AFRICOM, Human Terrain, Empire, and Anthropology

Posted on 27 March 2010 by


First, some introductory propaganda about AFRICOM, from AFRICOM itself:

Some anthropologists have been active in producing knowledge about the ways the so-called “war on terror” is being used as a lever for militarizing U.S. relationships with Africa, for inserting national security and counterinsurgency concerns within the domains of humanitarian relief and development, and in the process propping up dictatorships on the continent. In particular we should mention the work of Jeremy Keenan (The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa. London: Macmillan, 2009; and, “US militarization in Africa: What anthropologists should know about AFRICOM. Anthropology Today, 24(5), 2008: 16-20; also see Jeremy Keenan speaking on Democracy Now! on 06 August 2009 about AFRICOM and the findings in his book The Dark Sahara). In addition, Catherine Besteman, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting and presenting on the same panel at the Vancouver CASCA conference in 2009, has authored “Counter AFRICOM” in Network of Concerned Anthropologists (ed.) The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual (pp. 115-132. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009) and “‘Beware of those bearing gifts’. An anthropologist’s view of AFRICOM,” Anthropology Today, 24(5), 2008: 20-21.

The latest work comes from Robert Albro, anthropologist at American University, who chaired the American Anthropological Association’s Ad Hoc Commission on Anthropology’s Engagement with the Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC). He published “Anthropology and the military: AFRICOM, ‘culture’ and future of Human Terrain Analysis” in Anthropology Today 26(1) February 2010, 22-24. I am thankful that Robert Albro sent me a copy and in return I would like to share some of its contents for those who cannot access the journal.

Albro begins not just by reviewing the massive work of CEAUSSIC in determining that the Human Terrain System is not a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology, but in making two critical forecasts that take us beyond the ethics debates of HTS fieldwork. One points to the annual Quadrennial Defence Review which emphasizes the importance of the social sciences to future military missions, along with greater emphasis on cultural knowledge in military doctrinal frameworks, new Pentagon funding of the social sciences slated to last for at least several years, offering us what Albro says are reliable indicators that “this security context promises to be a long-term fact for anthropology that will outlast the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq” (p. 22). A second is that “future iterations of HTS are likely to take us beyond the ethics of fieldwork to more varied applications of the conceptual apparatus of anthropology, and in particular to increasing importance of the culture concept in the absence of fieldwork. But we have so far thought very little about this” (p. 22).

One of the longer term developments that Albro points to is the military’s doctrinal endorsement and appropriation of socio-cultural knowledge for security operations. One of these is embodied in the 2007 creation of the U.S. Army’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), which touts itself as a new, soft power approach that emphasizes humanitarian missions, led by the military. As Albro reports:

AFRICOM will be concerned with such wide-ranging issues as combating HIV-AIDS, fighting corruption, addressing weak governance and poverty in the region, and the support of human rights. These ‘humanitarian’ objectives will be combined with a focus on US strategic interests in the region, including counterterrorism, oil and global trade, and maritime security, while also addressing armed conflicts and violent extremism. These activities have been blithely summarized by AFRICOM commander William E. (Kip) Ward as the ‘3-D strategy’ of ‘defense, diplomacy, development’. As was recently noted in Foreign Policy, AFRICOM ‘fits in quite nicely with the world of counterinsurgency’. (p. 23)

General Ward, as Albro tells us, has already testified to the importance of the “business of socio-cultural awareness, human terrain analysis,” and indeed as early as January of 2009, it was already being reported that AFRICOM was discussing the need for “‘socio-cultural cells’, including personnel with expertise in ‘human terrain, all-source and geo-spatial analysis’” (p. 23). HTS is likely to find a home within AFRICOM, and as Albro notes, “job ads for a ‘human terrain analyst’ in connection with AFRICOM have appeared regularly throughout 2009″ (p. 23). AFRICOM is also creating a new “social science research centre” to be based jointly in Stuttgart and Djibouti, “for the purpose of mapping ‘the complicated human terrain on the African continent’” (p. 23). Albro also finds that advertisements for “human terrain analysts” recruited by AFRICOM place emphasis upon “the understanding of tribal and clan composition, ethnicity and religion” (p. 23). Moreover, they also emphasize “‘creativity’ in data collection and data mining techniques” (p. 23).

The point, however, is not for anthropologists to limit themselves only to the specifics of HTS as such, especially given the multiple other ways that “culture,” and anthropological knowledge, are being drafted to serve military goals — and this takes us back to recent articles on this site, such as Mapping the Terrain of War Corporatism: The Human Terrain System within the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, especially Multiplying Human Terrain Dreams of Victory and Fortune, and Information Traffickers of the Imperial State: American Anthropologists and Other Academics. As Albro explains:

“Of basic importance is what the use of ‘socio-cultural knowledge’ will involve as part of AFRICOM type development and diplomacy efforts. In particular, how culture figures in such a mixed military and humanitarian effort is something to which we should be giving our attention, especially in terms of the relationship between military-driven humanitarianism and soft power or counterinsurgency goals. What, in short, are the limits and parameters of any possible anthropological role in such situations, and where should it be located in practice?” (p. 23)

Adopting the priorities of the military commanders they serve means that “culture” is often reshaped given that researchers are “obliged to sell themselves to the military unit with which they are embedded,” and as Albro adds,

“This can quickly become a decontextualized cultural ‘content knowledge’, distinct from any particular social scientific method, that is at once controllable and a variable for manipulation, itemization and archival stockpiling, with the promise of a dubious certainty of definitively ‘mapping the cultural terrain’. The culture concept, in short, is transformed into a military tactical problem-solving resource, largely depopulated and well removed from the circumstances of any effort of engaged or public anthropology of the near future. And this, in turn, makes it available for other applications.” (p. 23)

“Human Terrain Analysis” for the Pentagon already goes well beyond the actual HTS program. The interest is in concepts and technologies related to forecasting, mapping, and modelling. Here is where Albro asks:

“…what are the ethics of anthropological practice with respect to such programmes of cultural modelling, where contexts of data collection and of analysis – of elicitation, interpretation and use – are potentially so thoroughly dissociated from one another in terms of space, time and the people involved? It is time for the discipline of anthropology to give more attention to the methods and ethics of such policy-centred forms of knowledge production as typically performed by varieties of ‘analysts’ (rather than just ethnography).” (p. 23)

One of the primary concerns raised by Albro is the relatively underdeveloped state of epistemological and ethical discussions of cultural modelling. Quantifying “culture” for computation poses the risk of what he calls a “false summing up” of the “collective behaviour” of a given “culture.” Culture is reduced to “classifiable, comparable and equivalent traits” that can be “radically distant from any meaningful context of a culture for its members” (p. 24). As Albro observes, “How specific cultural models are constructed, how they are used, and the relative transparency of such models, not just for users but also for ostensible subjects, are all questions still well off anthropology’s ethical radar” (p. 24). The problem is not as esoteric as it might seem at first:

“What, for example, are the ethical implications when analysts use wrong-headed assumptions, and poorly collected data, to create inaccurate maps of a given stretch of cultural terrain in ways that might lead to distorted representations of groups which, in turn, are part of the mix promoting mistaken tactical decisions that end in violence?” (p. 24)

HTS as a program is no longer necessary for the existence of a “human terrain” conception of culture that bends this concept toward the production of variables that are instrumental to soft power and counterinsurgency. Albro concludes by encouraging us to take new analytical directions:

“Contemporary anthropology should be debating what sort of role, if any, it has with respect to such burgeoning high-tech military humanitarianism, including the instrumentalized conception of culture that goes with it. Such a discussion must take us beyond the conventional consideration of the ethics of fieldwork to encompass new arenas of practice.” (p. 24)


More about AFRICOM is presented in this excellent documentary produced by Al Jazeera, which also features interviews with General Ward and anthropologist Jeremy Keenan, still one of the best video resources available that critically examines AFRICOM and U.S. policy in Africa.

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