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 23 Feb 2009 @ 1:40 PM 

We are going to play a paint-by-numbers game. I’m going to lay out the lines with the facts that I know, and I’ll supply the paints. You just paint by the numbers, and we’ll see what picture presents itself by the time we are done. This article includes a basic description of the Human Terrain System and why it is important to the counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, and series of related events that may threaten the program at a critical stage in its development. This will show that Robert Pelton’s business partner approached HTS with a proposal to sell intelligence to the program, and failing that, Pelton sought an embed, marketed his own services directly to ISAF without the knowledge of those who had gotten him cleared to enter the country, and then wrote a scathing article about the program.

Overview of the Human Terrain System

The Human Terrain System is a $132 million program that provides social science information to the United States Armed Forces to assist them in understanding the populations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They map out the social networks in areas of operation, provide context about the concerns of the local population, and assist the military staffs with understanding the human elements of the local environment providing valuable information to commanders on the ground. This assists the commanders in working with and around the populations. It helps the Army to stay population-centric in the solutions that it arrives at when selecting courses of action. This means more effective counterinsurgency strategies. The efficient operation of this program is in the best interest of the Army, and therefore the nation. It is an item of public interest.

Anthropology not being an Army branch, the social scientists have in most cases been civilian contractors. This has provided for the social scientists to be very well compensated, making it a bit more worthwhile to subject themselves to the rigors of combat zones.

The program is not without its critics, both within the Armed Forces and without. The American Association for Anthropology has a very vocal minority that cries out that the program is an unethical use of anthropological science. They claim that anthropologists are using the data to target individuals for death. Commanders who have actually used the output disagree. COL Schweitzer, Commander of the 82nd Airborne’s 4th Brigade Combat Team had this to say:

Schweitzer was unequivocal in his support for the HTT. He was conscious of how that might sound to his peers—“whacked,” was how he put it. But he assured me his enthusiasm was grounded in facts. Since February, his brigade had reduced kinetic operations by 60 percent in favor of “non-lethal forms and sets of maneuver,” which had reduced both American and Afghan casualties. More than one third of the districts in his area of operations pledged their support to the Afghan government for the first time. ~ Steven Featherstone, “Human quicksand for the U.S. Army, a crash course in cultural studies,” Harpers Magazine, September, 2008

Delicate times for HTS

HTS is in part comprised of Human Terrain Teams (HTT’s,) of which there are 20 in Iraq and 6 in Afghanistan. The Army has orders for 13 more teams in Afghanistan. Due to the new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in Iraq, civilian contractors will be subject to Iraqi law and under new regulations will not be covered for basic health care by military doctors at military installations. This has forced the HTS to convert the HTT personnel who are currently contractors to government employees. Many of the social scientists are finding themselves looking at pay cuts that in some cases work out to about 70% .

“It’s the only thing that we could do for the long term health of the program,” says a senior program official at the HTS. “I know it’s hard for individuals because it’s not as lucrative, but in the coming weeks we are going to see many programs affected by this making similar choices.”

The $132 million program, a significant enabler of COIN in-theater, is making its way through some rocky parts in its road, perhaps facing the greatest challenges since its inception. There is another challenge.

Eason Jordan markets intelligence to HTS

In the summer of 2008, Eason Jordan, former Chief News Executive at CNN and a partner in two intelligence ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, approached COL(R) Steven Fondacaro of the Human Terrain System (HTS) with a business proposal. He wanted to sell HTS-related intelligence provided through Praedict in Iraq and AfPax Insider in Afghanistan/Pakistan to HTS. Not having any way to verify information provided through such an outside contract, Fondacaro politely declined.

Pelton seeks an embed

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Montgomery McFate co-author of FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, was approached by a journalist, Robert Young Pelton, at a social function. Pelton sought to do an embed with an HTT in Afghanistan. Through Dr. McFate, Pelton was then introduced to Steve Fondacaro. Fondacaro, who describes himself as, “the operational side of HTS,” and Dr. McFate as “the social scientist side of HTS,” agreed to embed Pelton with one of their teams.

“We had no idea at the time that Pelton was associated with Eason Jordan,” Fondacaro told me. Eason Jordan’s partners in IraqSlogger, Praedict, and AfPax Insider are Ted Turner, GEN(R) Wesley Clark and Robert Young Pelton.

Fondacaro and McFate approved Pelton to the Army PAO (Public Affairs Office,) which then completed the necessary steps to certify Pelton for the embed. Pelton was put through the process, including signing agreements to abide by the Army’s terms, including agreeing to comply with Army directives while embedded with American units, including a prohibition on gambling, pornography, extramarital sex and alcohol. These are the prohibitions of “General Order Number 1” which apply to all American forces in the theaters of combat. Finally, the embed was cleared.

Pelton travels alone, markets to ISAF

“We planned to take Mr. Pelton on a planned official visit to Afghanistan with us,” Dr. McFate told me, “but then he called us and told us he had found his own way to Afghanistan. We didn’t think much of it.” Pelton arrived in Afghanistan days before the embed was to begin. He spent this time in Kabul, marketing his intelligence services to International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF, commanded by GEN McKiernan.

On September 17th, 2008, Pelton called a member of a team at Bagram Air Field (BAF,) according to insiders. In notes on the conversation, it is noted that Pelton, “bragged about his intel/HT (Human Terrain) consulting contract with ISAF,” says a source who declines to be named, citing security concerns. The source goes on to say that the contract Pelton bragged about included, “cultural advisors, area specialists, polling, and other services.” Pelton, the source explains, “claimed he wanted to see how HTS was operating and that writing an article about us was the best way to get that information.”

The embed

When Pelton joined the team days later at Bagram, arrangements had been made for him to participate in a scheduled mission “outside the wire.” Pelton missed the movement and was left behind while the mission was performed. The team went to great lengths to arrange an ad hoc mission so that Pelton would get a chance to go on a mission. This was when the trouble began.

“I had to tell my interpreter not to interpret his questions to the locals,” a team member reports. “Every time I spoke with an Afghan civilian, he would inject himself into the conversation.” He goes on to say, “He kept asking where the Taliban were. We never ask that. It interferes with what we really need to know. During one engagement that was going well, he blurted out, ‘Ask him where the Taliban are!’ The elder we were speaking with clammed up after that and wouldn’t speak to anyone.”

Pelton was asked repeatedly to cease such activities by 1LT Jones, the military team leader for the mission. At the end of the mission, 1LT Jones complained to his leadership about the trouble that Pelton had given him out in the field. 1LT Jones would later pay the price for his professionalism.

The article

Pelton wrote the article published in Men’s Journal trashing the team with which he was embedded and the HTS in general. He cast 1LT Jones as an idiot. In the final stab at the young First Lieutenant, Pelton claimed that Jones had shared some of the contraband whiskey that Pelton had smuggled into FOB Morales-Frazier. 1LT Jones is now undergoing an investigation into the allegation made by Pelton in his article. The Army had no choice but to investigate such a claim.

The article itself painted a bizarre picture of places, and of operations the types of which this writer is intimately familiar with. Pelton’s article just did not carry the ring of truth. Blogger Tim Lynch stated in his blog, Free Range International that Pelton appeared to be trying to capture the surreal character of Michael Herr’s Dispatches. His description of places and the behaviors of the Soldiers and Marines conducting operations in these places bore little resemblance to what my direct experience would lead me to find believable.

Pelton’s description of the HTT at Bagram was even less kind. Pelton nitpicks the team to pieces in a few sentences.

“What I find most disturbing,” Dr. McFate says, “is that he can take a man who has devoted twenty years of his life to studying Afghanistan and call him a Laotian DNA expert. I don’t understand why he would describe LTC Rotzoll as if he didn’t know what he was doing. LTC Rotzoll is on his fourth tour in Afghanistan, and he is very professional. The team that Mr. Pelton described in that article bore no resemblance to the team that I know.”

This writer took Pelton to task for his article, and in response received a barrage of emails from Pelton containing threats to sue for libel.

Threats to the blogger

If you do even the slightest bit of research on my background you will understand why your unfounded insults will not go uncorrected. I can also tell you that without an earnest attempt on your behalf to correct your malicious actions, the appropriate corrective and punitive relief available to me will be fully enforced. If you choose to be unresponsive, I will take that as proof that you choose to ignore polite requests to mitigate the damage. I strongly encourage you to consult your lawyer and have him define the term “libel” and its potential impact. I will print out a pdf of your website and other comments at exactly 9pm tomorrow evening Pacific time. (from an email dated February 19th, 2009 to me from Robert Young Pelton)

Mr. Pelton bragged on his own site about the tactics of intimidation.

…of all the things on the planet that need to be written about and the last person on earth you would want to call out… Most bloggers can’t actually pay up but the cost of defending themselves (whether they are right or wrong) is enough to convince them that their economic model is going to get a whole lot costlier if they can’t back up their statements. … often its the only way people realize the gravity and cost of the mistake they have made.

The mistake he’s talking about is pointing out something potentially unflattering about Mr. Robert Young Pelton. He was pointing out that his deep pockets make him right, and he’s not afraid to use them.

Questions raised

These very aggressive emails sent to a relatively unknown blogger caught my interest. It wasn’t fear of a lawsuit as much as curiosity as to why such a vicious response would be directed over a criticism of an obviously flawed and at least partially fabricated story in a second rate men’s magazine. As curiosity took hold, bits of what Mr. Pelton’s disjointed and rambling emails said made more sense.

Pelton even tried to lead me to believe that Fondacaro and McFate had approached him, as if they were begging him to do the embed:

Despite this one embed to satisfy Steve and Mitzi’s request…

I talked to Fondacaro and McFate and discovered not only that Pelton had approached them, but also that his partner Eason Jordan had preceded him, a fact that came to light unbidden.

The discovery that he had bragged about marketing his services to ISAF made this passage from a separate email sent the same day as the one quoted above seem to make more sense:

You may not tell people that I work directly for the highest military command in Afghansitan and that my embed was set up at the highest level…but more importantly you need to respect that I busted my ass to see how this program work and it was a fucking disaster at every level. Jones, Rotzell, Fondacaro and McFate believe in this program passionately but are faced with almost insurmountable problems. This article clearly sends a message to the public, congress and the military that people like LT Jones (at 30K a year) do the heavy lifting while lazy anthros cost our government half a million dollars each and do fuck all.

A quick read of the article itself shows no evidence of attempting to show that 1LT Jones was even trying to do his own job. 1LT Jones’ behavior and professionalism was cast into such doubt by the fallacious article that his very career as an Army officer is subject to being ended. The end result of the type of investigation he is being subjected to as a result of Pelton’s writing is a Court Martial. While the assertions of holding 1LT Jones up as a shining example are obviously false, the email does seem to confirm that Pelton feels incredibly empowered and in control of the situation. It also begs more questions.

Assuming that every other person, or even most of them involved in this story may be truthful, Mr. Pelton’s story is slanted in general and at times flatly untrue. Is it possible that everyone else is lying and Pelton alone is telling the truth? If one is to doubt Mr. Pelton’s veracity in the article, which is a conclusion that is reasonably reached, then what is the purpose of, “This article clearly sends a message to the public, congress and the military…?” What message? Why sell this message so strongly in the public forum? What is the goal? Why defend it so viciously against question from even a blogger who is unknown to the general public? What is worth such a ferocious defense?

Would it make his own intelligence services more marketable if HTS and its management were discredited? Was this article written to assist in furthering his business objectives?

Dr. McFate says, “I don’t feel proprietary about this. I believe in the concept and I want the Army to be successful. If Mr. Pelton feels that he can do this properly, then he can try. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”

Asked about the disturbance caused to the HTS at a very delicate time it its young history, Dr. McFate says, “It’s upsetting if this is an attempt to damage the program. This is not in the public interest.”

The picture

I’m calling this one a duck. You can rest assured, based on his previous behavior, that Mr. Pelton will bluster and bully and call it an eagle. He will demand retractions and apologies and insist that I print an apology and call it an eagle. It looks like a duck, it walks like a duck, and it quacks just like a duck.

Once you’ve filled in the numbered areas with the paints provided, tell me what picture you come up with. I bet it’s a duck.

You can vote at the top left of this page.

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Categories: Afghanistan
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 23 Feb 2009 @ 01 40 PM

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