Should Anthropologists Help Contain the Taliban?

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Mauricio Lima / AFP / Getty Images

An Afghan imam listens to an interpreter while he receives 20,000 Afghanis (about $420) for damages at his mosque and residence that were caused during the U.S. military offensive against the Taliban, in Marjah, Afghanistan, on April 12, 2010

Earlier this month, Patrick Carnahan was out on a foot patrol with a squad of Marines, slogging in 110-degree heat from one adobe compound to the next trying to engage local residents. He was the only American without a weapon. As an embedded social scientist, his job is to help commanders get a better grasp of Afghanistan's dizzying local social and cultural dynamics so they can effectively lure people away from the Taliban.

Sometimes, however, the line between civilian and military is blurred. During one stop, a man swore that his neighbor was working with the insurgents. Although the accusation could have potentially serious consequences for the person in question, Carnahan didn't hesitate to pass the information to company officers. "If we get something that's a threat to a unit, then we turn it over to them," he says. "One way or another, you're involved."

This kind of scenario lies at the crux of a running controversy over the Human Terrain System, a U.S. Army–funded program that was launched in Iraq and expanded in Afghanistan that pairs social scientists with war fighters. Its backers contend that civilian specialists — particularly anthropologists — with in-depth field experience are best suited to "map" Afghanistan's complex tribal structures and fault lines. In turn, they can identify the key power brokers and projects needed to build public support, marginalizing the Taliban and advancing the Pentagon's counterinsurgency strategy.

The program's outspoken critics from the academic community aren't buying that argument. They have long said that human-terrain teams are just another arm of military intelligence that violate the most basic ethics of their discipline: first do no harm. A December report by the American Anthropological Association concluded that because teams work with combat units and must conform to the goals of a military mission, their work "can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology."

The job has a $200,000-plus annual salary (and the appeal, for some, of a war-zone adrenaline bump), but the prospect of getting blacklisted in U.S. academia has sapped the pool of seasoned anthropologists. Today recruits are more and more likely to have a degree in political science, history or psychology. Some only have a bachelor's degree. And though they might insist that they joined to help both Afghan and American lives, many of them make no apologies for their patriotic streak. "There's another school of thought that says when your country is at war ... you support your armed forces in the vested interest of the country," says Brian Ericksen, a burly former Army ranger with a political science degree who works with Marines in insurgency-wracked Helmand province. "For me, the politically motivated criticism just isn't valid."

It's the kind of hard-boiled take one might expect from an ex-soldier who has spent the past several years living dangerously in Iraq and Afghanistan. But setting the ethical debate aside, the question persists: How much of an asset can trained anthropologists be in a place as perplexing as Marjah, where intertribal tensions have been exacerbated over the years by the drug trade and zero-sum politics?

There is also the communication gap; only a select few in the program have a working knowledge of Dari, a form of Persian that is prevalent in large parts of Afghanistan, or of Pashto, the language spoken in the communities where Taliban influence is strongest. Even with a translator, the threat of violence often restricts the amount of time human-terrain teams have with people living in the most critical areas. (So far, three have died in the field.) According to David Price, a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, it takes at least a year of hands-on fieldwork for trained anthropologists to get their bearings. "Given [the Human Terrain System's] difficulty in hiring culturally competent social scientists," he says, "seven minutes isn't even enough time for an ethnographer to get properly confused."

Lieut. Colonel Brian Christmas, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, disagrees. A self-described "naysayer" at first, he recalls feeling overwhelmed at a shura gathering with querulous tribal elders following the February offensive to clear the Taliban out of Marjah. The sight of hundreds of men in distinct tribal dress was hard to wrap his head around, he says. Then, a human-terrain team member assigned to his battalion handed Christmas a cheat sheet minutes before the shura began. It distilled the chief concerns of the local big men, their backgrounds and "other atmospherics" that gave him an edge. "[Human-terrain teams] take all the info that's out there, diagnose it and come out with a useful product," he says, enabling battle-hardened Marines to focus more on enforcing security. He nonetheless concedes that other commanders he knows have not had as positive an experience, so it's a matter of "getting the right team."

Lawmakers, in a sense, reflect the overall divide over the program. Several years after it was created, the Human Terrain System's operating budget must still be approved and renewed by Congress each year. Concerns ripple down to the military as well. Two weeks ago, Steve Fondacaro, the retired colonel who managed and co-founded the program, was reportedly dismissed for reasons that are not yet clear. Still, the human-terrain budget has swollen from $40 million in 2007 to nearly $150 million last year, with more social scientists making their way to Afghanistan's hot spots as talk of a "civilian surge" gains traction. Indeed, one development bodes well for the future of the program: General David Petraeus, the new commander of international forces in Afghanistan, is a staunch supporter.

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.