A journalist examines the Human Terrain System, which used social scientists to help the military understand Afghan culture.
By 2006, the war in Afghanistan was floundering. It wasn’t enough, realized David Petraeus and other top military commanders, to target the Taliban and wipe its members out with “shock and awe.” The Taliban easily faded into the general population. Better technology was no help. What was needed was a “counterinsurgency” that sought a more complex knowledge of the enemy and the Afghan culture in general. Thus was born the Human Terrain System, which embedded social scientists, including anthropologists, in front-line units. Their mission ranged from interpreting gestures — the arm-out palm-up signal that meant “stop” to the Americans manning checkpoints but signaled “welcome” to Afghan vehicles, thereby getting them killed — to figuring out where schools were needed, sorting out clan affiliations to know whom to trust, and deciphering Afghan decisionmaking procedures. The members of the first Terrain teams had worked in Afghanistan before and spoke one or more of the languages.
One issue that worried the American anthropologist community was neutrality. What was the difference, if any, between providing a nuanced picture of a society and gathering intelligence for the military that enabled it to figure out whom to kill and whom to work with? Would all anthropologists be henceforth considered agents of the U.S. government? This issue has not been resolved, but in Afghanistan it soon didn’t matter. If five Human Terrain teams were good, 20 must be even better. The Defense Department began throwing money at the project, to its detriment. By 2010, the author was horrified to see firsthand that the teams had become incompetent, their mission confused, the members ignorant of the languages and customs they were supposed to provide expert information on.
“Team members were going into active conflict zones to do things that variously resembled ethnographic research, intelligence gathering, psychological operations and humanitarian aid.”
The departments of State and Defense were in competition with each other, further muddying the policy terrain.
“The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice” unfortunately is as messy as the war it depicts. Individual life stories flit by, and the government agencies involved become a confusing drone; I gave up trying to figure out which bureau was in charge of what. Paula Loyd, a young, pretty anthropologist, is featured in the first and last chapters. While she is talking to an Afghan man in a crowded bazaar, he suddenly pours gasoline over her and sets her on fire; a fellow team member guns him down; months later she dies a painful death. But by all indications the man was not Taliban or any kind of insurgent; he was, according to family members and others, merely crazy. Loyd’s story, while moving, has nothing to do with the central points about counterinsurgency author Vanessa Gezari is trying to make. An analysis of the Human Terrain experiment turns into a true crime story, interesting but off-topic.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.