Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Return of the Non-Native, Part Two


The Counterinsurgency Field Manual is U.S. forces’ official doctrine on combating insurgencies around the world. Co-authored by the current U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, it discusses the role of intelligence in great detail—and not just “mines have been laid on the road 2.5 km north of Tikrit” intelligence, but the understanding of a country’s culture, history and personalities that helps counterinsurgents make progress with the host nation’s citizens. (Download free here, order hard copy here.)

Section 3-2 reads:

Intelligence in [counterinsurgency] is about people. U.S. forces must understand the people of the host nation, the insurgents, and the host-nation (HN) government. Commanders and planners require insight into cultures, perceptions, values, beliefs, interests and decision-making processes of individuals and groups. These requirements are the basis for collection and analytical efforts.

That expertise has to come from somewhere, and once again, anthropologists are in demand. In “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones,” David Rohde explains how academic anthropologists are helping U.S. forces abroad:

SHABAK VALLEY, Afghanistan — In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian anthropologist named Tracy.

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team’s ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations — in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe — has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

Of course, some anthropologists are uncomfortable with academics’ work with the military:

Citing the past misuse of social sciences in counterinsurgency campaigns, including in Vietnam and Latin America, 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 American military.

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University, 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 pledge says, “at base, it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties.”

Prof. Gusterson may be confusing the Bush Administration’s larger political objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. military’s objectives in those nations. Whether you think the president ultimately wants a secure, democratic Iraq or simply a Mesopotamian gas station, it’s tough to disagree with having anthropologists on board to lessen friction between U.S. forces and civilians, decreasing bloodshed and the brutality that Prof. Gusterson rightly fears.

Ultimately, social-science help will enable U.S. forces to withdraw more quickly from the countries experiencing “occupation,” whether they leave behind stable governments or not. (How grandly Prof. Gusterson overstates the U.S. presence abroad, as though U.S. stormtroopers leer from every Afghan and Iraqi streetcorner.)

The anthropologists have quickly found fans among line officers in Afghanistan, who continue to face off against al-Qa’ida and the Taliban:

The anthropology team here also played a major role in what the military called Operation Khyber. That was a 15-day drive late this summer in which 500 Afghan and 500 American 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 American troops and local governors.

In one of the first districts the team entered, Tracy identified an unusually high concentration of widows in one village, Colonel Woods said. Their lack of income created financial pressure on their sons to provide for their families, she determined, a burden that could drive the young men to join well-paid insurgents. Citing Tracy’s advice, American officers developed a job training program for the widows.

In another district, the anthropologist interpreted 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 most powerful 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 Colonel Woods, a native of Denbo, Pa. “It works in helping you define the problems, not just the symptoms.”

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