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    Middle East
     Dec 18, 2007
Touchy, feely in the kill chain
By David Isenberg

WASHINGTON - The issue of the military's use of anthropology, as embodied by the use of the Human Terrain System (HTS) in Afghanistan and Iraq, continues to roil both military and academic waters.

As part of the counterinsurgency efforts being advocated by General David Petraeus, commanding general of the Multi-National Force Iraq, the Pentagon is emphasizing a sort of 

Clitonesque "I feel your pain" approach to winning hearts and mind.

As a new military study points out:
In sharp contrast to former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's heavy-handed approach to counterinsurgency, which emphasized aggressive military tactics, the post-Rumsfeld Pentagon has advocated a "gentler" approach, emphasizing cultural knowledge and ethnographic intelligence as major components of its counterinsurgency doctrine. This "cultural turn" within DoD highlights efforts to understand adversary societies and to recruit "practitioners" of culture, notably anthropologists, to help in the war effort in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The study, "On The Uses of Cultural Knowledge" by Associate Professor Sheila Jager of Oberlin College, published by the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, finds that the broad outlines of what went wrong in Iraq can be traced to a glaring misunderstanding of Iraqi culture and society by American occupation planners and US military forces.

As part of the new cultural turn the army published a new counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24, released on December 15, 2006, and co-authored by Petraeus. The 282-page manual highlights cultural knowledge and human relationships as central aspects for waging a successful counterinsurgency

The US Army War College has introduced new lessons on National Cultures in its Strategic Thinking course and a new series of Regional Studies courses were introduced into the curriculum.

Although the interest in cultural knowledge may appear to be the latest fad, it is not new. According to Jager, the successful military occupation of Japan is a good example of how cultural knowledge informed America’s long-term strategic objectives in Asia. The US decision to preserve the Japanese imperial system and shield Emperor Hirohito from being tried as a war criminal allowed the American occupation to write a new role for the Japanese emperor.

The surprising and rapid transition from Japanese militarism to democracy was made not through the imposition of American democratic values and norms, but by a not-so-subtle manipulation of Japanese cultural symbols and meanings, including a rather blatant manipulation of history.

Aside from the new manual, the other main effort to achieve cultural awareness is the Human Terrain System, which is being overseen by the Foreign Military Studies Office, a US Training and Doctrine Command organization that supports the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth.

HTS is built upon seven components: human terrain teams (HTTs), reach-back research cells, subject-matter expert-networks, a tool kit, techniques, human terrain information, and specialized training.

Each HTT will be comprised of five experienced cultural advisors, including a social scientist who could be an anthropologist, familiar with the area in which the commander will be operating. These advisors will be in direct support of a brigade commander. HTTs will be embedded in brigade combat teams, providing commanders with an organic ability to gather, process, and interpret relevant cultural data. In addition to maintaining the brigade’s cultural databases by gathering and updating data, HTTs will also conduct specific information research and analysis as tasked by the brigade commander.

The development, however, of HTS and its field teams has been a subject of concern and debate among anthropologists, amid a growing debate over whether they should accept job advertisements from military and intelligence agencies. Many of them feel that such work actually or potentially violates their core principles. These are:

First, do not harm. Do no harm to those with whom one works or whom one studies.

Second, be honest and be transparent. Say what you're doing to all concerned. That means the people you're working with, the people you're studying, your colleagues, and the public.

Of course, what exactly the principle of "do no harm" means is unclear. It has never been clearly defined by anthropologists

On transparency, at least one HTT member, Marcus Griffin has gone about as far as one can go in that regard, writing a blog on his experience in Iraq.

In an October 31 statement, the executive board of the American Anthropological Association sharply criticized the program, saying it had the potential to place anthropologists "in violation" of their professional code of ethics. Embedding anthropologists with military units, their statement said, "poses a danger to both other anthropologists" and their ability to practice their profession.

US News and World Report found that the anthropologists' work has also resurrected the painful specter of widely reviled Cold War-era campaigns, drawing comparisons to the Phoenix Program - a still-controversial Vietnam War operation in which the US government is suspected of using the work of social scientists to help find and kill insurgents - and Project Camelot, in which anthropologists, concealing the military origin of their assignment, were sent to research the potential for internal war in Chile.

On November 4, after a year and a half of deliberation, a special ad hoc commission of the American Anthropological Association released a 62-page report that analyzes the potential ethical pitfalls that confront anthropologists who work with military, intelligence, and national-security agencies.

The report did not oppose anthropologists working for various military or other national security agencies. In fact, HTS was not part of the study's basic mandate. But they did identify the following issues as red flags:

  • The difficulty of voluntary consent in a war zone;
  • The difficultly of informed consent on behalf of the military, including full disclosure of risks and benefits to subjects, when the anthropologist may not know how the information will be used or who will consume it;
  • The collection of individual identifiers and other personal information, in a context where targeting is a very real possibility;
  • The explicit and open linkage of "anthropology" to "the military", and the potential risks that this affiliation might pose to colleagues doing fieldwork.

    The report noted that very few anthropologists are currently actively gathering data in the field on behalf of military and intelligence priorities. Those involved in the Human Terrain System represent an extremely small minority and do not conduct covert or clandestine work and are open with local communities about their affiliation. But this does not, at the same time, mean that their work does not raise ethical concerns about the status of professional anthropologists in their many capacities.

    On the issue of voluntary consent, the commission found that research subjects are unlikely to be able to differentiate between anthropologists working with military units and these units themselves, particularly if they are dressed in military fatigues and armed. The close working relationship of anthropologist and military personnel, and resulting likelihood of tacit or unintended coercion in the process of data collection, suggest a basic lack of "voluntary informed consent" on the part of potential research subjects. That some HTS anthropologists carry weapons or travel with a security convoy raises troubling questions about the voluntary nature of anyone interacting with these anthropologists.

    Supporters of HTS were not helped when it was reported that Human Terrain research gathers data that help inform what Assistant Undersecretary of Defense John Wilcox recently described as the military's "need to map human terrain across the kill chain".

    On November 30, members of the American Anthropological Association voted to ban certain kinds of secrecy in ethnographic work. In a motion passed by a nonbinding voice vote during the organization's annual business meeting, members decreed that "no reports should be provided to sponsors [of research] that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to the population studied".

    But because the motion was not presented to the membership at least 30 days in advance of the meeting, it will be referred to the association's executive board. The board, in turn, is likely to put the question to the association's membership via a mail ballot next year.

    Leaders of the Human Terrain System have said that the data collected by the program's social scientists should generally be kept open and unclassified. But in a recent interview the program’s deputy director, James K Greer, said, "When a brigade plans and executes its operations, that planning and execution is, from an operational-security standpoint, classified. And so your ability to talk about it, or write an article about it, is restricted in certain ways."

    Aside from ethical concerns there have also been problems with the implementation of HTS. Noah Schachtman, who runs Wired Magazine’s Danger Room blog, recently wrote on the subject. He reported that the army has set aside $41 million for Human Terrain Teams: 150 social scientists, software techs and experts on local culture will split up and be embedded with 26 different military units in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next year, 22 of which will be nine-person teams. The first six HTTs are already on the ground.

    HTTs will eventually do more than just advise. Soon each team will get a server, a half-dozen laptops, a satellite dish, and software for social-network analysis - to diagram how all of the important players in an area are connected.

    But Schachtman notes many questions remain about how it'll actually operate. Will the social scientists carry guns or wear uniforms? Will they be conducting fieldwork or just doing research at their desks? How will these people be trained? What kind of credentials do they need? And it is still unclear whether commanders listen to what they have to say.

    In an interview on National Public Radio, Schachtman said: "Originally, the idea was to have civilian and military teams where the civilians had at least PhDs and really knew Arabic or knew Iraqi culture well. But they've been having trouble recruiting enough people and so they'd have to drop their standards, and so now they are people with Masters in let's say religious studies or even political science, that don't necessarily have expertise in Iraq or Afghanistan per se going over there.

    The army had to delay the deployment of HTS teams bound for Iraq, in part because it had trouble finding willing PhD-level anthropologists.

    And some troops "in country" complain that the teams are simply hitting the ground too late in the war, offering basic advice that falls short of a revelation for soldiers on their second and third tours.

    According to articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has been closely following this issue, the HTS has been nearly paralyzed by organizational problems. Recruitment shortfalls have reportedly left all of the human-terrain teams in Iraq seriously understaffed

    The participants' training has been haphazard and often pointless, she adds, with too little attention given to the culture and history of Iraq and Afghanistan.

    One example is that of graduate student Zenia Helbig who was fired from the program in August after four months of training. A doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Virginia, Helbig was released from the program amid an investigation of her national loyalty, shortly before she was to deploy to Iraq. The investigation stemmed from a quip that she made over beers late one night in June. As she recalls, she said, "Okay, if we invade Iran, that's where I draw the line, hop the border, and switch sides."

    Helbig says that her firing was an extreme overreaction to conversational banter. She is fighting to expunge her security record and to clear her name.

    David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs.

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