A Terrain's Tragic Shift
Researcher's Death Intensifies Scrutiny Of U.S. Cultural Program in Afghanistan

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

With its mud-walled houses and narrow lanes, Chehel Gazi looked like a hundred other dusty villages that Paula Loyd had visited in southern Afghanistan over the years. She greeted villagers with the same forthright, friendly concern that she had always displayed during her past stints as an aid worker, U.N. staffer and member of civil affairs teams for the U.S. Army.

But Loyd, 36, a blond woman with a strong resemblance to the actress Daryl Hannah, was also a startling sight as she strode into the village market one morning last November, wearing combat fatigues and circled by armed guards. They were in the heart of ethnic Pashtun territory, a traditional region where the Islamic Taliban movement was born in the 1990s and women are still hidden from public view.

Loyd's mission this time, as a researcher on contract to the Pentagon, was to get to know the villagers and their problems, to help the military map out what it called the "human terrain" of Afghanistan and thus improve its ability to fight Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents. With two interpreters at her side, she began to ask shoppers about the cost of fuel. One Afghan man, carrying a jug of gasoline, lingered to chat and thanked her for the visit. It was a bright winter day, and the mood in the market seemed relaxed and cordial.

Suddenly, the calm was shattered: According to court documents and government accounts, the man holding the jug abruptly hurled the gasoline at Loyd's face and chest, set her on fire and bolted. She fell to the ground in a fetal position, groaning, in flames. One guard took off after the attacker while the other rolled Loyd into a stream to douse the flames. Police began firing their guns in confusion. One guard, Don Ayala, had cuffed the man and pinned him to the ground when an Afghan interpreter ran over, screaming hysterically that Loyd was burning to death. Ayala turned and shot his prisoner in the head.

That brief flurry of violence has left a lingering trail of tragedy. The attacker died instantly, unable to shed light on his motives or possible conspirators. Ayala, one of three people in Loyd's tight-knit field team, was charged with murder in U.S. federal court and could face 15 years in prison. And Loyd, who had become deeply attached to Afghanistan, died 10,000 miles away in a San Antonio Army hospital, finally succumbing to her burns Jan. 7.

The horrific events of Nov. 4 have also taken on a larger strategic significance as the Obama administration prepares to commit up to 30,000 troops to a new civil-military campaign to win over the Afghan populace and defeat the insurgents. The fatal attack on Loyd has aroused new criticism of the program that hired her to help the U.S. military understand Afghan society -- and it has highlighted rising worries about the increasingly treacherous human terrain that awaits those who follow her.

'Don't Worry About Me'

Given her cheerleader looks, winning personality and pedigreed education, Texas-born Paula Loyd could have chosen virtually any career. She attended boarding school in Connecticut, majored in cultural anthropology at Wellesley and obtained a master's degree in conflict resolution and diplomacy at Georgetown. When she told her family she wanted to join the military, everyone presumed she would apply for Officer Candidate School.

But Loyd, her mother said, always wanted to be "on the ground, close to the people." Restless and driven, she had a lifelong desire to help those in troubled foreign lands. She also had a horror of offices and a rebellious indifference to title or class. She enlisted as an Army private and became a heavy-wheel-vehicle mechanic. She served briefly in South Korea, but once she was posted to Afghanistan in early 2002, shortly after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban regime, she knew she had found her niche.

Although she left active service after one tour, Loyd immediately shifted to a succession of jobs aimed at rebuilding the war-ravaged country, and often at bridging the gap between civilian and military agencies. She worked as a reservist with an Army civil affairs battalion, bringing medical aid and supplies to villages like Chehel Gazi. She worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development at a military reconstruction outpost, helping to resolve local disputes. She worked for the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration. All the while, friends and colleagues said, she deepened her love and knowledge of Afghan society.

"She cared about my country as much as I did," said Faridoon Barakzai, her former translator, who now works with a consulting firm in Arlington. In a recent interview, he recalled how the two drove to countless southern villages in 2002 and 2003, speaking with people about their needs. "She especially loved to be in the south," he said. "She found the people more friendly, and she felt comfortable. She knew the rules of the culture well, and she was careful not to hug or shake hands with men, but she felt safe."

Other friends and colleagues from Loyd's time in Afghanistan described her as a woman of extraordinary energy, empathy and personal force, who worked around the clock and battled blizzards and bureaucracy to bring help to others. Their stories have poured out at tearful memorial services in Texas and Washington, and in hundreds of messages on blogs and Web sites since her death.

"She had a passion for the people of Afghanistan, and it was all we could do to keep up with her," Ray Short, an Army major who served with Loyd in 2002 and 2003, wrote on a memorial Web site. "She died doing the work of bringing peace to a people she loved and respected. Her work will touch generations of Afghans. . . . I am a better person for having lived and served with her."

Loyd was also famous for rescuing dogs while on military missions, including three puppies she found abandoned beside a highway and a blind dog she named Bob. One friend recounted that Loyd invited her to join her family on vacation in the Caribbean but then never made it because she stayed in Kabul to make sure all four dogs made it safely on flights to the United States.

Loyd's mother, Patty Ward, a vivacious woman in her 50s with a homey drawl, visited Washington recently to attend a memorial service at the Ronald Reagan Building. Back in her Alexandria hotel, she was bursting to describe Loyd's life and work, but her face tightened when asked about the attack. "I will not have her remembered for one violent act," Ward said sharply. "She did too much good for this to be the last thing people remember about Paula Loyd."

The two women constantly e-mailed each other when Loyd was overseas. In their last exchange, Oct. 27, Ward mentioned an article she had seen about aid workers in Afghanistan being worried for their safety. Seven hours later, Loyd sent back a chipper, reassuring reply.

"Don't worry about me," she wrote. "We are riding around in these new vehicles that look like tanks and I have lots of security around all the time." In rural Kandahar, she added, there were mostly farm compounds, no big urban targets, and the Taliban just passed through on the road. "Don't worry :) Love you, Paula."

Human Terrain System

If one were to chart the events in Afghanistan that coincided with Loyd's time there, they would form a slow, upward arc of progress between 2002 and 2006: elections held, highways reopened, militias demobilized, schools and clinics built. But beginning in early 2006, the arc would begin a long downward slope as opium poppy production soared, corruption spread and attacks by insurgents increased month by month.

At first the violence was limited to military clashes, but then the insurgents began going after softer targets. Girls' schools were attacked. Government employees were hanged as spies. Suicide bombings, once unheard of among Afghans, became weekly occurrences. Foreigners, including women, became victims, too. A young French woman who worked with refugees was shot dead, then a female British-South African doctor. In Kabul, suicide squads invaded the fortresslike Serena Hotel and attacked the Indian Embassy.

Meanwhile the insurgents' anti-government, anti-foreign message began to resonate with some Afghans, especially in the Pashtun south. Mired in poverty and alienated from a corrupt state, some villagers were vulnerable to the arguments of these fellow Muslims and ethnic brethren. After Western bombing raids killed civilian villagers in several high-profile incidents, the once-wide welcome for American and NATO forces shifted to dismay, resentment and hostility.

By the time Loyd returned to Afghanistan last September, this time as a researcher with one of the Army's Human Terrain System teams, the ground had shifted dramatically. Taliban forces controlled much of the south and had established a strong presence in districts an hour's drive from the capital. Foreign aid workers and officials no longer ventured into most of the countryside. In Kabul, foreign compounds were often on lockdown, carpet bazaars were empty and garden cafes had become high-security bunkers.

Loyd's mission was a familiar one: to reach out to rural Afghans and try to untangle the web of tribal, political and ethnic relations that governed their lives. But the strategic underpinnings of her employment had also changed. Now she was part of a military program with a controversial three-year history in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose supporters had hailed it as an urgently needed innovation in post-9/11 conflicts but whose critics had compared it to the failed counterinsurgency campaigns of Vietnam.

Although the Human Terrain System was designed by an anthropologist, it was ardently opposed by groups of social scientists who believe the military should not use scholars as collaborators in combat. After the program started in 2005, it generated an avalanche of heated debate in academic circles and online, which has intensified since Loyd's death.

"In theory, it is a good idea. . . . In practice, however, it has been a disaster," the magazine Nature said a recent editorial, noting that Loyd was the third civilian casualty on a Human Terrain mission in the past year. While conceding that scientific insights "have much to offer strategies in a war zone," the editors added that unless the program can be revamped to lessen "deadly mistakes, it needs to be closed down."

When Loyd and her team walked into the Chehel Gazi market, they must have exuded mixed messages: a friendly foreign woman circled by wary armed men. The Afghan who set her on fire might have been a Taliban fighter following orders, but he also might have been merely a conservative villager, influenced by Taliban propaganda that portrays Western soldiers as occupiers and Western women as immoral. Attacks against women are spreading throughout the south; soon after Loyd's death, insurgents threw acid at a group of high school girls in nearby Kandahar city.

A variety of Afghans, however, have expressed grief and affection for Loyd, stressing that her attacker did not represent their values or culture. President Hamid Karzai issued a formal statement of condolence. Khalil Tareen, another former translator, spoke emotionally at the recent memorial service about how Loyd had arranged medical help that saved the life of his severely ill nephew.

"On behalf of my family and many Afghans, I would like to apologize for what happened to your daughter," he said, looking toward Ward and half a dozen other relatives. He said many Afghans who had known her were "heartbroken" by her death. "You lost your daughter. We lost a friend and an angel."

Loyd's employers, while continuing to defend their program, have joined the outpouring of official praise for her as a soldier, aid worker and human being. "Paula was motivated by a deep compassion for the victims of war and was a true humanitarian," Montgomery McFate and Steve Fondacaro, the co-founders of the Human Terrain System, wrote on a Pentagon Web site.

Meanwhile, in a gesture to appease Afghan sensibilities, the U.S. government charged Ayala with second-degree murder in U.S. federal court. The security contractor from New Orleans pleaded guilty Jan. 3, but so far he has refused to explain his actions. Sources close to Ayala suggested he lost control upon learning Loyd was hideously burned, and many friends and bloggers have hailed him as a hero.

There might be one further casualty in the tragic events of Nov. 4. At a time when U.S. officials believe the key to salvaging the war in Afghanistan is to combine military might with political engagement and cultural understanding, many international experts have begun leaving the country in disillusionment, while fewer and fewer are signing up. Several of Loyd's colleagues, once as highly motivated as she, say they will never go back.

"I hope like hell we find a way to continue the kind of work Paula was doing. It is vital for the Afghan campaign now. There is an urgent need to get over petty institutional insecurities and work together," said Brig. Phil Jones, an officer at the British Embassy in Washington who worked with Loyd in Kabul.

"Paula died, and others will die. It is very hard to accept, but we need more people like her," he said. "Otherwise we will just be out there, blundering around in our diving boots and stomping on eggshells."

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