Saturday, July 03, 2010

One Way Or the Other, You're Involved

It used to be (and may still be, for all I know) a staple of the liberal side of the aisle to say that "if you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem." I assume that sounds too much like a Bushian "you're either with us or against us" statement, so is now out of favor. But I could be wrong.

We have human terrain teams that help our troops sort out the cultural factors involved in fighting the Afghan war. Apparently, this is a running controversy among some anthropologists who think it is getting involved in the war. You see, sometimes that involves helping our troops directly:

Sometimes, however, the line between civilian and military is blurred. During one stop, a man swore that his neighbor was working with the insurgents. Although the accusation could have potentially serious consequences for the person in question, Carnahan didn't hesitate to pass the information to company officers. "If we get something that's a threat to a unit, then we turn it over to them," he says. "One way or another, you're involved." (See a story on recruiting Afghan police officers.)

This kind of scenario lies at the crux of a running controversy over the Human Terrain System, a U.S. Army–funded program that was launched in Iraq and expanded in Afghanistan that pairs social scientists with war fighters. Its backers contend that civilian specialists - particularly anthropologists - with in-depth field experience are best suited to "map" Afghanistan's complex tribal structures and fault lines. In turn, they can identify the key power brokers and projects needed to build public support, marginalizing the Taliban and advancing the Pentagon's counterinsurgency strategy. (See a video of the Afghan army in action.)

The program's outspoken critics from the academic community aren't buying that argument. They have long said that human-terrain teams are just another arm of military intelligence that violate the most basic ethics of their discipline: first do no harm. A December report by the American Anthropological Association concluded that because teams work with combat units and must conform to the goals of a military mission, their work "can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology."

Let me clue in the ivory tower types. It is "doing harm" to stand aside and look down your nose at those of your rare colleagues who are helping our troops fight medieval barbarians who'd, if given the chance, sack your quiet little college towns in a heart beat to swig down your collection of fine cognac and wipe their mouths on the tweed coats you array in your walk-in closet. Your colleagues in the field with our troops in Afghanistan are doing the right thing for our country. Don't you remember signing that petition way back in 2006 extolling the "good war" in Afghanistan while condemning the "bad war" in Iraq?

So what if helping our troops isn't a "professional exercise of anthropology?" It is using that knowledge of anthropology to help the troops right now, at war. Would our troops really be better served by receiving foot-noted research documents on 17th century Afghan clan marriage rituals? Is that really a matter of superior ethics on your part?

You, my AAA friends, are clueless twits who think you are being high-minded, scholarly neutrals. But by opposing the program and refusing to stand with our troops, you are actually helping the enemy, in effect. One way or the other, you're involved, and we can see how you're part of the problem.