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Anthropologists on the Front Lines

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  • Lori Barkley
    http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3433/anthropologists_on_the_front_lines/ Anthropologists on the Front Lines By Lindsay Beyerstein In These Times Friday 30
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5, 2007
      Anthropologists on the Front Lines
      By Lindsay Beyerstein
      In These Times
      Friday 30 November 2007
      The Pentagon's new program to embed anthropologists with combat
      brigades raises many concerns.

      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. It's difficult to predict the potential
      impact of HTS on the subject population, at least in part because few
      details about their specific activities have been released. According
      to Price, this lack of transparency is the single greatest problem
      with the entire HTS system. His colleagues echoed his concerns. As
      long as anthropologists can be upfront with their sources, the
      public, and their colleagues about who they are and what they're
      doing, there's no problem, Heller says.

      The popular stereotype is that anthropologists study isolated
      cultures, but the reality is that anthropology is increasingly global
      in scope. The behavior of one anthropologist in Iraq or Afghanistan
      can have ramifications for fieldwork all over the world. What
      military anthropologists do can affect the image of anthropologists
      worldwide. The AAA is concerned that the perception of anthropology
      as a tool of military power could endanger anthropologist and sources
      worldwide. Alan Goodman says that many of their subjects already
      suspect U.S. anthropologists of being soldiers or spies. "Obviously,
      it makes my job more difficult. Individuals feel suspect about
      talking to you. Rapport between yourself and individuals reflects the
      belief that you come from U.S., power, U.S. global power," says
      Goodman, who does fieldwork in Mexico. Some of his informants have
      asked him point blank whether he works for the U.S. government or
      military. "There's a sense of 'What are you really after,'" Goodman
      says, "You're asking me questions about my food, but why?"

      David Price says it took a long time to reassure his subjects in
      Egypt that his interest in their irrigation methods was genuine, and
      not a front for some alternate U.S.-backed agenda. These concerns are
      not far-fetched, given the history of anthropology. During the
      Vietnam war, a program known as CORDS was used to map the social
      networks of North Vietnamese fighters. This information was
      subsequently used to carry out targeted assassinations under the
      auspices of the infamous Project Phoenix. Defense official Jacob Kipp
      has publicly called HTS the "CORDS of the 21st Century." HTS is of
      special concern to the AAA because anthropologists are embedded with
      units in war zones. The demands of operating on the front lines may
      conflict with the accepted ethical safeguards that would be expected
      of them if they were to perform anthropological research in any other
      setting. Standards of informed consent may conflict with operational
      security. The duty to do no harm may not fit with the needs of a
      military at war with some subset of the general population.
      Transparency and accountability may have to take a back seat to the
      demands of warfare. The AAA isn't asserting that all HTS
      anthropologists will violate ethical rules, but they are concerned
      that the risk is high.

      For the AAA, the issue is not whether anthropologists should work for
      the military, but rather the conditions under which all
      anthropologists should conduct their research. "That activity, if
      it's going to be called anthropology, needs to be done in the way
      that we understand ethical anthropological research to be done," says
      Heller. Ultimately, it seems that both sides agree on the basic
      facts, but differ on how to interpret them. Everyone agrees that the
      HTS program is likely to require its participants to depart from
      generally accepted anthropological ethics in a number of significant
      respects. Both sides agree that anthropology has significant
      potential to make the military more humane and effective. HTS argues
      that anthropologists need to set aside rigid professional codes in
      order to do good on the ground. But mindful of the history of their
      profession, anthropologists are dubious about whether the military
      can be counted on to use this information strictly for the
      high-minded goals envisioned by the architects of HTS.
      Lindsay Beyerstein is a National Political Reporter for In These
      Times.com, who also works as a national correspondent for Raw Story
      and as a metro reporter for Chelsea Now. Her work can also be read at
      her blog, Majikthise.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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