Posted by: Christian | June 22, 2008

Russia’s Human Terrain System

In the mid-1990s, Russia used brute force, technology and massive arrests and detention in Chechnya in an attempt to subdue the separatists. Russia failed and instead agreed to leave an ineffectual autonomous government of very dubious legitimacy in charge of an increasingly chaotic situation. The result was a base for terrorism. And when guerrillas used Chechnya as a base to attack neighboring Dagestan and bomb Moscow apartments (unless you believe the conspiracy theories) a newly appointed nobody Prime Minister by the name of Vladimir Putin restarted the now better organized and better informed Russian army’s Chechen War efforts. The war was, for Russian purposes, a victory. Chechen separatism is no longer even a remote possibility.

Pic: The Second Chechen War.

Sorry for that ridiculously simplistic outline of events. But I’m using it to lead to a discussion of Russian strategies involving local identity/ethnicity/loyalty and power. Russia’s current “success” in Chechnya has much to do with a very familiar sounding strategy of allying with local traditional elites who had become antagonistic to the Islamists and foreign jihadis. A very well-informed (but not by human rights considerations) decision was made to go with the Kadyrov’s extended Beno group of clans.

Pic: Young Kadyrov, arms folded. The T-shirt reads “Kadyrovsky Spetsnaz.”

Akhmed Kadyrov became the President of Chechnya and ruled until be was assassinated in 2004. His son Ramzan, picture above, had been a long-time militia commander and, since the age of 30 in 2007, has been president. Again, this is a very simplistic and non-nuanced outline of events in Chechnya. But my point is that Russia made a decision based on the power realities on the ground (however distasteful) and informed by a blunt social science assessment of Chechen society. Don’t take this as any sort of endorsement from me. It’s just an observation.

Of course, my title references the American Human Terrain System. This system of using social scientists to inform war policy and strategy is not new. It’s as old as warfare itself, and used to varying degrees of skill and success. The British colonial efforts, with its scholar-soldiers and ethnographers, is a prime example of this. And it’s when the British disregarded the factors ‘at play’ on the ground that disaster was incurred. The incompetent and arrogant officers of the first Anglo-Afghan war described by Lady Sale are just one example.

Pic: The Ghilzai locals wait to greet the Brits.

I’ll now turn to Daniel R. Brower’s chapter on Tsarist Russian military and administrative efforts in its newly acquired Muslim territories:

Brower, Daniel R. 1997. ‘Islam and Ethnicity: Russian Colonial Policy in Turkestan’, in Russia’s Orient. Edited by Daniel R. Brower and Edward J. Lazzerini. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

In 1867, having served for 13 years in the Caucasian wars (1843-56), Konstantin von Kaufman was appointed Governor-General of the newly acquired territories of Turkestan. His previous tour of duty was under Prince Vorontsev, but controlled by Nicholas I. Influenced by the Enlightenment and promoted by the previous policies of Catherine II, Prince Vorontsov tried to administer Caucasia in a manner informed by ethnographic inquiry and religious tolerance while encouraging Russians to “respect ethnic differences.” But this was ignored by those military leaders commanding von Kaufman, who was an engineer at the time. As he arrived there was underway a full-scale rebellion brought on by

“the Russian authorities’ clumsy, brutal efforts to incorporate the people there into the Russian legal and administrative system, in disregard of Muslim law and local customs.”

Learning from failure, Konstantin von Kaufman made ethnographic knowledge “the core” of his administrative policies in Turkestan.

von Kaufman took a libertarian approach to Islam in general while at the same time weakening certain Islamic institutions such as the Sheykh-ul-Islam, the chief Muslim judge in Tashkent and the religious police (probably not the winners of the local popularity contest). But beyond religious tolerance, von Kaufman’s ethnographic inquiry was being undertaken with the utmost enthusiasm. Geographers, linguists, ethnographers, artists, natural scientists and other social scientists were employed to carry out von Kaufman’s project. In addition, Russian officers with advanced education were specifically targeted for service in Turkestan to counter the generally corrupt and drunk officer-administrators already serving there. As Brower noted, “Ethnicity was to become a servant of his colonial rule.”

Pic: Russian Turkestan expanding.

Brower goes on to describe the “flood” of scholarly and popular articles and publications on Turkestan that followed. The attempt to classify the peoples of Central Asia met with confusion as people’s identities were frequently “multiple and contradictory.” But the “real needs of Kaufman’s ethnographic project were met.” Kaufman’s influence was, despite some interruptions, a lasting policy that even influenced the Soviets’ policies in Central Asia.

What does this have to do with Afghanistan besides the “ethnic” and cultural ties with Turkestan? There are parallels, though the attempt to make a direct comparison to the US/NATO/ISAF actions in Afghanistan is extremely problematic. What I’ll stick to is the issue of “ethnographic” and local knowledge/customs discussed by Brower. Since 1979 very, very little field research has been conducted in Afghanistan, independently or under foreign government auspices. And from what information is publicly available, the Human Terrain System is a mere shadow of British and Russian inquiry (which strangely was mostly ignored by both those two countries when it concerned Afghanistan). Additionally, the amount of (and ability to carry out) field research is minimal. The support for the studies of the languages of Afghanistan and for research programs directed towards that region is pitiful. And even worse, large amounts of pre-1979 original research is mostly ignored by those who should be reading it.

The spirit of inquiry is not dead, but it is quite feeble. We live in the age when many people will not even go beyond the first page of a google search, let alone to a university library.


  1. That’s a neat parallel. But it’s even worse: often, the military doesn’t even know what its own people were doing in the country three years ago, to say nothing of understanding the complex realities of socio-political relationships in Afghanistan. Afghanistan didn’t emerge in a vacuum, and there are a few decades of concerted research to pull from. I’m afraid you’re right on all counts, and it’s sad to see.

  2. […] excellent post on Russian use of social science in their 19th-century expeditions to Turkestan. In Russia’s Human Terrain System GOA contrasts the investigations into local cultures by the Russians with the current HTS and […]

  3. […] voudrais plutôt signaler un excellent article (en anglais) sur les méthodes employées par les Soviétiques en Afghanistan et en Tchétchénie. […]

  4. […] But what really interests me was their earlier video “Afghanistan – Lost in translation.” Peter from the MStFB responded to the video and pointed out the associated problems. Overcoming the “losing things in translation” part may require something along the lines of Tsarist haberdashery in Central Asia. […]

  5. And part of makes the American HTS so feeble is incredibly dogged resistance to it from a majority of scholars in the fields of ethnography and anthropology. Anthropologists look rather shamefully at the sort of “proto-HTS” you mentioned of the Russian and British Empires as tools for enabling world-wrecking imperialism. That shame means that the field itself won’t stand behind the current HTS efforts, and on the contrary, will vehemently oppose it and do everything possible to tar and feather it.

    Of course, the head of the HTS program anonymously writing a frivolous blog about how the military top brass makes her horny, although tongue in cheek, does not really help the credibility of the HTS system either.

  6. As a geographer I have been an advocate of cultural and human geography to supplement the anthropologist and ethnographers. But I get frustrated that this is all about anthropology. Humankind is too complex to be studied by one field. I wish someone would wise up that “human terrain” is much, much more than what the HTS group think it is.

  7. [expletive] all terrorist russians! murderer [expletive]! [expletive] of [expletive] mother [expletive]! baby killer!

    Ed: edited for language.

  8. That’s a great post that you made-very informative. Anyone given thought though to the past masters of this art, that is, the Roman Human Terrain System. Think of how only 500,00 soldiers controlled most of the known world through not so much the officers but the men of this army. They would marry the local girls and amalgamated the local religion with their own. They would encourage trade with the locals too and aligned themselves often with the local elite to retain control and it worked for damn near a thousand years.

  9. Интересненько, кто обьяснит девушке как добавить этот сайт в избранное?


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