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