On August 1st I wrote, “In Canada we seem to have, at least in terms of objective conditions, all of the necessary ingredients, waiting to come together: we have military colleges, troops in Afghanistan, a domestic spy agency (CSIS), collaboration with the U.S. in Guantanamo interrogations, mass mediated allegations of ‘terrorist’ cells in Canada, growing anxiety in the national media over immigrants and militant Aboriginal protesters (some with avowed past military ties to Libya) — and so forth, all ripe and ready for our own Minerva or HTS program”. Strictly speaking, the Canadian military has jumped on board, even if now Canadian academics are not being hired for the work.
Tom Blackwell, writing for Canwest News Service and the National Post related details in two recent articles (“Mapping ‘White’ Afghans aim to end civilian deaths” – Nov. 8, 2008; “‘Situational awareness’ teams deployed — Afghanistan; Units help military better understand local communities” – Nov. 15, 2008). He writes in the first piece, “The Canadian government has created a new unit to help fight southern Afghanistan’s relentless insurgency and rebuild its shattered society. But none of the group’s five members will be wielding assault rifles or handing out development dollars”. Like American Human Terrain Teams (HTTs), these Canadian teams also consist of five members. They are formally referred to as “white situational awareness teams” and the current team aims “to map out the movers and shakers of the province [Kandahar] and how they relate to each other”. Moreover, an actual American HTT is currently serving with Canadian forces: “an American infantry unit operating under Canadian command has its own ‘human terrain’ team that includes a retired Soviet general who fought in Afghanistan 20 years ago”. As with the Human Terrain System, the repeated message is that it is necessary for occupation forces to learn the local culture, with the repeated emphasis on the “tribal” structure of Afghanistan, a throwback from pre-1960s anthropology:
Coming from Canada, this is a totally different society. Even some of the core principles are quite a bit different to what we’re used to in North America. Having a team of experts that is studying these things, that is devoted to unlocking some of the mysteries of the tribal structure…is critical to us. — Major Jay Janzen, spokesperson for Canadian forces in Kandahar
Elissa Goldberg, in charge of Canadian civilian officials in Afghanistan states: “you really have to understand the human terrain of the environment, so you do no harm”.
This is a curious statement by Goldberg as it seems to assimilate Afghan humans to flora and fauna. Janzen, for his part, expresses himself in the manner of an Indiana Jones or as the narrator of a National Geographic adventure documentary with his “unlocking mysteries” statement. Of course the notion of tribe, long discredited in anthropology, is being revived here, likely inspired by an inchoate stratum of cultural evolutionist assumptions that require that the social organization of these “primitives” be rightly situated on a lower scale than Western social organization. Also amazing is that even before having gained intimate knowledge (hence the need for “white situational awareness teams”, only a month in operation), Janzen already knows enough to say that it is a “totally different society” with different “core principles”. Are Canadian forces having trouble understanding the reasoning behind the ferocious attacks directed at them? Goldberg insists it is about doing no harm — no harm at all? Is Canadian military weaponry purely for defensive purposes?
Tribes are primitive, inferior, disorderly — so the prejudice goes — and this shows up in Blackwell’s own reporting in the second article: “It was an unusual incident, even by the lawless standards of tribal Afghanistan: An American woman working in Kandahar province was doused in fuel last week and set on fire”. Once more, the unjustifiable bewilderment — there must be something wrong with those who defend their land, and nothing unreasonable or atrocious about those who occupy it and who seem to have made a habit of destroying wedding parties (six already, well past the “mistake” threshold), and then bombing the funerals for the dead. Then there is the question of “lawlessness” which implies that order stems from state structures, while tribes represent anarchy…even if some form of order is necessary for the units to cohere, and let’s remember, these are presumably Muslims whose own holy book is a source of law.
[Blackwell’s remark comes at an interesting moment, when a ‘contractor’ assigned to a Human Terrain Team, Don Michael Ayala, decided to execute Paula Loyd’s attacker even though it violates a law according to which he was arrested, charged and will be tried. It’s not the presence of laws that prevents lawless behaviours.]
The only, probably short-lived, “good news” in the second article arises from the vague suggestion that the Canadian military may try to avoid creating a firestorm with academics — note the following:
And now the controversial [human terrain] concept has been adopted by Canada, which recently launched a version of its own called “white situational awareness” teams….Made up of two army intelligence officers and three civilian Foreign Affairs Department employees, it has been tasked with deciphering the sometimes impenetrable Pashtun culture of the region….The U.S. “human terrain” teams tend to include non-government employees: anthropologists and other experts….Such U.S. teams have come under criticism by some academics, who argue that making anthropologists and the like an offshoot of the military compromises their scholarly independence, and puts all academics working in the region in danger. The Canadians may have avoided that pitfall, though, by using only government employees.
Is the “pitfall” the academic criticism, or that all academics would be put in danger? If the former, I am proud to continue serving as a “pitfall”.