McFate: “Does good anthropology contribute to better killing?”

Anthropology, Human Terrain’s Prehistory, and the Role of Culture in Wars Waged by Robots: From “Gentle Pursuasion” to “Better Killing”

David Price

CounterPunch, vol. 16, no. 17, Oct. 1-15, 2009, pages 1, 4-6.

In the current print edition of CounterPunch, distributed to subscribers, David Price provides us with a very valuable in-depth look at the Human Terrain System (HTS), on two levels. First, Price critically examines the ways in which HTS, the incorporation of social scientists into counterinsurgency, has been sold as part of a domestic propaganda effort while simultaneously trying to appease growing disquiet among professional colleagues. Second, Price, having obtained a copy of Montgomery McFate’s Ph.D thesis from Yale University (when she was Montgomery Carlough), reveals some of the telling ways in which McFate has long been thinking about how anthropology can be used for warfare. This preceded her cocktail napkin epiphany by at least a decade. Indeed, the lead question in the title of this post is her own. With David Price’s permission, I will be summarizing and extracting some of the key passages from the article below.

Ethnographic Violence: On McFate’s Doctoral Dissertation

I will start with the second of the above points first, Montgomery Carlough/McFate’s doctoral dissertation in the Department of Anthropology at Yale University, which focused on the resistance of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and British military counterinsurgency campaigns in Northern Ireland in the 1969-1982 period. According to Price, “McFate’s research was supported by a mix of fellowships ranging from the National Science Foundation, Mellon, and several Yale-based fellowships directed toward international security issues” (p. 4).

Price takes issue with McFate’s representation of her doctoral work. He says that McFate recently explained that her dissertation examined, in her words, “how cultural narratives, handed down from generation to generation, contributed to war,” and “how people justify violence” (p. 4). However, Price argues, “this resume might lead one to assume her research was balanced between the positions of the Irish insurgents and British counterinsurgents. Such an impression would be false. Her dissertation reads as a guide for militaries wanting to stop indigenous insurgent movements” (p. 4). He adds this poignant observation:

This was not a cultural study designed to give voice to the concerns of an oppressed people so that others might come to see their internal narrative as valid; it was designed to make those she studied vulnerable to cooption and defeat. (p. 4)

Price also raises a point about whether McFate had taken care to destroy her materials wherein key IRA informants and their statements could have been identified, and if not, this might have opened the door to a serious subsequent ethical breach: “[given] McFate’s current work in environments requiring security clearances, such past contacts and records would have raised many questions when she applied for her security clearance. It would be standard operating procedure during a security clearance background investigation to ask about the identity of her 1990s contacts with the Provisional IRA and other groups, as it would be to ask such a clearance applicant for field notes and other such material” (pp. 4-5).

McFate today avoids linking militarized anthropology with killing, an obvious violation of the ethical principle that one’s research must do no harm, especially to our informants. However, when writing her dissertation in the early 1990s, Price notes the following: “in her dissertation days, she more openly asked if ‘one could conclude that ethnocentrism – bad anthropology – interferes with the conduct of war. But does good anthropology contribute to better killing?’ Though an affirmative answer to this rhetorical question is implied, McFate left this question unanswered. McFate today categorically rejects claims that Human Terrain Teams are involved in using anthropology for what she referred to in 1994 as ‘better killing.’ Yet, HTS anthropologist Audrey Roberts recently told the Dallas Morning News that she does not worry that her data may be used by the military when ‘looking for bad guys to kill'” (p. 5).

(Indeed, the exact quote from the report, with words from Audrey Roberts, who reappears below, is as follows:

“Roberts does not worry about what the military does with her information, even if it is fed into the intelligence used by U.S. Special Forces for killing or capturing insurgent leaders.

“If it’s going to inform how targeting is done – whether that targeting is bad guys, development or governance – how our information is used is how it’s going to be used,” she said. “All I’m concerned about is pushing our information to as many soldiers as possible.

“The reality is there are people out there who are looking for bad guys to kill,” Roberts said. “I’d rather they did not operate in a vacuum.”

We learn from Price that McFate’s dissertation indicated two key elements of counterinsurgency that required anthropological inputs. One was psychological warfare operations. The second argued that, in McFate’s words, “knowledge of the enemy leads to a refinement in knowledge of how best to kill the enemy” (p. 5). Expanding on this theme, Price presents us with two critical quotes from McFate’s dissertation. One is that knowing the enemy better leads to more efficient killing:

“The fundamental contradiction between ‘knowing’ your enemy in order to develop effective strategy, and de-humanizing him in order to kill efficiently is a theme to which we will return. Suffice to say, that the dogs of war do have a pedigree, which is often ‘anthropological’ and that counterinsurgency strategy depends not just on practical experience on the battlefield, but on historically derived analogical models of prior conflict. Paraphrasing Lévi-Strauss, enemies are not only good to kill, enemies are good to think.” (p. 5)

The second emphasizes the value of ethnography for out-manoeuvring the enemy:

“understanding the possible intentions of the enemy entails being able to think like the enemy; in other words, successful pre-emptive counter moves depend on simulating the strategy of the opponents.” (p. 5)

The reason why McFate and her fellow proponents of HTS seem to be favouring approaches that involve less violence by U.S. occupation forces, is that minimal force and maximal anthropological knowledge “leads to a more efficient occupation, cooption and conquest of enemies,” in Price’s words, and “not because they object to occupation, cooption and conquest” (p. 5).

The False Flag of Humanitarianism; The False Coin of Cultural Change

As David Price correctly points out in the piece, there has been a domestic propaganda effort to sell HTS: “HTS sells itself to the public through remarkably well-organized domestic propaganda campaigns that have seen dozens of uncritical articles on HTS, with personality profiles, as a ‘peaceful’ means of achieving victory” (p. 4). I have also argued this here, and in addition I have argued that HTS is best viewed as domestic propaganda, because its aims abroad are more illusory, ethereal, and unattainable than those of further shaping an already militarized academic culture back home.

One part of the domestic sales pitch by HTS, and its in-house team of public propagandists, has been to sell HTS as part of counterinsurgency, especially now that counterinsurgency (COIN) seems to be all the rage in Washington. Yet, as Price notes, buyer beware:

“Even counterinsurgency’s lustiest cheerleaders, such as the political scientist David Kilcullen, admit that historical instances of successfully using counterinsurgency for military victories have been extremely rare in the past half-century. But Washington’s counterinsurgency believers share a certain hubris, or vanity, that they are clever enough to overcome this daunting record of historical failure.” (p. 1)

To the extent that HTS also projects the idea that it can effect a form of cultural change in places such as Afghanistan (where U.S. forces have now fully retreated from parts of eastern Afghanistan such as Wanat and Kamdesh, without intending to return), then buyer be very afraid. What HTS propagandists do not tell you is,

“just how difficult it is for anthropologists, or anyone else, to successfully pull off the sort of massive cultural engineering project, needed for a counterinsurgency-based victory Afghanistan….There is no mention of applied anthropology’s failures to get people to do simple things (like recycling, losing weight, reducing behaviors associated with the spread of HIV, etc.) – basic things that are in their own self-interest. These counterinsurgency advocates think they can leverage social structure and hegemonic narratives so that the occupied will internalize their own captivity as ‘freedom’.” (p. 6)

The second part of the domestic sales campaign for HTS has been to dress the venture up as a form of humanitarianism. In the articles surrounding the death of HTS member Paula Loyd, we noted how many times she was cast as a “humanitarian” worker, as if she was in Afghanistan to simply provide aid and comfort to the locals. That story, and indeed the media can be very effective in constructing personal stories because they are more readily consumed by readers, is a story that sold well.

Building on the falsehood of “humanitarianism,” we can read Audrey Roberts’ article, titled in a manner that should be seen as a transparent attempt to mislead the uninformed: “A Unique Approach to Peacekeeping: Afghanistan and the Human Terrain System,” Journal of International Peace Operations, vol. 5, no. 2, Sept-Oct 2009, pages 24-25. In that piece, Roberts asserts: “For better or worse, we have become part of the social structure in Afghanistan. We are effecting change by building relationships through understanding between our soldiers and the Afghans with whom we work so closely” (p. 25). The “we” she refers to are American HTS employees, in Afghanistan for at most nine months, residing in fortified American military bases. They do not live with Afghans, because it is too dangerous for them, which also tells you just how much the indigenous Afghan “social structure” has actually welcomed them. Roberts, as a citizen of what Ann Jones called Hescostan, where Afghanistan proper exists “outside the wire,” works “with” Afghans “closely” whenever a military patrol permits it, and as Robert Young Pelton noted, it is can be very difficult for a HTT to even get to go out with a patrol. (Addendum: a comment shared with John Stanton, relayed in his latest post, is very suggestive of the likelihood that HTTs do not get the time they want or need in villages: “if the security element commander says it is time to go, then it does not matter if it is a Sergeant or a Captain giving the order — we leave, period.”)

That the Human Terrain System could be constructed as a “humanitarian” effort is perhaps one of the more atrocious falsehoods fobbed off on uninformed media consumers. As Price argues,

“Human Terrain Systems is not some neutral humanitarian project, it is an arm of the U.S. military and is part of the military’s mission to occupy and destroy opposition to U.S. goals and objectives. HTS cannot claim the sort of neutrality claimed by groups like Doctors Without Borders, or the International Committee of the Red Cross. HTS’s goal is a gentler form of domination. Pretending that the military is a humanitarian organization does not make it so, and pretending that HTS is anything other than an arm of the military engaging in a specific form of conquest is sheer dishonesty” (p. 4)

Neither is it humanitarian, nor is it apolitical and objective. HTS is firmly a part of imperial domination, as Price argues: “no matter how anthropological contributions ease and make gentle this conquest and occupation, it will not change the larger neocolonial nature of the larger mission” (p. 4).

What Does This Mean for Anthropology?

David Price writes two seemingly contradictory statements that caught my attention. On one hand he writes, and I agree with him:

“McFate’s early writings clarify why those designing counterinsurgency campaigns crave anthropological knowledge – and given the economic collapse’s impact on the anthropological job market, I would not preclude the likelihood of some measure of success, especially as these calls for anthropological assistance are increasingly framed in under false flags of ‘humanitarian assistance’ or as reducing lethal engagements.” (p. 6)

On the other hand, he writes, “most anthropologists are troubled to see their discipline embrace such a politically corrupt cause” (p. 4) Perhaps he would reconcile the statements by saying some will join HTS, but most will remain opposed to it. However, I am not convinced that we know enough to say that most anthropologists are opposed to HTS. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists, of which Price is a leading member, has obtained many signatures for its pledge, roughly 1,000 we are told. The American Anthropological Association has well over 10,000 members.

If we know anything is that most anthropologists have remained perfectly silent and uninvolved in the debates surrounding HTS. One glimpse at what disinterest and remoteness look like, as anthropologists go about business as usual, is on the Open Anthropology Cooperative, where David Price maintains a group, that is not very active and has only a fraction of the membership of more popular groups, such as “Theory in Anthropology,” or the riveting “Call for Papers” (see here). Business as usual.

When Montgomery McFate argued that critcisms of HTS come from “a small but vocal group,” it’s not like one can counter by saying that she is wrong. She is right. Moreover, when McFate outlined in her article, “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of Their Curious Relationship,” the multiple ways in which anthropology “was” colonialist, saying that “Anthropology actually evolved as an intellectual tool to consolidate imperial power at the margins of empire” (p. 28), she is correct again — except, I would sustain, on her choice of tense. One needs to keep both of her points in mind.

Universities in the U.S., and to some extent in Canada as well, have myriad interconnections with military and intelligence communities, far above and beyond anything that HTS promises, and that has been the case for decades. Going further, we, especially in Canada, are still very much tied to the state, and funding for our research and our university administrations remain almost totally dependent on the good will of the state. Even if HTS were to vanish…so what? And while some argue that it is vital to fight HTS to prevent the use of anthropological knowledge to do harm to others, one big question remains even if most seem reluctant to even think it: to what extent is the way anthropological knowledge is gained, constructed, and distributed harmful in itself?

One might have thought that the more anthropology busies itself by remaining the same, by even fiercely reacting against the weak internal dissent labeled (wrongly in most instances) “post-modernist,” that fundamental change very much remains an issue. One can also understand the fear, that the ultimate outcome might be zero anthropology, but I am getting ahead of myself now.

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35 thoughts on “McFate: “Does good anthropology contribute to better killing?”

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  2. WWW

    Human Terrain Systems (the people’s right to know).

    When the American Military and the coalition of the willing, run HTS teams of academics into the daily affairs of peoples in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, we applaud it as a soft option to open warfare. But how would you like it if the powers that be were running similar privacy invasion techniques into your local area, without any notifications or guarantees on who was overseeing the project, and should that be the issue on top of an Australian Bill of Rights?

    Under the present definitions of modern warfare, HTS is the state of the art tool in winning a war. If some foreign power was implementing such measures in your country, without knowledge and permission by the citizens, would that be an act of war? If some peoples, undefined, were running such a system with out the knowledge and approval of the tax paying public, would that be a breach of Human Rights?

    Now I don’t claim to be an expert on these matters but I am willing to bet London to a brick, most Australians wouldn’t have a clue about the strategic nature of who controls the mapping rights to the Human Terrain Systems presently operating in our country or that any such thing exists. If we were to have an open and informed debate on the issue and then a referendum, my money would be on a result that would bring in strict controls and guidelines towards an open and accountable process, not a continuation of the secret and closed nature of what we got before we knew what we were getting.

    Without protection from this type of public abuse what use would be a “charter of rights”?

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Many thanks Wayne, for both the visit and the message. The thing about these “soft options” is that they are not an alternative to “open warfare” but an accompaniment, a mask for softening public perceptions. While HTS is creating stories about their wonderfully touchy-feely encounters having cups of tea in Afghan homes, massive aerial bombardments persist, and persist in killing many dozens of civilians at a time, as we saw recently in Kunduz.

      They also assume that they will naturally be welcome everywhere, all they have to do is talk to people, and the world is HTS’ oyster. Wow, I can think of…several thousand ethnographers who would have a slightly more sober view of how the process works. Otherwise, if HTS is so optimistic about its effects on locals…let them relocate to Wanat and Kamdesh, the two places where “winning hearts and minds” were so far out of the question that U.S., NATO, and Afghan Army forces have simply fled altogether, beaten out.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Yes I saw it when it first came out. Dawson as usual is in a difficult position: he joined HTS cheerfully, then left in dismay, and even after leaving he still has a grudge against critics, even though in some respects he is now a critic too. Clearly, even from his own perspective, not everything the critics said was wrong, but he refuses to acknowledge that. He has some gripe against the CVs of people such as Gusterson, Gonzalez, etc., but he does not acknowledge that in the more public dimensions of the debate it has been the publicly accessible work of John Stanton that has been the most influential (I did some work that showed that here), and Stanton has no academic CV to either defend or boost. In the case of this blog, 95% of it has no bearing on any dimension of my own CV, and the only HTS person I have met in person was kind enough to acknowledge that simple fact. If Dawson sees pure self-interest in everyone’s actions, then he has to be prepared to be judged by the same crudely instrumentalist yardstick.

      But then again, you need to be a bit of a crass instrumentalist to even consider applying anthropology to serve corporate bosses.

  3. David Price

    Hi Max,
    Thanks for putting up your analysis, as usual I learned something from your work. Below are a few comments on our divergent views of American anthropologists’ take on HTS, and a bit more from a longer version of the CounterPunch piece.

    Yes, you are correct that I would say that “some [anthropologists] will join HTS, but most will remain opposed to it.” I think part of our differences on this issue might be that you might be that you are glossing HTS with other anthropological engagements with military/intelligence agencies, and that in the statements you identify here I am only specifically focusing on HTS. While I’d agree that all sorts of U.S. anthropologists are comfortable with working on military projects, I don’t think this is the case of HTS.

    I am pessimistic about the prospects that most U.S. anthropologists will not confuse the sort of soft power forms of counterinsurgency coming in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) with “humanitarian aid,” but it seems clear to me that most U.S. anthropologists remain opposed to HTS. I think getting 1,000 folks from such a large body of people to sign on to anything is a worthy accomplishment; and I’ve heard from loads of people who hate HTS but wouldn’t sign on to the pledge for all sorts of reasons—including plenty who didn’t sign the pledge because it “didn’t go far enough.” If anthropologists supporting HTS want to stand up and be counted, great, I’d love to see how many dozens of anthropologists they can muster. Last spring I did this piece on CounterPunch ( ) listing what I saw as the 10 most prominent questions that HTS has never had to answer in all of the media fluff pieces running in media. For me, the point I keep coming back to even today when talking with media is point number 1:

    “1. Please find and identify even a half-dozen anthropologists working for the CIA, Army, Air Force, Marine Corp or any other branch of the military (not current or former HTS employees) who are willing to go on the record supporting Human Terrain as an ethical or even productive use of anthropology in the military. Good luck. I’ve spoken with dozens of anthropologists working in these agencies, and they have privately become some of HTS’s worst critiques, and raise many of the same concerns that I and other outsiders in the Network of Concerned Anthropologists raise about HTS. If journalists bother to look for military anthropologists supporting HTS, what they will find are HTS critics—though these are critics who remain publicly silent for institutional reasons, but that doesn’t mean they won’t express their deep misgivings to reporters off the record.”

    Among the harshest anthropologist critics of HTS I have spoken to are anthropologists working in US military and intelligence agencies: these people feel damaged by the carelessness of HTS’s design and implementation (Robert Rubinstein gave a paper at the SfAA meetings last year using notions of symbolic pollution to describe how some anthropologists, like members of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, view most forms of militarized anthropology—but I see these processes at work among non-HTS military anthropologists who want nothing to do with HTS). HTS crosses so many ethical lines that anthropologists at CIA and various branches of the military are insulted that others think their work might have anything to do with it. As one military employed anthropologist once said to me: “HTS is like an ugly cousin you are faced to take with you to a dance.” I get that.

    I’ve also long seen elements of HTS (as well as things like the University of Chicago’s republishing the new COIN Field Manual), as having heavy domestic propaganda value—the promise of HTS is that Bush/Obama actually have a plan for Afghanistan & Iraq; we know it can’t work as promised.

    The CounterPunch analysis of McFate’s dissertation is cut from a much longer piece (I plan on giving this at the AAA meetings this year) that goes further in examining just how prescient McFate was 15 years ago in her dissertation’s understanding that high tech warfare would dominate the future, and that, as we see in the present, the better these robots can see, hear, and dominate the battlefield, the less those working with/for the machines understand the meanings of these machine’s impacts: hence the need for something like HTS, to add human knowledge and understanding. Here’s a few paragraphs from a cut section going further with this analysis (if Alex and Jeff decide to eventually put up a version of this piece for non-subscribers on the CounterPunch site, I’ll see if they will put up the longer version of the piece):

    “These war machines need human input. The machines need not so much anthropologists eyes and ears (they see and hear better than we ever will), but they need our spirits—our ability to symbolically and humanly process the human environments these machines dominate. The war-machines are technically efficient but humanly stupid. They can track and control the movement of human bodies, but they cannot understand the webs of cultural meanings of those they physically dominate. They cannot sense their own effectiveness on the lives they control: this is one of the reasons why something like human terrain teams are needed to function as nerves, feeling and reporting the cultural-emotional responses of occupied peoples so that the machines of war can more exactly manipulate and dominate them. It is useful to metaphorically consider themes of the Matrix when considering the ways that humans (anthropologists) are needed to be the interface with and serve the machines of high tech-warfare.

    While battlefields become increasingly dominated by high-tech gadgetry and panoptical drones, iris-scanners and computer tracking software, something like the currently attempted Human Terrain Teams will be needed to gather human knowledge on the ground. McFate’s early writings clarify why those designing counterinsurgency campaigns crave anthropological knowledge–and given the economic collapse’s impact on the anthropological job market, I would not preclude the likelihood of some measure of success, especially as these calls for anthropological assistance are increasingly framed in under false flags of “humanitarian assistance” or as reducing lethal engagements. But the ethical and political problems of using anthropology for cultural domination will not easily be resolved–never mind the very real practical problem that culture hacking counterinsurgency can never work in the ways that McFate, Kilcullen and other are selling it to the military.”

    I’ll give McFate credit where credit is due: she is quite bright and her dissertation makes clear that she saw this coming a decade and a half ago. But being cleaver isn’t enough: ethics matter; and it matters what side of liberation and empire one is on.

    Best, David

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks very much David,

      We probably won’t be able to resolve this in the absence of some grand survey. Others might also add, to back you up, that anthropologists not talking about *this* topic does not mean that they are not talking about the kinds of issues it raises.

      Nonetheless, I think we have both heard the silence of the many, and even the scorn of a few. You will have been told that your books are not anthropological, they are about anthropology. Hugh Gusterson’s piece on the impossibility of victory in Afghanistan earned him snark and sneers from those who wanted to put him in his place: do ethnography or STFU, you can’t talk about the large issues like that. What I have been told on this blog is, on a good day, just as bad, and that’s only when they can choke back the venom and stop accusing me of sodomizing little boys or jacking off to the sounds of Paula Loyd’s screams.

      No matter where I turn, whether it is to a conference, an informal gathering of anthropologists, a speaker series, an online group, or anthropology blogs online, I see the same combination of silence, indifference, and even scorn in some cases aimed at those who criticize HTS.

      It is very true that what the NCA has done is a major accomplishment. Also, people such as you, Hugh, Roberto, David Vine, etc., have done a great job in getting many articles into print, books, plus your own conferences and conference panels. In fact, that is what puts the silence of the majority into such bold relief.

      When Napoleon Chagnon was getting some well deserved heat, I could not take two steps without bumping into an anthropologist who was either fuming about Chagnon, or spitting fire at Tierney — everyone seemed to be talking about the Yanomamo controversy, and to this day my lone miserable little post on this topic, which is just a series of quotes from Borofsky, is still one of the hottest items on this blog, by very far one of the two most popular posts here.

      Those who think the NCA did not go far enough are almost certainly an even tinier minority. In fact, the only time you ever hear some people in anthropology on HTS, is not because they are talking about HTS itself, but it’s instead that they have some diatribe to launch against critics of HTS.

      So I think my pessimism remains, and believe me, I have no emotional attachment to being gloomy, quite the contrary.

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  5. Maximilian Forte

    I remembered to ask David for a little more information. Since Montgomery McFate did not have the power to award herself a Yale PhD in anthropology, I would like to know who were her supervisors, the people who had a hand in shaping the dissertation through its multiple stages from proposal, to writing, to final defense, and who signed off on the thesis. Let’s not forget the institutional structures that made McFate’s work possible, and that approved it, lest we think her of as some renegade, aberration, or dare I say, “maverick.”

    1. Hugh Gusterson

      Thanks to Max for posting this piece and to David for providing the fuel for him.

      On the issue of the apathy or not of anthropologists about HTS and about the military’s attempt to colonize anthropology, might I suggest that, as well as looking at how many people did or did not sign the pledge, and what people talk about in corridors and on blogs, we should follow the money. HTS has, in the midst of just about the worst job market in living memory, succeeded in recruiting almost no anthropologists, despite offering salaries of $300,000 p.a. (with overtime, danger money etc). And the NSF-Minerva awards announced last week included no anthropologists.

      I recently heard another funder in another context say “I showed that, if I put enough money on the table, I can change the conversation.” This is surely what the Pentagon believed about HTS and Minerva. But the overwhelming majority of anthropologists refused to be bought. I’m proud of us.

      One little nitpick in closing: Max mentions some snarky responses to a recent column I posted ( to the military anthropology listserv. But hundreds of people belong to that listserv and four or five wrote in. We have no idea whether the rest pressed delete as soon as they saw my name, read it and quietly agreed, read it, fumed and pressed delete or what. But I did get some quiet emails of encouragement from folks you might not expect to invite me to their christmas party. In other words, I’m a little more optimistic than Max, and not ready to give up on anthropology or America just yet.

      1. Maximilian Forte

        I am very glad for both of you, Hugh and David, for writing these comments. What I am about to say is going to plunge into shallow everyday truisms now: when they want to win, pessimists always win an argument, because we can always find the negative side to anything. In other words, even now, even with your great review Hugh, I could persist, and I shouldn’t.

        Incidentally, one could also have boasted that while many articles in the mainstream media were supportive of HTS, many also were not, and in alternative and oppositional media, HTS’ message failed outright. So there have been a string of successes for HTS critics, there is no doubting that. You and David have listed a few already.

        Yet, a certain social structure, and other actors, helped to produce McFate as the COIN anthropologist. Her work was reviewed, approved, applauded, awarded, published, featured, promoted. I don’t think she is an aberration. There are quite a few other McFates out there, just not as prominent. We need to think about that before we cheer…and no, I am not accusing you Hugh of being euphoric.

  6. RYP


    Although my article was written long ago, I continue to get questions and input from curious and disappointed HTS candidates via my site and directly.

    That does not mean that the COIN concept of “human terrain” or injecting science into program is dead or even slowing down. These days under Gen McChrystal, you can’t swing a turban at ISAF without hitting someone with a PhD. That person is now likely to to be a uniformed soldier or a former soldier working for $1200 a day as a civilian contract with TSC/SCI clearances. David Kilcullen is happily ensconced for ten days a month and there is a legion of smart, sunglasse wearing, pistol packing COINdanistas.

    There has simply been a shift away from the low paying, problematic civilian side to the more tribally aligned military side. Civilians and more importantly formally educated anthropologists have been the “weak spot” because they challenge and question the ultimate work product.

    I personally thought that injecting critical thinking from the “Berkeley tribe” was critical in shaping the military tribe’s goal of COIN but as I mentioned my article a robust campaign of targeted assassination is also one of the four legs of a successful counterinsurgency campaign (kinetic, psyops, aid and intelligence). The goal of COIN stated at its most basic is shifting hostile tribes towards your goals until the tipping point is reached. Those that don’t sign up for the new program…vanish.

    Here are some of the folks they are hiring and the job description is identical to the HTS job description (minus the low level govt employee pay):

    >Drop Test Inc. (DTI)
    >Cell: (360) 970-1411
    >Office: (360) 977-7520
    >Fax: (866) 359-8945
    >DTI (Drop Test Inc.) has multiple positions available on an ongoing
    >contract with the government. These positions require a current
    >TS/SCI that is within scope. The pay is very competitive. Prior to
    >responding please ensure that you meet the minimum requirement for
    6. >Tribal Cultural Specialist to Regional COIN Advisory and Assistance Team (RC-COIN ADVISORY ASSISTANCE TEAM)
    >Position Description
    >Subject matter expert who will provide reliable and frequent expert
    >advice on regional tribal culture and morays, as well as Islamic
    >history and values as they may affect tactical and operational plans
    >or initiatives. The Tribal Cultural Specialist will add his analysis
    >and recommendations on all the lines of operation pertaining to
    >counter-insurgency efforts assisting the COIN ADVISORY ASSISTANCE
    >TEAM in developing a fused and integrated COIN targeting process.
    >Minimum Experience Requirements
    >Tribal Cultural Specialist will have extensive experience in
    >Afghanistan and within the specific assigned regional command;
    >understand the tribal systems and culture; a firm understanding of
    >cultural anthropology and how unique religious, cultural, tribal
    >customs and regionalism may affect Counter-insurgency operations in
    >support of the regional commanders objectives. Must be eligible to
    >access and generate material up to TOP SECRET/SCI.


    I encourage your examination and discussion of this program with the understanding that COIN can be successful IF it truly embraces the concept of social understanding, respect and change of both sides towards a peaceful solution.

    . As I like to say you can only win these wars if you soldiers either marry into your enemy’s family …. or kill them. The middle part is where you lose wars. :))

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Many thanks Robert, always a pleasure to have your visits and comments, and thanks for the link and information above.

      I have seen a few cases already of companies and contracts involving HTS-like job descriptions, sometimes at higher pay, without any of the fanfare of HTS and without any of the attempted apologies either. Both HTS, and reactions to opposition to HTS, are what I think makes that possible, plus a predominant tendency to contract to private parties — war corporatism, where these wars are meant to be beneficial to the bottom line of merchants and the mercenaries they hire.

      My guess is that many here will dispute your position, “COIN can be successful IF it truly embraces the concept of social understanding, respect and change of both sides towards a peaceful solution…you can only win these wars if you soldiers either marry into your enemy’s family …. or kill them.” On the one hand, it tells us why such an idea cannot be successful, and that is because no such idea is what constitutes COIN right now. McChrystal wants the occupiers to look less like occupiers…a factitious argument, since it does not involve marrying into the Taliban, growing beards, shedding the uniforms, dropping English, converting to Islam, abandoning all the pork, whiskey, and porn, etc., etc. How much less like occupiers does he want troops to look? Just slightly less…they can carry some bags of aid now.

      The kind of COIN you describe might be the end of a war, because with that kind of approach you might not have had one to begin with, which tells me it won’t sell. Otherwise, for more mainstream COIN, the cases of success constitute a tiny minority…and that is even when the counterinsurgents are primarily nationals serving a local elected government…some might wish to recall the Central American counterinsurgencies of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, that resulted in either military victory for the Sandinistas, or peace talks in Guatemala and El Salvador (where the former insurgents are now in power, and where they fought an ostensibly elected government, e.g. that of Jose Napoleon Duarte). That Americans would culturally reengineer Afghanistan, and beat locals in their own home, was always a pipe dream. We are all being forced to watch a guaranteed failure in slow motion while politicians bumble and babble, and those milking the current state of affairs continue to nod in agreement.

      1. RYP

        You forget that American COIN comes in many flavors, colors and styles.:)) I am sure there is a COIN that will fit Afghanistan and US political ambitions just right.

        You can see from various insurgencies from Chechnya to Bangasmoro to Irag to Waco that it is not about fixing the underlying problem but about removing the problem from the headlines.

        Out of mind out of sight. In any case HTS was never meant to actualy stretch our understanding or tolerance :).

      2. Maximilian Forte

        Ok Robert, but do you know of an American COIN practiced that ever upheld values of respect, mutual understanding, and peaceful resolution? Because I think of COIN as a warfare strategy, and none of those values are consistent with warfare.

      3. RYP


        “we are at War here with 12,000 plus Americans murdered violently every year”.Is not only silly it ignores a few thousand years of military science (which predates anthro science)and laws that define criminal acts vs wars unless of course Stanton is Charles Bronson and I missed his declaration of war :))

        I think you have to respect the military mind if you are to ask for respect for the anthro minds view point. Often they are one and the same. There is a mantra in the military that success is defined by the lack of violence used in resolving conflicts.Soldiers are a deterent to war and terrorism is often an attempt to provoke war or overreaction. Then the wieght and cost of the war effort can often bring victory to the insurgent. So COIN is supposed to be early or late stage intel/military activity to prevent war.We ubwisely find ourselves engaged in all seven stages of the same time. .

        To define crime as war is unproductive (and vice versa) I view 9/11 as a crime not an act of war Our reaction should have been understated surgical and covert. But 8 years later we are still trying to remember the cause and effect of a few Yemenis and Saudis cultists who created flying IEDs.

        We did very different things in very different countries. Even when faced with the same crime perptrated by the same group we can’t agree on a response. Using that hollow phrase “War on (insert problem here) has clearly been shown to be jingoist and hollow. But “conflict” forces parties to define the fault lines and submit planes to “reduce conflict”. So I stand by my opinion that the military is correct in defining the multistaged,timelined, changing complexity of conflct as conflict managemnent not “war”.In addition to using business concepts to manage vilolence, the military is having difficulties in changing their culture and structure. Its hard to impose COIN slash anthro thinking in combat waged by 19 year marines who calls his enemy hajis or worse :)

        We need to clearly understand the long term consequences of offense vs defense in conflict. America has been involved in far too many offensive actions which have led to a diminished sense of security and moral justification at home and abroad.Essentially social engineering without the social or engineer part. HTS is the veneer of science, mixed with “metrics”, polls, focus groups and other marketing concepts to see if we are “winning” or losing” then our politicians toss their own toxic marketing mix into the mess.

        The current regime expects .easurable results in 18 months in Afghanistan not because of any Afghan agenda but because it provides a glide path into the next US elections.

        And John you only need to look at SWAT teams to see cops itching for a “war” but thankfully the law keeps them at bay. :)

      4. John Stanton

        I have friends that work SWAT in DC Metro that have no desire for your version of reality. The pros I know are not itching for anything but non-violence.

        You use phrases like offense and defense like you are some military guy that latched on to American contact football or that you may actually have played and coached it.

        I get really tired of Hunter Thompson Lite or even Burroughs of Naked Lunch style. You try too hard.

        I wonder, as I always have, about your independence as RYP the Business Man…I do not believe you are Indy for one second.

        Me, I’m no one of note. A bunch of people out there trusted me to write their stories and so I did.

        I think S. Kubrick would have really liked to have you on board on Strangelove. I have a hard time figuring out your condescending statements. Wait! I know. It’s Timothy Leary on acid wandering the Combat, er ah, Conflict, er, ah War Zones of the planet seeing/experiencing death, destruction, hope , simple acts of kindness, and the wow factor of being there and letting us all know from on high how that feels.

        Warfighting is not pleasant, at least as I remember it.

        You seem to revel in watching it. I can’t accept that.

      5. Maximilian Forte

        As I said above John, I personally agree with your position fully. One thing is understanding how military officials might spin their doctrines for public consumption, or to convince each other. It’s quite another thing to just buy into that and take their terms and meanings on as your own.

        Listen, we just had some, pardon the language, absolute shit from German chancellor Andrea Merkel during the recent electoral campaign in Germany, where she denied the war in Afghanistan…was a war. This was just a week or so after a German colonel called in an American air strike in Kunduz that killed upwards of 150 people, mostly civilians.

        Please Robert, go visit their surviving relatives and tell them, “No, you see, this is not war.” They might even agree on some level: it looks like cowardice and pure villainy.

      6. RYP

        Poor John, like the blind men and trying to describe the elephant:)) He apparantly has expertise on something he has never seen, someone he has mever met and clearly is upset that I have opinions that differ with his . My point is pretty simple. That the miltary attempts to “manage” conflict through all stages and is trying to reshape itself from Napoleonic structures and strictly kinetic concepts.

        I have no problem dealing with educated military, questioning academics or those with impressive experience fighting insurgencies that never saw the inside of a school.But if you scan down just a partial list of the conflicts I have been in you would be hard pressed to see some bias or agenda.

        John where does your hostility towards me come from? Perhaps I can teach you how to better manage conflict:)).

        Max, the convoy was hit after the taliban ambaused and decapitated the drivers. There is real time aircraft video of the civulians swarming around the trucks before the bombs dropped so the call in my opinion was wrong.
        I don’t see why I would be the one to talk to the relatives since I didn’t drop the bomb and McChrystal was on the scene to do so.

        My only advice is that Stanton clearly shows his ignorance and bias on a site that I thought encouraged intelligent and slightly more informed discourse.

      7. Maximilian Forte

        It does, Robert, and one of the signs of that discourse is the ability, and plain honesty, to name a war for what it is: a war. I think that John is criticizing the degree to which your language, and the argument couched within it, matches the officially authorized COIN dogma. U.S. soldiers build some schools, and suddenly we say this is “not war,” it’s something else. Sorry, we’re not falling for it.

  7. RYP

    War is an obsolete word (since we are not at war with Afghanistan nor can we clearly define “al qaeda” which spans the intellectual to nihilistic spectrum). Conflict is the better word and Afghanistan is a classic “LIC” or dirty war (very Cold War term but very applicable) Today’s COIN springs from that era and requires separating the population from the insurgents, bringing over the moderates, choking supplies, killing the intransigent, etc etc. But these are old paradigms that we are not set up to address.

    Today’s COIN is a business. And of course spending money funds the taliban, creates targets of US soldiers and allows Afgans to work all sides to their own benefit. There is no “us” vs “them” and we strive to pull Afghans towards a poorly regarded central govt so our underlying conceptis unpalatable. We are also in the wrong country. Pakistan and the Gulf is the wellspring of the modern taliban and pashtun nationalism is the engine that encorages local support. But we are shadow boxing because neither the taliban nor the Kabul govt can deliver what the Afghans want. So we are fighting our own inability to shape the “other side” that the Afghans are supposed to migrate to. Our confusion between warfighting and nation building shows that.

    Anthros clearly point out this cultural and capability gap on a daily basis and the US miltary cannot deliver much of what Afghans consider to be essential:Defence of Islam, instant justice, tribal unity lack of corruption, and Afgan nationalism/identity are core afghan values. Security,jobs and hope are also hard to sustain in a country that has no self-powered economic engine.

    McChrystal is pragmatic and smart but his people won’t be wearing turbans,marrying into the tribes or mandancing anytime soon.We are guests and after 8 years we have broken too many promises and overstayed our welcome.
    COIN, just as it was in Iraq, is a triage move designed to cover our retreat and to provide an 18 month political glidepath up to the next election. No more, no less


  8. RYP

    Sorry I am my blackberry and seem to be responding to myself. I forgot to mention that people as diverse as Sarah Chayes, Duane “Dewey” Clariðdge, Hank Crumpton and many other Afghanistas are all advising ISAF. Add to that the cacaphony of pundits and experts and you have white noise. The previous commander was able to put his plan into 12 slides while McChrystal required 66 pages of carefully structured to say essentailly the same thing.Gen McKiernan was fired of course and I would say gen McChrystals very moderated advice still does include a “win” if you ticked all the boxes. So this is why the anthro equation is so important.what is a win in Afghan terms and can America provide it without creating a much worse secondary effect. Something that seems to be happening now

  9. Douglas Smith

    There are those so burdened as to have witnessed two full cycles of genocidal aggression on the part of the American armed forces: the first in Southeast Asia, the second in the Middle East. Back in the days when I innocently labeled myself an “anthropologist”, the discipline was convulsed by revelations that some of our esteemed colleagues were serving as frontline intelligence agents for a killing kampaign known as Operation Phoenix. During our subsequent soul-searching we took pause to wonder if the “fathers of the discipline” – bearded giants like Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard and Frederik Barth – had not likewise served as privileged spies for the Empire. Finally, at the hour of midnight we identified the shadow of our chosen discipline: In exchange for a modicum of wealth and prestige, we felt justified in betraying the confidences of our “informants,” of those who extended us food and shelter. All of this came before the Chagnon scandal (in which it was revealed that an intrepid American researcher released contagious disease as a marker to trace social networks.) One gathers from this article that despite a long loop through postmodern metaworlds, even less outrage is felt about professional corruption nowadays, if we can accept as evidence that fact that only one-in-ten American anthropologists have bothered to sign a petition condemning their miscreant traitorous colleagues. Maximillian Forte fights on, but I’m glad to get out when I did.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Douglas, it is great to see you posting here, many thanks for this. As you might have seen elsewhere now, or even glimpsed in this same article, your view is one that I very much share. Thanks for this message.

  10. John Stanton

    US Army Missile Command, Life Cycle Management is the contracting activity for a new HTS effort ($7.2 million). Georgia Tech Applied Lab is the contractor. I’ve got requests in for a couple of interviews to GT and US Army. Will be interesting when response comes.

    Thanks for all you do Max. There is always good discussion here.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Hi John, thanks for writing. Coincidentally I also saw news of that Georgia Tech contract the other night. Here are the posted details:

      Principle Contractor: Georgia Tech Applied Research Corporation
      Date of Issuance: 10/9/2009
      Branch of Service: Army

      Contract Details:
      Georgia Tech Applied Research Corp., Atlanta, Ga., was awarded on Sept. 30, 2009 a $7,820,869 cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for the Human Terrain System Project used to train personnel to deploy on human terrain teams and human terrain analysis teams in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Work is to be performed Leavenworth, Kan., (65 percent), Atlanta, Ga., (30 percent), and Oyster Point, Va., (5 percent) with an estimated completion date of Aug. 31, 2010. One bid solicited with one bid received. U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command, Redstone Arsenal, Ala., is the contracting activity (W31P4Q-08-D-0006).

      Total Contract Value: $7,820,869

  11. John Stanton

    I disagree with RYP about taking the term War out of the lexicon and replacing it with Conflict. This is Pentagon/Think Tank speak and serves well those who advocate War without end. I mean, I feel like I’m part of some Dr. Strangelove movie or William F. Buckley Firing LIne when reading/hearing COIN people write and talk. COIN disciples toss around a bunch of neat-o language that makes War seem distant, even fun. Now it’s Peace Enforcement, not Law Enforcement.

    Tell the GI with no legs that he has been in a Conflict. Tell the Wife & Children who have lost a Dad/Mom that it was just a little Conflict, not War. In the COIN world, Geospatial Mapped HT databases linked to robotic killing machines will kill with great accuracy. And when they miss, we can blame the program in the machine, not the humans that designed it, programmed it and linked it to other machines in the form of databases.

    This is killing and it’s War. Apply it any way you want, we are at War in Iraq and Afghanistan, have military advisors participating in foreign internal defense in Thailand, Nigeria, Cambodia, Mexico, Colombia, et al. In fact, we are at War here with 12,000 plus Americans murdered violently every year.

    Andrew Bacevich is absolutely correct in his most recent piece in the Boston Globe. Now I’m off to teach high school seniors in my Military & Diplomacy course. American youth must not be lead to accept perpetual War.

    “As the fighting drags on from one year to the next, the engagement of US forces in armed nation-building projects in distant lands will become the new normalcy. Americans of all ages will come to accept war as a perpetual condition, as young Americans already do. That “keeping Americans safe’’ obliges the United States to seek, maintain, and exploit unambiguous military supremacy will become utterly uncontroversial…This is a pivotal moment in US history. Americans owe it to themselves to be clear about what is at issue. That issue relates only tangentially relates to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or the well-being of the Afghan people. The real question is whether “change’’ remains possible.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      John, I agree with you fully. To buy into the official doctrine, and adapt officialdom’s newspeak as if it were own, is a serious surrender of our independent thinking abilities. If one nation’s soldiers are off in another land killing people, and that is not war, then we might as well give up on our own ability to make meaning and to confront things as they really are. Besides, I don’t know anyone who would really seriously argue that counterinsurgency and low intensity conflict (and Afghanistan is most assuredly NOT a case of LIC — LIC was a term reserved for proxy wars between superpowers confronting each other at local levels through local armies), are somehow not “war”. I am not sure what Robert’s aim is with these statements, but I disagree with them.

  12. Maximilian Forte

    One more update tonight, a short post to come on McFate’s doctoral dissertation, a note about the Minerva research grants from the Pentagon, and a repeat of the details above of the Georgia Tech contract (and ways of finding this information that others might find useful for their own research).

  13. RYP

    We would disagree in terminology since the term was is misused (as in War on….) and has distinct legal characteristics that distinguish it from other forms of violence. If we are to use your general definition “war” also includes bizarre attempts at waging peace, non kinetic activities, psyops and other activities. Thomas Barnett has had some influence and the emergence of AFRICOM whose motto is “do no harm” is the epitome of this military evolution. The military is full of educated people who look to prevent conflict by expanding the influence of the military (often into traditional diplomacy areas) and they lean on other sciences to do so. Being at “war” with the military without considering who they are fighting and the successes (as well as the failures) doesn’t seem to be productive.

    You asked if the military had any successful application of counterinsurgency. That is a long and contentious discussion in itself but the answer lies in the history books, not in my opinion.

    Here is a list put together by the Marine Warfighting Laboratory Wargaming Division (in itself a scary name:))

  14. John Stanton

    Are there any elephants left?

    So we are adopting the COIN tactics that the Spanish and Portuguese used against Napoleon?

    USMC CAP program from the 1960’s in Vietnam should be the model for COIN.

    I am very Conflicted at all times!

    A B C D Puppies
    D R N O Puppies
    S D R
    C M P N

  15. Pingback: Montgomery McFate is a Fraud, Not a Brave Thinker « An American Lion

  16. Caise Diab

    Although HTS seems to me a repulsive and condescending method of controlling an occupied population, it is a waste of time fighting it. Firstly, it won’t work. Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Serbs, Panamanians, Vietnamese, Koreans, or any other conquered population are too smart to fall for it. U.S. policymakers are assuming that the rest of the world is primitive when it is, in fact, these warmongers and their nationalistic population that are primitive. Let it fail on its own.

    Secondly, none of this is necessary without the war and occupation. So the war and occupation must end? How? Stop paying your taxes if you live in the U.S., U.K., or any other country with troops in other people’s homelands. All talk is cheap. Just bankrupt the beast.

    You may say that not paying taxes will land you in jail…..Well, that is a possible consequence. Integrity has a price. The Iraqis and Afghans are in jail, fully enabled by American taxpayer dollars….

    Caise D
    Amman, Jordan
    American expatriate and tax refuser

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Great points Caise, thanks.

      I agree that HTS won’t work “on the ground,” and indeed there is no real evidence that it has produced any meaningful changes — violence has skyrocketed on all sides, U.S. forward operating bases have been overrun, and deadly air strikes continue. Beyond that, HTS adopts functionalist anthropology, suited for describing situations of order in states of social equilibrium, which are notoriously inadequate for describing situations of upheaval, war, rapid change, and chaos. They think that using anthropology is getting the customs and tribal relations right, in the worst possible context for trying to get such static snapshots. They want a fix on local cultures, that are themselves not fixed. If they used any anthropology seriously, and understood it, they would not be joining the occupation forces to begin with.

      I don’t think we can stop HTS, or even impede it, given as you say that it is a failure from the moment of its very conception. What we are doing though is to unmask it, so that institutions of learning are not perverted and mislead into this kind of junk as if it were some wave of the future.

      You are also right, that apart from occasional protests, and this online stuff, we as citizens are not doing what we need to do to force our so-called “representative” democratic governments to obey our wishes. Most polls across Europe and North America say that most of us think it was the wrong idea to invade, and that we have to get out now.

      The only problem with not paying taxes is that some of us have taxes deducted at the source, by the employer, so we have little leeway it seems.

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