Blind Spots: Ethical Research in the Midst of Counterinsurgency

Posted on 16 September 2009 by


Rough Terrain,” an article by Vanessa Gezari in the Washington Post (30 Aug. 2009), one of the latest in a series of articles in the mainstream media devoted to the Human Terrain System published over the past two years, introduces us to the figure of “Doc”: Karl Slaikeu, a 64-year-old psychologist and conflict-resolution specialist from Texas (the photo above shows Dr. Slaikeu, left, in Trinidad & Tobago). Dr. Slaikeu, we are told, carries a M-16 as he goes out on research patrols. We are also told about Slaikeu that, “as he went through the four-month training at Fort Leavenworth, he reevaluated the [Human Terrain System] project, he said,” given his initial misgivings about joining (and we are told that part of his decision-making process involved prayer). Once in Maywand, Afghanistan, he continued his evaluation, “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.”

On one level, it appears to be another of the very many preposterous expressions of a self-serving, selective view of reality, another in a series of expedient, studied misperceptions designed to miss the forest for the trees. He cannot find anything about working in a counterinsurgency campaign that might endanger local people. It’s all ethical, leaving the war aside. Research support for one side in an armed conflict is ethical, leaving the armed conflict aside. In addition, even if we were to assume that the Taliban are entirely and utterly disconnected from the population centres in which they are embedded, one could certainly never doubt that they are local, and certainly far more local than a member of a military occupation such as Slaikeu.

Then there is the additional fact that many foreigners who have never been to Afghanistan before their employment in the occupation, people such as Slaikeu, do not really know who the Taliban are. Slaikeu does not know that some of the villagers with whom he has amicable relations during the day, may well be Taliban fighters at night. Private contractors have gone as far as putting weapons in the hands of Taliban fighters they unwittingly employed, and paid them a salary (see “The Cowboys of Kabul“). Even locals themselves, in a government allied to the foreign occupation, hire Taliban to work in the civil service (as reported by the BBC, “Afghanistan’s ‘weekend jihadis’“).

To add to the list of ironies, Slaikeu’s apparent interest in doing no harm to locals is submerged by his rehash of old Vietnam-era counterinsurgency doctrine, specifically the “oil spot” strategy — see Slaikeu’s paper, “Winning the War in Afghanistan: An Oil Spot Plus Strategy for Coalition Forces.”

However, on another level, Slaikeu’s apparent selective vision is quite common in social science research with human subjects, where the notion of ethical research is minimalist at best. “Ethics” is frequently reduced to a formality, an exercise designed to get clearance from a university board that wishes to simply limit the legal liability of the university, otherwise its insurance costs would be too high if it shouldered the blame for a researcher’s malpractice. “Ethics” is often a short statement appearing in a section of a research proposal, normally separated from theory and methodology. “Ethics” in most cases reduces to simple acts designed to address questions such as: How long will you store confidential data? Will you store that data in a secure location? How will you obtain informed consent? Will participants in your research be allowed to withdraw from the research? Ethics is this reduced and restricted to short discussions of basic research procedures. It is an obstacle, a hurdle to jump over, so as to dive into the research. It is then outstanding if a researcher becomes preoccupied, more than once, with questions of ethical research practices. Here I recall a recorded presentation by anthropologist Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, speaking at the Watson Institute at Brown University as a member of an ad hoc commission investigating the relationships between anthropology and the military, who said that in her research in Sudan she frequently had to think about ethics, even many times during a day.

In such conceptualizations of ethics, extracted from their moorings in moral philosophy, distanced from reflections on “the right and the good,” rendered utilitarian, practical, and composed of discrete instances, there is then little room for a view of ethics as a relationship of responsibility between human beings in a broad, all pervading sense. In speaking of research ethics, there is rarely mention of  doing good, of principles of social beneficence, which goes well beyond the minimalist “do no harm.” Few would be able to articulate whether they stand on the side of consequentialism or deontology. A commitment to humanity is largely replaced to momentary commitments to select humans, for short periods of time, constructed by the researcher as participants within a context defined by the researcher’s questions. Taking a minimalist approach, ethics never opens up to larger issues of morality and politics — having said that, is it any wonder that so many steadfastly hold to the minimalist postion?

Speaking of his own role in the American Anthropological Association’s commission to study the relationships between anthropology and military and intelligence communities, David Price recently wrote:

we had to artificially separate “political” issues from “ethical” issues, and then set aside the larger political issues of how anthropological engagements with military/intelligence/national security sectors relate to larger issues of US foreign policy, neo-colonial military campaigns, the Global War on Terror and a growing military reliance on anthropologically informed counterinsurgency.

There is indeed an artificial separation, as Price notes, between what some call “politics” and what they choose to call “ethics.” It is one of the reasons that we speak past each other, since we speak on two very different levels: one group says “we got informed consent” (without considering how that is conditioned by their being in military uniform, holding a gun, and part of an occupying force), while the other group says “you should not be there in the first place.” In fact, there are at least three positions: doing good “science,” doing “no harm,” and doing “good.” Doing good, and doing good science are not only entirely separate, they can be very much opposed — surgical experimentation on living detainees may be “good science,” and a war crime.

Going back to Slaikeu, the larger problem that shapes his vision of what is ethical is that he, like many others, has normalized and naturalized the war. The war is beyond question, and so is the presence of U.S. forces, and his presence with them. So one effectively removes that from the picture. That leaves two constants and one uncontrolled variable: the two constants being that there are U.S. forces and there are Afghan civilians, the “local population.” The variable is the Taliban. They stand out. In standing out, they are placed aside, as if they could be treated as separate from the artificially narrowed category, “local population.” This allows one to convince oneself that even when the natives are fighting back, and shooting at you, that you still have the consent of locals to be there.

An ethical commitment to the other should mean that if one is committed to one’s ethics, one should be prepared to forego one’s research project entirely. If you are against the war, you are against research support for the war. Some anthropologists are quick to assuage critics that “we have been decolonizing anthropology for decades” (taking credit for the work of a marginal minority, with virtually no courses on the subject anywhere, and publications primarily dedicated to this concern would not fill up half of a library shelf). Yet, the question is this: taking an expansive view of ethics, if anthropology were truly to be decolonized, would it be anthropology as we know it? Would it even exist as a university discipline? Should it exist?

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