In early 2003, a single American diplomat and more than 5,000 American troops were stationed in Kandahar, the second city of Afghanistan and the heart of former Taliban country. The troops mostly stayed on their base, penned off near the airport, isolated from the people of the city. One of the few American civilians then living in Kandahar, the former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes, would describe the tedious hours-long delays and “bewildering lack of system” that governed access to the base. Isolation reinforced ignorance, and under the Americans’ noses, the provincial governor, a former warlord named Gul Agha Shirzai, exploited his position to snag most U.S. contracts for his Barakzai tribe and to cover his private militia—issued American camouflage uniforms—with impunity for misdeeds from drug smuggling to stealing.
As a result, wrote Chayes in her 2006 book The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban, “much of the [U.S.] expenditure in effort and treasure that was aimed at building bridges and gaining friends in Kandahar did the reverse. It built a growing feeling of resentment against the U.S. troops.”
In those early days, the U.S. military in Afghanistan, for all its famous night-vision goggles, was blind to what has become known as the “human terrain”—the people it had come to liberate. No one has to explain to any soldier the tactical significance of a hill or a river or an airfield; whereas few soldiers on the Kandahar base had ever heard of Barakzais, much less the Popalzais and Alokozais and Ghiljais who had been left out in the cold. Their commanders similarly failed to recognize the mischief flowing every day from the fact that the interpreters on whom the Americans were wholly dependent—supplied by the governor’s helpful brother—were working for him.
Today efforts are being made to change that, as the military draws on a culture of “lessons learned”—the systematic practice of looking back at mistakes to see what can be done better. The generals in charge of the counterinsurgency strategy being implemented in Afghanistan are graduates of the hard school of Iraq, where the United States also paid the price of ignorance. Now, the generals—notably U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) chief David Petraeus and the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal—are working through multiple channels to build their forces’ ability to relate to the Afghan population.
The whole thrust of counterinsurgency doctrine is summed up in the subhead to the “Guidance” McChrystal issued to the troops in August: “Protecting the people is the mission.” There is abundant evidence that commanders are reorienting the coalition effort to this end.
One small but telling sign is Sarah Chayes’s own career. After entering Afghanistan just behind U.S. forces in late 2001, she reported from Kandahar for several months. Her previous experience covering the aftermath of war in the Balkans enriched her perspective; so did her decision not to join the foreign media at the international hotel but to live in an Afghan family compound and adopt local dress. By the time she left Kandahar, in the heady atmosphere of the months after the fall of the Taliban, she had decided to give up her job and contribute to the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
She did so first through a group founded by Hamid Karzai’s older brother, Afghans for Civil Society. She raised money in her native Massachusetts to rebuild houses and a mosque destroyed by a U.S. bomb. She personally directed the work, learning firsthand what it was like to try to get something done under the thumb of Kandahar’s “arbitrary, predatory, brutal, if charismatic” governor. After taking a break to write her book, she founded Arghand, a cooperative that employs Kandaharis making scented soaps and lotions for export. All the while, she was deepening her local contacts—and gradually becoming an informal adviser to the U.S. military. Soon they were flying her to Hawaii to brief soldiers about to deploy to Kandahar, and to Fort Leavenworth as a guest speaker. (“She’s like no journalist you’ve ever seen,” gushed one who heard her. “She’s a hawk!”) Today she is a special adviser to General McChrystal. Her eight-page “Comprehensive Action Plan for Afghanistan”—published last January and available at sarahchayes.net—begins: “The United States should -redefine its objectives in favor of the Afghan people, not the Afghan government.”
Another indication of the U.S. military’s determination to improve its knowledge of our Afghan friends is General Petraeus’s creation of an intelligence unit at CENTCOM that will train military officers, agents, and analysts who commit themselves to Afghanistan and Pakistan work for at least five years. Their training will emphasize cultural and language immersion. To lead the new Center for Afghanistan Pakistan Excellence, Petraeus chose Derek Harvey, a retired colonel working in the Defense Intelligence Agency who had gained a reputation for prescience in his work on Iraq. A longtime reporter recently called Harvey “the most intelligent man” he had dealt with in the U.S. government.
In the same spirit, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, established the Af-Pak Hands last fall. The purpose, again, is to build regional expertise by having a core of some 300 officers specialize in a single area and type of work. Whether they are stationed in the United States or deployed “downrange,” they can maintain relationships and steadily deepen their knowledge of the relevant languages, players, and problems.
But no innovation better captures the military’s will to shed its blinders about local populations than the aptly named Human Terrain Teams (HTTs). Embedded with units in the field, these teams consist of five to nine civilians with, among them, considerable military or intelligence experience, social-science expertise, analytical skill, and cross-cultural training. Ideally, each team includes at least one Afghan-American, one or more women, and a Ph.D.-level social scientist. Their mission is to “fill the socio-cultural knowledge gap” in ways that are valuable to the soldiers they advise. They are specially charged with helping devise nonlethal approaches to improving security in a given place. These are not civil affairs units, off building schools and digging wells, but eyes and ears for the military officers who plan and lead operations.
HTTs are to learn all they can about the people among whom their units operate—their tribal background and power structures and livelihood, their recent experiences with local government and with Kabul, their contacts with the Taliban and warlords and coalition forces, and any -matters of special concern to the commander. They are to do this by developing personal relationships in the surrounding communities and systematically interviewing Afghans. As they go, they are to analyze their findings and then package them in forms digestible by soldiers.
HTT members receive four to six months’ training before they deploy. Most of this happens at Fort Leavenworth. But for three weeks they attend a cultural immersion seminar at this country’s only Center for Afghanistan Studies, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I visited for a couple of days this fall to observe their training.
The first thing that struck me on taking my seat at the back of a crowded classroom on the Omaha campus was the amount of gray hair. The median age of the 30 or so HTT students must have been 40. The teacher, Thomas Gouttierre, qualified for some gray himself having been dean of international studies at Omaha and director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies since 1974. Before that, he and his wife lived for a decade in Afghanistan, during the hopeful years when a liberal constitution was adopted and women were among those elected to parliament. The Gouttierres went to Kabul as Peace Corps volunteers and stayed on with Tom as a Fulbright fellow and later executive director of the Fulbright Foundation. All through, he also coached the Afghan National Basketball Team.
For three hours that morning, Gouttierre unspooled a panorama of 2,500 years of Afghan history and culture, punctuated with slides of art, historic buildings, and dramatic landscapes as well as with comments on the recent election, a digression on the Pashtun honor code, examples of Afghan humor, and lessons distilled from his center’s extensive work with Afghans over 35 years. This made for a somewhat kaleidoscopic experience. Just as the founder of the Mughal empire, Babur, was coming into focus and one was making a mental note to delve into his autobiography beginning, “In the province of Fergana, in the year 1494, when I was twelve years old, I became king,” suddenly the Kajaki Dam was center stage.
After World War II, Gouttierre said, the Afghans had accumulated hard currency from the sale of lamb skins and carpets and wanted to build a dam to irrigate and provide electricity for the Helmand Valley. When they ran short of funds they sought U.S. help. The Morrison-Knudsen -Company of Boise, Idaho, which had worked on the Hoover Dam, trained Afghans in the necessary construction skills. Many had never before worked off the farm. The result was not only a dam, but also a cadre of skilled labor that included in addition to the building trades, plumbers and drivers and mechanics, cooks and housekeepers. These workers moved to the cities when the project was done and contributed to the glacially advancing modernization of the Afghan economy. Gouttierre contrasted the wisdom of training Afghans with the wastefulness of importing foreign labor—as the coalition did in its early days to build the all-important Ring Road. For that matter, there are still 30,000 foreign laborers in the country, he said.
Here a class member spoke up. A veteran of several years in Afghanistan assisting civilian development efforts, the student offered a clarification—there is now a requirement to use Afghan labor on most road projects and train them in road maintenance—adding that it took field workers “a year of briefings” and much badgering and cajoling to persuade the U.S. authorities (the student named Karl Eikenberry, then a general serving in Afghanistan, now U.S. ambassador in Kabul) to agree to use local labor. Class members tapped at their laptops.
That afternoon the students disappeared into language labs for their several hours’ daily instruction in Dari, the lingua franca of Afghanistan, and Pashto, spoken in the south and east. Their teachers, all native speakers, included some who have been with the Center for Afghanistan Studies since they fled the Soviet invasion, but also a young Fulbright scholar fresh from Kabul. I spent the afternoon talking with Gouttierre in his office, and with Major Robert Holbert, training coordinator for the Human Terrain Teams.
The question on my mind was, How can you manufacture regional experts in six months?
The answer was, You can’t—and the program doesn’t pretend to. Instead, it aims to recruit smart, creative, cool-headed, highly adaptable, mature self-starters who already have significant relevant experience, and then further equip them to operate as bridges between the U.S. military and Afghan people. You can’t teach team members enough Dari or Pashto to make them fluent, for instance, but you can teach them enough to build on, and enough to improve their effectiveness at working through interpreters. You can’t give them deep knowledge of the places where they’ll serve, but you can expose them to a great deal of pertinent information and then teach them how to ask questions—not “What do you think of the provincial government?” but “What was your last contact with the provincial government? Who exactly did you go to? What was the outcome? What about the time before that?”
“You can teach the basic elements of how to work with Afghans,” said Gouttierre. “Avoid pork and alcohol. Show sincerity. Afghans like to talk. Engage them in a way that makes them want to talk to you. Find a way to negotiate differences.”
Gouttierre and his colleagues have a lot of experience at this. The Center for Afghanistan Studies has designed and run numerous development projects—mostly on contract for the U.S. government, totaling a $100 million over 35 years. These have included providing education in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation, bringing Afghan English teachers to study at the center and live with Nebraska families (for the Fulbright Foundation), and, currently, running literacy programs for the Afghan Army. “Our philosophy is to involve Afghans wherever possible,” Gouttierre said. “Our programs are staffed almost exclusively by Afghans.” At last count, he said, roughly 300 Afghans were employed in the Army literacy program, and many more at the Nebraska Education Press, in Kabul, now spun off as an independent NGO. Housed in a compound that once belonged to the Afghan Communist party, the press printed the Afghan constitution and millions of textbooks for the first post-Taliban opening of school.
Major Holbert—a fit and focused former social studies teacher in Lincoln, Nebraska, who served on the first HTT in Afghanistan in 2007—elaborated on the matter of learning to communicate in ways that build bonds. In the early days of the U.S. presence, soldiers sometimes threw candy and toys to children from moving vehicles. This drive-by benevolence was seen as demeaning. “Relationships are everything,” said Holbert. HTT members are taught to take the time to drink the endless cups of tea, to invest in relationships. To counteract the constant churning of personnel in the field, HTTs are replaced one member at a time with, whenever possible, a month’s overlap with their predecessor, who can make personal introductions so that local contacts aren’t lost. Holbert’s spiel exactly captured the spirit of General McChrystal’s guidance—indeed, it almost seemed to track it word for word. As McChrystal wrote, addressing all coalition troops:
The effort to gain and maintain [the support of the Afghan people] must inform every action we take. . . . We need to understand the people and see things through their eyes. . . . The way you drive, your dress and gestures, with whom you eat lunch, the courage with which you fight, the way you respond to an Afghan’s grief or joy—this is all part of the argument. . . . Listen to and learn from our Afghan colleagues. . . . This is a battle of wits—learn and adapt more quickly than the insurgent.
The civilian HTTs actually face a double challenge. “The hardest culture to integrate with is the military,” Holbert noted. “You need to project confidence and humility in order to be able to work well with your unit. So you get to know them. If your team is invited to a social activity, you go. If there’s marksmanship training, you go. And on patrol you pull security. You are not a consumer of resources or producer of drama.”
The subject of my second morning’s lecture was the geology of Afghanistan. As students arrived in the darkened classroom, a video was running. It showed a mudslide, a roaring torrent of mud and boulders pouring over a cement dam in a craggy gorge. The footage had been shot near Kunduz by a German reconstruction team—the first time one of these events, which occur all over Afghanistan, had been filmed. The lecturer was John Shroder, professor of geography and geology and, like Gouttierre, a student of Afghanistan for four decades. Shroder is point man for the center’s National Atlas of Afghanistan project, which collects and publishes mapable information on Afghanistan, and for its collaboration with NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Academy of Sciences to monitor the glaciers of Afghanistan and Pakistan using satellite imagery. Shroder writes widely on Afghanistan’s mineral and energy resources and their considerable potential for development, the subject he addressed for the HTT seminar.
Rounding out the morning was Professor Michael Bishop, expert in something called Geographic Information Science. He showed a rapt audience how using remote sensing and computer maps of Afghanistan they can display numerous physical features of the country—soil quality, vegetation, water, snow, cloud cover, and many more—at high resolution at the click of a mouse. This capability has myriad applications, from the design of irrigation systems to prediction of floods to the location of safe construction sites. It will be made available via a “reachback” system now being developed to allow HTTs to consult distant experts and databases by email.
During their time in Omaha, HTT trainees have classes in the history and politics of Afghanistan in the 20th century, Pashtun society and culture, women in Afghanistan, religion in Afghanistan, the Afghan Army and its evolving structure, the globalization of religious extremism, medicine in Afghanistan, and the role of drugs in international terrorism. Six of their ten instructors are Afghans. It’s during their longer stay at Fort Leavenworth that they receive basic survival training and concentrate on social science methods and analysis. Some are sent to participate in exercises at a simulated Afghan village in Death Valley.
For their final exercise, team members are dropped off in small towns near Fort Leavenworth—places like Bonner Springs, Kansas (population 7,000) or Smithville, Missouri (population 6,000)—to assess the human terrain. They fan out in pairs or threes to interview locals. They introduce themselves as students from Fort Leavenworth who’ve been assigned, for instance, to ascertain how the town copes with flooding from the Missouri River.
For all of the HTT trainees I met, this foray into small-town America will have been a cross-cultural experience. They included a retired chemist with past Special Forces deployments in Vietnam and Panama; a former reporter with a couple of decades in the intelligence community under his belt; an ex-Marine intelligence officer who studied Arabic and international relations in college and deployed briefly to Iraq; a former environmental consultant who grew up in Asia and is multilingual; and a Special Forces vet who served three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. One, an Afghan-American, told me he fled the Soviet occupation before finishing school but couldn’t find work in Pakistan, so pressed on to the United States. He got jobs in fast food and supermarkets in Virginia and eventually drove a delivery van. After 9/11 he felt a strong desire to help Afghanistan. He managed to land a job with the U.S. military as a “role player” in one of the simulated villages used for training and worked his way up to interpreter. Now in his late 30s—and married, with an infant son—he is returning to his native land for the first time as a member of an HTT.
One of the trainees I met is already “in theater,” assigned to Jalalabad. Her unit is experimenting with what they call a Female Engagement Team, which has been dispatched to talk to women in mountain villages and to female prisoners at a juvenile detention center. She sent me pictures of their visit to a school for 400 girls.
No doubt her HTT is also keeping a careful eye on the evolving role of the local governor, Gul Agha Shirzai, who caused so much trouble in Kandahar back in 2003. He’s become a figure of some renown, even being profiled back in March in the Wall Street Journal. Removed as governor of Kandahar by President Karzai in 2004, he was shortly thereafter reappointed to Nangarhar Province, in eastern Afghanistan, whose capital is Jalalabad. There he has managed to temper his reputation for corruption. Far from the home turf of his Barakzai tribe, and thus relieved of patronage duties (also, possibly, content with the fortune he has already amassed), he has burnished his image since the days when Sarah Chayes found him so arbitrary, predatory, and brutal. He is once again in good odor with the Americans. At their urging, he chaired a meeting of 25 tribal elders from four eastern provinces in late November, according to the New York Times, for the purpose of enlisting the elders’ aid in persuading reconcilable elements of the Taliban to “sit down and talk.”
Has Gul Agha Shirzai really changed? How is this transplant viewed by the indigenous power brokers of Nangarhar? Is his warlord past or his present cooperation with the coalition more indicative of the path ahead? They are questions of some consequence as the coalition attempts to midwife an Afghan version of the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, when tribal leaders switched sides and helped reverse the momentum of the insurgency.
They are also reminders that human terrain is always complex and elusive terrain, lacking the stable definition of a mountain pass or valley floor. The Human Terrain Teams and other innovations by which the U.S. armed forces are lessening their ignorance of the Afghan people are no doubt imperfect, even crude, instruments for meeting the challenges of a war where the enemy is at home and we come from far away, geographically and culturally. Regardless of the magnitude of the challenge, the HTTs and the rest will be judged by their success on the ground. Still, it is not too soon to recognize the energy and imagination with which the armed forces are working to apply their lessons learned.
Claudia Anderson is managing editor of The Weekly Standard.