The Loaded Goat: Revisiting Pine Cone Anthropology in Afghanistan

The diary of Ted the Tongue reveals more about the poverty of the academic thinking and conduct that provisions the “Comparative Cultural Competence” (or is it “Cross-Cultural Competence”?) component of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) than the colorful background and confused imaginings of a young American adventurer in the guise of anthropologist and ethnographer. Ted Callahan’s pretentious and austere anthropological competence is probably standard equipment in the design and operations of HTS teams in Afghanistan. Thus, aside from the moral and ethical implications of “Enlisting Anthropology in the War,” this quality and form of anthropological participation in the so called “war” has resulted in “blind leading the blind,” which is as lethal and destructive as the bullets and bombs hurled at the defenseless people of Afghanistan by the dazed and dark-minded American military machine.

A modest degree of competence in the ethnology of Afghanistan leads to the conclusion that the “tribe” (recall the advisory “It’s the tribes stupid!”, The Atlantic, November 2007), the chief target of HTS and its imperial umbrella will never die. Everything the American savage killing machine encounters in Afghanistan is going to be loaded with a bomb—from the goat in the local market to cherry pie to Amy’s “provocative top” to the Kuchi camel to the turban and beard of the village leader to the Zadran boy who is cracking pine nuts. No matter how many and what kind of Callahans the HTS parades in Afghanistan and no matter what promises HTS makes and who it bribes, resistance to the contaminating presence of the freaked out American war machine will be lurking in every corner of inhabited Afghanistan.

Edward “Ted” Callahan is the newest American “authority” on Afghanistan. He claims a colorful background for himself. He must be an expert multi-tasker. Ted is or is imagined by the GIs in Afghanistan to be a spy, a detective, a member of the Special Forces, a CIA agent, a journalist, mountaineer, mountain and river guide. All or some of these he might be. He also claims to have conducted “research” and climbed mountains in northern Afghanistan. He has worked for Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute, the organization bent on radicalizing women’s culture in Afghanistan. Mortenson, author of the Three Cups of Tea, also engaged in mountaineering in South Asia to prior embarking on his culture cleansing project in Afghanistan.

Ted Callahan is quite clear about his politics. He says “I consider this war to be justified.” But he is dead wrong in hallucinating: “my earlier field research of 18 months taught me that the majority (of) Afghans feels (sic) the same”. Ted Callahan, where and when did you do “field research” in Afghanistan? What and where is/are the ethnographic, social and cultural unit(s) of analysis(es) on which you base this conclusion? You claim to have visited northern Afghanistan. Take us to the specific location(s) where you conducted “field research.” Please document for us the specific dates of your ethnographic researches in these locations. You seem to have learned all the popular tricks used by many Euro-American ethnographers of Afghanistan for constructing academic, professional, and political capitals out of the concoctive mysteries of “Being There” doing research among the Afghan Others.  The only people who justify the American “war” are the rank and file members of the Northern Alliance who pimped and scouted for the occupation of Afghanistan. Were Callahan’s mountain climbing trips to northern Afghanistan hosted by the Northern Alliance? The overwhelming majority of the people of Afghanistan, the region, the Muslim World, the people of the United States and the global system believe that this war is an unjustified enterprise against preindustrial Muslim Afghanistan initiated and maintained by fascist Zionists and the weapon making industries of the United States and Israel.

Callahan, is a “pride and joy” graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Boston University. The department houses the government funded American Institute of Afghanistan Studies. Ted Callahan imagines himself as an “amateur” “ethnographer” doing “ethnography” while speaking to the ethical standards of institutional anthropology. But his competence in anthropology and ethnography is doubtful. Claiming the ability to speak Chinese and having graduate anthropology courses at Boston University on his transcript do not produce these qualifications. His claim about “research” among the Kirghiz pastoralists and other ethnic groups in northern Afghanistan lacks cultural, temporal, and spatial specificity. Let us have a close look at selected features of his ethnographic tour in eastern Afghanistan.

Dari is the lingua franca of Afghanistan. It is the language of state bureaucracy and the market. Every ethnic group in Afghanistan (including Zadran and Kuchi Paxtuns) except the Farsiwan (Ethnic Dari speakers) speak two languages—their native/mother language and Dari. Thus, a person with competence in speaking Dari will be able to engage Paxtuns everywhere in Dari. Ted Callahan claims to speak Dari. Yet he is accompanied by an interpreter named “Rex”. We are not told about the cultural background of Rex. Nor do we know the linguistic mediums used in Callahan’s interactions with the Zadrans and Kuchis.

With his Dari competence Callahan could have interacted without an interpreter with the local Zadran and Kuchi population. Why then the presence of Rex, the interpreter? Here is a stark collision between Callahan’s claimed linguistic competence and local cultural and linguistic reality. Callahan writes: “As soon as they (the Kochis) noticed that I understand, they’ll lift their hands and say: ‘Azeemat’, Well done”. But, the morpheme ‘azeemat (in Dari and Paxtu [from the Arabic root ‘azm, firm resolution, determination]) means departure, leaving, starting to leave. The accompanying body language (lifted hands) underscores this equivalent of “goodbye.” The Kuchis say goodbye, Callahan thinks he has done well! In the absence of adequate local cultural competence, especially linguistic competence, how can an ethnographer, especially an anthropological ethnographer, meaningfully and properly process the surrounding social and cultural multilayered complexity?

The pastoral nomads of Afghanistan produce sheep and goats. There are no cattle breeding pastoral nomads in Afghanistan or South Asia. Cattle is produced by sedentary agriculturalists in this region. That the Kuchis in eastern Afghanistan “move from pasture to pasture with their cattle” is a groundless ethnographic assertion.

In the early 1970s a major development project was undertaken in Paktia province (the location of Callahan’s detective work) with the help of the West German government. German social scientists connected with this project have written extensively about social and cultural conditions in the Khost area. It appears that Callahan is unaware of these writings.  The anthropologist Alef-Shah Zadran (PhD, Anthropology, SUNY-Buffalo, 1977, currently with Kabul University) wrote his doctoral thesis about  Almara, a Paxtun village, fifteen miles east of Khost. Zadran spent twelve continuous months during 1975-1976 in Almara.

Ted Callahan’s “business plan” for the marketing of Zadran Jalghoza (pine nuts) in “New York specialty shops” is somewhat lagging behind the fast moving dynamics of regional and global markets. Starting in early 1990s, Zadrani Jalghoza (and other Afghan dried fruits) have been imported to the United States. Jalghoza is packaged and marketed in Afghan and South Asian food stores in the United States from coast to coast. The importer and packager is “AHU BARAH” (telephone no. 516-396-0710). Needless to say, shelled pine nuts are a standard item is Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisine.

If Forward Operating Base Salerno near Khost includes “Amy” with “tight jeans and provocative top” who “in one and a half years…has absorbed an encyclopedic knowledge about this area which comes flowing out of her mouth,” why inconvenience a raw youth like Ted Callahan in such dangerous detective work? Why not have one of those Afghan interpreters (“terps”) get the answers for the commanding officers and/or Amy from the Zadran or Kuchi subjects. Perhaps Afghans terps are not trustworthy. Even then, why is the presence of someone with Ted Callahan’s qualifications necessary in HTS operations in Paktia?

The people of Afghanistan have not and do not “despise” the Hazaras. Yes, they are a numerical minority in the country and have been on the receiving end of individual discrimination, not necessarily institutional discrimination. However, over the last thirty years this numerical minority has become politically quite powerful at the center and in their highland periphery. Currently the Hazaras are envied in Afghanistan for their ethnic and political solidarity and outspoken presence in the Kabul government.

To close, let us ask: what is anthropological about Ted Callahan’s thinking and writing? Nothing. What is the ethnographic authority of his detective work in Paktia, Afghanistan? None. No anthropologist worth her/his salt and no properly educated and experienced student of Culture would want to be associated with the HTS, with minds like Montgomery McFate, David Petraeus, Michael Howard, and the encyclopedic woman with the provocative top even if one was utterly desperate for company.

Selected Sources:

Ted Callahan wins American Institute of Afghanistan Studies first AIAS Student Paper Prize:

Ted Callahan bio on Altitude Junkies:

Boston University Anthropology profile of Edward (“Ted”) Callahan Jr:

Ted Callahan bio on Mountain Madness (scroll down):

Ted Callahan’s letter to the New York Times:

Congressional Research Service: “Afghanistan: U.S. Foreign Assistance” (citing Callahan on page 5):

Of Related Interest (recommended):

Three Cups of Tea for Imperialism! Greg Mortenson’s Participatory Militarism

18 thoughts on “The Loaded Goat: Revisiting Pine Cone Anthropology in Afghanistan

  1. Ishtar

    Mr. Hanifi,

    I agree with all of your arguments, but concerning this paraghraph:

    (Callahan writes: “As soon as they (the Kochis) noticed that I understand, they’ll lift their hands and say: ‘Azeemat’, Well done”. But, the morpheme ‘azeemat (in Dari and Paxtu [from the Arabic root ‘azm, firm resolution, determination]) means departure, leaving, starting to leave. The accompanying body language (lifted hands) underscores this equivalent of “goodbye.”)

    allow me some corrections here:

    The Arabic word “azm” means, as you said, determination and firm resolusion but it never means departure, leaving or even starting to leave. Perhaps you are thinking of the Egyptian arabic dialect in a particular question “ala feen al azm?” which literally means “where are you determined to go”.The azm here is also determination, but the whole sentence put together means a query about departure.

    I am sure “azeemat” is derived from the Arabic word “adheem” which means “great” or “well done”.The letter “dh” is so peculiar of the Arabic language that we are called “the nation of the dhat” referring to the sound of the letter “dh”. Other nations who borrow Arabic words, always convert the dh to z , hence: azeemat.

  2. CM

    The fact that Amy is even wearing tight jeans and a provocative top in Afghanistan shows that she hasn’t a clue what’s going on there. Her “encyclopedic knowledge” may be ten kilometers wide but it’s about a millimeter deep.

  3. M. Jamil Hanifi

    In the process of the diffusion of cultural traits from one culture to another, changes in form, function, and meaning take place. This transformative process is at work in the movement of Arabic linguistic features to areas beyond Southwest Asia.

    In crafting this text I have relied on my personal linguistic competence in Dari and Paxtu and a modest familiarity with Arabic phonology, morphology, and syntax. Here are dictionary sources for my claim:

    ‘Azeemat (with the phoneme [z] not [dz]—starting, leaving, departure, setting out. (Kashani, Abbas Aryanpur, 1986. The Combined Persian-English and English-Persian Dictionary. Lexington, KY: Mazda Publishers. P. 174).

    ‘Azeemat (with the phoneme [z] not [dz]—v.n. of ‘azm—Undertaking. (Steingas, F. 1892 [recent reprints are widely available]. A Comprehensive Persian-English Dictionary. Beirut: Librairie Du Liban. P. 848).

    ‘Azm (with the phoneme [z] not [dz]—undertaking, resolution, determination, intention. (Raverty, H. G., 1860 [recent reprints are widely available]. A Dictionary of the Pukhto, Pushto Language of the Afghans. London: Longman. P. 703).

    In its local Paxtu/Persian (not Arabic) context the morpheme ‘azeemat is derived from ‘azm not ‘adzm around which is constructed the Arabic adjective ‘adzeem—great, grand, or magnificent but not the adverb “well done”.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    Nicely put CM. What we don’t know from Callahan, however, is whether this Amy leaves the base or not, or if she just dresses that way on the base (where there are still Afghan men working as servants). Even so, the degree of sexual harassment, and sexual assaults, that occur within the military would have given a rational person reason to pause.

    HTS has had some very smart and knowledgeable people working for it, and some who are almost tragically under qualified. They get people with all sorts of motivations, and in some cases it is clearly all about just getting a job and making money. Here is the latest applicant I found online…read through her tweets and you get a sense of her priorities:

    In case you can’t find them, here are some examples:

    “I hope I didn’t just make one of the worst decisions of my life…”

    “Turned down the Rosetta Stone internship for the possibility of the Human Terrain thing. It’s not as bad as I make it sound…”

    “…just kinda stressed that it’s not a final thing. I have a backup plan, but I feel a little guilty for turning down RS.”

    “21 pages of background paperwork…go.”

    “My mind is spinning right now, and it’s all centering on where I see myself in 10 yrs. What do I really want from this job?”

    There is no sense at all in there of: “Gee, in a few months I’ll be in a war zone, entering the f*cking jaws of hell!” Or “Hey I just read that one base I’m likely to be at, FOB Salerno, was almost overrun by Taleban this weekend.” Or “Wow, Afghanistan, whodathunk I’d ever be there???” Or “Time to read up on Afghanistan and shit.”

    Once she is in HTS, like all other blogs and other sites used by their individual employees, her account will either go private or be eliminated altogether.

  5. Brian Murphy

    I just wanted to say that it’s great that Zero Anthro includes an anthropologist from Afghanistan who can read and deconstruct things in ways the rest of us can’t. Like I think Max said before, we hardly ever hear the voices of Afghans in any of these debates, even less in anthropology. Thanks for your articles Dr. Hanifi. I might not comment but I read and enjoy all of them.

  6. Ishtar

    (In the process of the diffusion of cultural traits from one culture to another, changes in form, function, and meaning take place. This transformative process is at work in the movement of Arabic linguistic features to areas beyond Southwest Asia.)

    You are right Mr. Hanifi. I see it now with your interpretation.

  7. CM

    I had to let Greg Mortensen’s name work its way through my brain’s search engine – woefully slower than my computer’s – until I remembered where I’d seen him.

    Bill Moyer’s Journal – January 15, 2010

    It was one of Bill Moyer’s feel-good interviews, which I liked much less than the ones where the interviewees had a gripe to air. Mr. Mortensen made me feel vaguely uncomfortable because, although I’m sure his intentions were good (the road to hell and all that…), he seemed to be missing the big picture. Something didn’t ring true. I got the same feeling from Thomas Freidman’s The World is Flat assumptions. Not on this planet as I see it.

    I don’t know about the mountaineer/guide/social anthropologist but he seems to be of a type seen in recent nature videos, where you see a lot of (in more ways than one) and hear a lot from the scientists and see very little of the wildlife. It’s all about meeee.

    I read a page or two of that young woman’s tweets. It’s true. The ones on the possible deployment with a HST didn’t seem to have much insight into what might actually happen in Afghanistan or even knowledge of what was happening there now. It was a posting that would look good on the resumé. I think the internship with Rosetta Stone would be a better option, but that’s just my opinion.

    I guess it’s simply that people from North America seem to think that they have all the answers, that the have the right or the duty to spread their knowledge everywhere else and that other people are simply waiting to have this wisdom imparted to them. They go to teach but don’t think they have anything to learn. That countries less than three hundred years old and already showing severe cracks in their foundations could tell civilizations that have survived through thousands of years what to do is just a little bit pompous, no?

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Great recommendation, many thanks.

      I was immediately reminded of the report, a year or more ago, about U.S. hired guns defending the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, that had drunken orgies–and again the resort to homoerotic themes that seems to have become an enduring and recurrent feature of all American abuse stories in their occupied territories. You might remember it, about drinking vodka from each other’s butt cracks, or eating potato chips out of each other’s butt cracks, and intimidating and abusing Afghan guards who would not participate. I still have the photos in some file in that swollen document box in the side bar…so swollen that each time I visit the site the page “sticks” for a while until it loads.

      1. CM

        I remember those pictures – unfortunately. There is certainly more than a little prurience about the whole set-up, a chance to do things they’d never get away with in the home countries. And then they blame the place, the heat, the pressure, the danger, rather than their own urge to act out some pretty debased fantasies.

  8. Mike Cavanaugh

    Let me ask Dr. Hanifi a question, even if this isn’t the right place to ask this. It’s about music. I wonder what the Taliban definition of music is. They banned music from being played on radios when they were in power, but their own chants sound musical to me. On You Tube I searched for Taliban songs and there are quite a few, each one labelled as a “song”. How are chants not music? How do you explain their point of view on this?

  9. M. Jamil Hanifi

    The major difference is in the textual content. Taleban chants are about the glories of Islam and shahadat (martyrdom) interspersed with selections from the Holy Quran and other formal and folk confirming narratives. They view their melodic chants as recitations (in Paxtu, yadawal, bayanawal) of sacred texts for spiritual uplifting not “songs” for worldly entertainment. Their chants are not accompanied by musical instruments.

    In the formative years of the Taleban movement the popular modern musical genres of Afghanistan symbolized to their leadership a culture of decadence and a stark contradiction of core Islamic values. In attempting to understand the early and current phases of the Taleban movement, readers of ZA will find Ralph Linton’s ideas about Nativistic Movements (AA 45: 230-240, 1943) and A. F. C. Wallace’s model of Revitalization Movements (AA 58: 264-281, 1956) useful. In my view, at this stage of its development, having gained more confidence and popularity, the movement would probably be somewhat tolerant of the musical (and other) features of Afghan popular culture.

  10. Conrad Barwa

    The people of Afghanistan have not and do not “despise” the Hazaras. Yes, they are a numerical minority in the country and have been on the receiving end of individual discrimination, not necessarily institutional discrimination. However, over the last thirty years this numerical minority has become politically quite powerful at the center and in their highland periphery. Currently the Hazaras are envied in Afghanistan for their ethnic and political solidarity and outspoken presence in the Kabul government.

    Both this statement and Callahan’s are over-simplifications. Discrimination is a problem in many schools where Hazara students are a minority and a lot of popular prejudices reflect a negative view of the Hazara. I worked on a project in Bamiyan for nearly a year and was constantly irritated by the attitudes of many non-Hazara colleagues towards the Hazara. Secondly, that bit about the Hazara suddenly becoming very powerful, really needs to be contextualised; they were pretty repressed towards the end of the Taliban reign and had been subject to several massacres since the collapse of the PDPA/Watan regime by various groups. Almost all socio-economic indicators put them *as a group*amongst the poorest and most deprived in Afghanistan. Their current political role is linked very heavily to the fact that they are percieved (rightly or wrongly) as one of the more reliable anti-Taliban constituents and have been favoured so in the bascially foreign-backed regime currently in power in Kabul. This obviously has given them a significant amount of unprecendented influence and access to patronage at the centre; but is also a reminder of the fragility and vulnerability given the way the war is going and the long-term sustainability of the Karzai regime. This is something that both HAzaras and others are acutely aware of.

    Callaghan is just awful but while CM corrects some of his more egregious errors; the picture paintedof the Hazara is excessively meliorist.

  11. JD

    This article is in extremely poor taste. Ted Callahan is a colleague and personal friend of mine whose insight I have found invaluable in regards to my own experiences in Afghanistan. He is both a rigorous academic and an astute fieldworker. This slanderous post amounts to little more than a personal attack and is an awful welcoming to an aspiring PhD candidate to our discipline. Without seeing his dissertation, how are we to judge his academic and cultural competence in a fair and sound manner?

    Far from considering himself to be detective or special forces operative, my impression of Ted is that of a humble character genuinely interested in making a difference. I commend him for his courage to put himself at risk in efforts to help improve the lives of others. In no way can I understand why people would choose to chastise an individual who uses their talents and abilities in the service of others. Further, I challenge the rest of you to ask yourselves what is it that you are doing to help better the situation.

    I hope you do not choose to delete this comment.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      I will let Jamil respond for himself if he chooses to, but I have some things to say about your comment. First, the only comments that get deleted are abusive, off topic, troll-like ones. While your comment has none of those qualities, it is rather pompous and evasive.

      “Poor taste”? Let’s assume that everyone agrees with you. So what? Why should “taste” be of any concern when the issues we are debating go well beyond any one person’s bruised little ego? If we want to stick with “taste” instead, then let’s at least debate what “good taste” is shown by cashing in on a war, and going to prove yourself in someone else’s country, against someone else’s interests, at the expense of others, uninvited, and then making a meal of it in the media–“Look at me everyone! I am an adventurous anthropologist!” Let me suggest to you that “taste” is not the issue you want to be raising. Throw it away, that’s all it is good for.

      Slander? Where do you see this slander? Or is it that criticism amounts to slander in your view? You will want to take care of the defensive line of argument–it suggests the presence of a wound, and in water filled with sharks you don’t want to be flailing around like this.

      “Genuinely interested in making a difference”? No. The war continues, no difference there, and he went to support it. Next.

      “To help improve the lives of others”? No. HTS is not an independent humanitarian organization. It is a Pentagon-created entity, designed to help the U.S. secure victory over others.

      “Uses their talents and abilities in the service of others.” This line is irrelevant, and even counterproductive to what you want to achieve. Here are examples of others who use their talents and abilities in the service of others:
      * pimps
      * drug dealers
      * gun runners
      * child traffickers

      Here are more innocuous examples:
      * doctors
      * teachers
      * baby sitters
      * bus drivers

      Keeping in mind that Callahan is partaking in war, he is closer to the first group than the second.

      We are doing whatever we can to put an end to this war. What are YOU doing to achieve that? I note how the persistent theme in all of your comments is that which silences the war, takes it merely for granted, and naturalizes it by default.

      And really, if Callahan, you, or anyone else is offended by this, then tough fucking shit. Get a thick skin. We’re not here to do your emotional homework or to massage your ego or anyone else’s.

    2. M. Jamil Hanifi


      The “Loaded Goat” post offers an ethnographic engagement of Ted Callahan’s published account of his odyssey with the HTS during 2009. It is neither an assessment of “his dissertation” nor a critique of his humble personality. We could address your discomfort if you would please reread your good friend’s diary and “The Loaded Goat”—both posted on this blog. Our discussion would be meaningful if you could, for good taste, educate me about your understanding of “rigorous academic”, “astute fieldworker” and an analysis of an instance or two in which you found your colleague’s (ethnographic) “insight…invaluable in regard to [your] own experience in Afghanistan”. A word or two about your own academic background and experience would enhance the flavor to our discussion.

      1. Maximilian Forte

        Jamil, note that in the original article, Callahan himself is the one to suggest that the research he does cannot be done ethically, that his way is the right way, and critics have never been to Afghanistan. Yet we are being asked to welcome him as the newest PhD to our discipline. (Callahan also fails to indicate what role he would have played, or what “cut” he would have taken from any pine nut exporting business he helped locals to set up.)

        Also, he is just plain wrong. We already published this article about Patricia Omidian‘s fieldwork in Afghanistan, which is fully consensual, involves no military embedding, no guns, no armed guards–just people who invite you into their homes and developing rapport and social networks outside of any engagement with the military. Callahan did not want to go that route, probably lacking the same depth in Afghanistan as Omidian. Yet we are being asked to respect and celebrate his work. Are they insane?…Or, no wait a second…don’t tell me they were eying Callahan as McFate’s replacement, because they are off to a very bad start if so.

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