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<nettime> The Algebra of Occupation
Paul D. Miller on Mon, 3 Dec 2007 06:47:47 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Algebra of Occupation

This is one of the more intriguing developments of what Slavoj Zizek likes to
call "military humanism." I'm intrigued with the nuances of the colonial
aspects of the Iraq occupation. It's a page straight out of Frantz Fanon or the
film "The Battle of Algiers." There's a great scene in the film when the
general in charge of the French counter insurgent forces is asked if he reads
Sartre. He replies simply: "non."

Paul aka Dj Spooky


 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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

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