Canada’s own Human Terrain System: White Situational Awareness Team in Afghanistan

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”.

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12 thoughts on “Canada’s own Human Terrain System: White Situational Awareness Team in Afghanistan

  1. Tom Blackwell

    I don’t want to comment on your philosophical take on these units, but am anxious to correct a factual error.
    The term “tribe” with respect to Afghanistan is not an invention of insensitive Westerners or ignorant journalists as you suggest; tribes are in fact integral to the structure of Afghan society. You don’t have to take my word for it; pick up any text on the country or talk to any Afghan and you will find ample confirmation. In fact, while Westerners may perceive the term negatively, many Afghans identify as much with their tribal group (or sub-group) as with the state, which is, of course, one of the challenges faced by Hamid Karzai’s government.
    Exactly what role tribes should play in the country is a matter of debate. I have talked to thoughtful Afghans who believe that tribes are one of the most positive aspects of their culture, providing social, economic and emotional support to their members. Others note that the tribal loyalties of politicians and government employees distort how public services are dispensed, and lead to conflict. Meanwhile, there is much evidence that, despite tribal allegiances, many or most Afghans do identify strongly with their country.
    One thing is clear, however. Tribes exist in Afghanistan and the culture is largely tribal in nature. I have my doubts as to whether these teams will help in understanding this complex society. It seems clear, though, that the foreign forces operating in Afghanistan must find some way to get a better grasp on how the place works.

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks very much for visiting and for commenting, and I am indebted to the fact that, thus far, you are the only journalist I know of in Canada who has reported on this development. I would also not want to convey the impression that I think your reporting is somehow deficient, and this debate about “tribes” is still one that is largely internal to anthropology.

    For example, an anthropologist might ask you: whose designation is “tribe”? Do these “groups” call themselves “tribes”? What is their word for “tribe”? What do they mean by “tribe”? What characteristics, what inventory of “traits” would invite someone to think in terms of their “tribe-ness”? What is it that makes Westerners think of “tribes” when they look at them? So really this is still a matter of interpretation, and while I recommend none of the alternative choices, one might just as easily have called them communities, clans, village-based kin groups, etc. Tribe has taken on certain connotations in popular and media discourse in the West — it is a loaded term — and so the use of the term must beg certain questions.

    Your final sentence reflects more of where we will part ways, and I definitely do not expect you to somehow “convert” to my way of seeing things just because of these few words. I think Afghans are best suited to understand themselves, and we are better off at leaving them alone to understand themselves. In other words, no, I don’t think it’s mandatory that we should do anything other than leave, especially as the majority of Canadian citizens want to see either an immediate or rapid end to the Canadian mission there.

    Aside from that, I hope to see more articles from you, these were quite important and on the whole I still recommend them.

  3. Maximilian Forte


    Coincidentally, in The New York Times a few days after our exchange, this statement appeared:

    “…Afghanistan’s tribes — a term that covers everything from large confederations to cousin-networks and extended families…”

    That’s not a very precise term then, and it renders the usage of term suspect given that it seems that it can refer to almost any extent of human grouping. Indeed, how do you know one tribe from another, and are you sure you don’t mean to say “ethnicity”?

    The Way We Live Now
    Fighting the Last War?
    Published: November 28, 2008

  4. Farooq Babrakzai


    Among the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan, only the Pashtuns have tribes in the usual sense – common descent from a real / imaginary ancestor, division into clans and extended families, like an upside down tree. Other ethnic groups, for example, Tajiks, refer to their place of origins, so that someone is a Panjsheri, a Herati, a Kabuli, etc.

    Pashtuns are further divided into two general types, Nang (honor system) and Qalang (revenues and taxes). This division is based on the lands they occupy, social structure, material wealth, level of literacy, and the degree of contact with a central governmental authority. Qalang tribes live on relatively high productivity lands, are urbanized to various degrees, have higher level of literacy, employment, …. and have a more pronounced social order in every day affairs.

    Nang (honor) tribes are concentrated in the central mountanous regions of the Greater Paktia Province in Afghanistan and the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) in Pakistan, particularly, Mahsoud and Wazir tribes. These live on low productivity lands, less material possessions, higher degree of egalitarianism, mostly illiterate, and live autonomous lifestyle, farther removed from central authority, whether Islamabad or Kabul. The abstract model of Pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of life, is closer to real life among the Nang Pashtun.

  5. Maximilian Forte

    Many thanks for this contribution Farooq, a very welcome one.

    It is a substantially more complicated picture than the one that is cast in the mass media, not that I am surprised. In the process I learned as well, I had my skepticism about the media depictions, but no depth of knowledge concerning the cultural and social formations of Afghanistan.

    Thanks again and best wishes.

  6. chip

    “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.”

    Defend their land? You do realize that Afghanistan has had elections that repudiated the Taliban, and that polls show well over 90% of Afghans reject the Taliban and endorse the presence of foreign troops to fight them.

    According to your logic — and I use that term loosely — a Canadian individual could murder an American tourist and be deemed to be ‘defending his land.’

    Oh, and I love this mental construction too:

    “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.”

    Hands up, who believes academics had ‘scholarly independence’ in Afghanistan fun by the Taliban? Anyone? Buehler?

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Ah yes, the “elections” conducted in the middle of war, with some of the sloppiest procedures ever witnessed and multiple voting. Good benchmark that is, much like the unspecified polls you mention. Let’s put it this way, if even a fraction of that were accurate, this war would have been won already, instead of leading NATO commanders saying it is almost a guaranteed failure and has largely been lost already, and more troops will only make matters worse.

      A Canadian murdering a tourist? And you use “logic” in the same sentence? Where do you cook up this stuff and is it in the same place where you cook up crystal meth? When was anyone comparing tourism with counterinsurgency? Or is it that by your logic, and I use the term abusively, invading and occupying troops are merely tourists?

      The final passage: we can’t take responsibility for the Taliban, but we can take responsibility for our own extremists and preventing them from using us here. And we do, and comments like yours will hardly be what stops us. This is especially true with people like you who mirror the Taliban — since the Taliban could eliminate any academic independence, you argue the same should happen here. Nice “logic” you got there. As Groucho Marx once said, “I think you may have something there. Let me step outside while you clean it up.”

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  9. morgan

    I do seem to remember an article in the Globe and Mail that stated that they were setting up Hazari’s as police in an area where they didn’t speak the language…you would think that setting up a despised ethic minority as a police force might be a bad idea…the military is so clueless on cultural stuff that they do all kinds of extra harm (ie. harm in addition to them being there and their mission).

    1. Maximilian Forte

      The only thing that comes to mind as a possibility for this decision is to have a police force without any loyalty to the local population, to prevent collusion or infiltration. Of course it then becomes a colonial police force.

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