Wednesday, March 12, 2008

US army enlists anthropologists

US army enlists anthropologists
By Kambiz Fattahi
BBC Persian Service, Washington

The Pentagon is pulling out all the stops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The aim is to aid US soldiers' understanding of local cultures
It is sending "mine-resistant, ambush-protected" vehicles into the battlefield. It is also using cutting-edge biometric technologies to identify insurgents.

But that is not all. The US military has developed a new programme known as the Human Terrain System (HTS) to study social groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The HTS depends heavily on the co-operation of anthropologists, with their expertise in the study of human beings and their societies.

Steve Fondacaro, a retired special operations colonel overseeing the HTS, is keen to recruit cultural anthropologists.

"Cultural anthropologists are focused on understanding how societies make decisions and how attitudes are formed. They give us the best vision to see the problems through the eyes of the target population," he said.

But very few anthropologists in the US are willing to wear a uniform and receive the mandatory weapons training.

In fact, a group known as the Network of Concerned Anthropologists has already circulated a pledge of non-participation in the Pentagon's counter-insurgency efforts.

'Collective genius'

The Human Terrain System currently includes six teams embedded in military units at the brigade and division levels in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Each team is composed of at least one social scientist, usually an anthropologist, a language specialist, and retired army personnel or reservists from special operations, intelligence, and civil affairs backgrounds.

I feel the need to protect the safety, well-being and interests of those who shared with me their knowledge and histories

Anthropologist against the HTS

"You have social scientists to understand the deep complexity of the problems on the ground in the society and the military personnel who then take that information and help apply it to the military decision-making process," says Col Fondacaro.

"Together they bring collective genius to the problems," he adds.

The cost of this "collective genius" is about $400,000 (£200,000) annually for each civilian member of the team, including the soaring cost of kidnapping insurance.

As with many programmes, the Pentagon has partially outsourced the HTS, and defence contractor BAe Systems hires the social scientists.

'Weaponised anthropology'

Winning the trust of the indigenous populations "is at the heart of the struggle between coalition forces and the insurgents", BAe's job advertisement for field anthropologists emphasises.

The HTS teams say they are trying to give the human perspective

But it has not convinced many anthropologists in the US.

Last year, their largest professional organisation, the American Anthropological Association (AAA), called for an end to the Iraq war.

Since then, AAA has set up a national commission to review the involvement of anthropologists in national security work.

Many anthropologists in the US consider it unethical to work with the HTS teams. They are worried about the potential risks to the human subjects of their studies.

"I feel the need to protect the safety, well-being and interests of those who shared with me their knowledge and histories. My ultimate responsibility is to protect them," says a social anthropologist specialising in the Middle East.

A vocal critic, Roberto Gonzalez, professor of anthropology at San Jose State University, accuses the Pentagon of trying to, as he puts it, "weaponise" anthropology.

He believes that HTS units are likely to operate "as full-blown counterinsurgency teams akin to what the British employed in the colonies over a half-century ago".


But Col Fondacaro dismisses such criticism, insisting that the programme is misunderstood.

"This is different from anything we have faced before. It is a new doctrine, new organisation, new task, and new purpose. People are uncomfortable with new things," he says.

Col Fondacaro believes that since the Vietnam War, many social scientists in the US have been alienated from government service.

He acknowledges that recruiting a qualified social scientist is a significant challenge.

"There is a very brave and very courageous group of young anthropologists helping. They are taking significant risks professionally and physically," he says.

One of these is Dr Marcus B Griffin, professor of anthropology and sociology at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, who blogs actively from Iraq.

"I am working out regularly. I cut my hair in a high and tight style and look like a drill sergeant... I shot very well with the M9 and M4 last week at the range," writes Dr Griffin.

Dr Griffin is not a Middle East Expert. He says on his blog that he specialises in human populations, the environment, and food.

For Dr Montgomery McFate, a main architect of the HTS, anthropologists' "unique set of skills, methodologies and perspectives" are key.

"If the lead social scientist in the team does not have a background in the Middle East, other members must have a strong background in the region to make up for that person. It is a team effort," says Dr McFate, a cultural anthropologist.

She rejects the criticism that she is trying to "militarise" anthropology but rather "anthropologise" the Pentagon.

Rapid expansion

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has authorised $40m (£20m) to expand the Human Terrain System.

The US Central Command (Centcom) is looking to increase the programme's number of teams in Iraq and Afghanistan from six to 28.

According to Col Fondacaro, the new teams will be larger; they will have nine members, including two social scientists.

He also says that officials at the new US Africa Command (Africom) and the US Pacific Command (Pacom) have also indicated interest in the Human Terrain teams.

The programme, which was being tested on a small scale, is now set to be expanded very quickly despite the strong objections of many anthropologists.

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