UAE’s The National on the Human Terrain System (2.0)

The National (United Arab Emirates) published an article on November 29, 3008, by Hamida Ghafour on the U.S. military’s Human Terrain System, titled “Use of social scientists in war sparks controversy.” You can access the article either by clicking on the image, or here for an HTML version, or here for a PDF version. The article attempts to introduce the newspaper’s readership to debates about HTS while bringing them up to date on some recent events. It does not push any one conclusion and strives to obtain a variety of perspectives, ranging from Gen. Petraeus and McFate, to David Price, John Stanton and myself.

While I was happy to provide some input when interviewed earlier this week, I believe the points I have had to make about HTS are conveyed with greater clarity on this blog. As with an earlier interview with The Washington Post, only a fraction of what I was able to say was reported, as is normally the case (which is also why I wonder why colleagues would prefer to wait to be interviewed by the media before, or more commonly, instead of blogging their points of view directly). I am happy to do both, and seeings one’s words refracted by the writing of a journalist can sometimes help to clarify and focus what one ought to say based on how one apparently “sounds” to others (such as journalists). In some cases the comments needed to be recontextualized since they do not stand alone very well, but I think the author, Hamida Ghafour, did a very good job.

Also interesting was the photo of anthropologist David Matsuda, who was mentioned in an earlier post on this blog, as well as mention of the note written by Tom Garcia that was the subject of discussion between Seth Resler and myself on this blog.

I should clarify some of the comments in the article attributed to me. I do not believe that the U.S. should be doing anything in Iraq or Afghanistan, other than getting out immediately. What I wanted to suggest is that if it was “cultural expertise” that was needed, then who better to provide it than actual Iraqis or Afghans, rather than uninformed foreigners without knowledge of the regions involved or the key languages. The reason for that, as could have been mentioned, is that in practice even the local allies of the U.S. are largely bystanders in their own neo-colonial rehabilitation and “reconstruction.”

Like David Price in the article I also believe that HTS should be terminated. I will also retain that as ill conceived and mismanaged as HTS is, as brought to light in all of John Stanton’s articles, the “threat” of HTS is actualized more at home than abroad. I argued this previously here. However, given the concessions and news that HTS members have been expected to fight in at least one known case (see the reference to Tom Garcia above), and have now committed their first documented murder, I may be forced to amend that opinion.

Indeed, some of the official advertising statements of HTS (such as the claim that the program is meant to save lives) might now be more quickly subverted by adding “yeah, like Don Ayala who murdered that civilian prisoner.” I say might, because it is clear that the program was more concerned with American lives, certainly on an ideological and cultural level. In addition, given that the U.S. Air Force has been dramatically increasing its deadly and indiscriminate air strikes in Afghanistan, one has to wonder why HTS is housed with the U.S. Army. Clearly the practice of hammering villages from high-altitude is deliberate, not an accidental result of a “cultural misunderstanding.”

In the meantime, given the new Status of Forces Agreement approved by the Iraqi parliament, HTS members will not be able to venture with combat units into Iraqi cities, town, and villages, after this coming June. Also, they will be under the legal jurisdiction of the Iraqi state, and their identities known to the Iraqi state. In Afghanistan, the only other currently available option for HTS recruits, HTS will eventually be terminated by events on the ground, and by that I mean continued resistance from insurgents. I am forced to concede the point that seriously violent resistance is the strategy that has the greatest impact — as evidenced, many would argue, by the history of slave rebellions in the Caribbean that led to the demise of slavery. I worry about writing this since in many ways it puts me in a state of contradiction with much of what forms part of my perspective on social transformation and the nature of activism.

Much more important than the observations above is the fact that discussion of HTS is spreading internationally in the media, and reaching the Middle East where the discussion especially belongs. It will be extremely interesting to hear perspectives coming from the region itself, which would be a very welcome change. In the meantime, I am not planning to write anything else on HTS for the foreseeable future on this blog, apart from reporting any other articles published by others.


PS: It was a pleasure to see Hamida Ghafour choose to describe this blog as “a platform for critics” of HTS. Many of us already know that, but none of us (myself included) have said so openly so far. Ghafour is correct, and more critics are welcome here. The “selectively outraged,” however, know where they can go instead — that is, to other blogs.

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