Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Joint Paris Conference Explores Human Terrain

June 14, 2010

A joint Sciences Po-Watson Institute conference on “Counter-Insurgency and ‘Human Terrain’: The Contested Sites of Contemporary Warfare” is taking place this week in Paris, as part of an ongoing research collaboration between the two institutes on the transformation of war as waged in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond. A live video feed is available on Tuesday from 10am (Paris)/4am (US East Coast) through 7pm (Paris)/1pm (US East Coast).

Philippe Bonditti, the CERI-Science Po-affiliated conference leader and Watson visiting fellow, will give an opening introduction, and other Watson speakers will include Associate Professor Keith Brown, on “Threatening Civilians: Order, Obedience and Otherness in America’s Three-Block Wars;” Professor James Der Derian and Visiting Fellow Christina Rowley, on “Avatar and Human Terrain: The Intertext;” and Professor Catherine Lutz, on “The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual.” Der Derian’s co-directed Human Terrain documentary will also be screened.

Bonditti has described the conference as follows:

"The US, French and British armed forces, along with many other armies, are currently engaged on very difficult terrains in Afghanistan: of course the one of the country’s rugged mountains but also the one of its so-called 'human terrain,' its complex social structure and multifaceted populations. After the wars by proxy in Latin America, the war in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq, it is hence now the Afghan theatre’s turn to become a laboratory of the transformation or the 'improvement' of the so-called counterinsurgency techniques.

The 'Human Terrain' and the US Army program carrying the same name – the 'Human Terrain System' (HTS) – today symbolize the effort on the part of the military to get to know the local population in order to be able to 'influence it by non-lethal means, such as development aid programs.' According to the program’s promoters, its aim is hence to acquire a 'better' socio-cultural knowledge of local societies in order to 'root out' an enemy claimed to hide at the heart of the social fabric. War is hence no longer mainly understood as a space of armed confrontation between military forces, but also as a space where military and social sciences are to meet. 

But is this meeting not also a space of confrontation? Can the intervention of social sciences in the spectrum of war really facilitate the process of pacification? Are social sciences not on the contrary becoming a continuation of war by other means? And of what war are we really talking? Does the 'Human Terrain System' not bring warfare closer to human intelligence with the sociologist, the anthropologist and the ethnologist in the role of very special agents? 

More broadly, is counterinsurgency becoming something like 'armed social work?' Do the prevailing counterinsurgency techniques lead contemporary soldiers to become less kinetic or do they on the contrary extend the very logic of warfare to spheres of activity previously considered as 'civilian?' Finally, while the latest counter-insurgency doctrines are fairly well known, what are the political imaginaries at play and what shall we think about the increasingly frequent assertion that there are significant discrepancies between the official discourses and the actual practices on the current battlefields?

This seminar will try to approach these questions from the point of view of academics and practitioners in order to raise the question of the transformation of war in the light of the practices currently deployed in Afghanistan, in Iraq and beyond."