The story behind an HTS picture
[Note: after I posted this article (which Major Holbert didn’t edit at all), he told me he’d been getting some flak for it and asked me to remove the personal information in it. I have done so, and so below is an edited version of the original post. –LLW]
Major Robert Holbert was part of the first Human Terrain Team deployed to Khost province, Afghanistan, in early 2007. I first saw his picture when I was reading an article about the Human Terrain System by Roberto González (“‘Human Terrain’: Past, Present, and Future Applications,” Anthropology Today 24(1):21).
But then I started seeing the picture other places, too. It is used on blogs to illustrate the Human Terrain System (see, for example, here), and on the official Human Terrain System (HTS) website (though it seems to rotate with other pictures so I can’t provide a stable link). When I finally found it on a military photo source website, I understood why: it’s a free picture from the military (on http://www.defenselink.mil/).
As I was researching this article, someone I was talking to about HTS wrote to me and said, “By the way, Lisa — the army fellow in the bottom photo taking notes is Bob Holbert …a ‘typical’ US Army white dude, but also a practicing Muslim, ardent Obama-phile, and all-round super guy.” I thought that it would be interesting to track down Major Holbert and ask him for the story behind that photo. On 21 August, we had a chat on the phone and I took notes. Since he told me so many more things than I could ever include in the article I’m writing about anthropology and the military, I asked Major Holbert if I could post our interview on Culture Matters.
“I would like that, to be perfectly honest,” he said. “I’m a flaming liberal in uniform and I feel completely vindicated through this program – in that they’re finally getting it, that you can kill people all day and still lose the counterinsurgency. It’s when you understand the population that’s when you win. And the problem is our own hubris and we talk down to the little brown people and the people with this alien religion.”
I told him that I’d give him the chance the review my notes since I wasn’t tape-recording the conversation and let him tell me if I’d correctly represented him. Holbert, who is a genuinely funny and really laid-back guy, said, “I don’t want to sound like an asshole, that’s my only request!”
LLW: So as you know, I’m really curious about that picture that circulates of you on a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan. I thought it would be interesting to tell the story behind that picture: who were you talking to? What were you talking about? What brought you there, how were you introduced to those people? But maybe it would be best if you started first by telling us more about your background and how you ended up on a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan.
RH: I’m an infantry officer, do you know what that means?
LLW: Not really.
RH: A foot soldier. An officer – but, see, we have branches in the military: engineers, infantry, field artillery…. I went through ROTC in college, I was in a guard unit so you serve as a non-commissioned officer, a sergeant. Then when you get the degree you get your commission. Reserve commission. Army National Guard, Army Reserves.
So basically I’m in this reserve unit in Lincoln Nebraska. A drill sergeant unit, you know – we trained basic trainees on infantry skills.
But I also had this social studies background – I’m a teacher and I used to teach social studies. And one of my NCOs – that’s a Non-Commissioned Officer – was looking through job listings on the army knowledge website, and he’s like, “Sir, this is perfect for you!” It said they were looking for combat arms branch qualified officers with a social science background. He said, “A couple-month tour, and you’ll get a break from teaching, you need a break.”
So I just sent my name in. And three days later I get this phone call from Ft Leavenworth, saying, “How soon can you start?” Because I had background in Islam and had taught classes on Central Asia, and that’s not really common [in the Army]. Pretty rare, actually.
LLW: What year was this?
RH: 2006. I thought it would just be a 3-month tour and would be a good experience. I had no idea I was going to Afghanistan. I thought I would be an analyst. Then I got there and it [the Human Terrain System] was still a growing program, just an embryo of what it is now. And then pretty soon I said, you know, I want to go to Afghanistan [on a Human Terrain Team]. I think I can do this, I think it’s sort of my destiny here. So I put my name in to be on the first team to Afghanistan with an anthropologist and 2 other reserve soldiers.
It’s hard to teach infantry dudes. If you’re in a fight you absolutely want dudes from the 82nd Airborne on your side. I love working with them. The brigade commander, Schweitzer, he got it: that it’s not about killing people, it’s about understanding the local population and fulfilling the needs of the local population. It’s when you establish a relationship with the locals and trust each other, that’s when you win. It’s non-lethal methods that win this war.
So we were cultural advisors to the 82nd Airborne. Have you seen the congressional testimony? I’ll send you the congressional testimony. We reduced lethal operations – or what they call “kinetic” operations in the devil-speak of the military – we reduced “kinetic” operations by 60-70% in some of the districts. I’ll send you the testimony. That was huge. And all it was about was Sesame Street: too easy. It’s about treating people the way you want to be treated. It’s so simple. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s naïve. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have your guard on. You can be hit at any time, you have to be on guard at all times. So you can’t be naïve about it. It’s about being savvy. That’s what wins this war.
And it [this military strategy of getting to know local populations] is going to increase with Obama if he gets in. I don’t know if you heard tonight but the Pentagon approved his plan for Afghanistan. You know… The fight’s in Afghanistan, it’s not in Iraq. Afghanistan is where the bad guys are, and Pakistan, not Iraq. Because you know the soldiers did the right thing. It’s the politicians, the leadership who let us down. We just assume that we’re Americans and everybody loves us and we’ll just show up and everyone will throw flowers at our feet and think we’re really neat. But we’re talking about a culture that’s thousands of years old and we’re only 228 years old, or something like that, and we don’t get the relevance of that.
LLW: What is the relevance of that?
RH: The relevance of that is: We’re just some snot-nosed kids on the block, trying to tell Grandma and Grandpa how to run their home. We have no respect for Islam, we look at it as though it’s some monolithic religion, when it’s completely different in so many countries.
LLW: So tell me the story behind that picture.
RH: Right, that picture of me and the schoolmaster.
We were inside a clinic that treated children who had lost limbs to mines and people who needed physical therapy because of their injuries. The schoolmaster in that picture was telling me that the Taliban had burned out his school and destroyed his school supplies. Being a school teacher myself, we hit it off right away. I was looking at him more like I was a student and I was learning from him about what was really needed for the school. The fact is that they have to have security because they need to protect the school supplies. Otherwise the Taliban will come in and destroy whatever they can find. It’s ironic, right? Because Taliban comes from a root word meaning ‘student.’ I asked him if I could take notes, I always do that with the people I talk to in Afghanistan, so I was just taking notes on what was destroyed, how it was destroyed, his frustrations about how he can’t provide for his students because of the Taliban, al-Qaeda. It was just a bitch session between two educators. And his bitching was far more critical and significant than any of mine ever was. Because his kids wanted to go to school. Mine didn’t!
LLW: But step back and tell me the basics of how you got in there. Like how did you even go and get introduced to this schoolmaster?
RH: I was with my sergeant and I was assigned to a rifle platoon from the 82nd Airborne, then we hooked up with a civil affairs team that was attached to the rifle platoon, and we were also working with the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. And so part of the deal was we were going out and doing assessments of the area of assessment for this platoon, so we went to this one village.
LLW: How did you even know where to go and who to talk to?
RH: Our interpreters knew where to go, they knew who to talk to in the area, then they just let us do what we do best, which is a quick interview, get the person’s story. And they [the school teachers] found out I was a teacher and that open a lot of doors. Then my interpreter told them that I had converted to Islam, and then they were really interested in talking, they were fascinated by that. Why does an American convert to Islam? It was a really strange concept. So that opened up a lot of doors.
LLW: Who took the picture?
RH: A combat photographer, they come from Division. A reserve soldier who was activated for Afghanistan and he went along with us to take pictures of who we talk to, I mean, not really of who we talk to, but of the settings, what we do.
We don’t do targeting!
LLW: Yes, tell me about that. You don’t do targeting?
RH: That’s part of the issue with the AAA, this is where I get really pissed off, and as a liberal myself, I think I can say this: I get really pissed off at the sniveling liberal attitude towards the military system.
This was the first opportunity we had to change the military thinking and make them realize that you don’t need to kill everything and call it a success. You still have to be able to kill when you have to. But you also need to know that it’s about building relationships, establishing a rapport with the local population. To go forward and just kill people is losing. Look at the Soviets. They killed over 2 million Afghans and lost, so you know it ain’t going to work. It’s trying to teach them how to balance the velvet glove with the naked fist.
The social sciences are very powerful in this aspect. Anthropology is just a sexy word – don’t get me wrong, I like anthropologists! – but it’s about social science in general, about economists, about historians, sociologists, psychologists – everyone has something to bring to the game. It’s about how to use those skill sets more effectively to reduce casualties among the local population and local soldiers. When we get it, really get it, people’s lives are saved. That’s what attracted me to the program and made me volunteer.
You know, the average age of a combat soldier is like 19, we’re talking kids who fell asleep in social studies class… [edited] We have to teach them that it’s okay to have an open mind. And the push back that I get is “You’re going to soften my soldiers so that when shit breaks out and there’s a gunfight, they’re going to be too touchy-feely to return fire and do what they’re trained to do” – and that’s not it! I’m not saying we need to develop dual personalities in our soldiers, but maybe it’s a good idea to be more balanced. We need to be more savvy. We are not fighting this smart.
LLW: But what about research ethics? Yes, you’re telling me that you can change the way the army things. But what about the effect on local populations? I mean, you were talking about Taliban, about an enemy, about bad guys. And you’re in a war, and the army kills people. Are you sure that the information you get while you’re talking to people would never be used for targeting? What if that schoolteacher who was telling you about how the Taliban had burned down his school, what if told you that those Taliban were in that mountain pass, that village, that clan?
RH: It’s not a pristine project. This is not Operation Phoenix or Camelot resurrected. But if there is actionable intelligence that will save soldier and civilian lives from being killed, I’m going to hand it over. I am. Who gets killed more, soldiers or Afghan civilians? Afghan civilians. If I know that there’s a suicide bomber coming, then I’m going to prevent it. I’m going to prevent soldiers and Afghans from being killed. But I don’t go out looking for people to target and say [to my commander], “You need to whack so-and-so.” No. We don’t tell him to go whack people. We say, “If you do this, there are the possible effects of your reactions. This is how you’re going to piss off the local population.”
You know, we led a mosque renovation project and wow, rocket attacks were gone. And now the Taliban has to deal with the fact that we set up a joint effort between soldiers and Afghans to work together to refurbish the mosque. And now the Taliban has to think, you know, they’ve put out propaganda for all these years that Americans hate Muslims and Islam, but now their cousin Fareed is working with Americans to rebuild a mosque, how does that fit into their propaganda? It’s about engaging the population, about learning from the locals. And we are the middle piece in that, between the brigade and the local population.
I’ll give you an example of what we do. We went into one village and my sergeant and I were with this civil affairs team and the platoon leader, his mission was to go in early morning to search the mosque and the homes ahead of us. And we said, “No. Bad idea.” It was Friday. This village was teetering between going pro-Coalition or falling back into the hands of the Taliban. They hadn’t seen Coalition for 8 months so just out of survival they have to side with the Taliban, because if you don’t, they drag you or your kids out into the street and kill you, shoot you or cut off your head. So are you going to tell an Afghan family, “Well, sorry about your son, but just hang on, we’ll be there eventually”? No parent wants to watch their child shot or beheaded. We know that they side with the Taliban because they have to. So we have to win them over to the Coalition.
We said okay, don’t go in and search the place before prayer or during prayer. We’ll just have a little street shoura, a meeting. So we went in. There were no kids in the street when we first went in, bad sign. Eventually people started to trickle out and we started to talk to them. And then they invited us for lunch so we had lunch with them. It went great. When we were leaving, they told us that between the end of the village and the orchard, that there was an IED, an improvised explosive device. They didn’t know exactly where, but they knew that the Taliban had put it there the night before. They told us about it. And if we had pissed off the villagers and disrespected them, you know, gone in searching every house and mosque, if they thought we were full of shit, they wouldn’t have told us about that IED.
It was a double-stacked TH6. Those are anti-tank mines, Italian made. Big. Huge. They would have – there would have been massive casualties. They didn’t know exactly where it was but they knew it was out there, and if we’d pissed off the village and disrespected the elders, gone in there before morning prayers, we would have been screwed.
It’s about navigating that cultural landscape. That’s where we come in. We don’t know everything, but we know enough to not piss people off, and it’s about building relationships and learning. You go in as the student. And you want to learn. And the Afghans are completely gracious. And that’s what we don’t get because we come from this machismo culture that thinks, that’s all bullshit, the humility is archaic, and if you go in and threaten people and ask like bad-asses, you get results. How would we feel if we were an occupied country? That’s all you have to ask yourself. How would you feel if it was your country? It’s so simple, yet it’s so hard to teach to the grunts. You have to gruntify the information so they get it. These are guys who are taught to kill, that’s all they know.
Iraq is completely different from Afghanistan – there I think it’s a case of too little, too late. I think the Human Terrain Teams have to go in at the zero phase of a conflict, before hostilities are breaking out. Kandahar? That’s a freaking gunfight, what are cultural advisors going to do for a gunfight, except participate in one?
LW: OK, well let me ask a hard question, the kind of question I can imagine opponents of HTS posing. Yes, you’re saying this saves lives, and probably that’s true. But at the same time, it facilitates a military occupation of another country. You say it’s about winning a war. But talking about winning, it takes the war for granted. In the end, you’re facilitating the U.S. occupation of another country. How would you answer that?
RH: [sighs] I’m not going to completely disagree, it’s not… God. It is what it is. OK, you say we’re an occupying army, we’re an occupying army. If that’s how you look at it, that’s how it is. What else do you call it when you’re not from the country and you’re in it? But if you’re going to fight it, then you’re there. This is an opportunity to change the culture of the military, this is our golden hour as progressives, and yeah, we’re in a country, we’re occupying it, but I’m trying to work myself out of a job, you know. We don’t want to stay there. And we’re only going to do it [right] when we realize that it is what it is and we have to deal with the facts on the ground. And the facts on the ground are that the military is not prepared to deal with the counterinsurgency in which you need to quit killing so many people and you need to start building up the population. And it is a counter-intuitive proposition to the fighters, to the war fighters. Because they’re trained to kill. And now you’re telling them, “You need to quit killing, you need to establish relationships.” You know, and they’re saying, “The only relationship I want to establish is the one that comes out of the business end of my M4.” So how do you break that [mentality]?
We can’t apply an American solution to every cultural context, because it doesn’t jive. We need to adapt, and it takes hard work and lots of thinking and these are guys who don’t have time to think, they have to react and act before the enemy has time to react. They’re brothers and sister who are very bitter, they have been on multiple tours, they don’t understand why Muslims don’t like them and why they don’t think they’re the good guys.
And me too, I was completely aggravated when I was over there. The mosque that they renovated, it was 100 feet away from center of operations. They had Port-A-Potties in front of the mosque – 10 feet in front of the mosque! What does that say to the local population? They don’t think of these things! Fox News is the enemy. Because they jade the thinking of every solider who goes over there. We’re not very agile in our thinking. And it’s a cultural thing here because humility is considered a weakness in our culture. It’s not considered a strength. Whereas in Afghanistan, there’s no honor without humility. It’s a culture that has a poet-warrior archetype. You know, I’d interview people and they’d give answers back in poetry, it was beautiful. And we don’t get that. We don’t see the duality, we don’t see the ability to… We don’t see the coexistence. There’s a far more holistic approach to the universe and to culture and relationships in Afghanistan than there is in our society. We want business up front, and fuck drinking tea! Well you know what? You’re in Afghanistan so you’d better shut the fuck up and drink tea. When in Rome.