Patricia Omidian, Applied Anthropologist in Afghanistan, on the Human Terrain System

Dr. Patricia A. Omidian started her work in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1997. She traveled to and conducted research in Afghanistan from 1998 to 2001, before moving to Kabul in March 2002 where she was based until January 2007 — she has been on the ground from before 9/11 until well after the US invasion and subsequent NATO occupation.  She has done extended fieldwork in Afghanistan both under the Taliban and under the US/NATO regimes. She was there before the Human Terrain System was even established as “proof of concept” program. She worked with women, refugees, and on health issues, as a civilian only. Omidian is very critical of militarized anthropology. Next to the work of Afghan anthropologist, M. Jamil Hanifi (recently published on this blog), her insight is valuable and all too rare.

Patricia Omidian holds a PhD (1992) from the University of California San Francisco and University of California Berkeley’s joint program in medical anthropology. She has worked as an applied anthropologist in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 1997. Dr. Omidian is currently an Associate Professor and the Head of Social Sciences for the Aga Khan University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Karachi, Pakistan. Patricia Omidian has also served as Chil­dren and War Advisor for Save the Chil­dren United States. In 2001 and 2002, she worked as the Tech­ni­cal Advisor for the Com­pre­hen­sive Mental Health Program, Co­or­di­na­tion of Hu­man­i­tar­i­an As­sis­tance (CHA) Afghanistan Program where she de­vel­oped the first com­mu­ni­ty mental health program in Afghanistan. She has also worked with the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), the In­ter­na­tion­al Rescue Com­mit­tee (IRC), and UNIFEM, as well as other or­ga­ni­za­tions. You can read (or listen to) a full interview with Dr. Omidian by the American Friends Service Committee, and see an article about her in the Christian Science Monitor. She can be reached at

Living and Working in a War Zone: An Applied Anthropologist in Afghanistan

Dr. Omidian is the author of an article titled, “Living and Working in a War Zone: An Applied Anthropologist in Afghanistan,” published in the Spring 2009 issue of Practicing Anthropology (Vol. 31, No. 2, pages 4-11). I have extracted passages from that article, detailing her views on the Human Terrain System (the section headings are my own). Omidian’s article is primarily a discussion of action anthropology as it has unfolded for her in Afghanistan from 1998 to 2008 and she highlights examples from the field between December 2001 and December 2008. Speaking as an applied anthropologist with a wealth of experience in Afghanistan, she shows how “the role of the anthropologist must be kept separate from any armed actors in the field in order to maintain ethical integrity, standards for proper research and the safety of those who are studied and of those who carry out the studies.”

Disarming Anthropology

Omidian stresses that it was important for her to try to remain neutral in her own work and that she never carried a weapon (unlike some of the anthropologists working in the Human Terrain System):

I never carried a weapon, nor did I allow my staff or surveyors to be armed. When working in areas of high conflict, having weapons or armed guards can increase the level of risk to myself and those with whom I work. It sets up a power imbalance in the wrong direction when doing fieldwork. In Afghanistan where tribal and or extended family relationships matter, using a weapon to protect oneself can lead to a situation of subsequent retaliation. The only person a gun protects in this kind of situation is the person with the most guns or the person who can garner the greater support from others. It also creates a question among the beneficiaries of trust. (p. 4)

Militarized anthropology puts both anthropology, and the anthropological researcher, at great risk:

Militarized anthropology subverts our work and puts us on an ethical slippery slope. It also increases the danger to us as the local people with whom we work find it difficult to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, the soldiers and the civilian aid workers—jeopardizing personal safety and development work, while increasing the likelihood of future violence. (p. 4)

As head of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) office in Kabul, Omidian did not allow any guns on the premises.

This occasionally led to problems, for example, once a consultant from the US, funded by US State Department, wanted to visit our office. I was looking forward to seeing her but the regulations for her safety as a US contractor demanded that she be in sight of her armed guards when traveling anywhere outside of her office compound (which was actually on one of the US military bases in Kabul). Unfortunately we were at an impasse. No guns or soldiers were allowed in our compound and she was not allowed to enter if her guards did not come with her. We held the meeting elsewhere. (p. 7)

Militarizing Aid Work: No Boundary Between Foreign Combatants and Foreign Aid Workers

Patricia Omidian notes that as aid work in Afghanistan became more dangerous, the US and NATO increased their use of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), “military groups that tried to engage in reconstruction activities, including the building of schools, clinics or water systems.” She tells us that most NGOs worked hard to distance themselves from military actors, including the PRTs. Some NGOs even tried very hard to discourage the US/NATO from expanding the PRT system, and failed.

Although the idea of using the military to provide aid sounds like a good idea, it is removing the symbolic boundary that aid workers (and anthropologists) need to stay safe and which allows us to be seen by local communities as neutral. That boundary no longer exists in Afghanistan. (p. 7)

The military bid for Afghan “hearts and minds” means that there is no longer a distinction between armed and non-armed actors. Afghanistan has since become one of the most dangerous countries for aid workers. (p. 7)

Indeed, Omidian, and others like her, were at risk on occasions when militants would search neighbourhoods looking for any foreigners, or in cases where riots erupted in Kabul that targeted international non-governmental organizations.

Militarized Anthropology: The Worst of All Applied Anthropology

Omidian speaks of the introduction of the Human Terrain System (HTS), and specifically addresses the use of anthropologists to purportedly help the military understand local communities and reduce deaths. She compares it unfavorably with applied and action anthropology:

Yet, if action anthropology is fraught with problems and has been criticized for an arrogance in failing to recognize the horrors of unintended consequences that result from our interventions, how much more so will this critique sit on those militarized anthropologists….Trust is hard to establish but critical to any field endeavor. As an applied anthropologist I work for the people I “study” not for those who pay my way. To do otherwise hurts more than myself, it also damages the profession and the anthropological position to “do no harm.” (p. 9)

Speaking to the question of power imbalances between the researcher and local community, Omidian asks “How does the militarized anthropologist deal with the imbalance of power?”

When I enter a village, it is by local transport, whatever that might be, possibly by foot, donkey, horseback, jeep, car or van. But I come with a group of Afghan aid workers, by invitation of the local community or by a representative. I am not naïve and I know that there is a clear imbalance of power in any relationship I establish but those lines of power actually work both ways. The local community may or may not protect me, while I can leave when I want. The community can also ask me to leave, refuse to speak to me or invite me to stay a while. Based on what is happening around me, I can usually respond appropriately. The HTS of the military works by different rules. (p. 10)

What Kind of Anthropology is Militarized Anthropology?

Omidian also asks: “If our task is to understand the day-to-day lives of people and we are to ‘do no harm’, how does a militarized anthropology fit our definition of anthropology?” (p. 10).

To enter a community as a member of the military, a person with power and the weight of the US army behind her/him brings about a level of power that the local person cannot act against—since any reaction can get them arrested or killed. (p. 10)

As she reminds us, whatever we do as anthropologists can be used against the people we study:

We have to do the best we can to protect those whom we study, with whom we share lives and to whom we owe our profession. Militarized anthropology is about a gross imbalance of power, as well as the subversion of a discipline that has an ethical challenge to do no harm as we work among those who may lack power in the global setting. (p. 10)

Indeed, militarized anthropology is nothing less than abuse:

In the declared “war against terror” many ethical standards (including human rights and freedom from torture) have been set aside. Militarized anthropology is just one more in the long list. (p. 11)

And what is being done now in returning anthropology the colonial fold by means of imperial military employment, will come back to bite the discipline:

This is a slippery slope that reminds me that the damage may not show right away. Yet, I have not doubt it will come back to haunt us. I was speaking at a seminar in Karachi in December 2008 when I was asked to explain why anthropologists helped the British subjugate the Sub-Continent and then worked against the Muslims. This man was referring to the way social anthropology was introduced and used in the first half of the twentieth century, but his question was fair. Just as those who were perceived to support colonialism in British India, the militarized anthropologists will be seen to act on behalf of the army they serve and not for the good of the local community they study. (p. 11)

My Conclusions

We frequently hear, from the side of the militarized anthropologists, their distress and concern about the “tone” of debate, emphasizing their (suddenly rediscovered when expedient) concern for “collegiality,” as if tonality and amiability mattered more than anything else in these debates. Well, here is Patricia Omidian, writing in the politest tone, without a hint of acrimony — will she be duly ignored or dismissed? Here is a person with unrivaled experience and insights as an American anthropologist in Afghanistan, topping and besting the best of whatever personnel HTS has promoted in its propaganda. Will they listen to her, and respond with the respect her arguments deserve?

Anthropologists who wish to serve the military, in word and/or in deed, are entirely free to do so. Nobody is stopping them, and all those who count, those with money and power, are encouraging them to join. Their freedom to do so, however, does not come at the expense of our freedom to criticize, rebuke, and reject. Nor do they get to set the terms of the debate, nor are they automatically entitled to be accepted. If there is one thing that the militarized anthropologists should not arrogate as their right, is the right to speak in all of our names, and to darken us with their cloudy endeavours and their compromises.

How unsurprising that the white people should side with the Cowboys as the “good guys”, against the Indians. Anthropology recapitalutes imperialism like phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny.

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5 thoughts on “Patricia Omidian, Applied Anthropologist in Afghanistan, on the Human Terrain System

  1. nosheen

    thanks so much for your excellent coverage of the situation in afghanistan. if only more academics could become engaged scholars…

  2. shami

    granted.there is imbalance of power when anthropologists are armed but some anthropologists want to protect themselves from likely prejudicial ideas.

  3. Shafqat Ali Khan

    I appreciate your courage and efforts. The way you proceed in your work was really awesome. Being your student, I am sanguine that you would try to write on war on terror.

Comments are closed