Tuesday 24 November 2009

Anthropology and the US Army

The death of an American anthropologist embedded with a US Army platoon in southern Afghanistan last February has not stopped the controversial $250 million Human Terrain System (HTS) programme, under which anthropologists are embedded with army units in order to produce in-depth analysis of the tribal and social structure of communities in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
I spotted this ad from the British company BAe Systems which is recruiting staff to work as analysts for the HTS Research Reachback Cell, based in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to produce "culturally specific details in support of operational planning and related activities".
In February, anthropologist Paula Loyd died after a man in a village in southern Afghanistan poured inflammable liquid over her and set her on fire. Soldiers with her shot and killed her attacker. She was the third person on the HTS programme to die in the field. More on the background here.
Academia has always had reservations about such work. In November 2007, a year after the HTS was established, the American Anthropological Institute issued a statement advising its members to take extreme care before working with the military:
"We advise careful analysis of specific roles, activities, and institutional contexts of engagement in order to ascertain ethical consequences. These ethical considerations begin with the admonition to do no harm to those one studies (or with whom one works, in an applied setting) and to be honest and transparent in communicating what one is doing."
That has clearly not stopped people working for the HTS. The BAe Systems advert does not insist on a degree, but says candidates must have a minimum of seven years experience in intelligence analysis and production, civil affairs or psychological operations. Those recruited will work as members of a "cultural research team consisting of multi-discipline analysts and area subject matter experts providing regional cultural and analytical expertise to military decision makers in support of current operations". This would appear to go against the AAI guidelines.
It is interesting to note that some of the HTS output is in the public domain. My cousin's enemy is my friend: A study of Pashtun "tribes" in Afghanistan is a fascinating document. Published in September, it eloquently argues that the tribal system in Afghanistan is much misunderstood. Pashtuns do not operate along tribal lines, but along qawm lines. A qawm is a group with a specific interest which may cut across tribal and ethnic lines. In addition, the report points out that there is a traditional hostility between cousins on the father's side. Numerous feuds are based on this rivalry. The report states:
"In this report, the HTS Afghanistan RRC warns that the desire for “tribal engagement” in Afghanistan, executed along the lines of the recent “Surge” strategy in Iraq, is based on an erroneous understanding of the human terrain. In fact, the way people in rural Afghanistan organize themselves is so different from rural Iraqi culture that calling them both “tribes” is deceptive. “Tribes” in Afghanistan do not act as unified groups, as they have recently in Iraq. For the most part they are not hierarchical, meaning there is no “chief” with whom to negotiate (and from whom to expect results). They are notorious for changing the form of their social organization when they are pressured by internal dissension or external forces. Whereas in some other countries tribes are structured like trees, “tribes” in Afghanistan are like jellyfish."
What is remarkable about this report is the fact that just as it was being published, the US army revealed that it was attempting to build a system of tribal militias in Afghanistan. The militias have little chance of success if any of the research from the HTS is to believed. A case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing?

No comments: