“We can’t have effective strategy without cultural knowledge. If you look at the problems we’ve had — in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Somalia — they’ve been based on flawed assumptions about who those people are.” — Montgomery McFate, senior social scientist, Human Terrain System, quoted in Wired.
“In the current climate, there is broad agreement among operators and researchers that many, if not most, of the challenges we face in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted from our failure early on to understand the cultures in which coalition forces were working.” — “The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century“
“The near-term focus of the HTS program is to improve the military’s ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed” — Human Terrain System.
I “get it,” really I do. It is important to have an understanding of other cultures if you are seeking to win hearts and minds, prevent any unnecessary violence, and eventually win peace. I get it. It’s simple. That’s the problem.
Leaving aside such inconveniences as questioning whether there is sufficient historical proof for the thesis that people of different cultures that understand each other, even like each other, never go to war, or the question as to whether the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were a matter of, “Oops! I misunderstood your culture when I dropped those bombs and entered without permission — who knew you had such intricate little rules of behaviour” — or that the right of U.S. troops to be in Afghanistan goes without saying, the question remains:
Why in Afghanistan?
In Canada, and other NATO member states where majorities of voters have demanded an immediate exit from Afghanistan (in mild deference to the voter, the Canadian government promises we will be out by 2011…let’s see if there isn’t another “extension”), the logic behind the occupation of Afghanistan is revealed to be thin pretense. That many in the U.S., the lead force behind the war in Afghanistan, continue as if it were normal, logical, reasonable, and worse yet, justifiable to be occupying Afghanistan, is a serious problem. Some call it “the good war” in contrast to the war in Iraq, even though the “merits” for invading either of them are equally shallow. True, support for the war seems to be declining even in the U.S., although recent poll results paint a blurred picture, while an allegedly “radical” organization such as MoveOn.org has been relatively silent about the war in Afghanistan. So one still needs to ask: why? Let’s help them along with some answers.
Afghanistan never attacked the United States. The Taliban were not responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington D.C. on 11 September 2001. Bin Laden is not wanted for the attacks of 9/11.
But, as the accusation goes, the Taliban harboured Usama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and the Taliban refused to hand over Bin Laden to the United States, so they were attacked.
The Taliban’s response to George W. Bush’s demand was to request evidence of any complicity by Bin Laden, and if there was any they would consider turning him over for trial. There is nothing unreasonable about that request: “The Taliban has said Mr. bin Laden lacks the communications tools to direct such an operation, and that the U.S. hasn’t presented evidence of his complicity” (Wall Street Journal). Indeed, Bin Laden denied any knowledge or involvement in the attacks, not once, but at least five times, just in late 2001 alone (). Yes, but…there was a videotaped confession by Bin Laden — except that the videotape was a plain fabrication, that does not show a man who even remotely looks like Bin Laden, writes with the wrong hand, is very heavy, wears jewelry, and unlike Bin Laden the engineering contractor, does not know the difference between iron and steel. Of course, this does not mean that Bin Laden was not involved, it just means there is no solid proof to substantiate the assertion that he is guilty. The FBI agrees on this point.
What was routinely ignored were Bin Laden’s own statements on the 9/11 attacks and the question of terrorism. He does not agree that the attacks were aimed at civilians: “The September 11 attacks were not targeted at women and children. The real targets were America’s icons of military and economic power” (source). I could have said that — and I certainly had nothing to do with 9/11 either. Asked if his real target was the U.S. government, and not all Americans, Bin Laden replies, “Yes!” and adds:
“The mission is to spread the word of God, not to indulge in massacring people. We ourselves are the target of killings, destruction and atrocities. We are only defending ourselves. This is defensive jihad. We want to defend our people and our land. That is why I say that if we don’t get security, the Americans, too would not get security.” (source)
Does Bin Laden say he hates all Westerners?
“There are many innocent and good-hearted people in the West. The US media instigates them against Muslims. However, some good-hearted people are protesting against the US attacks because human nature abhors injustice.
“When Muslims were massacred under UN patronage in Bosnia, I am aware that some officers of the State Department had resigned in protest. Many years ago, the US ambassador in Egypt had resigned in protest against the policies of President Jimmy Carter. Nice and civilised persons are everywhere.” (source)
If you are going to proudly claim responsibility for what was probably one of the most stunning choreographies of violence, against the world’s leading superpower no less, then you probably should not be denying responsibility five times and then expressing your appreciation for the presence of many good people in the West who are not your enemy.
Also, if you are the accusing government, then you will probably want your FBI’s list of “most wanted terrorists” — which does list Bin Laden — to at least formally accuse Bin Laden of involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Even now, the FBI’s page on Bin Laden does not say that:
Usama Bin Laden is wanted in connection with the August 7, 1998, bombings of the United States Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. These attacks killed over 200 people. In addition, Bin Laden is a suspect in other terrorist attacks throughout the world.
In addition, when pressed for evidence, Colin Powell had promised it, then was contradicted by Ari Fleischer about how much information would be released, and then nothing at all was forthcoming (sources). From a Talib perspective, the accusations against Bin Laden were pure poppycock, and were rightly ignored. From a Talib perspective — that’s if one really cares to “understand” them — the invasion was unjustified from the first day.
In summary, the United States attacked Afghanistan with about as much intelligence as it had for Iraq — none at all. Not only did Afghanistan not attack the U.S., nor did the Taliban, nor are the Taliban and Al Qaeda the same, nor did the Al Qaeda leader claim responsibility, nor was evidenced furnished…but now it seems that Al Qaeda is no longer even in Afghanistan. Says who? Says General David Petraeus, repeatedly, that’s who.
Why not at home first?
So while I do not “get it” about why we are in Afghanistan, as is the Human Terrain System, I wonder if “cross-cultural understanding for peace” should not be top priority at home — you know, educate your own people about other cultures so that they do not leave the U.S. with the intent to fire on others as if they were animals, so that you do not have crusading soldiers who think that their duty is to convert Afghans to Christianity, or who make a mockery of ideals of liberty and equality by joining neo-Nazi web sites while on active duty.
Instead, it seems the closest we have come to seeing a Human Terrain system at home was not to eliminate ignorance, intolerance, bigotry, and an inflated sense of the self-worth of one’s way of life that demands the erasure of all others — no, it was for the purpose of urban policing, according to Roberto González:
“Human terrain is not a new concept. Its reactionary roots stretch back 40 years, when it appeared in a report by the infamous US House Un-American Activities Committee about the perceived threat of Black Panthers and other militant groups. From the beginning, human terrain was linked to population control…”
In that case, it seems we have a missed opportunity — but that can now be redeemed. I will truly believe that the Human Terrain System is a force for peace when I see it working to spread knowledge, understanding, and cross-cultural goodwill among these forces of Islamophobia and racist Arab-hatred right in the United States:
- Anti-CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations)
- Campus Watch
- Christian Action Network (here too)
- Daniel Pipes
- Frontpagemag.com (David Horowitz)
- Islamist Watch
- Jihad Watch
- Little Green Footballs
- Michelle Malkin
- Middle East Forum
- Religion of Peace
- Republican Jewish Coalition
- Stop the Madrassa
Of course that is not an exhaustive list, because as much as I am a friend of HTS I cannot map their own human terrain for them. Instead what they can do is assign five-person teams to each of these entities, and others, after having mapped the fecal terrain of American hatred. Human Terrain Teams can educate them out of their deep pits of ignorance and slander, so that one day the idea of bashing minorities and waging wars to serve hyperconsumption will be as repulsive to the bigots as it is to the decent human beings who struggle to live on this planet.