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Story Publication logo August 28, 2009

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


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Since 2007, an experimental Pentagon program has been sending teams of civilian anthropologists and...

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A U.S. soldier passes out candy to children in Pir Zadeh, a village in Afghanistan. Military commanders and architects of the Human Terrain project say that it helps make soldiers more knowledgeable about the society surrounding them, thus minimizing casualties and civilian deaths. Image by Vanessa M. Gezari. Afghanistan, 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.

Now Banger told Karl to be aware of his surroundings when interviewing villagers. If we're attacked, he told the older man, wait until the last minute to shoot.

"Only engage if you have to," Banger said. "That avoids any accidental perceptional issues, not knowing where anybody is."

"Got it," Karl said.


Karl and Banger had good reason to be watchful. On a clear day last fall, a Human Terrain social scientist named Paula Loyd and two of her teammates walked with a group of soldiers to a village just outside the base where Karl and Banger met to discuss their patrol.

A 36-year-old from Texas, Paula had a wide, heart-shaped smile, degrees from Wellesley and Georgetown and years of experience as a soldier and aid worker in Afghanistan. On a lane near the bazaar, she talked to a villager about the price of the jug of gasoline he was holding. Without warning, the Afghan doused her with gas and set her on fire. The soldiers and one of Paula's Human Terrain teammates, a 46-year-old former Army Ranger named Don Ayala, caught her attacker. When Don heard that Paula had been badly burned, he pulled out his pistol and shot the man in the head.

Don pleaded guilty to manslaughter and in May was sentenced to five years of probation and fined. Paula was flown to a hospital in her home town of San Antonio, where she died in January. She was the third Human Terrain social scientist killed in the field in eight months. Karl Slaikeu had been sent to take her place.

Known to his teammates as Doc, Karl had attended seminary as a young man and considered becoming a minister like his father. Instead, he got a PhD in psychology, taught at the University of South Carolina and started a conflict-resolution business for corporate and private clients in Austin.

In the eight years since Sept. 11, as his Marine son deployed to Baghdad and he watched the United States slip deeper into two complex wars, Karl had grown frustrated by his own helplessness. The possibility of his son's death in combat forced him to think hard about U.S. policy.

"As a parent, I had to prepare to lose him if he was going to be over there," Karl said. "So I had to decide, 'What do I think about this?' "

He began reading everything he could find, looking for ways that ordinary citizens like him could engage and sacrifice. Then he heard about the Human Terrain System. Born of a realization within the Pentagon that soldiers and commanders didn't have enough cultural knowledge to win irregular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the project embeds civilian social scientists with military units to advise soldiers on factors including tribal structures, local economics and politics. The first Human Terrain team deployed in 2007, and today there are roughly 20 teams in Iraq. In January, U.S. Central Command asked the project to more than double the number of teams it deploys to Afghanistan, from six to 13.

The project is emblematic of a bigger change sweeping the Army under Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the "surge" in Iraq and a co-author of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Unlike the "shock and awe" tactics used during the invasion of Iraq, a counterinsurgency is a low-tech form of warfare focused on understanding and meeting the needs of local communities. Soldiers in Maywand spend more time offering to dig wells than shooting Taliban, and yet they are still trained primarily to fight and kill. They lack a nuanced understanding of their environment, and in a counterinsurgency, that's a fatal shortfall.

"You can't establish a democracy, build a school, build a banking system unless you know something about the society that you're working in," said Montgomery McFate, the anthropologist who helped create the Human Terrain System with retired Special Operations Col. Steve Fondacaro.

Military commanders and the project's architects say that it helps make soldiers more knowledgeable, thus minimizing casualties and civilian deaths. But the number of highly trained social scientists with extensive knowledge about Afghanistan and Iraq is extremely limited, and most of them don't want anything to do with the military.

In 2007, the American Anthropological Association came out against the project on the grounds that anthropologists working alongside soldiers would become indistinguishable from the military, making it harder for the scientists' subjects to freely consent to be interviewed. The association also noted that the information gathered by the Human Terrain teams could be used to target opponents in combat, violating ethics rules that require subjects not be harmed in the course of research.

Despite contractor pay in 2007 and 2008 of $250,000 and higher, many scholars were hesitant to join. (In early 2009, Human Terrain team members became government employees, a change that cut their pay by roughly a third.) When Karl first learned of the Human Terrain project, he wasn't sure they would want a conflict-resolution specialist who had never been to Afghanistan. He also wasn't sure he wanted to join a project that had been so intensely criticized.

He studied, prayed and talked it over with friends, academics and his wife, Diane. He eventually decided to join but still harbored misgivings. As he went through the four-month training at Fort Leavenworth, he reevaluated the project, he said. He was still doing that in Maywand, watching for anything that might jeopardize ethical standards by endangering local people.

"It just hasn't come," he said, "and I've been looking for it."

Most days, Karl worked with Banger. His real name was Stephen James Lang, but everyone called him by the nickname he'd earned playing rugby. He was 40, weighed more than 300 pounds in his body armor and scowled through his thick beard. But he could talk to almost anyone and wore a beaded bracelet -- a gift from his teenage daughter -- beneath the cuff of his camouflage uniform.

Banger had grown up on a farm near Sioux City, Iowa, and served in the Marines for 11 years before injuries ultimately forced him out. He moved home to Arizona and took courses in political science and Islam, earning a bachelor's degree. He had served in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War and later in Saudi Arabia, but like Karl, he had never been to Afghanistan.

In Maywand, Banger used his childhood experiences on the farm to connect with the farmers he met on patrol. But his most important job was to protect Karl who, at 6-foot-3 with a shock of sparkling white hair, made an easy target.


On the morning of the patrol to Pir Zadeh, Karl and Banger piled into MRAPs with Dunn and his soldiers. The convoy pulled onto Highway 1 and rolled past the bazaar, rows of rickety wooden stalls edging the road. A suicide bombing there in January had launched Karl on his current quest. The soldiers with whom he was now riding had been patrolling the bazaar when a man strapped with explosives blew up in front of them. Two U.S. soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were killed, along with 15 civilians; 53 Americans and Afghans were hurt.

That winter, Karl and Banger had been at an Army training center in Louisiana when Karl heard about the bombing.

"How the hell did that happen?" Karl thought, then answered his own question: "They're walking through a village that's not secure, and they get blown up."

That started him thinking: What if soldiers provided real, dependable security to even one Afghan village? If the village were actually safe, development and jobs could follow.

In counterinsurgency circles, this is called the "oil spot" strategy. The term was coined by the French soldier and administrator Louis Hubert Lyautey, who was sent to colonial Morocco and Indochina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Hanoi, he watched as soldiers set up a network of military posts to protect villagers and keep out insurgents, and armed locals to defend themselves. With "pacification a great band of civilization advances like a spot of oil," Lyautey wrote.

In the months before Karl's deployment, his enthusiasm for this approach had grown so noticeable that Banger and others had taken to calling him Oil Spot Spock. Karl envisioned soldiers securing a single village or area -- the first spot of oil -- and using its success to spread safety and development drop by drop. Areas outside the chosen villages would be treated as battle zones, where soldiers would know unequivocally that they were at war. If the conflict were divided into hot and cool zones, Karl thought, soldiers could focus their humanitarian aid and development efforts in friendly areas and fight in unfriendly ones. They might have a better chance of avoiding an explosion such as the one in the bazaar.

The convoy pulled off the paved road onto sand flats, lurching over dunes and finally rolling to a halt at the edge of a dense, green wheat field. The soldiers saw a man walking with a little girl and asked him to lift his shirt to make sure there wasn't a bomb strapped to his chest. Banger watched disapprovingly. Asking villagers to lift their clothes might earn the Americans more enemies than friends, he thought. But since the bombing in the bazaar, the soldiers of Task Force 2-2's 1st Platoon didn't take chances, calling in air support whenever helicopters were nearby, searching villagers thoroughly even when they seemed friendly and patrolling with their guns up and at the ready. Dunn knew that helicopters buzzing overhead intimidated the enemy, but the sound also frightened the locals they were trying to win over. "Do I protect these guys and risk alienating the people?" Dunn wondered. "Or do I make more rapport with these people and put my guys at risk?"

The patrol wound its way through a web of alleys surrounded on both sides by high walls of yellow mud. Arched doorways led to smooth mud passageways, mysterious and medieval. A stream of clear water flowed alongside the lane, shaded by mulberry and pomegranate trees. After 40 minutes' walk, the patrol rounded a corner and came to the gate of the village elder's compound. He had a white beard and turban, sun-baked skin and leathery hands covered in dirt. He smiled at Dunn, revealing a few missing teeth.

Dunn asked about security. The old man was grave. He said a Taliban emissary had been coming to the village to threaten him and ask for the wheat seeds the Americans had given out in an attempt to cut poppy cultivation.

"Why do they want wheat seeds?" Dunn asked.

They want them to eat, the old man said, to grind into flour.

"Tell them you don't have any more," Dunn said. "You can't give them what you don't have."

Dunn pulled out a business card. On it was an emergency phone number for the American base.

"Just remember that if the Taliban come in your village, or any bad guys, just give us a call," he said.

The old man took the card reluctantly. He didn't have a phone, he told the lieutenant. And everyone knew that the phones didn't work at night, when the Taliban made their rounds, because the insurgents coerced local cellphone operators to shut down their towers.

Karl had been listening, writing quickly in his notebook. He sensed the old man's frustration. There weren't enough U.S. and Afghan soldiers in Maywand to provide reliable security, and the Afghan police didn't leave their barracks at night. But if the troops focused their limited resources on creating a secure perimeter around Pir Zadeh, they might have a chance of winning the elder's loyalty.

The Americans shook hands with the old man, walked over the sand flats to their armored vehicles and drove away.


Over the spring and summer, Karl sketched a blueprint for the oil spot strategy in Maywand. He called his approach "Oil Spot Plus," because it was based on a tradeoff in which villagers would help international forces secure the area in return for services like water, electricity, health care and education. He envisioned negotiated agreements between villagers and international soldiers. The model could work in a village such as Pir Zadeh, but Karl shifted his focus to villages nearer the bazaar, where municipal government offices could act as an anchor. He hoped that more settlements would be inspired to follow.

With his background in conflict resolution, Karl saw the relationship between Afghans and international forces as akin to a troubled marriage, in which each side's entrenched views had to be revised if they were to get along amicably. But the reality was infinitely messier. There was no baseline trust between Afghans and coalition forces on which to build the deals he hoped for. And even if soldiers did strike a deal with local stakeholders, that didn't mean the Afghans would be powerful enough to enforce it, or that they wouldn't strike a contradictory deal with the insurgents. Karl sensed this, but he also knew that the current approach wasn't working.

"The day of throwing money at the problem by digging a well, building a school or opening a clinic -- without first establishing a secure perimeter in cooperation with villagers -- should end," he wrote in a paper published this spring in Small Wars Journal, an online magazine focused on counterinsurgency. "The old model is too risky, since an IED [improvised explosive device] or other attack can turn the effort into naught in an instant."

In the selected oil spot villages, he suggested buying and burning the current poppy harvest, subsidizing the transition to a different crop, and targeting drug lords, labs and traffickers. He also wanted to start a paid informant program to create income for villagers who might otherwise work with the Taliban. One spring day, Banger went to Kandahar to meet with a Canadian officer. He called Karl with exciting news: The Canadians were already working on a similar initiative. They wanted to know more about Karl's oil spot approach.

In late June, the Canadians unveiled their own "model village" project. In the village of Deh-e Bagh south of Kandahar city, they established security, erected solar-powered streetlights and put 120 villagers to work on community projects.

Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new commander of NATO in Afghanistan, flew down to visit the village, strolling around with Canadian Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance. McChrystal called the initiative "valuable" and said he would like to see similar efforts around Afghanistan.

Karl pushed excitedly forward with his project.

Then, in mid-July, the Taliban attacked an Afghan army post outside Deh-e Bagh, killing one Afghan soldier and wounding seven others.

"Because it's such a threat to the insurgency, it makes it a likely target," Canadian Maj. Mario Couture told the Canadian Press news agency. "Is this a surprise? No. Are they going to try again? Most likely. But the place is well-defended."

Karl was still optimistic. But in Maywand, too, violence was rising.

In late July, Karl was at breakfast in the dining tent. He had just taken a bite out of a bagel with strawberry cream cheese when a mortar landed with a colossal boom about 50 meters away. He hit the floor, then ran for a nearby bunker. The following day, he and Banger accompanied a patrol to a village nearby. Banger had been there before, but the mood had chilled.

"Something's different here," Banger told Karl. "It wasn't like this before."

They climbed into their armored vehicles and headed back toward the base. Five minutes later, the ground ahead of them exploded. A giant plume of black smoke rose, and the MRAP carrying Banger and Karl ground to a halt.

Someone cursed. The vehicle in front of them had hit a makeshift bomb.

It took hours for a recovery crew to arrive, search the area for more bombs and load the disabled MRAP onto a truck. Medics treated the soldiers, none of whom was seriously hurt. Inside the hull of his heavy vehicle, Karl thought about Michael Bhatia, a Human Terrain social scientist who had died in eastern Afghanistan when his Humvee drove over such a bomb. He thought about Paula Loyd, who had e-mailed her mother shortly before she was attacked to tell her not to worry because "we are riding around in these new vehicles that look like tanks."

"Of course, it doesn't protect you in the situation she was in," Karl said later.

When the disabled MRAP had been hauled away, Banger and Karl's vehicle roared to life again. The convoy slowly rolled back to the base.

At the chow hall, Banger grabbed bottles of cold water and loaded trays with quesadillas while Karl waited in the gravel lot. He stared at the three MRAPs parked in a line. There had been four when they left that morning. Later, he would joke that everyone had better stay away from him. He'd endured two near-misses in two days. He couldn't say what would happen next.

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