Anthropologists on the Front Lines

The Pentagon’s new program to embed anthropologists with combat brigades raises many concerns

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

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A pilot program to embed anthropologists on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan has sparked major controversy in the anthropological community. The program, known as the Human Terrain System (HTS) project, reflects a much larger trend in the national security establishment, with the military increasingly hungry for cultural expertise to fight counterinsurgencies and sustain long, low-intensity conflicts. Anthropologists are struggling to come to grips with the ethics of research on the front lines.

The Human Terrain System project is a joint undertaking by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) and U.S. Army Training and Doctrine command (TRADOC) in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Headed by Col. Steve Fondacaro, HTS assigns five-person teams of social scientists and intelligence specialists to forward-deployed combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. These Human Terrain Teams (HTT) serve as cultural advisors to the brigade commander and his senior staff. HTTs in the field are supported by a team of U.S.-based social scientists. The FMOS serves as a central clearinghouse for cultural information and maintains a network of subject area experts in the Defense Department and academia.

The “human terrain” is defined as the social, ethnographic, cultural, economic and political characteristics of the people who live in the region occupied by the brigade, a force of 3,000 to 5,000 troops under the command of a colonel.

The first HTTs shipped out in the fall of 2006. There are currently six teams deployed, one in Afghanistan and five in Iraq. Eventually, HTS hopes to have teams in all 26 combat brigades. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently approved $40 million in additional funds for the program.

Proponents of the program claim that brigades with HTTs are engaging in “kinetic operations” (military force) significantly less often. Fondacaro says that when commanders are more aware of what’s going on culturally, they have more opportunities for non-violent solutions. Just being able to sit down and talk to a council of tribal elders in their own language is invaluable.

“When you have a fundamental knowledge of how tribes work, you can non-kinetically neutralize enemies using those relationships,” Fondacaro says. “If the tribes themselves identify a group that has been operating against coalition forces kinetically, we can work with them. The tribal authorities may decide that these guys are not worth keeping around, they’re not helping us.”

Fondacaro says he isn’t at liberty to talk about that data in detail, lest the enemy learn about successful programs and target them accordingly.

The HTTs use social science research methods to glean cultural understanding from open source materials and human sources. Marcus Griffin, the first anthropologist to serve on an HTT in Iraq, described his work in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education:

My team deals with a variety of projects. Using semi-structured interviews of Iraqi contractors and local governmental officials, we identify key figures in northwest Baghdad who can help rebuild essential services like electricity, trash removal, and the provision of clean water. We also conduct research into how poverty and bonds of social obligation interact in Iraqi society. That information may help staff officers in my brigade, as well as other commanders, to better understand why certain people are willing to assist insurgent forces. Reducing aid and comfort to those intent on destabilizing Iraq will decrease violence and limit the number of civilian casualties (and loss of life generally). Reducing bloodshed is a primary motive for my participation in HTS.

HTS also acts as a cultural broker to reduce miscommunication and help Iraqis and Americans work more effectively as partners. Most of our data is collected from interviews and oral-history narratives.

In early October, a major New York Times story propelled the Human Terrain System, and the work of participating anthropologists, into the spotlight. The article generated so much controversy that the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) decided to release a preliminary statement on what it described as “troubling and urgent ethical issues” raised by the HTS program.

Released on Oct. 31, the statement was drafted in the context of a much more extensive effort to analyze and respond to the growing demand for anthropological expertise in warfare and intelligence. AAA convened the ad hoc commission about two years ago, explains Monica Heller, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto who serves on the AAA Executive Board and the ad hoc commission on engagement. The inquiry got started because the association was receiving increasing number of requests for information from intelligence agencies, NGOs, and the military. At one point, the CIA even wanted to buy “help wanted” ads in AAA publications. The leadership decided that a systematic investigation was called for.

The Ad Hoc Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities will present its final report on Nov. 29 during the AAA’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Historically, the U.S. military has trained and equipped for big, conventional wars, in which cultural awareness takes a back seat to sheer military might and logistical prowess. However, the U.S. military’s most important missions today, and for the foreseeable future, are long-term, low-intensity conflicts. (Read: Occupations that are opposed by guerilla warfare.)

Occupying forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are up against guerilla fighters who are indistinguishable from the larger community. These adversaries don’t wear uniforms or follow conventional rules of engagement. So, U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan are confronting basic questions like: Who are these people? Who’s in charge around here? Who exactly is trying to kill us?

These details are invaluable to military commanders who seek to quell insurgencies while providing protection and stability to the non-combatant population. The emerging consensus is that superior military force alone isn’t enough, especially if the insurgents have the support of the general population.

The Counterinsurgency Field Manual was released in 2006 to great fanfare. The document, produced under the supervision of Gen. David Petraeus, stresses fine-grained cultural understanding as a key component of the official counterinsurgency doctrine for the Army and the Marine Corps.

Anthropologists are suddenly a hot commodity. Fondacaro says anthropology has a special role to play. “Anthropologists study the micro-processes that are taking place at the lowest view of how the population is seeing you,” he says. “That’s best view into the mind and feelings and beliefs and understandings of the population.”

Academic anthropologists agree that their insights into the mechanics of day-to-day life have wide practical application.

“Anthropology tends to understand everyday and the on the ground. It is concerned with theory–but it’s more about understanding and analyzing the common, the everyday,” says Alan Goodman, the president of the AAA and a professor of anthropology at Hampshire College.

Previous generations of military commanders understood how useful those insights could be. Anthropology has a long and sometimes ethically questionable history of collaborating with the military, explains David Price, an anthropology professor at St. Martin’s University, who has written extensively about the history of anthropological participation in various wars and occupations. Anthropologists have been described as the “handmaidens of colonialism” because they have been intimately involved in advising empires on how to relate to, and sometimes pacify occupied regions.

Ultimately, the controversy is about the proper role of the professional anthropological researcher. Many anthropologists believe that the embed situation is simply too fraught with potential ethical peril. The initial statement from the AAA executive on HTS outlined five major concerns: Anthropologists may not be able to be upfront about who they are and what they’re doing when they’re embedded–a key ethical principle of field research. Voluntary informed consent is a pillar of all ethical human subjects research, but many question whether that consent can be obtained form an anthropologist embedded with occupying forces. The statement also voices concern that fieldwork may be used to help commanders target people. Finally, the actions of high-profile embedded anthropologists may have a negative impact on the reputation of the anthropological profession around the world.

The Ethics Code of the AAA stresses that anthropologists have a primary ethical responsibility to the people they study. In other words, they are generally expected to put their subjects first, ahead of scientific discovery, or the wishes of their sponsors or clients. According to the Code, “Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities.”

“Our concern is that under conditions of being embedded in unit, the risks to the subjects are very high, regardless of what the individual anthropologist wants to do,” says Monica Heller.

Fondacaro stresses that the HTT members are never allowed to use force or engage in combat. However, he agrees that the information they supply could be used to target insurgents. HTT teams aren’t sent out with the explicit task of gathering information for targeted killings, but they are working for a combat brigade in a war zone.

Informed consent is a major stumbling block for anthropology in a war zone. Anthropologists are required to be upfront with their sources about who they are and what they’re doing. Researchers must explain how the information will be used, and what the costs and benefits of participation might be for the subject.

The anthropologists on Human Terrain Teams travel with uniformed, armed soldiers. Sometimes, the anthropologists themselves are armed and in uniform. The United States is an occupying power. Officially, people are under no obligation to speak to the HTT. However, the power imbalances between the population and the occupying power cannot be ignored.

“That kind of explanation wouldn’t pass muster in a university setting,” says Price, who is a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, a grassroots coalition that is urging anthropologists to sign a pledge of non-participation in counterinsurgency.

Unlike other publicly funded researchers, HTT anthropologists do not have to clear their research methods with any kind of internal review board. They are tasked with collecting whatever operationally relevant cultural information the brigade commander needs. It’s not a free-for-all, as the HTT are bound by the same rules that apply to any U.S. contractor on the battlefield. They operate in what the military calls a “non-permissive environment,” under the supervision of military commanders. Nevertheless, it’s a far cry from the strict standards that govern human subjects research in peacetime.

HTS is reluctant to set specific ground rules for research in advance because the program is still in an exploratory phase. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” says Fondacaro, “There’s no internal review board because this is all uncharted territory.”

It’s easy to envision circumstances in which HTTs might compromise the anthropological injunction to do no harm. While HTTs don’t participate in combat, they do offer direct support to combat brigades. The participating anthropologists also have no control over how their work might be used by the brigade commander. If anthropologists figure out who the local power brokers are, commanders can use that information to make a peaceful proposition, or to call in an air strike. Human terrain is analogous to geographical terrain. The same maps can be used to build a bridge or blow one up.

“Targeting and kinentic operations are something that must be done, part of the military,” says Fondacaro. He stresses that the goal of HTT is to move towards less violence, and less harm to innocent people when force is used.

“Accurately applied force can reduce the level of IEDs and suicide bombings and car bombings. A lot of people don’t believe that, but there’s plenty of evidence,” Fondacaro says.

HTT proponents often criticize anthropologists for oversimplifying a complex and often messy moral situation. They say social scientists are saving lives, reducing violence, and promoting the kind of long-term, stable solutions that will ultimately end the occupation.

“Life is not a smorgasboard,” Fondacaro says, “Their code says, ‘Do no harm.’ I say, ‘Proactively participate to promote good.’ ”

But even if local people participate of their own accord, HTS anthropologists are in no position to obtain informed consent. They themselves are not fully informed about who might use their data, or for what purpose. “If you’re reporting to a commander, you’re in a hierarchy that ensures that you can’t have input,” Heller says.

According to a paper by Jacob Kipp and colleagues, one of the main goals of HTS is to compile a massive, continuously updated database of geo-tagged cultural knowledge that can be shared with other parts of the military, unspecified U.S. government agencies, and others. The information will eventually be handed over to the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan to facilitate “economic growth,” according to the paper, which was published in the fall of 2006, just before the first HTTs shipped out.

Fondacaro emphasizes that the primary consumers of HTT information are the brigade commander and his senior staff, who seek cultural information to facilitate their day-to-day operations. Their briefings can influence anything from future operations to civil affairs to logistics. He also notes that HTS database will have secondary consumers in the U.S. government. He confirmed that the CIA or other intelligence agencies could access the database, but he doesn’t envision intelligence agencies as major consumers of HTT data.

“Any government organization that has an interest [will have access to the database],” Fondacaro says. “The DOD is the primary focus, but also State, the Transportation Command, any of the State Department organizations focused on provincial reconstruction. There’s all this concern about intelligence, but they are just one customers of many, many customers.”

But David Price says that the information collected by HTS could expose subjects to grave danger if it fell into the wrong hands. He notes, for example, the possibility that some future government could use the database to exact reprisals against its enemies.

Even if the U.S. military only uses ethnographic knowledge in the service of peace and mutual understanding, insurgents may not be so understanding. Price cautions that simply cooperating with anthropologists known to be allied with the U.S. military could be a life-threatening proposition for some people. Soldiers have to weigh the costs and benefits of engagement with the local population all the time, but civilian researchers are forbidden to knowingly endanger their subjects.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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