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Taking on Afghanistan's 'Human Terrain'
International Herald Tribune  |  October 08, 2007
In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a demure civilian anthropologist named Tracy. Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first-ever Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to U.S. combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they act as cultural advisers and suggest ways to win local support without using military force.

Colonel Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division unit working with anthropologists here, said the unit's combat operations had been reduced by 60 percent since the anthropologists arrived this spring. He said the focus had shifted from combat to improving security, health care and education for the population.

"We're looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist's perspective," he said. "We're not focused on the enemy. We're focused on bringing governance down to the people."

Last month, Robert Gates, the U.S. secretary of defense, authorized a $40 million expansion of the program, which will assign teams of anthropologists and social scientists to each of the 26 American combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, military officials are scrambling to find more scholars willing to deploy to the front lines to interpret tribal structures and explain cultural differences.

Yet criticism is emerging in academia. Citing the past misuse of social sciences in counterinsurgency campaigns, some denounce the program as "mercenary anthropology" that exploits social science for political gain. Opponents fear that, whatever their intention, the scholars who work with the military could inadvertently cause all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence gatherers for the U.S. military.

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University in Virginia, and 10 other anthropologists are circulating an online pledge calling for anthropologists to boycott the teams, particularly in Iraq.

"While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world," the petition says, "at base, it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties."

In Afghanistan, the anthropologists arrived along with 6,000 troops, which doubled the U.S. military's strength in the area it patrols, the country's east.

A smaller version of the Bush administration's troop increase in Iraq, the buildup in Afghanistan has allowed U.S. units to carry out the counterinsurgency strategy here, where American forces generally face less resistance and are better able to take risks.

Since General David Petraeus, now the overall U.S. commander in Iraq, oversaw the drafting of the army's new counterinsurgency manual last year, the strategy has become the new mantra of the military. A recent U.S. military operation here offered a window into how attempts to apply the new approach are playing out on the ground in counterintuitive ways.

In interviews, U.S. officers lavishly praised the anthropology program, saying that the scientists' advice had proved to be "brilliant," helping them see the situation from an Afghan perspective and cut down on combat operations. The eventual aim, they say, is to improve the performance of local government officials, persuade local tribesmen to join the police, ease poverty and protect villagers from the Taliban and criminals.

Afghans and Western civilian officials, too, praised the anthropologists and the new U.S. military approach but were cautious about predicting long-term success. "My feeling is that the military are going through an enormous change right now where they recognize they won't succeed militarily," said Tom Gregg, the chief United Nations official in southeastern Afghanistan. "But they don't yet have the skill sets to implement" a coherent nonmilitary strategy.

Deploying small groups of U.S. Soldiers into remote areas, Schweitzer's paratroopers organized jirgas, or local councils, to resolve tribal disputes that have simmered for decades.

Officers shrugged off questions about whether the military was comfortable with what David Kilcullen, an Australian anthropologist and an architect of the new strategy, calls "armed social work."

"Who else is going to do it?" asked Lieutenant Colonel David Woods, commander of the 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry. "You have to evolve. Otherwise, you're useless."

The arrival of the anthropologists in this Taliban stronghold was part of what the military called Operation Khyber. It was a 15-day drive in which 500 Afghan and 500 U.S. Soldiers tried to clear an estimated 200 to 250 Taliban insurgents out of much of Paktia Province, secure southeastern Afghanistan's most important road and halt a string of suicide attacks on U.S. troops and local governors.

In one of the first districts they entered, Tracy, the anthropologist, identified an unusually high concentration of widows in one village, Woods said. The large number of single women created financial pressure on their sons to provide for their families, she determined, a burden that could drive them to join well-paid insurgents. Citing Tracy's advice, U.S. officers decided to develop a job training program for the widows as a step toward easing their financial burdens.

In another district, the anthropologist saw the beheading of a local tribal elder as more than a random act of intimidation: the Taliban's goal, she said, was to divide and weaken the Zadran, one of southeastern Afghanistan's largest tribes. If Afghan and American officials could unite the Zadran, she said, the tribe could block the Taliban from operating in the area.

"Call it what you want - it works," said Woods. "It works in helping you define the problems, not just the symptoms."

The process that led to the creation of the teams began in late 2003, when U.S. officers in Iraq complained that they had little to no information about the local population. Pentagon officials contacted Montgomery McFate, a Yale-educated cultural anthropologist working for the navy who advocated using social science to improve military operations and strategy.

McFate helped develop a computer database in 2005 that provided commanders with detailed data on the local population.

The following year, Steve Fondacaro, a retired Special Operations colonel, joined the program and advocated embedding social scientists with U.S. combat units.

McFate, the program's senior social science adviser and an author of the military's new counterinsurgency manual, dismissed criticism of scholars working with the military. "I'm frequently accused of militarizing anthropology," she said. "But we're really anthropologizing the military."

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