“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.
Yet, not only are we still in Afghanistan, we are hiding under women’s skirts in order to justify our plan to be there forever.
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.
17 thoughts on “Cross-Cultural Understanding for Peace: So why does HTS go to Afghanistan?”
Our involvement in the “good” war in Afghanistan stems from a tragic lack of reflection on the part of the American people. It took a backseat to our desire for vengeance post 9/11 and has since, like Iraq, become too gruesome to think about. So most of us don’t.
Even if we assume that UBL is responsible, that does not justify bombing the country. Even if we assume the Taliban harbored him, that does not justify bombing the country.
Professor Chomsky had some excellent commentary about the war very early on, in which he noted the following about Afghanistan:
“In late September (2001), the UN Food And Agricultural Organization warned that over 7 million people were facing a crisis that could lead to widespread starvation if military action were initiated, with a likely “humanitarian catastrophe” unless aid were immediately resumed and the threat of military action terminated […] In other words, Western civilization was basing its plans on the assumption that they might lead to the death of several million innocent civilians—not Taliban, whatever one thinks of the legitimacy of slaughtering Taliban recruits and supporters, but their victims.”
Thanks for that — and that’s an interesting point as well, since even with the large NGO presence, foreign aid, etc., starvation has never been distant, and there has been a recent famine as well that largely went unreported.
What I found especially striking were Petraeus’ assertions because — if he is taken seriously — they should have led to the logical conclusion that the original mission was accomplished and it is now time to withdraw from Afghanistan. However, identical to the experience with Iraq, this mission has been constantly mutating and widening, to the point now that it has set forth a list of totally impossible goals, few of which make any sense. Coincidentally, and along these lines, these two articles just came out:
Afghanistan: a war we cannot win
The threat posed by al-Qaeda is exaggerated; the West’s vision of a rebuilt Afghanistan ultimately flawed, says former soldier, diplomat and academic Rory Stewart
How foreigners are screwing up Afghanistan
Finally, I reviewed some sections of the 9/11 Commission report — as widely criticized as it was, though the prose was lauded by some as worthy of a bestselling novel — looking more closely at the sections concerning UBL’s purported involvement in 9/11. First of all, the Executive Summary of the report states the case in extremely strong terms, unlike the actual report itself: filled with ambiguities, suggestive data, possibilities, and contradictions, not to mention testimony derived from the torture of Guantanamo inmates. Second, if the report were accurate…then that still leaves the question as to why the FBI after all these years still does not feel that it has sufficient evidence to charge UBL with involvement in 9/11. While I do not believe that “9/11 was an inside job”, a massive conspiracy theory, it seems that what has been worked up about UBL is another conspiracy theory, one that I have never distrusted as much, or found less convincing than now, even if right at the start, in late 2001, I was very skeptical about the rush to conclusions that it was UBL’s work.
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M. Jamil Hanifi
Ben Laden is dead. For years he has not consumed oxygen. And Washington knows this. By remote chance, if he is breathing, look for him in the wilderness of northern Pakistan (not western Pakistan among Pashtuns), western China or, more likely, under the big cube.
Sorry for being so late in approving your comment.
By the way, aside from Benazir Bhutto’s very unexpected remark in an interview that she knew who had assassinated Bin Laden, do we have anything else to suggest that he may be dead?
M. Jamil Hanifi
I remember images of Ben Laden (the Arabic construction of his name uses the short and soft [e] vowel not the long and airy [i]) in Western media during early 2002 in which he is attached to a dialysis machine walking toward or from a hospital in Islamabad. The narrator referred to the kidney machine and the hospital. It is widely known that, in addition to kidney problems, Ben Laden had serious diabetes and other ailments. How can a person in that condition survive in the Third World Pashtun tribal regions especially under the 24/7 prowling American military presence? My anthropological and Pashtun cultural instincts tell me that Ben Laden moved out of Afghanistan ahead of the Anaconda Operation at Tora Bora (Pashtu, black widow)–about thirty miles east of where I was born–during March 2002. He probably died or was killed during Spring 2002. No images of him have been circulated since, only voice recordings.
The myth of a living Ben Laden is produced by the American war machine so that it can continue polishing up its military technology and tactics for population-centered use of organized violence against civilians. But again, in the remote chance that BL might be alive, I would put my money on under or around the big cube in Mecca or the remote regions of northern Pakistan or western China. If this scenario holds, the state systems in all three locations have powerful reasons to keep the imperial American beast freaked out, confused, growling, guessing, hallucinating, and otherwise wasting away.
How can countries of the world advance cultural understanding as a way to promote world peace?
Through education, primarily, and by opening borders and encouraging encounters across any perceived boundaries between cultures. Now, whether this leads to peace is still unknown, I think.
i definitely like the idea of bringing it all home, of trying to push cross cultural understanding in the very communities where we all live. it only makes sense. i have spent the last few years as a fairly regular poster on a site that pays a lot of homage to malkin and LGF. it has not been easy, especially when the argument goes into discussions about “cultural” differences between, say, Muslims and so-called westerners. i usually take quite a lot of flack for presenting a more relativist position, or for re-explaining (for the 1,000,000th time) that ONE group of Muslims cannot be confused with ALL MUSLIMS. the good thing is that some people will listen to a different perspective. but many do not. part of this, i think, stems from the anonymity of the internet, which i think promotes a more brave or hardline position from posters. or maybe they just feel more able to say what they really think. in many cases i hope they are exaggerating.
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I thought you might be interested to see the latest in NPR’s running ‘we adore COIN’ series:
‘Cultivating Afghanistan: Anthopologists and the Insurgency’
Thanks very much Anthony,
It was interesting to see, but rather thin, almost as if they are running out of steam. They have pretty well said everything they possibly can in their own defense, so I would be surprised to see a really new twist in their self-representations.
The media, in the meantime, will continue loving stories about “smart” wars…and what else could a war be that enlists academics? ;-)
M. Jamil Hanifi
American Soldier as “Guest” in Afghanistan!!
On July 16, 2009 the American visual media circulated moving pictures in which we see an expression-less, heavily armored giant-size American soldier with dark goggles seated on the ground with five local Afghan boys ostensibly discussing the fate of a captured American soldier in eastern Afghanistan. The Paxtu script accompanying this picture reads: “One of our American guests is lost”!!
Slippery grip-less power is historically marked by confusion and aimlessness accompanied by pangs of delusion and hallucination.
Many thanks for your contributions. In case I forget to mention it by other means, the first of your articles should start going up tomorrow.
M. Jamil Hanifi
Resistance or Insurgency in Afghanistan? By M. Jamil Hanifi
Resistance is what Euro-American armed forces and culture face in Afghanistan not “insurgency” which is political opposition to a specific governmental or civil authority, structure, and operations. Insurgency has specific and identifiable objectives and borders and can be isolated and engaged with political tactics such as incorporation in the government, co-optation, or the appropriation of government by insurgents. Realistically there is no insurgency in the country and surrounding region. There is no government in, for, by, and of Afghanistan. The apparatus at the Afghan center is organized, controlled, and subsidized from top to bottom by the United States and its NATO allies. As such what is labeled insurgency by the American military machinery and its propaganda partners in the media is at core resistance that uses all means available to it. Resistance is a cultural construct that is fluid and elusive and cannot be isolated. Like other cultural phenomenon resistance reproduces itself. The numbers of its articulators, carriers and operators steadily increase or at least remain relatively constant—its human losses are replaced by those who come of age inside and outside Afghanistan.
Inspired by deep seated hatred, disrespect, and contempt for the violent American imperial presence, local culture and Islam—separately and together—inspire and equip participants in the Afghan resistance. Resistance in Afghanistan will disappear when domination, occupation and occupier disappear.
I hope so, for all its people, but that’s fairly optimistic and not what history has shown.
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