Culture wars

By PETER PIATETSKY  |  March 16, 2009

Lethal targeting
Both a recently leaked HTT manual and the program's founders claim that its members engage in "No Lethal Effects Targeting," but it would seem the US military adheres to that guideline in everything but practice. No restrictions are in place on the nature of the data gathered by HTT anthropologists and, once collected, the information is shared with soldiers, who are allowed to exercise "lethal targeting." So if an Afghan village leader confesses to an HTT operative that he sympathizes with the insurgents, the social scientist's fieldwork could end up justifying a midnight raid.

The HTT mission states that "the use of social science is necessary to and legitimate in military operations." Many anthropologists fear that such an attitude could lead to targeted killings, directed by data gathered by HTTs. Such fears are not assuaged by statements like the one made by Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense John Wilcox, when he bluntly explained at a February 2007 "Precision Strike Winter Roundtable" meeting in Arlington, Virginia, that there is a "Need to 'map the human terrain' across the kill chain," which in turn "enables the entire kill chain." Translated into layman's terms, that means that HTT teams are needed to help US commanders better understand who their enemies are — and, thus, who to kill.

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BAIT AND SWITCH? Official HTT policy cites “No Lethal Effects Targeting,” but critics wonder if information collected through the program is being used to target killings.

Questionable success
So far, the HTT has generated plenty of controversy and press, but not a lot of concrete results for the military. Proponents throw around sunny statistics, such as that, in one Afghani province, HTTs helped reduce violence by 60 to 70 percent. But when David Price, an anthropology professor at St. Martin's University in Lacey, Washington, and a vocal critic of the program, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to substantiate that claim, he discovered that there was no study or official report to support those figures.

When actual reports are available, their quality is often questionable, at best. Thomas Barfield, professor of anthropology at Boston University and president of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, dismisses military-produced evidence, noting, "[Reports] that I have seen have not been particularly impressive — I'd fail some of these people if they submitted these reports as term papers."

Barfield cites one report, which claimed that residents of the Afghan province of Nuristan were all descendants of a certain "Nuristani" — the equivalent of declaring that everyone in Los Angeles is related to a certain Mr. Angel.

"Right now," says Barfield, "the teams in Afghanistan have no experience with Afghanistan — they [the military] have a misconception that, if you train someone in anthropology, you can plop them down anywhere and put them to work." In a country such as Afghanistan, with two official languages and many local dialects, two major sects of Islam, dozens of tribes, and more than four main ethnic groups, anthropological expertise will get you only so far — it's Afghanistan expertise that is needed.

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