The Magazine

Anthropology Goes to War

There are some things the Army needs in Afghanistan, but more academics are not at the top of the list.

Nov 26, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 11 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Major Tim Kohn of the Civil Affairs unit for the 2nd Battalion of the 321st Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division had obviously mastered the lessons of FM 3-24. One of the reasons he told me for stationing platoons in Khost province's district centers is that they spend less time riding hither and yon in Humvees, and more interacting with Afghans.

Even in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, which are less friendly to Americans than the provinces I visited, the Afghan people are overwhelmingly appreciative of foreign troops and opposed to the Taliban. According to a Canadian survey conducted in late September in Afghanistan, 64 percent of respondents said "the foreigners have made a lot of progress or some progress in the fight against the Taliban." In Kandahar, stronghold of the Ghilzai Pashtuns who predominate in the Taliban leadership, 58 percent nevertheless say the foreigners are doing a good job battling the Taliban. Nationally, 89 percent of Afghans view the Taliban unfavorably and 93 percent doubt its ability to provide security.

Meanwhile, just as our methodical, unglamorous strategies are bearing fruit, our military seems to be buying into the "cultural knowledge" critique, and buying into a dubious version at that. Just a few weeks apart this fall, articles appeared in the Christian -Science Monitor and New York Times about a new idea the U.S. Army is trying out--attaching anthropologists and cultural experts to combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program is called the Human Terrain System and is in its infancy. In Afghanistan, the first team of five experts deployed to FOB Salerno, in Khost, in January 2007 for a six month tour. (In Iraq, the first teams of Arabic language and culture experts have just been deployed.)

The concept is appealing: Make sure that the troops who are interacting with Afghans know how to work within the culture. Give our maneuver commanders cultural and linguistic experts who can help them to figure out what is going on beneath the surface and influence local leaders. And after investing maybe a thousand hours studying Farsi/Dari, I was gratified to hear that the Army is coming around to seeing linguistic capabilities as a crucial part of counterinsurgency.

In the words of a Military Review article (September-October 2006) that described the Human Terrain System idea for a military audience:

HTS will provide deployed brigade commanders and their staffs direct social-science support in the form of ethnographic and social research, cultural information research, and social data analysis that can be employed as part of the military decisionmaking process.

The core building block of the system will be a five-person Human Terrain Team (HTT) that will be embedded in each forward-deployed brigade or regimental staff. The HTT will provide the commander with experienced officers, NCOs, and civilian social scientists trained and skilled in cultural data research and analysis.

The Human Terrain Team program was touted in late 2006 in an adulatory New Yorker article by George Packer on the State Department's chief counterinsurgency strategist, David Kilcullen. A retired Australian army colonel, Kilcullen also holds a doctorate in anthropology. He's an author of the Army's new counterinsurgency field manual, an excellent writer, and an extremely smart man. Nevertheless, I emerged from a meeting with him in Washington unable to get a handle on exactly how he proposed to defeat the Afghan insurgency. While he was understandably more focused on Iraq (and left for an extended mission there shortly after our meeting), his knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan seemed lacking in detail.

This same sense of vague generalities followed me as I tracked down Steve Fondacaro, the head of the Human Terrain System program. Just after meeting Kilcullen, I learned that a brilliant acquaintance, Afghanistan expert Thomas Johnson, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School's program for culture and conflict studies, was helping to develop a database for the Human Terrain Teams. Johnson is an expert on the Pashtuns--the dominant tribe in southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan--with substantial time on the ground. He put me in touch with Fondacaro, a retired colonel with the 82nd Airborne Division, and we spoke on the phone in the winter and spring of 2007.

Again, I was unable to get a handle on exactly what the teams planned to do, but I thought it would all become clear once the program was operational. And so I requested that part of my embed be at FOB Salerno in Khost so that I could meet with some of the Human Terrain Team members and see them in action.