Cutting through the bullshit.

Friday, 26 December 2008

'Lethal effects targeting'

A couple of weeks ago, Louis Proyect posted a press release from Wikileaks which in turn linked to the just released US Human terrain team handbook, along with David Price’s Counterpunch article and an editorial in Nature.

It is doubtless pure coincidence that for our bosses, we humans are no more than ‘human resources’ to exploit, and for the forces of repression, we are ‘human terrain’, to stomp all over. Anyway, Human terrain teams, apparently the brainchild, so to speak, of one Montgomery McFate, are groups of embedded social scientists tasked with conducting anthropological research on occupied populations and feeding military commanders with relevant predigested ‘expert human terrain & social science advice based on a constantly updated, user-friendly ethnographic and socio-cultural database of the area of operations’, which they will of course never allow to influence their ‘Lethal Effects Targeting’.

Describing the Nature editorial as ‘fierce’, quoting its subtitle, ‘the US military's human-terrain programme needs to be brought to a swift close’, Price writes, ‘This position is all the more devastating when contrasted with an editorial supporting the principles of Human Terrain and other forms of military-funded anthropological work published by Nature just five months ago.’

In reality, Nature’s editors have not retreated from their basic position. In July, they entertained hopes that Human terrain systems, ‘…have potential to be a win–win for all concerned — including, most especially, the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and regions of future conflict’. It reads as if they regard Iraq, Afghanistan, and other regions of conflict as mired in some sort of unavoidable natural calamity and US soldiers are just there to help them through it. If the soldiers sit on the ground and drink tea out of a glass, then that is a win for the occupied, even if those same culturally sensitive soldiers bash down your door at 3:00 in the morning and clobber your mother senseless with a rifle butt.

Nature, you will recall, is the estimable scholarly journal that published the groundbreaking research by epidemiologists associated with Johns Hopkins University showing the real costs of the US occupation of Iraq in 2004 and 2006. Yet in their July editorial, they write, as if adducing evidence, ‘According to Gates, one commander in Afghanistan says that using an HTS team has cut the number of armed attacks he has had to make by 60%’. Clearly, they don’t subject their own editorial comment to the same rigorous scrutiny as they do contributed articles.

This month, they have concluded that the scheme ‘…is failing on every level’.

In theory, it is a good idea. The Human Terrain System aims to embed anthropologists and other social scientists in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan to help improve understanding of local cultures and thus relieve tensions between civilians and soldiers…In practice, however, it has been a disaster. Questions have been raised about how well the programme vets its employees. Some scientists who have joined the system have complained about inadequate training. And qualified researchers have been dismissed for seemingly trivial reasons, even though much more questionable people seem to breeze onto the payroll.

…The immediate problems with the Human Terrain System can be traced to BAE Systems, the military contractor based in Rockville, Maryland, that screens potential employees, then trains those it hires. It has failed in every one of those functions, and army management has failed in its oversight of BAE.

So for them, it’s just a matter of human resources management issues, and professionalism, of course. After all, if human terrain research is carried out unprofessionally, it can hardly be expected to ‘relieve tensions between civilians and soldiers’. Realistically, though, considering that ‘the American Anthropological Association (AAA) has formally condemned it, saying that participants would find it difficult or impossible to follow the association's ethical guidelines in a combat zone…’, the program could only ever have hoped to atttract renegade anthropologists who reject their colleagues’ ethical principles. Furthermore, I think it is inevitable that the military itself would want to have a say, if not an outright veto, in the vetting process. They would want to feel that they can rely on Human terrain teams not to betray military movements, not to run to the media every time they observe perpetration of an atrocity, and so forth. Hardly propitious conditions to recruit the most competent anthropologists.

In July, Nature hoped the Human terrain project would address ‘the hard lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan — where troops with insufficient understanding of the cultural or political landscape have too often exacerbated the insurgency they were trying to control’, suggesting that troops with sufficient understanding of the cultural or political landscape would not exacerbate the insurgency. It’s as if they hadn’t considered the possibility that the occupation doesn’t exist to control the insurgency, that in fact the insurgency is a direct response to the occupation. What exacerbates the insurgency is not the occupying forces’ level of understanding, it’s that there are occupying forces.

In case there was any lingering doubt,

Nature is not opposed in principle to academics working with the military; we have said before that social science can and should inform military policy. We continue to believe that the insights of science have much to offer strategies in a war zone — not least through training combat troops to understand the local cultures within which they operate.

The only problem is that, ‘…as currently constituted, the Human Terrain System is not the way to do this. Unless the programme can be reborn in a format less plagued by deadly mistakes, it needs to be closed down’.

While I agree with Price that Nature’s call is welcome, they have not enunciated a principled objection on scientific, political, legal or moral grounds. Far from it. Their problem, it seems, is with BAE Systems.

Less still have they opposed the occupation of Afghanistan itself, which they apparently regard as just some phenomenon that NATO forces are dealing with as best they can.

To deal with it better, in October, Philip Dorling reported in the Canberra Times that the Australian Army has put out a request for tender ‘for a commercial supplier to deliver intensive training in the language for three years, beginning next January, with the likelihood of a two-year extension’.

Soldiers with no previous Pashto language training will undertake an anticipated 42-week course to successfully perform as ''military linguists using the ... language in a wide range of social situations, and specialised military subjects''

As the article’s headline cannily predicts, ‘Afghan language training hints at long haul’. As if to confirm this, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced on his return from a brief junket to Afghanistan and the UAE last week, ‘I've always said we're in Afghanistan for the long haul, for a long time. We've got to be serious. It's tough, protracted work. We're of a mind to see it through in partnership with our friends and allies.’

Dorling further reported that ‘Defence sources said Pashto was in demand for Afghanistan operations, but the language had little wider application’. Dorling may not be aware that an estimated 27 million Pashto speakers – more than twice as many as live in Afghanistan – inhabit the area east of the Durand Line that has been on the receiving end of US President-Elect Barack Obama’s most aggressive sabre rattling. But ‘Defence sources’ almost certainly are.


  1. Ernie has spotted something significant:

    Dorling further reported that ‘Defence sources said Pashto was in demand for Afghanistan operations, but the language had little wider application’. Dorling may not be aware that an estimated 27 million Pashto speakers – more than twice as many as live in Afghanistan – inhabit the area east of the Durand Line that has been on the receiving end of US President-Elect Barack Obama’s most aggressive sabre rattling. But ‘Defence sources’ almost certainly are.

    The comments of "Defence sources", however, are subject to a number of possible interpretations. When Bush started sabre-rattling and starting military threats against Iran, even Howard said that military action wasn't a good idea. Similarly, I suspect that the prevailing opinion in Australian ruling class circles is strongly against a US war with Pakistan - though, to be sure, from pragmatic rather than principled reasoning.

    In that light, "Defence sources" may very well be acting from a "let sleeping dogs lie" position. We can't be assured that the Australian Government will support a US war against Pakistan. We can, however, be confident that, in the event that such a war comes to pass, the Australian Government will not defend Pakistan's right to self-defence.

  2. Actually, I think Dorling is right to say that what this suggests is long term commitment in Afghanistan. It may very well be the case that the Australian ruling class would be disinclined to commit troops to a US war against Pakistan. Or it might not. But I’m not sure it matters so very much, as the US has quite a consistent record of enticing or bullying its ‘allies’ into its imperial adventures.