanistan as a guest of the US Army was unprofessional. First, he published the fact that a member of the Human Terrain team was a former, non-covert analyst employed by the CIA. He was told this information “off the record” and agreed verbally not to publish it.

Second, Mr. Pelton interfered with LT Jones’ work in the field. While LT Jones was trying to conduct interviews, Mr. Pelton interjected himself into the conversations and questioned the villagers about the Taliban, which is the domain of trained intelligence collectors not visiting journalists.

Third, he brought a bottle of whiskey with him to Forward Operating Base Morales-Frazier and offered some to the team’s interpreter, which is a violation of US Army general orders.

Mr. Pelton exhibited a gross disrespect to those serving in Afghanistan. Rather than referring to the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader by name or rank, Mr. Pelton identified him by what was printed on a T-shirt worn while off duty.

Mr. Pelton made the Pennsylvania National Guard PRT Security Force (SECFOR) look foolish based on the comments of one soldier.

Before becoming PRT SECFOR, this platoon was the only maneuver force in the Nijrab District of Kapisa and was engaged in almost constant combat operations for six months. Forty percent of the platoon received the Purple Heart. One member received the Silver Star for saving the life of an Afghan Soldier in Afghanya Valley. This unit deserves better treatment in Mr. Pelton’s article for their service in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

Mr. Pelton grossly distorted the backgrounds of the personnel on the Task Force Warrior Human Terrain Team (HTT). He neglected to inform his readers that Team Leader LTC Rotzoll served two previous tours in Afghanistan as a Civil Affairs officer, served on two different Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and has over twenty-seven years of service in the US Army. Mr. Pelton also misrepresented the HTT Social Scientist as an expert on Laotian DNA. On the contrary, this Social Scientist has been conducting research in Afghanistan for over twenty years. He made several trips into Afghanistan with the Mujahedeen during the 1980s to report on the Soviet occupation, and also served as the director of an Afghan Relief Committee.

Despite Mr. Pelton’s apparent confusion of HTTs with Tactical HUMINT Teams (THT), THTs are not related to HTTs in form, function, or mission. Mr. Pelton’s assertion that “the information Jones and his team collect … is all part of a massive database,” that can be used to perform lethal targeting is a fabrication. Deployed HTTs work solely on the non-kinetic side of the military planning and are not involved in the lethal targeting process.

Mr. Pelton appears to have been more interested in journalistic sensationalism than the work the HTT was actually doing in the field. While embedded with the brigade combat team, Mr. Pelton did not engage senior leadership on the benefits of the HTS program or the benefits an HTT brought to their command.

Very Respectfully,

Dr. Steve Fondacaro
Project Manager
U.S. Army Human Terrain System

Dr. Montgomery McFate
Senior Social Scientist
U.S. Army Human Terrain System

Robert Young Pelton’s response to the U.S. Army:

Although it’s always appropriate to communicate your opinion on an article, I have to say that attacking the messenger and not the message might be unproductive. As you know, I invested significant effort and patience in not only getting your direct input and following your directives but I had high hopes for a different experience. I wholeheartedly embrace the concept of human terrain teams and continue to follow developments.

Ultimately I believe any outsider exposed to what I saw would have come away with the same disconcerting sense of dysfunction, isolation and frustration but for the record that was not my goal when I first chose to focus on the human terrain program. My goal was to see the program at its best, not its worst. I don’t lay blame, I just state facts.

If I may, let me respond to specific comments within your letter.

• CIA tie: I was told about Lt. Col. Rotzell’s CIA background by someone other than Col. Rotzell who did not ask that it be “off the record.”

• Interference: When Jones was working I stood well back and discussed his conversations with him later. When he was just chatting with Afghans, I also chatted with Afghans. The fundamental problem seemed to be Jones’s inability to get relevant face time with Afghans so I respected his brief time with his subjects.

• Whiskey: Yes, I had a fifth. You may not be aware that there are a number of bars on the base. Gulam is Muslim, so there was no reason to offer him alcohol.

• Disrespect to military personnel.The Lt Col you are referring to was wearing his FUBAR shirt whenever I saw him. He is never “on” or “off” duty in a remote PRT. One reason I withheld his name was to spare him broader embarrassment. As for the overzealous soldier, he conducted his little pantomime in full view of two clearly credentialed journos and the press officer for the French military. His actions aside, I think my portrait of the National Guard does give them the credit they deserve.

• HTT experience: Rotzell (and Jones) are portrayed as they are: Hard working, underpaid, frustrated but professional soldiers. The social scientist told me about his expertise on Laotian DNA when I asked him about Afghanistan.

• HTT/THT. It was not my confusion but rather the LT Col&’s. I know the difference. The database comment comes directly from Steve’s discussion on all HTT information being available to all aspects of the Brigade Commander’s units, including Direct Action, and my direct knowledge of intelligence gathering. My point is that the Afghans don’t see the difference.

I wrote what I saw, carefully wrote down what your people told me, documented what happened. What resulted was a comedy of errors, well-intentioned people unable to function, frustrated by constantly fighting the system.

Since you have the most to gain and the most to lose, I put it back to you: Why not admit that what bothered you about this article was the conduct and problems in the system? I would think that your energy is best spent on fixing the problems, not critiquing someone who points them out.

peace, out.


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