Anthropology Goes to War

There are some things the Army needs in Afghanistan, but more academics are not at the top of the list.


At this point in the war on terror, even people who think David Galula is a trendy new chef are quick to point to the need for cultural understanding in successful counterinsurgency. Often, they are quicker still to beat up on our military for supposedly ignoring this. They are quite sure that if we just understood the Iraqis/Afghans/Shiites/Sunnis better, we would have made fewer mistakes. The military is ready to beat up on itself, too, although if you scan military journals, it seems to have spent much of the last few years retooling to fight small rather than large wars, and to emphasize counterinsurgency and nation-building rather than mere kinetics (aka killing).

We should learn the lessons of Vietnam and Algeria, we are earnestly told. Well, perhaps the most successful counterinsurgency operation ever mounted, David Galula’s in Algeria, doesn’t build the case for the overweening importance of cultural knowledge. The Algerians pacified thanks to Galula’s insights were French-speaking (some of the leaders of the FLN barely spoke Arabic). The French took back territory from the rebels not because Galula convinced them that he understood their culture, but because he convinced them that their interests were better served by affiliation with France. (A dozen pages of Galula are worth more than anything written by anyone mentioned in this article. His 1963 Pacification in Algeria, reissued by RAND last year, is a witty, snappy, pre-PC read.)

While self-criticism can be healthy, we shouldn’t lose sight of what actually works. I saw classic counterinsurgency doctrine working in Afghanistan during a two week embed in Khost and Laghman provinces this past July. In Khost, our soldiers were doing close to what Galula’s company did in 1956: moving off the big bases, into the countryside, and providing people there with an immediate promise of security and, for the first time, a taste of the rewards of having a government. We are much further along with the strategy of pushing out into rural areas in Khost–a province that shares a 150-mile border with Pakistan’s most lawless areas–than in Laghman, and not surprisingly, the numbers are much better there.

The Khost civil-military operations center is located in what was once a guesthouse belonging to Osama bin Laden, who spent time here in the ’90s. Khost Province, once a “red” area–army lingo for a hotbed of insurgency and violence–now has 9 of its 12 districts listed as “green,” or well controlled by Afghan forces. (Four of the 9 green districts, Bak, Tani, Tere Zayi, and Shamai, now have U.S. troops living in the district centers, and U.S. troops should be living in two more green districts, Gurbuz and Mando Zayi, by November 30. They will also move into Sabari, a “red” district, at the same time.) The province, with a population of one million, has suffered 70 IED explosions in 2007, killing 34 Afghans but no coalition troops. There hasn’t been a suicide bombing since the spring; earlier in 2007, eight suicide bombers killed 32 Afghans.

In Laghman, with 400,000 people, one province removed from the Pakistani border, there have been 67 IED attacks and two suicide bombings, killing nine Afghan civilians and 19 Afghan security personnel, and one American soldier. The last suicide bomber was just a few weeks ago–he took an Afghan police officer with him.

Why does Laghman, a nonborder province, lead Afghanistan in IED attacks per capita? One reason is probably that our troops are not yet living in district centers. There is one very primitive combat outpost in Najil, but troops are only there for two-week rotations because it offers tent accommodation without kitchens or plumbing.

It’s hard to overemphasize how good an idea it is to have our troops living close to the people. When our soldiers live on remote bases, they are visible to Afghans mainly when they do patrols, and then only as vague silhouettes through the bulletproof, sealed windows of -up‑armored Hummers. The only American who isn’t behind glass is the gunner in his intimidating perch. There are dismounted patrols as well–but our troops probably spend more time in Humvees than they should.

Such at least is the position taken in the Army’s new Field Manual 3-24, the Galula-inspired, Petraeus-supervised bible on counterinsurgency, which has this to say on the subject in Appendix A:

Raiding from remote, secure bases does not work. Movement on foot, sleeping in villages, and night patrolling all seem more dangerous than they are–and they are what ground forces are trained to do. .  .  . Driving around in an armored convoy actually degrades situational awareness. It makes Soldiers and Marines targets and is ultimately more dangerous than moving on foot and remaining close to the populace.

Major Tim Kohn of the Civil Affairs unit for the 2nd Battalion of the 321st Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division had obviously mastered the
lessons of FM 3-24. One of the reasons he told me for stationing platoons in Khost province’s district centers is that they spend less time riding hither and yon in Humvees, and more interacting with Afghans.

Even in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, which are less friendly to Americans than the provinces I visited, the Afghan people are overwhelmingly appreciative of foreign troops and opposed to the Taliban. According to a Canadian survey conducted in late September in Afghanistan, 64 percent of respondents said “the foreigners have made a lot of progress or some progress in the fight against the Taliban.” In Kandahar, stronghold of the Ghilzai Pashtuns who predominate in the Taliban leadership, 58 percent nevertheless say the foreigners are doing a good job battling the Taliban. Nationally, 89 percent of Afghans view the Taliban unfavorably and 93 percent doubt its ability to provide security.

Meanwhile, just as our methodical, unglamorous strategies are bearing fruit, our military seems to be buying into the “cultural knowledge” critique, and buying into a dubious version at that. Just a few weeks apart this fall, articles appeared in the Christian -Science Monitor and New York Times about a new idea the U.S. Army is trying out–attaching anthropologists and cultural experts to combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program is called the Human Terrain System and is in its infancy. In Afghanistan, the first team of five experts deployed to FOB Salerno, in Khost, in January 2007 for a six month tour. (In Iraq, the first teams of Arabic language and culture experts have just been deployed.)

The concept is appealing: Make sure that the troops who are interacting with Afghans know how to work within the culture. Give our maneuver commanders cultural and linguistic experts who can help them to figure out what is going on beneath the surface and influence local leaders. And after investing maybe a thousand hours studying Farsi/Dari, I was gratified to hear that the Army is coming around to seeing linguistic capabilities as a crucial part of counterinsurgency.

In the words of a Military Review article (September-October 2006) that described the Human Terrain System idea for a military audience:

HTS will provide deployed brigade commanders and their staffs direct social-science support in the form of ethnographic and social research, cultural information research, and social data analysis that can be employed as part of the military decisionmaking process.

The core building block of the system will be a five-person Human Terrain Team (HTT) that will be embedded in each forward-deployed brigade or regimental staff. The HTT will provide the commander with experienced officers, NCOs, and civilian social scientists trained and skilled in cultural data research and analysis.

The Human Terrain Team program was touted in late 2006 in an adulatory New Yorker article by George Packer on the State Department’s chief counterinsurgency strategist, David Kilcullen. A retired Australian army colonel, Kilcullen also holds a doctorate in anthropology. He’s an author of the Army’s new counterinsurgency field manual, an excellent writer, and an extremely smart man. Nevertheless, I emerged from a meeting with him in Washington unable to get a handle on exactly how he proposed to defeat the Afghan insurgency. While he was understandably more focused on Iraq (and left for an extended mission there shortly after our meeting), his knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan seemed lacking in detail.

This same sense of vague generalities followed me as I tracked down Steve Fondacaro, the head of the Human Terrain System program. Just after meeting Kilcullen, I learned that a brilliant acquaintance, Afghanistan expert Thomas Johnson, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School’s program for culture and conflict studies, was helping to develop a database for the Human Terrain Teams. Johnson is an expert on the Pashtuns–the dominant tribe in southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan–with substantial time on the ground. He put me in touch with Fondacaro, a retired colonel with the 82nd Airborne Division, and we spoke on the phone in the winter and spring of 2007.

Again, I was unable to get a handle on exactly what the teams planned to do, but I thought it would all become clear once the program was operational. And so I requested that part of my embed be at FOB Salerno in Khost so that I could meet with some of the Human Terrain Team members and see them in action.

To my dismay, the Army had double-booked my embed with the HTT. I would have to find another topic to cover. I was assigned instead to the Civil Affairs unit for the 2nd Battalion of the 321st Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division and spent five days with them. Although unable to embed with the HTT, I was able to sit down with Fondacaro, HTT cofounder Montgomery McFate, a Ph.D. in anthropology, and an Iranian-born female Army officer who did not want her name used.

This meeting, on July 28, was a huge disappointment. I emerged from it with the distinct impression that I was seeing the emperor’s new clothes. What I heard from Civil Affairs cemented my impression. The HTT had given Major Kohn a report on Khost Province and under the heading “economy,” the lead sentence stated that the Khost economy is dominated by poppy production. In reality there is no opium grown in the province. Today, the website that provides “reachback” for the team, and is accessible to the general public, states correctly that Khost does not produce poppy (

“The data was not very accurate and it was broad, country-wide information,” Major Kohn told me. A bright, articulate, and imperturbable reservist, Kohn, 34, whose civilian job was head of Barclays Global Investors’ defined contribution sales and strategy in San Francisco, is very much New Army.

“What is more troubling,” he emailed me later, “was that the report was issued without ever talking to a local maneuver commander, district Sub-Governor or Provincial official. After pointing out the broad ‘cut and paste’ nature of the report, I never received a correction or response. And they are co-located with us at Salerno.”

Since the HTT program was in its infancy, and did not consume a significant amount of taxpayers’ money, I decided to hold fire after my embed. But reading the glowing accounts in the Times (October 5) and Christian Science Monitor (September 7), including the information that an additional $40 million is being spent on the HTTs, now makes me wonder if good money will be thrown after bad.

In our July meeting, Col. Fondacaro seemed an amiable man, trying to serve his country and make an honorable postretirement living. Montgomery McFate was exceptionally bright and articulate, but with the nervous manner of someone trying to sell a lemon.

McFate, who received a Ph.D. from Yale, with a dissertation on British counterinsurgency in Northern Ireland, showed no familiarity with the work of Benedicte Grima and Charles Lindholm, anthropologists who have published widely on Pashtun culture. A fulsome San Francisco Chronicle profile (“Montgomery McFate’s Mission: Can one anthropologist possibly steer the course in Iraq?” April 29, 2007) inadvertently suggests that she is equally sketchy on Arab culture; she speaks of using Raphael Patai’s 1973 book The Arab Mind–a purported favorite of neocons–”correctly.” I’m as neocon as they come, but Patai’s book is wrong in both details and thesis, and cannot be used “correctly.”

As Dr. McFate and Col. Fondacaro chainsmoked their way through our interview, they used the same strategy. They disparaged the Army’s approach in Afghanistan–where neither one of them has any meaningful experience–in order to market their program.

They spoke as though they were among the Army of 1964, focused on body counts and kill ratios, rather than the Army of the Small Wars Journal, the new counterinsurgency field manual, and the endless “lessons learned” briefings. Here is a representative quotation from the Times article (“Tracy” being the pseudonym of a member of the Human Terrain Team):

In eastern Afghanistan, Tracy said wanted [sic] to reduce the use of heavy-handed military operations focused solely on killing insurgents, which she said alienated the population and created more insurgents. “I can go back and enhance the military’s understanding,” she said, “so that we don’t make the same mistakes we did in Iraq.”

But as I saw in Khost, U.S. Army procedures in Afghanistan are pretty close to best-practice counterinsurgency doctrine. We are now stationing our troops in district centers–like American county seats–with just a couple of platoons living alongside and training Afghan National Army and National Police. During my embed, Major Kohn explained how strategies pioneered by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Scotty Custer–especially stationing platoons in district centers–were part of the reason for Khost’s progress in 2007, and were being copied all over Afghanistan. I visited one of these district centers, Tani, where Major Kohn had built sturdy stone barracks for 60 American soldiers in two months for just $80,000. (“They have great plans on the Internet,” he said.) In Khost and Laghman Provinces, I saw that our soldiers do frequent patrols, mainly mounted in Humvees but also some dismounted, including trips nearly every night to spot suspicious activity (IED-planting).

Most of all, our officers meet with Afghans, who love talking and love meetings. Until you have sat through a two- to four-hour village or district shura you do not know the meaning of tedium. This is what the very capable commanders I trailed in Laghman and Khost spend most of their time doing, and as a result they have largely succeeded in getting the local power structure on board in the eastern part of Afghanistan.

The one area where I thought our troops needed help was in language skills. We have translators in Afghanistan, but they are of highly varying quality. I met one, an Afghan-American, who seemed able both to translate speakers’ words and to explain their context. But the majority I saw–Afghans under 25 who had a local university degree, if that–had an inadequate command of English and lacked maturity, experience, and judgment.

At a meeting I attended in July in Mehtar Lam, the capital of Laghman Province, between American officers, representatives from the State Department and USAID, and Laghman’s Provincial Development Council, none of the Americans was aware of a crucial dynamic. About a third of the Afghans on the Council, an advisory body elected province-wide, were speaking Dari (the Afghan dialect of Persian) and the rest Pashto; the governor spoke exclusively in Pashto, and almost all of the Afghans translated their own remarks into English rather than the other local language.

When I asked one of the Afghans about this afterward, he said, “We Pashto speakers all understand Persian, but the Persian speakers do not understand Pashto. Same culture, same religion–why is this? We sometimes say they are not as intelligent as we are.” This made me want to ask some basic questions, which the Americans would certainly have asked had they known about the linguistic divide: How do the Dari and Pashto speakers in this province look at each other? Is it true that the Dari speakers don’t speak Persian? (I found this hard to believe in a majority-Pashto area.) How do they compete for or share power? How is influence divided up in the province between them?

But none of the Army’s translators thought to tell their bosses that they were listening to two different languages or that the governor wouldn’t speak Dari. The under-briefed Americans had assumed that all the locals were native Pashto speakers.

I also found that the American team had no idea how the provincial notables were related. Family is everything in Afghanistan, and Afghans often have a hundred first cousins, who can be close allies or bitter enemies. But genealogical charts of provincial bigwigs are not available either at Mehtar Lam or in Major Kohn’s Maneuver Command. A U.S. Army translator at the meeting in Mehtar Lam casually mentioned to me that his father was a provincial minister, which made me wonder about his biases, and about the kinship relations between the 30 or so Afghans in the meeting.

While Dari and Pashto were offered on an elective basis to reservists training at Fort Bragg, soldiers said the classes were poorly taught and held at either 5 A.M. or 8 P.M.–with 12 hours of maneuvers in between. Language classes aren’t offered on either Mehtar Lam or Salerno bases, and though several officers I met were studying Pashto or Farsi, it’s the enlisted men who are regularly seeing ordinary Afghans.

Sadly, from what I saw, the HTT isn’t ready to solve our troops’ language and cultural problems. At Khost, the so-called cultural expert was an Iranian-born female officer whom I will call “Sharifa.”

Sending an Iranian Farsi speaker to a Pashtun region of Afghanistan didn’t seem like a great idea to me. The two languages are written in the same alphabet and share some vocabulary, particularly the more abstract words of Arabic derivation, but they split apart more than 2,000 years ago and are grammatically distinct. I was able to understand maybe 10 percent of the Pashto I heard in meetings and interviews, and could tell if people were discussing, say, security or weapons, but not what they were saying about them.

Sharifa insisted, “There are a lot of Farsiwans [Farsi speakers] here in Khost,” but a bit of online research corroborated what locals told me: The province is 99.9 percent Pashto-speaking. The more educated people will understand Farsi, or more accurately Dari, the Afghan dialect, the language of Afghanistan’s court, government, and universities, but it is not what they speak at home. As the country’s biggest single ethnic group, comprising 40 percent of the population, Pashtuns feel linguistically sidelined by the dominance of Dari and don’t particularly enjoy speaking it.

Nor do Afghans necessarily like Iranians. They tend to view them as Midwesterners circa 1930 might have regarded Englishmen: more sophisticated, yes, but also suspiciously smooth, possibly effeminate, likely laughing at them behind their backs.

Sending a non-Pashto-speaking Iranian speaker to interview in a Pashtun village, then, is not just daft, like sending a non-English speaking Spaniard to cozy up to an Iowa farmer. It’s apt to be resented. And if the HTT needs interpreters, it’s hard to see how they are getting closer to the people or learning more than a smart American officer who’s done some homework.

Then there is the issue of sending female non-Pashto speakers to bond with male village elders. “They see you as a soldier, not as a female,” “Sharifa” said to me. In the Christian Science Monitor piece, “Tracy” went further:

“In most circumstances, I am ‘third’ gender,” says Tracy, who can give only her first name. She says that she is not seen as either an Afghan woman or a Western one–because of her uniform. “It has enhanced any ability to talk to [Afghans]. There is a curiosity.”

Well, a two-headed American would also attract the curiosity of Afghans, but that doesn’t mean they would be eager to welcome him into their community. Afghanistan is one of the most strictly gender-segregated societies on earth, and while women can be of immense use in obtaining the confidences of Afghan women–particularly senior women who hold the reins of power in the family and know all the gossip–they simply can’t be as effective in meeting with male elders in rural areas.

Before spending $40 million of taxpayers’ money on the Human Terrain Teams, there are two questions to ask: Does the concept of a Human Terrain Team answer a real need on the part of our commanders? And how well does the program as it now exists answer this need? My answer to the second question should be obvious by now. The first question is the more important one. Is a lack of cultural awareness foiling our mission in Afghanistan?

On the admittedly slim evidence of my embed, I would say that it is not, but that more education and institutional memory would certainly help. But these could and should be provided during the predeployment training the Army is paying for anyway.

“From a cultural perspective our predeployment training was a complete failure,” Kohn told me. “Afghanistan is the Super Bowl for Civil Affairs, there’s a ton we can do here, but at Ft. Bragg they trained us just to stay alive in a different theater.” Staff Sergeant David Escobar, also of the Civil Affairs unit, added, “We had about one half-hour class about Afghanistan and a month of classes on Iraq.”

Something else our soldiers could use is an online database on the areas they are deploying to. This would include genealogies and family relationship information for as many provincial notables as possible. Is the local education chief the brother-in-law of the uncooperative police commander in a troublesome district? Well then maybe we can offer the education head help for the schools, with the express desire that he bring the police commander into the fold. That’s how things get done in Afghanistan, but if you don’t know the family relationships you can’t manipulate them.

On July 28 at Salerno, I was told that the HTT is not producing a database because the units they worked with did not want one; instead “they wanted an angel on their soldier.” Major Kohn says he was not aware of any database available for commanders. Yet the Times has “Tracy” claiming the contrary. “Along with offering advice to commanders, she said, the five-member team creates a database of local leaders and tribes, as well as social problems, economic issues and political disputes.” Thomas Johnson has produced a database, as noted above, which promises to be an excellent resource, though so far it lacks genealogies and kinship information on local leaders.

At the moment, then, the Human Terrain Team, at least in Afghanistan, looks like a solution without a problem. That great lumbering beast, the American Army, may take a long time to change directions, but when it does, it moves swiftly, decisively, and with impressive competence. From what I saw in eastern Afghanistan, we are doing a pretty good job–and the security of these provinces is evidence.

What’s going right in Khost doesn’t sound like what you read in the papers. And the complaints I did hear from Afghans there, in Nangarhar and in Laghman, weren’t about what the media would have you believe Afghans lament–alleged civilian casualties during coalition operations–but rather were about insufficient development aid or poorly executed USAID projects. In Laghman and Khost I saw smart, highly motivated commanders and soldiers well versed in counterinsurgency theory, approaching their tasks with optimism and determination. With better predeployment training, and an institutional commitment to language learning, I have no doubt they–and the Afghan people–will bring security to Afghanistan.

Ann Marlowe is the author, most recently, of The Book of -Trouble: A Romance.

Leave a Reply