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Human Terrain Mapping - An Historian's Perspective

Editor's Note: This item was originally posted in a private blog in late 2007. Discussion of the Human Terrain Team issue continues, though, and contentions over the program don't appear to be winding down - witness the recent coverage of Zenia Helbig's dismissal from the program, a problematic Newsweek profile of HTTs, and U.S. SecDef comments on HTT "growing pains". Brian migrated from the private blog to CTLab; his alternative perspective, offering the point of view of an historian involved with the program - and a scholar who's subject matter expertise is directly relevant to it - was worth reposting here. A fascinating discussion of the issue can be viewed offsite at the Small Wars Council.
- CTLab 


As an historian who has carried out field work for the US government in Afghanistan, my feelings are that this debate about the morality of human terrain is a storm in a tea-pot. Anthropologists, political scientists, historians, and of course scientists of all backgrounds have contributed to US understanding of the wars it has fought in the past, and this is no different./review/2008/4/19/Brian20Williams20Photo2.jpg

My own field work, dealing with Taliban suicide bombers in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and warlords in the northern plains, aimed to provide something that I felt was missing in the ‘mission focused’ military approach: historical context. This historical background, for example, helped the US military in Afghanistan understand such misunderstood concepts as the respect that many regional leaders (most of whom are described as ‘warlords’) have among their own ethnic constituencies. It also helped US troops understand cultural taboos on suicide that have been overcome to legitimize such alien tactics as suicide bombing. When you tell US soldiers that for an Afghan, committing suicide is tantamount to a Catholic committing abortion, it makes them understand that not all Afghans want to kill them.

Sadly, the White House willfully disregarded the experts specialized in Iraq’s tribal anthropology, history, culture, and politics, when it decided to invade Iraq. Those who predicted tribal infighting, growth of Iranian influence, marked de-secularization, and the rise of jihadism in this land dominated by Baathist nationalists, were not ‘with’ the US, according to the Neo-Cons. Such arrogance is now a thing of the past, as the human terrain program best demonstrates.

Belatedly, the US government is turning to the country’s overlooked experts to help understand the complex regions it has involved itself in. Anthropologists can play a unique role in helping bridge differences in culture between US troops and locals. I have found that my countrymen in the military are most eager and willing to learn, and are grateful of any insights my own field work has provided them.

Many scholars, especially those with a liberal orientation, have complained about the direction of the war. The human terrain program allows them to put their money where their mouths are and make a real contribution to solving some of the greater problems associated with the war.

At the end of the day, if my work with the US agencies and military in Afghanistan can prevent more Americans and Afghans from dying, I consider it a wonderful application of my research and am proud of it. Anthropologists who feel that their noble profession is being used for nefarious purposes should see their job as one that can allow 19 year olds from Kansas understand their frightening environment. At the end of the day, anthropologists in Afghanistan are not working on the Manhattan project, they are helping to interpret other worlds to those whose lives literally depend upon such things as knowing a simple Muslim greeting, understanding which hand is unclean, knowing the real distinction between a mosque and a madrassa, and knowing how to deal witih namuz (pride in protecting one’s womenfolk, home place and faith).

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