How to Win Wars and Influence Afghans

In short, we don’t have to be stupid or ineffective to fail — just misguided in our approach.
— ISAF Commander’s Counterinsurgency Guidance

Assuming that something was learned, a lesson that the US Army took away from a disaster known as Vietnam War was that it does you no good to consider a war as an affair between geopolitical agents that is aimed at establishing a military control over a certain territory while ignoring people who happen to live there. Of course, for the dominant military power that the US is, it is not particularly difficult to establish such control and it this was a board game they could henceforth declare victory and retreat — something that was in fact done in the first Gulf War. However, if this is not an option, the question becomes that of how to maintain that control by something slightly more subtle and perhaps less expensive than a constant state of war.

Enter HTS — Human Terrain System — that was hailed as a new and humane way of conducting war. Only that, just as an old adage about the Holy Roman Empire goes, HTS was nether particularly new (being based on the same tenets as US Army’s employment of anthropologists — notably Ruth Benedict — in their quest to understand Japanese after the WW2) nor necessarily humane (as was evidenced by Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo).

Last week there was a statement issued by the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee (HASC) that apparently didn’t catch much attention outside of a small circle of anthropology blogs. HASC announced limiting the funding of HTS until the US Army can submit a formal review that addresses “certain concerns.” Here is the relevant paragraph in full:

While the Committee remains supportive of the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) to leverage social science expertise to support operational commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is increasingly concerned that the Army has not paid sufficient attention to addressing certain concerns. The Committee encourages the Department to continue to develop a broad range of opportunities that leverage the important contributions that can be offered by social science expertise to support key missions such as irregular warfare, counterinsurgency, and stability and reconstruction operations. The bill limits the obligation of funding for HTS until the Army submits a required assessment of the program, provides revalidation of all existing operations requirements, and certifies Department-level guidelines for the use of social scientists.

In the first glance this may not look like much, but in fact it is a major change of tone from the former unqualified support. Of course, it is not spelt out what exactly are those “certain concerns”, but if one is at all familiar with the controversy that has been raging around HTS in academia it is not difficult to make some educated guesses.

The involvement of social scientists in the US war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq has taken place on several different levels, from providing input to drafting general guidelines to being embedded into actual tactical units operating deep in the hostile territory. I took a brief look at the infamous counter-insurgency manual that is one of the resulting documents, available online. While I guess that most of the stuff in there must indeed be immensely useful, it just bewilders me that this is something that needs to be pointed out at the first place. For instance, consider the following didactic anecdote from the first page of the manual:

An ISAF patrol was traveling through a city at a high rate of speed, driving down the center to force traffic off the road. Several pedestrians and other vehicles were pushed out of the way. A vehicle approached from the side into the traffic circle. The gunner fired a pen flare at it, which entered the vehicle and caught the interior on fire. As the ISAF patrol sped away, Afghans crowded around the car. How many insurgents did the patrol make that day?

I mean, do people really need to be told that speeding around in towns with guns blazing and shooting at your fellow drivers with pen flares is not conducive to making new friends, even in Afghanistan? And do you really need an anthropologist to teach you this piece of culturally sensitive wisdom?

There are other instances of unintended hilarity in the document, such as suggestions like “Think before you act” or “Improve daily”. But anyway, perhaps it is indeed a big step forward for the US military forces to consider thinking before launching a rocket at civilian compound — and if so then this is of course only commendable that this step was finally suggested to be taken. However, it is not the anthropologists’ involvement in drafting the COMSAF COIN manual that has caused so much worry in the academic circles, rather than their presence in the “field” — and that’s where the things get a lot more thorny.

On one hand it is the fact that this line of work is unavoidably dangerous. I read an interview recently with a former participant of an HTS program who recollected how they (i.e. involved social scientists) were advised to limit their interactions with local people to less than 7 minutes, after which the likelihood of sniper fire increases substantial. Seven minutes, as the HTS veteran scientist dryly observed, is not enough for an anthropologist even to get properly confused. So it really is a hack job, no way around it.

On the other hand — and this is now the real heart of the issue — it is widely felt that siding with the military in a conflict like this grossly violates the principle of trust and causing no harm to your informants. Unfortunately, things are not quite as simple as that. The proponents of the HTS have maintained that the involvement of social scientists helps to avoid the use of excessive force and thus avoids unnecessary civilian casualties — and for better or worse, they probably do have a point. However, the way to solve this particular issue should not be to bring in anthropologists as a military task force rather than truly educate the military personnel (and perhaps people in general) about the benefits of considering other people as… well, people, and not simply insurgents, terrorists, fanatics, or fundamentalists. This way it might be that one day we don’t need to publish official guidelines that urge soldiers to “think before they shoot” or bring scientists to a battlefield so that there would be someone who could actually listen, not shoot, people. This kind of HTS I would certainly support.

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