Rough Terrain: The Human Terrain Program Embeds Anthropologists With the U.S. Military in Afghanistan

U.S. soldiers are being joined by civilian anthropologists as part of the Human Terrain program, a new strategy to win over villagers.
By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, August 30, 2009

The American soldiers gathered in a makeshift conference room where fine dust coated the long table and maps hung on the walls. The maps showed the area around the base in careful detail: the villages, shallow valleys and fields, the thin band of Highway 1 running west from Kandahar.

Army Lt. Terrence Paul Dunn, a 24-year-old from Fredericksburg, stood in front of the map. He pointed to a rectangular patch of fields and compounds across a low stretch of land a few hundred yards from the base. This was Pir Zadeh, the friendliest village in his unit's operating area.

The soldiers sat on benches along the wall. They were young, with regulation haircuts and a mix of boredom and nervousness in their eyes. Among them were a big man with a full beard and extra clips of ammunition strapped to his chest, and another who wore wire-rimmed glasses with his Army-issue camouflage. They were civilians, members of an experimental Army project called the Human Terrain System that embeds anthropologists and other social scientists with front-line units to advise soldiers about local culture.

Dunn traced the route they would take. Pir Zadeh lay within sight of the base, but it was too risky to walk. They would drive in MRAPs, heavy, armored vehicles designed to minimize the effects of makeshift bombs, then would get out and move west through the village. The soldiers would create a secure perimeter as they walked, Dunn told them. Any villager who wanted to pass the patrol would have to enter the perimeter and be frisked for weapons. The patrol would work its way along a narrow alley that led between high compound walls where, if they were attacked, they could be easily boxed in.

"Today we're maintaining lots of standoff," Dunn said. "We're going to make sure that people who are in our perimeter stay in our perimeter, and people who are outside stay outside."

The men nodded. This semi-urban topography made them anxious, though the surrounding open dunes weren't much better. Eight years into the war, Dunn and the other soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Regiment, 1st Infantry Division -- known as Task Force 2-2 -- were the first international troops to patrol Maywand district in significant numbers. Most days, the sand flats and wheat and poppy fields of western Kandahar province were deceptively quiet. But Maywand was a key transit area for fighters and drugs, and the Taliban controlled it, intimidating people who knew the local government couldn't protect them. For a time last fall, more makeshift bombs were planted there than any other place in Afghanistan or Iraq. In October, the Taliban pulled passengers off a bus and beheaded them, leaving the bodies near the road.

The deployment of U.S. soldiers to Maywand was an experiment. So, too, was the Human Terrain project and the road map to progress envisioned by the bespectacled social scientist joining the patrol that day. The war had not gone well. This was not a time for old approaches but for bold new ones that might seem crazy or that just might work.

Karl Slaikeu had asked for this assignment. A 64-year-old psychologist and conflict-resolution specialist from Texas, Karl had been nursing an idea that he thought could change the course of the war. He was looking for a village that, with concerted attention, could be turned into a model of development and security. Pir Zadeh, where the patrol was bound, was a place where locals had formed a neighborhood watch and where the village elder seemed to like Americans.

Dunn wrapped up his briefing. "Any questions?"

The bearded Human Terrain team member, who went by the nickname Banger, asked what to do if the patrol came under attack.

"If we take contact, you guys are getting down," Dunn said. "You're going to stay down until instructed otherwise, obviously finding cover."

Before heading out, Banger and Karl huddled with their Afghan American interpreter. Banger was a former Marine whose background had prepared him for missions such as this, but Karl had arrived in Afghanistan only a month earlier and had never before been to a war zone. Like the other social scientists on the Human Terrain teams, he had been offered the option of carrying a weapon and had been issued an M-16, though he acknowledged he wasn't fully prepared to use it.

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