Australia: Afghan language training hints at long haul ’

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Dec 26 16:23:22 UTC 2008

'Lethal effects targeting'
Harry Feldman at 7:30 am on Friday, December 26, 2008

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

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

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

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.

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