Culture wars

The Army's controversial anthropology program
By PETER PIATETSKY  |  March 16, 2009

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DEADLY DUTY: Paula Loyd (left) and Michael Bhatia — two anthropologists with Massachusetts roots — have been killed serving in the Army’s Human Terrain Teams program.

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On November 4, 2008, American anthropologist Paula Loyd was in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, discussing living costs with a local man named Abdul Salam, when suddenly he doused her with fuel from a jug he was carrying and set her on fire. The Wellesley graduate, who succumbed to her injuries on January 7, was neither a civilian nor a soldier, but a member of one of the US Army's controversial Human Terrain Teams (HTT).

HTTs — which are currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and are being planned for the Pentagon's African Command — are military units that embed anthropologists into war zones to collect intelligence, ostensibly to smooth the military's relations with the locals. While the Army's military objective is to take out enemies with bombs and bullets, HTTs are tasked with helping soldiers bridge cultural divides, and differentiate friend from foe, thus lowering American casualties.

The program is seemingly well intentioned, but critics have called it too small, disorganized, ill-prepared, and, most disturbingly, unethical. The HTT program has suffered withering criticism from many anthropologists, with the American Anthropological Association blasting the program as a "violation" of ethics and an "unacceptable application of anthropological expertise."

Things have gotten nasty, with each side becoming entrenched in its position — the military is rumored to have a "blacklist" of anthropologists hostile to the HTT program, while anthropologists have accused the military of spying on them.

No matter the criticisms, Loyd's murder is only one of several disasters that have plagued the program. Two other HTT anthropologists have been killed, including Michael Bhatia, a Medway, Massachusetts, native. An Iraqi HTT anthropologist is currently facingtrial in the US on charges of having spied for Saddam Hussein. An American was kicked out of the HTT program for joking that, if the US ever invaded Iran, she would "switch sides."

And then there's Don Ayala, an American contractor and former bodyguard of the Afghan president, who was a member of Loyd's HTT. After Salam set Loyd on fire, he ran toward Ayala, who knocked him down, pinned him to the ground, and flexicuffed him. Nearly 10 minutes later, when Ayala got word of the extent of Loyd's injuries, he shot Salam in the head, in full view of several US soldiers. In February, Ayala pleaded guilty to manslaughter for shooting Salam.

There have been staffing problems, as well. The program currently consists of only 19 teams in Iraq and six in Afghanistan, with just two trained anthropologists per team. And with 23,220 American soldiers in Afghanistan, but only six Human Terrain Teams, that amounts to one anthropologist for every 1935 American soldiers.

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