Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Social Scientists Under Fire

• February 17, 2010 • 5:00 AM

How anthropology and other social sciences are transforming the American way of war in Afghanistan.

In October of last year, a platoon from the U.S. Army’s 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, strolled into the village of Baraki Rajan, 50 miles south of Kabul. The soldiers, deployed from upstate New York since January, held their rifles loosely, muzzles pointed down, deliberately not aiming at anyone. That was meant as a signal — a signal that the residents had, over time, learned to read.

Afghans crowded around. The men, that is. As usual, women and girls remained inside, out of sight. The soldiers bumped fists with the boys and shook hands with the men and mangled the snippets of Arabic and Dari they’d picked up. Through an interpreter, Sean Mahard, the platoon’s lieutenant, asked some men where he could find the local mullah. Standing quietly behind the lieutenant, a sergeant glanced at a handheld GPS receiver, correlating every one of the lieutenant’s conversations with a 10-digit map coordinate.

Mahard, a fair-skinned 24-year-old from Connecticut, found mullah Bismollo standing in the shade of one of the village’s two mosques. “Salaam alaikum,” Mahard said, using the traditional Muslim greeting and pronouncing it quite well. He offered a hand to the stooped, weathered 72-year-old Bismollo, who like many Afghans goes by just one name.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

map of Afghanistan

Click to enlarge

[/class] Mahard asked Bismollo if Baraki Rajan had received the supplies the Army had made available for refurbishing the mosque: rugs, paint, a new loudspeaker for broadcasting the calls to prayer.

No, Bismollo said. The village’s other mosque had been hoarding the supplies and refusing to share, he said. Mahard’s eyebrows rose in surprise. He scribbled furiously in his green, Army-issue notebook and promised to look into the problem. “Thank you for speaking to me,” he said. “We’ll come back in a week.”

Before leaving, Mahard had a soldier snap photos of Bismollo and another village elder. The photos would wind up printed on the military’s symbol-laden maps of the area and on charts depicting the leadership structure of Baraki Rajan.

Walking out of town, Mahard mused on his conversation: “This is one of the intricacies you have to overcome — internal feuds in villages, when one group holds the mosque kits as leverage over the other.” He smiled, showing bright white teeth on a clean-shaven, youthful face. “It gives you insight,” he said.

Mahard’s mission to Baraki Rajan sure didn’t look like war — at least not like Hollywood depicts it. No one ran. No one shouted. Nothing exploded. No helicopters swooped majestically overhead. The mission boiled down to a long walk through a quiet village, a few conversations with local residents, a lot of jotted notes and figures and some photos.

In the two weeks I spent with 3rd Squadron, these “assessment” patrols accounted for the majority of U.S. operations. In Baraki Barak district, gunfights were so rare that some soldiers actually said they missed them. The single, 20-minute firefight I observed was a favorite discussion topic for days.

Eight years into the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan, American troops are focusing less on killing insurgents and extremists, and more on isolating them from the local populace — in effect, flushing them out and starving them into submission, often without ever firing a shot.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

U.S. soldiers and Human Terrain Team members speak to an elder in a southern Afghanistan village. (Vanessa M. Gezari)

[/class] It’s a strategy that hinges on a detailed understanding of how overlapping Afghan communities work: who’s in charge where, what villages are in need of what resources, how disagreements create schisms between neighbors, rival mosques and entire villages. The idea is to make key interest groups into allies, swaying whole communities to the U.S. camp and convincing them to turn in or simply kill bad actors in their midst.

The military has a name for the mix of needs, motives and rivalries that shape the complex daily interactions of thousands of people at the village and district level: the “human terrain.” Mapping and exploiting this terrain is the daily work of soldiers like Mahard and the rest of 3rd Squadron, as well as other units all over Afghanistan.

But that wasn’t always the case. There was a time, just a couple of years ago, when the Army moved to entrust human-terrain mapping exclusively to special teams composed of civilian academics, with a few State Department foreign service officers and retired soldiers also mixed in. The teams got their start in Afghanistan, shifted to Iraq for several years then shifted back to Afghanistan once the Iraq war started winding down.

Depending on whom you ask, the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System is in the process of either transforming the U.S. military or being rejected by it. The original versions of the so-called “Human Terrain Teams” — the basic units of the Human Terrain System — are now slowly going defunct. From one point of view, they have been rendered redundant, as the philosophy and practices they espoused spread throughout the military mainstream. But seen from another direction, the Human Terrain System is on the cusp of a much-deserved breakthrough into the military mainstream, and, after a rocky start, the social-science teams are primed for a speedy rise up the military hierarchy.

Predicting the future of the Human Terrain System is to some degree a matter of speculation, in part because it’s hard to get a grasp on the system’s checkered past, which many participants are loath to discuss for public consumption.

The formation of the Human Terrain System was guided by a woman named Montgomery McFate, a Harvard- and Yale-educated civilian anthropologist who became a controversial figure in the insular world of American social science by advocating the use of academics in the Mideast wars. Many academics protested when the program launched, with McFate as a civilian leader. The academics who joined Human Terrain Teams over their colleagues’ protestations and eventually reached Iraq and Afghanistan discovered they weren’t always prepared to apply crystalline academic theories to real-world problems — especially when the problems shot at you.

Three Human Terrain Team members died horribly, caught in the crossfire of the conflicts they were assigned to study. Even when the teams worked as advertised, the Pentagon wasn’t always sure how to manage them. And the whole process raised hard questions about the military’s relationship to the supposedly peaceful, politically neutral social sciences — and its ability to adapt to smart, ruthless enemies.

The latter half of the Cold War was a formative period for the U.S. military — especially the Army. In the 1970s and ’80s, the bulk of the ground-combat branch drilled nonstop for a large-scale confrontation with powerful Soviet tank formations. To beat Soviet tanks, America built thousands of tanks of its own and refined the art of coordinating tank attacks with artillery, helicopters and warplanes. It was called “mechanized warfare” or “maneuver warfare” or “air-land battle.” And as the dramatic U.S. victory in the 1991 Gulf War proved, America got very, very good at it, and few questioned the mechanized Army’s ability to beat any and all opponents. That faith held as U.S. tank columns streamed into Baghdad in March 2003, demolishing the tattered Iraqi army units that stood in the way. When the first black-clad insurgents appeared behind the American columns, sniping at exposed soldiers, Army leaders dismissed them as a mere nuisance. When homemade bombs began destroying the lightly armored trucks and Humvees that trailed the tanks, the Army considered it a temporary setback. The accepted solution was to turn the trucks and Humvees into tanks, by bolting on thick slabs of makeshift armor.

In 2004 and 2005, as the war on Iraq turned into the occupation of Iraq, and the initial guerilla-style resistance flared into a full-scale civil war, many senior officers were still stuck in a mechanized mindset. The mindset was illustrated well by Army operations in the Baqubah area of north-central Iraq, where I was embedded with elements of the 1st Infantry Division, which, contrary to its name, was primarily a tank formation. In early 2005, the division’s soldiers launched patrols from large, heavily fortified compounds far removed from population centers. They patrolled up and down the main roads in their armored vehicles and Humvees, blind to the nighttime machinations of entrenched insurgent cells.

When an insurgent drive-by shooting targeted a platoon of American soldiers resting in an Iraqi army compound on Jan. 27, 2005, the Americans lacked civilian sources in the area or any detailed knowledge of the community’s power structure — that is, the human terrain. All they could do was canvas the area, looking for vehicles that matched the attackers’.

Happening across a possible match parked outside a home in the dead of night, Staff Sgt. Joshua Marcum knocked on the door and stared at the sleepy, surly occupants who answered. He had no witness testimonies, no character witnesses, no firm evidence and no clear understanding of how detaining the home’s occupants would affect the overall insurgent organization or contribute to broader security in the area. Marcum left empty-handed. If the attackers were ever found, it was after I’d left the unit.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

A U.S. soldier passes out candy in Pir Zadeh in southern Afghanistan. (Vanessa M. Gezari)

[/class] Among democracies and pro-U.S. dictatorships, America’s military prowess can be both intimidating and envy inspiring. European nations, especially, tend to emulate U.S. Army practices, so the wrong-headed U.S. strategy at the beginning of the Iraq war spread to other nations that were part of a coalition assembled to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In June 2007, I was visiting a Dutch army unit in Afghanistan’s southern Uruzgan province when a large body of Taliban fighters slipped into the nearby towns of Tarin Kowt and Chora. In Tarin Kowt, a suicide bomber struck a Dutch patrol idling outside a school. One Dutch soldier and about 10 children were killed. Meanwhile, in Chora, the Taliban began abducting and killing the families of local policemen, aiming to drive the coalition out of town.

The Dutch response was out of a Tom Clancy novel. A tracked, 155-millimeter artillery piece climbed a hill inside the Dutch compound and began lobbing shells into Chora, while F-16 fighters dropped satellite-guided bombs and Apache helicopters fired cannons and rockets. In the end, the Taliban fled. But by the Dutch army’s own admission, as many as 100 civilians died in the bombardment.

“The case shows an urgent need to re-assess some of [the coalition’s] more heavy-handed tactics,” NATO admitted in an almost comically understated post-battle report.

In 2004, the anthropologist Montgomery McFate took a job doing research for RAND, the California think tank famous for brainstorming ideas for the U.S. military after World War II, including, most famously, the notion of mutually assured destruction that underlay the West’s Cold War strategy. In an article in the July-August 2005 issue of Military Review, McFate advocated pairing civilian social scientists with the military in a bid to “understand local culture, politics, social structure and economics.”

“What you’re trying to do is understand the people’s interests, because whoever is more effective at meeting the interests of the population will be able to influence it,” McFate told Wired magazine three years later.

McFate’s idea appealed to an Army struggling with a deepening Iraqi insurgency and a stagnating Afghanistan war. At the time, a new generation of senior military leaders was climbing the ranks, gradually replacing the champions of traditional mechanized warfare. The new guard’s standard-bearer, David Petraeus, the future chief for both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, was wrapping up a 15-month tour overseeing training for the Iraqi military and would soon take command of the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College — effectively, the Army’s graduate school — nestled in a green swath of eastern Kansas.

Petraeus was a product of a little-known Army subculture rooted in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. A 1974 graduate of the school, Petraeus returned to teach in the so-called “SOSH” program in the 1980s and later received a doctorate in international relations from Princeton.

Petraeus was an early supporter of McFate’s sociologists-under-arms idea. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were also fans, as was the Pentagon’s secretive organization devoted to thwarting improvised explosive devices, the so-called Joint IED Defeat Organization. In 2006, the Human Terrain System set up shop at Leavenworth, with an initial $130 million budget and McFate as its top civilian. The budget doubled two years later.

Defense contractor BAE Systems handled recruitment and training, and within a year drew scores of people into the program, ranging from idealistic professors to grizzled former soldiers and cops looking for something a little different. In the first year, five Human Terrain Teams deployed to Iraq, and one to Afghanistan, according to the program’s Web site.

Their mission was to “advise brigade combat commanders and staffs in the field on the local socio-cultural environment.” What that meant, in practice, was civilian academics “embedding” inside military units, living with, traveling with and going into combat with U.S. soldiers — though usually without weapons. The Human Terrain Teams would provide “instant” services, helping soldiers communicate with natives, and then, in the longer term, disseminate studies and surveys across the military.

For many early academic recruits, Human Terrain System seemed to satisfy a craving that some didn’t even realize they felt — the craving to get involved in matters of war and peace instead of just studying them from afar. David Matsuda was a lecturer in anthropology at California State University, Hayward, when he read an article in The New Yorker about the Human Terrain System, then still in the planning stage. Matsuda joined in time to accompany the initial wave of Human Terrain Teams arriving in Iraq in the fall of 2007.

Six months later, freelance writer Paul McLeary accompanied Matsuda on an Army patrol in the town of Tarmiyah, in north-central Iraq. In an article for the online magazine World Politics Review, McLeary described the tall, laconic, shaved-headed Matsuda as “every bit the Californian college professor.” As McLeary watched, Matsuda approached a gaggle of Iraqi security forces, touched his chest in a customary greeting and asked, through an interpreter, how the militiamen were doing. “The Iraqis seemed a little puzzled at first,” McLeary wrote. “‘Who was this American civilian in an Army uniform who wanted to know about their lives?'”

But the wariness did not last. The Iraqis soon crowded around Matsuda, excited to air their grievances, McLeary wrote. And Matsuda later extolled what he characterized as “the chance to change the nature of warfare, the chance to anthropologize the military — and not the other way around — the chance to lessen casualties, avoid conflict, take people through the post-conflict to peace.”

Matsuda was not alone. By 2009, the Human Terrain System had to take in around 50 people per month to stay fully staffed, according to leaked documents from the Federal Acquisition Service. As designed, each Human Terrain Team had at least two civilian academics, in addition to a grab bag of active-duty soldiers, former security contractors, retired soldiers and cops. Additional academics filled stateside research positions, helping the deployed social scientists round out their reports. For every academic who believed in the program, there were skeptics. The Human Terrain System shook up the intimate — some might say stuffy — world of American social scientists. Many recalled when the Army had employed social scientists to assist with battle planning during the Vietnam War.

A sort of collective postwar guilt, combined with a broader discomfort with the social sciences’ historical connection to European colonialism, fueled what McFate, again writing for Military Review, labeled a retreat toward the “exotic and useless” by the discipline. “Over the past 30 years, as a result of anthropologists’ individual career choices and the tendency toward reflexive self-criticism contained within the discipline itself,” McFate wrote, “the discipline has become hermetically sealed within its Ivory Tower.”

From their figurative ramparts, the disciplines’ stalwarts threw stones at the colleagues who had joined the Human Terrain System. In a July 2008 press conference, Bill Davis, then the executive director of the American Anthropological Association, said the program had “ethical implications.” The association had just launched a probe into a new Pentagon program, related to the HTS, that would create a database of cultural research for military use. The group was weighing rules to limit its members’ participation in such Army efforts.

At the same press conference, AAA president Setha Low was less circumspect. “HTS has prompted a whole re-evaluation of our ethics,” she said — especially in light of one recent “issue.” In an eight-month period in 2008, two Human Terrain System social scientists died in Afghanistan, and another was killed in Iraq.

Michael Bhatia, an Oxford-trained political scientist, died when a roadside bomb struck his Humvee in eastern Afghanistan in May 2009. Bhatia, a lecturer at Carleton University in Ottawa, was 31 years old. In June of that year, Nicole Suveges was killed in a massive blast that ripped through a Baghdad government building. Suveges had been working on a doctorate at Johns Hopkins. “I love this job,” Suveges had written in her last e-mail to McFate.

A third death, in southern Afghanistan in November 2008, would prove an even greater challenge to the human-terrain program. Thirty-six-year-old Paula Lloyd, a petite former soldier and Wellesley-trained anthropologist, was interviewing an Afghan man about the price of cooking oil. Without warning, the man touched a lighter to his jug of oil and dumped the flaming liquid on Lloyd. Soldiers rushed to Lloyd’s aid; Don Alaya, Lloyd’s team leader, chased down her assailant and slapped handcuffs on him. When Alaya saw the extent of his colleague’s injuries — burns to 60 percent of her body — he walked up to her cuffed attacker and shot him in the head, killing him. Lloyd died two months later at a hospital in Texas. Alaya pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to a fine and probation.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

Social scientist Karl Slaikeu, 65, is one of the oldest members of the Human Terrain System. (Vanessa M. Gezari)

[/class] Lloyd’s death was a watershed moment for the Human Terrain System. Her team was “galvanized” by Lloyd’s death and Alaya’s subsequent U.S. trial, according to Steve Lang, Alaya’s replacement. Lang brought along Karl Slaikeu, a psychologist from Texas, to replace Lloyd. “I was worried the team would be so galvanized that it’d be us and them,” Lang recalled. “But we were accepted and put right into play.”

The team didn’t just hold together in the wake of the Lloyd and Alaya tragedy; it actually got stronger, Lang said. The team’s reports really began to make an impression with Army commanders. Slaikeu, a white-haired Texan and, at 65, one of the oldest members of the HTS, attributes the turnaround in part to Lang’s leadership. The 40-year-old Lang had been a sergeant in the Marine Corps before signing up for the Human Terrain System. His Marine experience helped bridge the gap between the social scientists and the military. “He has an unusual ability to relate to the entire chain of command,” Slaikeu said.

I met Lang on a bright morning in November of last year, at the sprawling U.S. and NATO air base in Kandahar, in Afghanistan’s arid south. Kitted out in body armor, with an M-4 assault rifle strapped to his chest, he said he had just a few minutes to talk. That morning, his team would be flying into the restive countryside — the “hinterlands,” Lang called it — to support an Army counter-offensive against the Taliban.

Lang was every inch a Marine. Short and powerfully built, with short hair, an open face and a bulldog’s jutting jaw, he didn’t seem the type to get along with a bunch of professors. But he saw a lot of similarities between academics and the military commanders he had spent a decade serving under. “It takes a certain personality to achieve a certain level, with a Ph.D.,” he said. “We deal with commanders who are of a like mind.”

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

During a Human Terrain System mission, Ed Campbell talks in a village in southern Afghanistan.

[/class] Indeed, in addition to academics, the Human Terrain System has drawn a substantial number of former soldiers and Marines, plus retired cops such as Ed Campbell, now an HTS veteran. These former security types drift into leadership and protection roles in the Human Terrain Teams, mostly leaving the intensive survey work to the social scientists. In the same way that the academics are supposed to bridge the gap between the military and the civilian populace, men like Lang and Campbell are the bridge between the social scientists and the military.

It’s not an easy job, especially in the wake of Lloyd’s death. Lang said he never forces his social scientists to go “outside the wire,” the military’s euphemism for patrolling in hostile territory. Every mission is strictly voluntary. He said he tells his civilian colleagues to constantly assess the risks. If a social scientist drops out of a mission for safety reasons, Lang takes his or her place.

Lang’s protective instincts are part of a broader trend. The deaths of Bhatia, Suveges and Lloyd prompted the Human Terrain System’s gradual “hardening,” to borrow a military term. The teams began to include a greater proportion of current and former military personnel. And even those team members who weren’t military started acting and looking more like soldiers. Some of the civilian social scientists now carry weapons.

A major change in the program in the summer of 2009 has hastened the militarization of the Human Terrain System. In a bid to “regularize” the program, the Army re-designated HTS contractors as government employees. For most team members, that meant a sudden, 50 percent pay cut, from six figures to five. Dozens of Human Terrain System people — around half, by some counts — promptly quit the program. Those who remained were those motivated primarily by love of country. “My ass is still bleeding,” Campbell said of the pay cut. “But I still believe in the program.”

When the Human Terrain System was at its lowest, critics piled on from inside and out. In the April issue of Military Review, Maj. Ben Connable, a Marine Corps intelligence officer, accused it of being “inconsistent with standing doctrine and ignor[ing] recent improvements in military cultural capabilities.”

The Human Terrain System, Connable wrote, “calls for an immediate solution in the form of non-organic personnel, new equipment and the direct application of external academic support. HTS essentially adds a quick-fix layer of social science expertise … based on the assumption that [military] staffs are generally incapable of solving complex cultural problems on their own.” That assumption is wrong, Connable asserted. Instead of hiring out for cultural expertise, the military should make such skills mandatory for new trainees, just as mechanized warfare techniques were mandatory in the 1980s and ’90s. “Forcing the services to view the cultural terrain as a co-equal element of military terrain … would ensure the kind of all-inclusive focus on culture that the Army and Marine Corps applied to maneuver warfare theory,” Connable wrote.

Even if it isn’t just a shortsighted quick fix, the Human Terrain System is a wasteful, shoddily run program, according to other skeptics. One former team member, who quit following the pay cut and asked not to be named, criticized the team’s expensive and overly complex computer equipment, alleged sexual misconduct inside the program and even rumors that HTS members had assisted with “enhanced interrogations” of prisoners. “When I was there, the program operated with little oversight, the teams had no accountability back to the main program save what they did on their own, and there were constant personnel problems,” he said.

“HTS was basically designed by Stargate fans,” the former team member continued, referring to the 1990s sci-fi movie in which a civilian scientist accompanies a military squad through an alien gate into Earth’s past. McFate and HTS’s other architects were “thinking that if they just send an anthropologist with a bunch of guys with guns to an alien race, they can magically learn everything about their history and preferences in a few hours or days.”

In reality, the critic contended, “for 99 percent of what HTS does, it can be done by soldiers filling out survey forms and reporting back to a research center in the U.S. There’s no need to have these mostly crap teams out there not really doing anything besides getting in people’s ways.”

Campbell, a 57-year-old former Boston cop turned Human Terrain Team member, couldn’t disagree more. To him, the Human Terrain System is still the best way to bridge the gap between everyday Afghans and the occupying NATO army. Soldiers, he said, aren’t equipped for the subtle interactions necessary to build lasting goodwill. “Look at the units you’re dealing with,” he says, meaning the U.S. Army infantry units that do the heavy lifting in this and most U.S.-led conflicts. “They’re great guys, infantry guys. But what do infantry do? They storm beachheads.” Actually, Campbell’s thinking of Marines. But his point’s valid. Infantry soldiers are trained — relentlessly, scientifically — to fight.

It was another afternoon at the NATO air base in Bagram, just outside Kabul. The short, balding Campbell fingered a drink from the on-base cafe. We were sitting at a picnic table at the base’s equivalent of a food court. Around us, soldiers and military contractors ate fast food, guzzled lattes and guffawed at each other’s jokes. That is, the soldiers at the food court lived up to an age-old stereotype. They were loud and imposing — everything the grandfatherly Campbell is not.

And that was Campbell’s point: “I can get people to like me because I’m old.” Village elders are comfortable talking to him, he said, whereas they are often leery of approaching a heavily armed squad of teenaged infantry. All the high-minded arguments in favor of internal military reform, in place of using the Human Terrain System, would run headlong into the age-old nature of the soldier, Campbell believes.

But is he right?

For the vast majority of American combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan, the debate over the Human Terrain System has been purely academic. With just a couple of dozen teams spread across the Middle East and Central Asia, each team usually numbering no more than 10 people, the Human Terrain System could work only in a handful of provinces at a time. One team was assigned to Wardak Province south of Kabul. But just a couple of hundred miles east, in neighboring Logar, many officers had never even heard of the program.

Capt. Paul Shepard, one of whose platoons had surveyed mosque leaders in Baraki Rajan last October, had to be reminded what the Human Terrain System was. After 10 minutes of sifting through his laptop’s hard drive, the short, red-haired Shepard found a single HTS report related to Logar Province. It described local attitudes toward team sports and encouraged Shepard’s unit to build a community sports center in the district.

Though they might not have heard of the Human Terrain System, Shepard’s troops were actively engaged in studying and exploiting the human terrain. They just used different terminology. Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeisen, Shepard’s beefy, gravel-voiced boss, described his strategy in Logar as an attempt to build “security bubbles” in the communities that are most amenable to a U.S. troop presence. Deciding where to focus security efforts requires daily close contact with Afghans. “The security bubble is the human-terrain piece,” Gukeisen said.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

Human Terrain Team member Stephen Lang cuts an opium poppy in Pir Zadeh. (Vanessa M. Gezari)

[/class]

If Gukeisen’s troops are representative, then maybe Campbell was wrong and Connable was right: Soldiers are capable of the cultural interactions that are supposed to be the HTS’s exclusive domain. Actually, however, Connable and others calling for the cancellation of the Human Terrain System program are outnumbered — or at least overpowered — by those looking to expand it, while adding other programs that duplicate the HTS cultural-sensitivity mission. In effect, the Petraeus Pentagon wants to advance human-terrain theory and practice any way it can — military tradition, dead social scientists and management gaffes be damned.

Today just one of the military’s six regional commands, Central Command, possesses Human Terrain Teams. But plans are in the works for the HTS to expand into the Pacific Command, the Africa Command and the Latin America-focused Southern Command.

Meanwhile, outside of the U.S. military, other agencies are offering up their cultural experts to assist in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The State Department has begun deploying foreign service officers to Afghanistan to conduct interviews with local government leaders. The first members of one of these “District Support Teams” reached Logar in October. The Logar team’s leader, Ron Barkley, had done a stint on a Human Terrain Team before his current assignment. The Department of Agriculture, for its part, is organizing teams of agriculture professors, recruited from land-grant universities, to help the Army communicate with Afghan farmers. One of these “Ag teams” is slated for Logar Province and should arrive before the end of the year.

“Winning this war has nothing to do with killing the enemy,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Steve Kwast said on an afternoon last October at the busy NATO airfield at Bagram outside Kabul. Kwast stood in an old, Soviet-built control tower inherited from a previous war. The tower overlooked an expanse of parked aircraft, tents and military buildings, not to mention the throngs of soldiers, airmen and military contractors strolling to and from their workplaces. The son of Christian missionaries to Africa, Kwast is a tall, lean man with a forceful, unblinking gaze. As one of the senior officers in the NATO war effort, he was an unofficial spokesman for a new way of war, one that emerged from the Iraq war and disastrous battles like Chora.

“We could kill [the] enemy from now for a hundred years and wouldn’t be one step closer to winning this war,” Kwast said, turning his eyes to a distant mountain range, cast pink by the setting sun. “But if the people of Afghanistan trust us more than they trust the Taliban, we will win overnight. … If someone is shooting at us from a village, let’s leave and return at a later time to win the hearts and minds of the village.”

Amid the debate over the proper road forward in Afghanistan, it’s easy to lose sight of an important truth: The Human Terrain System and less formal human-terrain efforts boil down to single conversations between two people from very different cultures, speaking different languages. Whether it’s conducted by a highly trained, highly paid civilian academic or a young soldier, the mapping of human terrain is mostly a common-sense effort that requires patience, respect and courtesy.

After he’d said goodbye to the local mullahs of Baraki Rajan last October, Lt. Sean Mahard checked to make sure his sergeant had registered map coordinates for all his chats and then marched his men out of the village. I ran to catch up with him.

“Did the Army prepare you for these interactions?” I asked.

“We’re not really trained for this. The majority of our training is in infantry tactics,” he said, and then shrugged. “But if you can interact with people, you can be successful.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

David Axe
David Axe is a freelance writer based in Columbia, S.C., and the author of the forthcoming graphic memoir War Is Boring, from New American Library. He blogs at www.warisboring.com.

More From David Axe

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.