Scholar Soldiers in Afghanistan Are on Dangerous Terrain
Using social scientists in military human terrain teams blurs the lines between independent academia and partisan militarism
David Cameron says Afghanistan is his number one priority. The doubling of operational allowance and the conveyance of messages from the England team may win the prime minister the hearts and minds of our troops, but the reality is that little has changed in the larger strategic picture.
More important was Cameron's extra investment in anti-IED measures, as well as bolstering the Afghan security forces. Such decisions are symptomatic of the view, now widespread amongst the Nato allies, that – as the US defence secretary Robert Gates stated – the public will not stand this stalemate for much longer. Indeed, although the US is still increasing troop numbers into the country there is much talk of exit strategies as Washington is conscious that June is the 104th month of the war, making it arguably the longest in US history.
This week also saw the news that Foreign Office staff inadvertently planned an Afghan picnic three miles from the frontline – an event that won't reassure the public to the intelligence of our civilian staff. The competency and capability of our civilian war effort has been put into a sharp focus by Barack Obama's decision to have a "smart surge" into Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal is clear that the military component is only part of the solution and that a key ingredient to the success of the new counterinsurgency strategy is the use of civilian, not military, power.
One of the US military's experiments with harnessing civilian power has been the creation of human terrain teams (HTT). This embedding of social scientists into military brigades to provide cultural understanding and intelligence has received little coverage in the UK while in the US it is seen as one of the most controversial aspects of the war.
The logic of the emergence of HTT is a simple one. The now defunct "war on terror" found itself fighting among civilian populations with ill-defined frontlines. If the cold war was the war of physicians, some argued that post-9/11 manifestation of a cultural clash of civilisations put social scientists at the heart of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Indeed, following the failure of blunt military operations to bring stability to Iraq, typified by "shock and awe" and the attacks on Fallujah (destroyed to save it), the bloody Iraqi civil war forced the US military to turn to the academic pragmatism of General David Petraeus and his disciples to formulate an exit strategy.
This came in the form of the new counterinsurgency manual (Coin) that in Petraeus's words filled a "doctrinal gap". Suddenly soldiers and marines were "expected to be nation builders as well as warriors". The problem emerged that switching a force of what the former US assistant secretary of defence, Bing West, calls "professional killers" into armed diplomats takes some doing.
Crucially, as is shown in the documentary Human Terrain, the military found that encouraging the required empathy required to win over a population would significantly interfere in a soldier's ability to be first of all a decisive killer. Clouding the black and white of hair-trigger training with the grey subtitles of "what if?".
The military's response to this was initially to attempt to provide a training arena that would make a culturally sensitive soldier a matter of taught reflex. The sprawling mock Iraqi towns spread across US deserts and staffed with Iraqi actors, allowed pre-departure soldiers to be graded on how they handled checkpoint control and the tricky task of searching mosques. The military also designed a bizarre version of the Sims, which would see them interact with virtual Iraqis and watch their relationship get immediately stronger or weaker.
The US military sees the importance of cultural understanding as a weapon, but they are not 100% that soldiers are the ones to wield it. Hence the rebirth of what was a controversial programme used during the Vietnam war known as the civil operations and revolutionary development support (Cords), which is referred to in the new Coin manual. Cords was linked to the Phoenix targeted assassination programme, which was estimated to have killed some 26,000 suspected Viet Cong.
The Bush administration in 2007 initially put $40m (£27m) into recruiting anthropologists and social science graduates into the newly Coin-focused military to map the complex human terrain in which they operate. The most immediate reaction was within academia itself, with universities concerned as to the ethics of the recruitment of often incredibly well paid "scholar soldiers".
Those academics that have joined the programme defended it, arguing that no intelligence collected was used to direct lethal operations. Yet the Coin manual itself emphasises the "amount of sociocultural information that must be gathered and understood".
It is this dangerous blurring between independent academia and partisan militarism that is at the crux of understanding the human terrain system. With Cameron looking to restore the military covenant while the army supposedly look to mirror the programme, they should heed the warning of the anthropology professor, Hugh Gusterson, who stated that while the human terrain system is "often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world … it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties".
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2010