Anthropology Association Condemns Work with U.S. Counterinsurgency

The following article discusses the American Anthropological Association’s condemnation of anthropologists collaborating with military missions such as the Human Terrain System.   Applying anthropological knowledge to counterinsurgency missions is incompatible with the ethics of the profession.

The Army public relations campaign regarding training in Makua valley is designed along the lines of counterinsurgency campaign.  The point is to figure out what the community’s values, interests and concerns are and to try to address them in order to win trust.  The ultimate objective of counterinsurgency is to have control of a population.   Meanwhile, the Army’s mission is not questioned.

In the case of Makua, Army live fire training has destroyed endangered species habitat, desecrated sacred sites and shattered the lives of residents who were forcibly removed from their land.  With growing pressure to end the Army training in the valley, the Army has begun to enlist the help of prominent Native Hawaiians to sway support for Army training. The Army has also taken the offensive to conduct tours where they can showcase their efforts to preserve the valley, conveniently excluding the voices of the community activists who have struggled for decades to protect the valley and win its ultimate restoration and return.  However, as was demonstrated by the Vietnam War, the most sophisticated counterinsurgency strategy cannot make people forget the fundamental humiliation and violence of occupation and militarization.  The way to ‘pacify’ a people is to let them live in peace.


Posted: December 3, 2009 10:32 AM

Anthropology Association Condemns Work with U.S. Counterinsurgency

Jeff Stein, Spy Talk Columnist

Anthropologists should not be helping U.S. military forces gather information about Afghan villagers and their way of life, a study commission sponsored by their academic organization said today.

The American Anthropological Association, in a study commissioned a year ago, called such work with the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) program in Afghanistan “incompatible” with the ethics of the profession.

“When ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment … it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology,” the AAA’ s Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities said in a report released today.

The commission recommended “that the AAA emphasize the incompatibility of HTS with disciplinary ethics and practice for job seekers and that it further recognize the problem of allowing HTS to define the meaning of anthropology’ within DoD.

The Human Terrain System, headquartered at Ft. Leavenworth, has been dogged by controversy since it was set up two years ago.

Three HTS social scientists have been killed in the course of their work in Afghanistan over the past two years. One of its researchers pled guilty to killing an Afghan who had attacked a fellow HTS social scientist. An HTS translator was charged last year with spying for Saddam Husseins Iraq for a dozen years.

From the beginning, the academic discipline was seen as a potentially important weapon in the U.S. counterinsurgency toolkit in Afghanistan.

Its mission was to “understand the people’s interests, because whoever is more effective at meeting the interests of the population will be able to influence it,” its most fervent advocate, Montgomery McFate, a Harvard- and Yale-trained anthropologist told Wired magazine’s Noah Shachtman in an interview last year.

But critics said anthropologists should not be helping military intelligence gather information about villagers in Afghanistan, Iraq — or anywhere else. Recent reports say the Army plans a $40 million expansion of the HTS program into U.S. commands in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

“HTS managers insist the program is not an intelligence asset,” the report said. “However, we note that the program is housed within a DoD intelligence asset, that it has reportedly been briefed as such an asset, and that a variety of circumstances of the work of Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) ‘on the ground’ in Iraq and Afghanistan create a significant likelihood that HTS data will in some way be used as part of military intelligence, advertently or inadvertently.

Anthropologists’ research is “potentially irreconcilable” with the Army’s, the report said, leading to “irreducible tensions with respect to the program’s basic identity.”

Serving “as a data source, as a source of intelligence, and as performing a tactical function in counterinsurgency warfare” creates “confusion,” it said, and “any anthropologist considering employment with HTS will have difficulty determining whether or not s/he will be able to follow the disciplinary Code of Ethics.”

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