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Occupation With a Human Face

Counterinsurgency partisans rely on images of the benevolent occupier to mask the harsh realities of imperialism.

US military members speak with a local business owner in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province. Dallas Kratzer / Kentucky National Guard

The Human Terrain System — a program that embedded civilian social scientists in Army and Marine units in Afghanistan and Iraq — spent the seven years of its existence in a state of controversy. Fêted as a great innovation in some quarters, the professional bodies of anthropology denounced the program, calling it unethical. Three HTS team members — young civilian social scientists — were killed in the field, and many in the military questioned its efficacy. The program was closed for good in 2014.

This year, two leaders in the program — Janice Laurence and the program’s founder, Montgomery McFate — published a collection of essays entitled Social Science Goes to War. The volume seeks to defend the program’s record and assert the continued relevance of social science research for counterinsurgency war.

SSGW holds few surprises — the conflict between McFate, a Yale anthropology PhD who works at the Naval War Center, and her colleagues in the professional bodies of anthropology is by now an old story.

Most anthropologists — aware of the profession’s checkered history of cooperation with imperialism — reacted with undisguised horror when HTS went public.

The American Anthropological Association, for instance, declared in its 2007 report:

In the context of a war that is widely recognized as a denial of human rights and based on faulty intelligence and undemocratic principles, the Executive Board sees the HTS project as a problematic application of anthropological expertise, most specifically on ethical grounds.

McFate’s response to criticism from her anthropology peers, and most of her ideas more generally, have been characterized by a blithe disregard for the realities of power. In what reads like a parody of vulgar postmodernism and cultural relativism, McFate describes the problems of the Iraq War — and the participation of social scientists in it — as problems of culture, not of politics.

If anthropologists could just understand the military’s culture, the argument goes, the two groups could cooperate. If the US military could comprehend the culture of the Iraqis or other occupied people, they could bring the war to a successful conclusion and save lives.

This attitude ignores the basic, structural conflicts between intelligence work and ethical social science research, or between occupier and occupied. Instead, like in other areas of contemporary liberalism, an assiduous focus on culture acts as a fig leaf, (insufficiently) hiding these conflicts from those who can’t or won’t admit they exist.

The remaining essays in SSGW, written by on-the-ground participants in HTS, offer a more interesting, nuanced perspective than McFate’s broad-brush cultural justifications. But each suffers from official secrecy and a tender defensiveness toward the program and its legacy.

The contributors are mostly younger social scientists and, complicity with imperialism aside, it’s not hard to see why they signed up. The motivational story McFate presented — spread cultural knowledge, potentially save lives — must have sounded good, especially when the alternative for newly minted political science or anthropology PhDs in 2008 was likely their parents’ basement.

Largely focused on the writers’ experiences in HTS, the essays particularly emphasize successful efforts — provinces and cities pacified with the help of cultural knowledge — sprinkled with wistful asides about how better things could be if these successes could be reproduced.

To be fair, some of the accounts aren’t as glowing. One blames poor cooperation with cynical British allies for helping weaken security in one Afghan province. Others mention military commanders scornful of social science. And one writer directly contradicts McFate’s claim that “cultural knowledge” could, in no way, be considered intelligence.

This is no light jab — for McFate, the claim forms the basis of her case for social scientific respectability. If HTS is an intelligence program, then it’s unethical according to contemporary social science convention and the jig is truly up. (At this point, even sympathetic reporters like Vanessa Gezari, in her book The Tender Soldier, describe the sort of cultural knowledge HTS produced as intelligence, even if it is “open source intelligence,” to use the term of art.)

When writing about the strategic, ethical, or personal implications of the program or their participation in it, most of SSGW’s contributors stringently avoid the basic political questions of the war and of counterinsurgency more broadly. They blame the program’s failings on superficial factors — bureaucratic snafus and a culture clash with the military — rather than a conflict of core interests, and tell anecdotes about good deeds done and how their HTS posting was an occasion for personal growth.

The end of the Human Terrain System coincided rather neatly with the downfall of the icon of the mid-2000s counterinsurgency vogue, David Petraeus, and the emergence of a number of prominent criticisms of counterinsurgency and nation-building within establishment defense circles. It’s an open question whether the obvious failings of counterinsurgency — e.g., the way its sectarian gamesmanship cleared the way for the current mess in Iraq and Syria — led to the doctrine’s fall from grace, or whether it was military politics and Petraeus’s decline.

Iconic figures have always been part of selling counterinsurgency to the American people, from the time of Edward Lansdale (the inspiration for Graham Greene’s The Quiet American) to the present. Though McFate was never as prominent as Petraeus — whose image as a calm, steely, intellectual soldier-statesman did so much work in pitching the strategy to the public — her role in the counterinsurgency revival is equally interesting.

The content and volume of profiles written about McFate over the last decade serve as a rough proxy for her career arc. In the mid-2000s, she was the subject of two adoring pieces in Wired, described as a “superstar” in Elle, written up by George Packer in a long New Yorker piece on her and Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, and named an official “Brave Thinker” in the Atlantic (right next to Steve Jobs, as it happened).

The Elle and Wired profiles in particular lingered on McFate’s personal story, significantly puffing up her status as an icon. Most of the puff pieces hit the same notes: McFate was raised by beatniks (she jokes that her work is a rebellion against them); she grew up on a houseboat; she was active in the Bay Area punk scene in the eighties; she retains a certain countercultural whimsy about her dress and demeanor, in a way that complements rather than clashes with her new military colleagues. Typically left out was her stint surveilling environmental activists for her mother-in-law’s private espionage company.

Packer’s New Yorker essay contrasted McFate, Kilcullen, and their counterinsurgent colleagues with the key figures at the beginning of the war on terror: Bush, Rumsfeld, and others whose strategic sense began with “shock and awe” and ended with Rumsfeld’s fantasy of omniscience through high tech. What the counterinsurgents — and media figures like Packer — sold to the American people (and American liberals in particular) was a vision of a smaller, smarter, culturally informed war that would defeat Islamic extremism, promote democracy and development, and keep American hands clean.

McFate stories began trailing off after 2010.

Then, earlier this year, Pando Daily published an especially critical piece by John Dolan. Under his own name, Dolan is a poet, novelist, and literary critic. Under the name Gary Brecher, aka “The War Nerd,” he is one of the most original, incisive, and scathing writers on military matters working. Much of his work is about exactly the sort of insurgency war with which McFate was involved.

Dolan’s article about McFate is a long, fascinating document, combining memoir, analysis of the flaws of the US counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan, and polemic against both McFate’s backers and her critics in the anthropology establishment.

Even correcting for the likelihood that Dolan is bitter at an ex-lover — the two dated for a time in the 1980s, when Dolan was teaching at the University of California Berkeley — the picture of McFate that emerges is of someone who thrives by posturing. This, according to Dolan, is what brought her from a (supposedly) borderline-feral childhood on a houseboat to Yale and then to a position of considerable power, advising major military commanders.

The face McFate put on the Human Terrain System and by extension the counterinsurgency campaign — idealistic, culturally informed, a war for graduate students and Wired readers as much as anyone — was at least as important as any strategic contribution HTS could or did make. The cascade of puff pieces written about her, patronizing as they were, had a strategic purpose.

This deployment of imagery calculated to appeal to Americans in general and American liberals in particular is in keeping with the tradition of American counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency is about managing two populations: those of restive, underdeveloped regions and countries under occupation; and those of the liberal democratic states undertaking occupation campaigns.

When occupations begin to go wrong, as they invariably do, policymakers need new ideas and new images to keep the people at home from asking too many hard questions. One way is to tout the small-scale nature of most counterinsurgency activity — modest groups of American troops and aid workers becoming involved in village-level affairs, helping the locals, getting their hands dirty, outsmarting guerrillas.

This image of the benevolent occupier (who helps grow democracies even as he grows individually) has captured the imagination of a certain sort of American liberal since John Kennedy became a counterinsurgency enthusiast during his administration.

The public narrative of counterinsurgency also assuages the fears of people in advanced capitalist countries by emphasizing things like building infrastructure, promoting democracy, and liberating women. In the process this narrative helps hide the reality of counterinsurgency war: death squads, the manipulation of sectarian and ethnic tensions, the fostering of regimes dependent upon their sponsor’s powers.

At present, though, counterinsurgency — at least in its “hearts and minds,” nation-building variant — is at a low ebb in popularity among the defense establishment. This is in part due to the sheer messiness of counterinsurgency — essentially colonial warfare in a postcolonial context — which overflowed in Iraq and could not be explained away by counterinsurgent myths.

These days Obama and his people prefer drones as a means of projecting power at a cost acceptable to the public. And so the counterinsurgents bide their time. Petraeus picks up speaking honoraria and visiting professor positions; Kilcullen runs an urban planning consultancy, a sort of Haussmann 2.0 for hire, offering to rearrange, for a price, the infrastructure of restive cities like the great post-Commune rebuilder of Paris; and McFate holds a chair at the Naval War College.

But drones won’t solve the military’s problems. The military establishment — which prefers planning for conventional wars, no matter how far tank battles or dogfights are from the sort of wars America fights today — turns to counterinsurgency because it finds itself occupying tumultuous countries (Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan) and lacks any plan for what happens next.

How long until the US military puts boots on the ground somewhere the drones can’t effectively target? At that point, the two directives of counterinsurgency — police and pacify rebellious populations and sell military action to a skeptical home public — will once again become major concerns for the foreign policy elite.

Africa looks to be one fertile ground for counterinsurgents. For AFRICOM, the US military’s newest combat commands, counterinsurgency is thought of not as an emergency response to an existing rebellion, but as a prophylactic.

Counterinsurgents have long urged their patrons to allow them to try to curb what they see as the catalysts for insurgency — which run the gamut from underdevelopment to political subversion to a lack of “modern personality types,” depending on which social scientists the counterinsurgent in question cribs from — before they can bloom into open conflict.

Given AFRICOM’s widely distributed footprint across the continent — special forces and other troops attached to the command have operated in dozens of different countries — imagine the temptation AFRICOM commanders must feel to turn some of the many chronically unstable countries in their demesne into counterinsurgency laboratories.

In fact, it appears that due to the growing importance of AFRICOM, McFate’s project might not be over, even if her direct involvement is for now. AFRICOM deploys its own special units of social scientists — Socio-Cultural Research and Advisory Teams, or SCRAT. Embedded with military units, these groups of social scientists conduct field research meant to aid AFRICOM’s core mission, most notably acting as an early warning system for large-scale conflict.

The SCRAT program avoids the name — now none too popular in military circles — of “Human Terrain” but engages in much the same work, though typically not in active war zones. The SCRAT efforts we know about focus on East Africa: Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.

AFRICOM has stated that this research, often village ethnographies, is going into “a database of knowledge on East Africa,” presumably for use if the United States decides to send troops into the region. We don’t know much else; for now, the SCRATs seem to be working in the mode AFRICOM prefers — quietly.

But any number of catalysts — Chinese competition, growth in jihadi movements in the Sahel, dislocations caused by climate change, social revolution — are likely to produce serious challenges to US interests in Africa. When that happens counterinsurgents will reemerge, offering solutions to everything but the basic problems of imperialism and economic oppression.