HTS and military targeting?
There’s an article by Steve Featherstone about the Human Terrain System (HTS) in the September issue of Harpers magazine, entitled “Human Quicksand.” (The Harpers link requires a subscription to access, but the entire article is available at this website — however, the link might not last since Harpers has insisted that the website “cease and desist” from violating copyright.)
In July 2007, Featherstone joined the first ever Human Terrain Team (HTT) in Khost province, Afghanistan. These days, in the face of an anthropology backlash, spokespeople for and leaders of HTS like Montgomery McFate are downplaying the anthropological component of it and emphasizing instead that HTTs are led by social scientists of all stripes. But back at that time, HTS was strongly linked with anthropology and this particular HTT had an anthropologist (who is only given a first name, Tracy). This anthropologist also had a military background as one of the first female helicopter pilots in the 82nd Airborne, and that’s the brigade that this HTT was attached to — a savvy choice for a new “proof-of-concept” program that was still being regarded skeptically by many in the military who didn’t see what anthropology had to offer them. Here was a social scientist who wasn’t just some ivory tower egghead — she was one of the military’s own.
Featherstone is an embedded journalist: embedded with a Human Terrain Team. The HTS leadership carefully manage the program’s public image. Me, for example, I’ve received e-mail introductions to several HTT members for the article I’m writing for Weghat Nazar magazine, and lots of people involved with HTTs have cheerfully volunteered themselves for an interview, but nobody will do it without Laurie Adler’s permission. (Adler is the PR person for HTS.) I don’t know if HTS leadership negotiated control over what Featherstone could write in return for giving him access to this HTT, or if Featherstone is just personally won over by the team. (I can believe that it might be the latter — I’ve interviewed someone on that first HTT, and he’s a hell of a nice guy.) Either way, the first half of Featherstone’s article more or less reads like the embedded journalism puff piece I expected it to be.
But there’s a startling moment about two-thirds into the article that provides some provocative material that will surely fire up anthropological debate about the ethics of HTS, and about whether HTS enables the “military kill chain.”
Let me step back for a minute. As I’m sure all Culture Matters readers know, the ethics of HTS have been debated fiercely by anthropologists. The AAA Executive Board’s statement expressing “disapproval” of HTS is partly grounded in concern that information obtained by Human Terrain Teams might be used to target people:
4. As members of HTS teams, anthropologists provide information and counsel to U.S. military field commanders. This poses a risk that information provided by HTS anthropologists could be used to make decisions about identifying and selecting specific populations as targets of U.S. military operations either in the short or long term. Any such use of fieldwork-derived information would violate the stipulations in the AAA Code of Ethics that those studied not be harmed (section III A, 1).
HTT members, even those who are not anthropologists, are well aware of this. I’ve interviewed a few HTT members (including one of the guys who was on that first HTT in Afghanistan), and they’re all quick to tell me: “We don’t target people.” The point was made again and again by multiple people, preemptively, before I could even bring it up.
But Featherstone’s article suggests that HTS data IS used for military targeting. The link is not as direct as HTT members telling their Brigade Commander who to assassinate, but there’s definitely a link.
Here’s the section of the article that I’m talking about. Featherstone follows an HTT member on his rounds to meet locals and ask them what their needs are and what the U.S. military can do for them. They meet with an Afghani doctor. The doctor reports that he’s been targeted by the Taliban. He gets threatening messages, the gate of his compound has been bombed, and his home has been set on fire. He’s weary. He urges the US forces to go in and kill the bad guys. The HTT member who is interviewing the doctor tells him that it’s important to reconcile, not to keep fighting, if Aghanistan is even to be united. The doctor keeps insisting: they don’t want reconciliation. The guys who have been threatening him need to be killed. The HTT guy keeps insisting that the key is reconciliation. The meeting is portrayed as frustrating for both sides. IN the end, the HTT guy gives the doctor five televisions before leaving.
Later, the doctor’s problems are discussed with the entire HTT. After the meeting breaks up, Featherstone is alone with Fondacaro, and they discuss what to the journalist seems to be a hopeless situation. Featherstone says,
I told him about the doctor and Tracy’s take on his situation. It seemed hopeless, I said. No amount of cultural analysis was going to help the doctor. Fondacaro agreed. Security was a fundamental need, he said, like food and shelter. Without it, people like the doctor had been forced to make compromises, and all of our American platitudes and encouragement “didn’t mean shit.” Fondacaro leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. But we could look at the doctor’s predicament as an opportunity, he said. Everybody in the village knew the guy was getting night letters. If we “nailed” the Taliban one night, that would send a clear message.
“Who’s the audience? The people. If I demonstrate success in protecting this guy’s life against a known threat, and I win . . . ” Fondacaro paused and looked over his shoulder at the empty room. “Audience, what do you think? Everybody’s holding up nines: 9.5, 9.8. It’s simply a decision that’s got to be made.”
On the one hand, it’s clear that the HTT is working hard to improve the local situation and determined to avoid violence. The HTT member says “reconciliation” under the doctor is exasperated. Yet from there, the head of the HTS makes a decision to target people. To nail the Taliban. We don’t know what it means to “nail” the Taliban, but it sure sounds like “kinetic” (that’s military lingo for deadly) force might be involved. The HTT hasn’t told him to. But he takes the information that the HTT has gathered and appears to make that decision.