When Scholars Join the Slaughter in Iraq and Afghanistan

Dahr Jamail

News Analysis
By Dahr Jamail

A core tenet of the Obama administration’s plans for "victory" in Iraq and Afghanistan is an increased reliance on counterinsurgency.

As previously reported on this web site, the US military has sent shock troops – anthropologists, sociologists and social psychologists – with their own troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, who also donned helmets and flak jackets. By the end of 2007, American scholars in these fields were embedding with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a Pentagon program called Human Terrain System (HTS), which evolved shortly thereafter into a $40 million program that embedded four or five person groups of scholars in the aforementioned fields in all 26 US combat brigades that were busily occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. The program is currently comprised of approximately 400 employees, and is actively seeking new recruits.

Anthropology, in particular, has been referred to throughout history as the "handmaiden of colonialism," thus putting anthropologists, at least those with a moral conscience, on guard against anything that smells like exploitation or oppression of their subjects. Roberto Gonzalez, an associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University and a leading member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, told Time magazine that the militarization of anthropology will cause the field to become "just another weapon … not a tool for building bridges between peoples." Anthropology has core professional ethics standards that require voluntary, informed consent from subjects, and that anthropologists do no harm. How likely do you think these will be adhered to by the flack-jacket-wearing, gun-toting, embedded anthropologists working directly with regimental combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan?"

The two highest ethical principles of anthropology are protection of the interests of studied populations and their safety. All anthropological studies consequently are premised on the consent of the subject society. Clearly, the HTS anthropologists have thrown these ethical guidelines out the window. They are to anthropology what state stenographers like Judith Miller and John Burns are to journalism.

Truthout consulted David Price, author of "Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War" and a contributor to the "Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual," a work of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, of which he is a member.

According to Price, "HTS presents real ethical problems for anthropologists, because the demands of the military in situations of occupation put anthropologists in positions undermining their fundamental ethical loyalties to those they study. Moreover, it presents political problems that link anthropology to a disciplinary past where anthropologists were complicit in assisting in colonial conquests. Those selling HTS to the military have misrepresented what culture is and have downplayed the difficulties of using culture to bring about change, much less conquest. There is a certain dishonesty in pretending that anthropologists possess some sort of magic beans of culture, and that if only occupiers had better cultural knowledge, or made the right pay-offs, then occupied people would fall in line and stop resisting foreign invaders. Culture is being presented as if it were a variable in a linear equation, and if only HTS teams could collect the right data variables and present troops with the right information conquest could be entered in the equation. Life and culture doesn’t work that way; occupied people know they are occupied, and while cultural knowledge can ease an occupation, historically it has almost never led to conquest – but even if it could, anthropology would irreparably damage itself if it became nothing more than a tool of occupations and conquest."

The handbook for the HTS offers the human terrain "toolkit" for the US military to understand subjects living in militarily occupied areas. It stated:

"HTTs will use the Map-HT Toolkit of developmental hardware and software to capture, consolidate, tag, and ingest human terrain data. HTTs use this human terrain information gathered to assist commanders in understanding the operational relevance of the information as it applies to the unit’s planning processes. The expectation is that the resulting courses of actions developed by the staff and selected by the commander will consistently be more culturally harmonized with the local population, which in Counter-Insurgency Operations should lead to greater success. It is the trust of the indigenous population that is at the heart of the struggle between coalition forces and the insurgents." (Emphasis added.)

The mission of the human terrain social scientists gains legitimacy and credibility when expressed in terms of engineering the "trust of the indigenous population."

The military’s benign description specifies that HTS will "improve the military’s ability to understand the highly complex local social-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed." Proponents of the program go as far as to claim that its goal is to help the military save lives.

"Human Terrain Teams (HTT) are special units that imbed with battalions in Afghanistan and are trained to promote counterinsurgency practices," Price explained to Truthout, "Each Human Terrain Teams has a team leader who is usually retired military personnel, frequently from Special Forces, and each team has a social scientist. Though these social scientists are often referred to as ‘anthropologists’ in the press, the program has had great difficulty hiring many anthropologists to work on the program – especially those with relevant linguistic or cultural experience. These Human Terrain Teams are envisioned as providing cultural information to the occupying troops, and to also conduct research on populations under military control – though the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) recent report found that in many instances the tasks undertaken by HTS blur distinctions between research and intelligence work. But the basic tasks and methods of HTT violate basic ethical tenants of anthropological field research as the safety of research participants cannot be assured, nor can voluntary informed consent; and questions remain about what becomes of HTT data gathered in the field."

In December, the AAA held annual meetings in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the association made public a significant report titled the "AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC)," co-authored by David Price, which dealt directly with the ethical problems of the HTS.

Key findings in the executive summary of the report state:

"1. HTS and similar programs are moving to become a greater fixture within the U.S. military. Given still outstanding questions about HTS, such developments should be a source of concern for the AAA but also for any social science organization or federal agency that expects its members or its employees to adhere to established disciplinary and federal standards for the treatment of human subjects.

"2. The current arrangement of HTS includes potentially irreconcilable goals which, in turn, lead to irreducible tensions with respect to the program’s basic identity. These include HTS at once: fulfilling a research function, as a data source, as a source of intelligence, and as performing a tactical function in counterinsurgency warfare. Given this confusion, any anthropologist considering employment with HTS will have difficulty determining whether or not s/he will be able to follow the disciplinary Code of Ethics."


"In summary, while we stress that constructive engagement between anthropology and the military is possible, CEAUSSIC suggests that the AAA emphasize the incompatibility of HTS with disciplinary ethics and practice for job seekers and that it further recognize the problem of allowing HTS to define the meaning of ‘anthropology’ within DoD."

While there has been some recent coverage of the HTS, Price told Truthout, "I haven’t seen anything written that really gets to how these HTS teams fit into Obama’s plans for increased counterinsurgency domination in Afghanistan."

The HTS continues to be condemned by the AAA, and in the wake of the filing of the CEAUSSIC, Price said, "our committee’s evaluation of the program is purely negative and among our conclusion we determined that: ‘When ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment – all characteristic factors of the HTS concept and its application – it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology.’"

In a recent article on the topic, that links the HTS with the increasing use of drones and the US military expansion of AFRICOM, Price wrote, "Today, in Iraq and Afghanistan, anthropologists are being told that they’re needed to make bad situations better. But no matter how anthropological contributions ease and make gentle this conquest and occupation, it will not change the larger neocolonial nature of the larger mission; and most anthropologists are troubled to see their discipline embrace such a politically corrupt cause."

While the vast majority of mainstream media coverage of the HTS has been and remains favorable, Time magazine wrote a critical piece of the HTS after the CEAUSSIC was filed.

The House Armed Services Committee is currently undertaking a review of the HTS by directing the secretary of defense to undertake an assessment of HTS, and another HTS team member was wounded in Afghanistan. Given the Obama administration’s escalation of counterinsurgent warfare and "soft power" as the US becomes further entrenched in Afghanistan, it is very likely more money will be allocated to HTS, despite any independent study indicating that HTS operates in any way similar to how it is promoted in the media.

Nevertheless, the use of HTS continues unabated in Afghanistan, and is going to be expanded in the future in Africa, both where, according to Price, the future of the program rests.

"The military seems increasingly interested in adapting some sort of Human Terrain like program for use in AFRICOM, and given AFRICOM’s merging of military personnel and projects with counterinsurgent tactics and goals, it stands to reason that as AFRICOM takes on an increasing role in exploiting civil unrest in Africa as a way to leverage an increasing American military presence in resource rich Africa, something like HTS will be a part of these plans," Price told Truthout, "Given all the bad publicity HTS has been getting, I wouldn’t be surprised if they changed the name but used a similar program."

Another problem with the problems is corruption. Currently, HTS training is geared towards Afghanistan, not Iraq, and is being conducted by the contracting firm CLI Solutions. The firm is funding training schools in Leavenworth, Omaha, and elsewhere, in addition to having found a way to rip off taxpayers and continue paying HTS using the "GG" scale (different than GS, GG provides a loophole in the GS systems that allows the government to sometimes hire "experts" at rates off the prevailing scale), which has elevated the pay scale back up to the levels it did when BAE Systems, a British military contractor, the world’s second largest, ran the program.

Of this trick, Price revealed to Truthout that it is "a real boondoggle for the American taxpayers" and added, "Someone leaked the pay-scale to me and it shows scenarios where a GG-15, working 60 hours a week in the field in Afghanistan for 12 months would make over $230k per year, so presto change, we’re back to the gravy train money days of BAE. That they are allowed to use the GG scale is scandalous: GG needs to exist in concept (so that for example when some expensive piece of government equipment needs to be worked on by experts, we can find a way to hire them) but use of GG for this end seems a clear abuse of what it was created for. So far no one has written anything on this in the press."

When asked why US taxpayers should be concerned about this payment scheme, Price told Truthout, "In terms of Pentagon spending and waste, $250,000,000 dollars spent on Human Terrain each year is small potatoes, but the program can’t work as advertised. Taxpayers should be concerned that their president is committing us to a counterinsurgency-based war that will likely be impossible to successfully implement, and if the failed Human Terrain program is one of the star programs of US counterinsurgency efforts, we’re in a lot of trouble."

Price refers to the AAA report as "devastating" with regard to the HTS, President Obama’s policy of a huge escalation of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan as "doomed" and said the only way Obama’s handling of the HTS has differed from Bush’s is to have brought about "increases in HTS funding."

Stacey Fritz is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who studies cold war militarization of the Arctic and other aspects of modern American militarism, including its impacts on academia. She is also a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, an independent ad-hoc group that seeks to promote an ethical anthropology and that believes that anthropologists should refrain from directly assisting the US military in combat. On November 18, Fritz debated Kathleen Reedy, an employee in the HTS, assigned to the 1/25th Stryker Brigade out of Fort Wainwright, Fairbanks.

"She seemed to be trying to make herself believe the HTS lines, but they are so unbelievable that I think that it is very, very difficult to debate/defend that perspective, especially since I had plenty of quotes from military leaders saying very candidly that the HTTs do HUMINT [Human Intelligence gathering] that the military uses to figure out who the bad guys are and which good guys can be co-opted."

Fitz explained that Reedy opted not to debate the central HTS issues, but rather attempted to persuade the audience that she, as an anthropologist, had control over her information, and that she maintained "strong ethical guidelines concerning what she would pass on to them."

Fritz believes the entire edifice of ethics that anthropologists who participate in the HTS believe it is flawed.

"One of the main questions the NCA asks concerns whether the good intentions of anthropologists working in HTTs are being met – this is important -the anthropologists really are or come off as seeming well intentioned, but I don’t think that it is believable that their actions could be positive even on the surface since the entire discussion presupposes that the military means the population well, and that there is such thing as a non-violent counterinsurgency war," Fitz told Truthout, "Of course, a huge portion of individuals in the military mean well and want the best for the Iraqis, which is great, but the policy under which they are acting makes that impossible. If they were doing what the Iraqis wanted, they would leave."

Price feels it is imperative for individuals to watch how the Obama administration uses and augments the HTS, because the mainstream media has largely been a unwilling to carry out much overdue critical reportage of the program.

"Since its conception HTS has been given an uncritical free ride in the press," Price explained, "There have been glossy profiles on its designers and supporters in places like the Wall Street Journal, Elle, and the New Yorker. I’ve seen drafts of feature stories on HTS that had critical counter-points removed by editors because they ‘complicated the narrative,’ and academics working on HTS have not had to answer the mounting questions about fundamental ethical, financial, and design problems that haunt the program – in some cases skipping out on academic conferences where they had agreed to engage with me and others. The mainstream media has cut HTS a lot of slack as it uncritically portrays the program as a way to engage in less lethal conquest; and given the severity of the findings of this recent American Anthropological Association report – which the New York Times did cover (in a small story in the Arts Section) – I have a hard time imagining a report from the American Medical Association or the Association of Applied Biologists declaring a key governmental program to be operating outside the most basic ethical and practical boundaries of the disciplines of medicine or biology, and receiving such little notice."

Fritz explained why this likely occurs. "I think the most important thing for the public to understand is the bigger picture of U.S. counterinsurgency wars. Counterinsurgency wars have always been fought on two fronts – one against the insurgents and the other, a propaganda war against a less than supportive public at home. This kind of tactic particularly appeals to liberals who are opposed to the war and grasp at any information that lets them feel better about it. It’s very seductive – I think the worse people feel the more desperate they are to just believe that something like HTS is making a bloody illegal occupation better."

Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of "The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan," (Haymarket Books, 2009), and "Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq," (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for nine months as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last five years.