Anthropologist join war against Taliban

NY Times:

In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian anthropologist named Tracy.

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team’s ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations — in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe — has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division unit working with the anthropologists here, said that the unit’s combat operations had been reduced by 60 percent since the scientists arrived in February, and that the soldiers were now able to focus more on improving security, health care and education for the population.

“We’re looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist’s perspective,” he said. “We’re not focused on the enemy. We’re focused on bringing governance down to the people.”

In September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates authorized a $40 million expansion of the program, which will assign teams of anthropologists and social scientists to each of the 26 American combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since early September, five new teams have been deployed in the Baghdad area, bringing the total to six.

Yet criticism is emerging in academia. Citing the past misuse of social sciences in counterinsurgency campaigns, including in Vietnam and Latin America, some denounce the program as “mercenary anthropology” that exploits social science for political gain. Opponents fear that, whatever their intention, the scholars who work with the military could inadvertently cause all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence gatherers for the American military.

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University, and 10 other anthropologists are circulating an online pledge calling for anthropologists to boycott the teams, particularly in Iraq.

It is not particularly surprising that those who want to lose the war would do something to make our efforts less effective. Anthropologist bring an understanding of the tribal cultures that makes it easier for our troops to relate to them and to provide security for them against a really wicked enemy. Understanding the tribal culture of Anbar was important in getting the Sheiks and the tribes on our side. They knew they were against al Qaeda, but they did not understand what we could do to help them in that fight until we had a better understanding of what their needs were.

Anthropologist can shorten the war and save lives by creating better understanding of the culture and how to relate to the locals. It is one of the keys to counterinsurgency warfare and I can foresee a time when we will be training people in Anthropology for service in the military in much the same way we train combat surgeons.

Austin Bay has more on the value of the anthropologist.

Update: This post has a parody of the anthropologist who want to lose the war.


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