Colonel Martin Schweitzer testified before two House Armed Services Committee Subcommittees on April 23 about the Human Terrain Team operating in Afghanistan. After reading it, I was not sure whether to jump up and down and yell yippee! because the military is discussing the role of culture in rural Afghanistan, or simply groan because so little of how social scientists think seem to have gotten through yet.
The statement was interesting for outside social scientists to read for a number of reasons, especially for how the military talks about culture, how the military’s understanding of culture works, and general social science research methods.
The first thing that struck me was the language of the military sub-culture. Much of what Colonel Schweitzer writes is an attempt to force what he and his HTT observe into pre-existing ways the military defines social situation. The terminology is replete with references to the military sub-culture, and their views of Afghanistan as being the focus of first security concerns, rather than issues of human relationships, power, kinship, ritual, etc., and other issues social scientists usually think about first But, the oddest terminology for me was his frequent reference to “kinetic operations” which by and large goes undefined, except to note that HTT cultural knowledge means that you have fewer of them. (I think that kinetic operations though has something to do with a type of search and seizure action that the military orders on its own criteria, and then conducts).
Moderately surprising for me was Colonel Schweitzer’s revelation that there might be more than one source of authority in a village, clan, etc. Apparently the army has always assumed that only one particular village elder is “the boss,” and Colonel Schweitzer’s pleasure—and surprise—that approaching a mullah is also effective. This struck me as Anthro 100 level stuff, but if a five member HTS team is what it takes to get across the idea that authority in “tribal” communities might be diffuse, ok, great. After six years in Afghanistan, it is about time that the military understood that such communities do not necessarily operate using the same type of command structure found in an American police force, for that matter, the US Military.
But, the biggest question I had after reading Colonel Schweitzer’s testimony was whether the HTS concept worked or not. Despite the fact that he is speaking to Congress as an advocate for a program which celebrates the use of social science, the data he presented were only anecdotal, and do not reflect systematic evaluation. It may well be that the decline in the number of “kinetic operations” is due to HTS. But, as they say in research methods classes, “correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” Meaning, that just because two things happen at the same time, one does not necessarily cause the other. The classic example illustrating this principle is that you may eat carrots at dawn, and two hours later see more clearly, but it does not necessarily follow that the carrots cause improved eye sight. In the case of a reduced need for kinetic operations, the causes for that over the last year might have included bad weather, poor crops, good intelligence, bad intelligence, new commanders, a switch in Taliban strategy, switch in American strategy, etc. etc. The point being that just because the number of kinetic operations declined, it does not follow that it was caused by HTS.
The odd thing is that in a pilot program such as HTS, a “natural experiment” is easy to develop. The question to ask is, did the number of “kinetic operations” decline any quicker in the area controlled by the brigade, than it did in areas controlled by brigades which did not have HTS? This would presumably be easy to do in Afghanistan where not only are there more than one American brigades, but other countries also have a military presence. Such other sectors as a “control” and then draw conclusions about HTS effectiveness. Such data is also open to the perils of interpretation, but using it is far better than relying on the vague feelings and anecdote alluded to in Colonel Schweitzer’s testimony. The data is probably already in military files somewhere. I hope that it is analyzed before the next Congressional testimony on HTS.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.