Article — From the September 2008 issue
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Article — From the September 2008 issue
In July of last year I was stranded for a week at a military base in Kuwait, waiting for a flight to Kabul. I was traveling with four members of a new U.S. Army unit called the Human Terrain Team (HTT). One morning the team sat at a long table in the mess hall. It was already 120 degrees outside, and there was no compelling reason to leave the air-conditioning. Our flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until that night.
As the team picked over the remains of breakfast, the members debated what their unit insignia, which they would wear on their uniform sleeve, should look like. Someone suggested a Pegasus. Symbolically, the Pegasus had resonance in the West but not in the East, replied Steve Fondacaro, the team’s program manager. He nominated a spider, since spiders were more evocative of the HTT’s mission: helping the Army negotiate the complex web of social and cultural networks in which it has been entangled for the past six years. Plus, spiders had positive connotations in the Arab world, he said. Then someone pointed out that spiders didn’t play well to a Western audience. They were creepy. People were afraid of spiders.
“What about a skull?” I asked. “With flames shooting out of its eye sockets.”
No one said anything. Fondacaro, a retired colonel with a compact, muscular build, pursed his lips as if he were seriously weighing the possibility.
“Or how about this,” he said. He bent over his meal tray and extended his arms outward, his thick fingers brushing against my shoulder. Then he began to sway from side to side. “A skeleton surfing on a wave of human bodies,” he said. “All the bodies of all the people that the United States Army has ever subjugated throughout history.”
“No, no,” the psychological operations (psyop) sergeant said. “A skeleton sitting on a throne of skulls.”
The conversation devolved into thematic variations on skeletons, skulls, and corpses until the joke played itself out. Crude as it was, the humor underscored the team’s unfamiliar new role in an American foreign policy that has focused far too much on destruction and not nearly enough on reconstruction.
Reconstruction is not, of course, what militaries are designed to do; and yet the traditional instruments for reconstruction and diplomacy—the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—have been relegated to bit parts in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This situation reflects the Bush Administration’s avowed disdain for “nation-building” and its reliance on military action to achieve foreign-policy objectives, but it also continues a much larger trend. Civilian agencies responsible for foreign policy have been atrophying since the end of the Cold War, and the “global war on terror” threatens simply to make them irrelevant. Over the past few years the Department of Defense has become one of the largest foreign assistance agencies in the federal government; as if to highlight the State Department’s anemia, the Pentagon has even funded development of the Civilian Reserve Corps, a sort of National Guard for the State Department, from its own budget. In a speech last fall, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointed out that his department spends more on health insurance than the State Department spends on foreign affairs, and made an unusual pitch for a “dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security”—even though Gates, since taking over from Donald Rumsfeld, has expanded the Pentagon’s authority over aid programs traditionally managed by USAID and the State Department, such as training and equipping the armed forces of other countries.
This militarization of American foreign policy has not been some ad hoc response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. It began long before, and indeed it represents a fundamental realignment in how America deals with the rest of the world. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reveal how unprepared the military has been for its expanded mission, but the State Department has not reasserted itself in response: under Condoleezza Rice, the department has instead reoriented itself toward “transformational diplomacy,” a term she coined in a 2006 speech that outlined her vision of a department “that not only reports about the world as it is but seeks to change the world itself.” In practical terms this means that the State Department is fixated on tracking and eliminating terrorist networks. No one could deny that this should be a top priority of our foreign policy. The problem is that the “global war on terror” is our foreign policy.
It has been left to the military itself to muddle through the weaknesses in its own approach. “Culture” has become the latest buzzword in military circles—in the Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, “cultural awareness” is placed on a par with “kinetic effects,” i.e., those produced by bullets and bombs, as tools for winning “this long war.” The Human Terrain Teams are the vanguard in amassing this arsenal of awareness. Their mission is to learn something, finally, about the people whom the U.S. military has committed itself to defend or to kill.
The first HTT deployed to Khost province, in southeast Afghanistan, in February 2007. For an eight-month “proof of concept” tour, Khost was an auspicious choice, in that the recent history of the province reads like a timeline of the “global war on terror.” In 1986, the CIA funded the construction of a sprawling tunnel complex in the rugged mountains around Khost to shelter anti-Soviet mujahedeen, and Osama bin Laden, who was then known simply as the son of a wealthy Saudi contractor, did the contract work. During the Taliban’s reign, in the mid-1990s, bin Laden ran training camps in Khost to indoctrinate a new generation of mujahedeen dedicated to global jihad. It was from Khost, in February 1998, that bin Laden issued the infamous fatwa calling upon Muslims around the world to kill Americans wherever they could find them. Later that year, after Al Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Clinton ordered a cruise-missile strike against the Khost training camps, narrowly missing bin Laden. The first U.S.
soldier killed in the present war was ambushed near Khost city in January 2002 while searching for Al Qaeda fighters attempting to slip across the border into Pakistan.
Last summer, the 82nd Airborne’s 4th brigade combat team was garrisoned at Forward Operating Base Salerno. It took the four HTT replacements and me ten exhausting days to get there. We clambered down the C-130’s cargo ramp into the blinding sunlight and dragged our duffel bags to the base terminal. Two uniformed women with black M4 carbines slung across their backs greeted us: Tracy (the military demanded that I withhold the team members’ last names), the HTT’s chief anthropologist, and Roya, a cultural analyst of Iranian descent who spoke fluent Dari and some Pashto, two languages widely spoken in polyglot Afghanistan. Mynahs croaked from the trees as we walked to our assigned quarters, where I sloughed off my body armor and passed out on a cot.
The next morning we convened in a windowless room made of concrete blocks painted a murky shade of green. The psyop sergeant scrambled to turn over the maps adorning the walls before I could see them. “Sloppy op-sec,” he muttered, shorthand for “operational security.” Tracy and Rick, a former Green Beret officer and the team’s leader, sat on a table at the front of the room, sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups.
Rick opened his laptop and began a PowerPoint presentation that outlined what the team had accomplished in the past six months. On the surface, he and Tracy appeared to be polar opposites. Barrel-chested and white-haired, Rick spoke in clipped bursts of fact. Tracy had black hair, and her uniform hung from her slight shoulders as if it were on a coat hanger. She paused often to formulate metaphors. The two were aware of their differences, and they played them up in a routine worthy of a TV
sitcom—brass-tacks Green Beret meets head-in-the-clouds academic. But as the meeting wore on, the differences between Rick and Tracy blurred. Tracy was no ivory-tower egghead: she had once served as a combat aviator, and did not even have a Ph.D. Tracy had more experience with military culture than she had with Afghan culture. Fondacaro couldn’t have chosen a more suitable anthropologist to lead his first HTT. He knew that credibility—within the military, at least—was going to be the team’s biggest hurdle.
When the team first arrived at Salerno, no one understood what an HTT was, much less what it did. They were hastily installed in the brigade’s intelligence section, where their talents were wasted in “the myopic role of an intel analyst,” Colonel Martin Schweitzer, the brigade’s commanding officer, admitted later. Eventually they got their own office near the psyop desk. They had no immediate responsibilities, so they improvised and began building a rapport with the hundreds of local Afghan workers on base who did everything from interpreting to picking up trash. They jump- started reconstruction of the base mosque, which had fallen into disrepair. On one occasion, they consulted with psyop on a media campaign to discourage Afghans from becoming suicide bombers. HTT helped pinpoint the most effective medium (radio), target demographic (fifteen- to thirty-year-old men), time slot (after dark, since most Afghan men work in the fields during the day), and even specific tastes (“they love drama”). The team polled mullahs in order to craft the message for maximum impact and enlisted some of them to do the voice-overs, because non-Muslims cannot quote the Koran. And they advised psyop to drop the part of the campaign that involved handing out copies of the Koran and prayer books.
“You can’t even touch the Koran if you’re not Muslim!” Tracy said, shaking her head in amazement. “It could’ve been a marketing disaster.”
That June, the brigade conducted its first major combat maneuver, Operation Maiwand, in neighboring Ghazni province. The HTT went into the field for a month. Because they weren’t tied down by the exacting demands of combat, the team traveled in relative freedom to dozens of villages, holding impromptu shuras, or town meetings, with hundreds of Afghans in an effort to understand how the Taliban influenced the local population. What they discovered would be familiar to anyone who cares to read past the headlines. Taliban support stems from two endemic facts of Afghan life: extreme poverty and lack of security. The United States doesn’t have enough troops in Afghanistan to accomplish much beyond chasing Taliban and Al Qaeda militants from one hiding place to another, to say nothing of securing the country so that a functioning economy can take root.
One Afghan villager Rick spoke to put it more succinctly when asked why his village supported the Taliban. “‘How often do you come here?’” Rick said, paraphrasing the man. “‘Maybe once a year, twice a year? They’re here every other night. Who do I support? Who do I have to support?’”
The team found no evidence of a blanket philosophy, either religious or cultural, that made Afghans sympathetic toward the Taliban. The Taliban bought their support from vulnerable populations, and the exchange took many forms. Young Afghan men earning $250 a year often had to go abroad to earn enough money—up to $10,000—to buy a wife; or they could take bribes from the Taliban to plant bombs. Poor families sent their sons to be educated in Taliban madrasas in Pakistan, and in return received a motorcycle or a cell phone. Orphaned boys were perhaps the cheapest Taliban recruits. An incensed Afghan official in one village presented Tracy with a boy who had wandered into the district governor’s compound a month earlier. The boy wore an explosive vest that the Taliban had told him would burst with flowers and candy, but he didn’t know how to make the vest work.
The team’s applied anthropological methods seemed to consist simply of chatting with people instead of following the Army’s rote method of reading questions off a standard civil- affairs survey form. Their most distinctive asset came from the fact that in a country where women have virtually no public life and do not speak to men outside their immediate families, having two women on the team gave the HTT access to the half of the population that was off-limits to combat soldiers. During missions to provide basic medical care—or “medcaps”—Tracy and Roya were the only Western women at the clinics aside from nurses. When I spoke to her after the briefing, Tracy recalled one particular medcap. She had been interviewing women who’d lined up to receive treatment, and a smiling Tajik woman came out of the clinic, proudly holding up a plastic bag filled with condoms.
“My husband has agreed to use condoms,” the Tajik woman informed Tracy through a translator. “We’re tired of having all these babies.”
After that encounter, Tracy adjusted her interviews to include questions about contraception. As she went on more medcaps around the Andar district, a Taliban-friendly region of Ghazni, she began to document patterns among women from various tribes. Tajik and Kuchi women could use contraception, but women from the more conservative Pashtun tribes “had to sneak in and get the shot or the pill” because the local mullahs were preaching against it.
“And so one of the things that came out of this was an evolving metric for Taliban influence,” Tracy said. “Female contraception. Who would’ve thought?”
Before “culture” the military watchword was “transformation,” a term that was used to signify a leaner and more lethal fighting force—exactly the sort of force that is presently bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004, Major General (retired) Robert Scales submitted a report on the Iraq War to the House Armed Services Committee titled “Army Transformation: Implications for the Future,” in which he argued that the U.S. military had ignored the war’s “‘cultural’ phase” that began in the spring of 2003. The signal to shift from combat to stability operations wasn’t subtle—Baghdad was being ransacked—but American soldiers and diplomats stood by while looters carted off Iraq’s cultural treasures, an event that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defined as an “untidy” exercise in free will. Recent changes in the military’s top leadership also reflect a belated awareness that we are not fighting Desert Storm II. Robert Gates, who replaced Rumsfeld as defense secretary in December 2006, acknowledged that after the Vietnam War, “the Army relegated unconventional war to the margins of training, doctrine, and budget priorities,” leaving it “unprepared to deal with the operations that followed” in Afghanistan and Iraq. General David Petraeus was appointed the top commander in Iraq in 2007 based on the perceived success he had achieved with the 101st Airborne in stabilizing Mosul. In a Military Review article he wrote about that experience, Petraeus asserts that “knowledge of the cultural ‘terrain’ can be as important as, and sometimes even more important than, knowledge of the geographic terrain… people are, in many respects, the decisive terrain.”
All of this attention the military is lavishing on culture, however, threatens to suck Petraeus’s assertion dry of meaning—or, worse, to misapprehend culture as a thing that might be recognized by the latest targeting systems. People are not terrain; they do not behave like landscapes; culture is not a stable environmental feature like a mountain or a river. A closer analogy might be quicksand. It looks solid but it is not. This understanding is proving to be a real challenge for an army that has shown great difficulty in dealing with anything it can’t drive over, blow up, or fit onto a PowerPoint slide in time for the battle-update briefing.
“We’re good at killing people and breaking things,” Fondacaro said when he and I first spoke about the concept of HTT. “That’s what we do best, and that’s what our military decision-making process focuses on.”
The excruciating literalness of the Human Terrain Team’s name is a product of the excruciating rigidity of the system it is designed to change. The program began as an offshoot of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, a task force assembled in 2003 to analyze the growing threat of IEDs in Iraq. Part of that effort was a computer database of cultural knowledge—culture in a can, as it were—that was supposed to help commanders identify the social networks behind IEDs, from the bomb makers and financiers down to the men who planted the devices. But commanders didn’t need yet another piece of hardware, and they felt they were already drowning in information. What they needed, Fondacaro told me, were “expert culturally focused people who understand the operational relevance of cultural knowledge.”
In 2006 the IED task force shelved the computer and started over with the Human Terrain System, the core of which is composed of five-person HTTs specializing in particular locations. Team members are drawn from a volunteer cadre of anthropologists, social scientists, and cultural analysts from both civilian and military backgrounds.
The principal goal of each team is to provide combat-brigade commanders with a nuanced view of the people who live in their areas of operation. Armed with such knowledge, commanders might be less inclined to accomplish missions using only brute firepower. Dropping a 2,000-pound bomb on a mud hut is a “kinetic” way to eliminate insurgents, along with most living things in a 400-meter radius. The “non-kinetic” approach favored by the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual is to convince villagers not to harbor insurgents in the first place, and the hope is that this goal can be accomplished without firing a shot.
One week after my first briefing at Salerno, I spoke to Colonel Schweit zer in his office, a small room at the heart of the tactical-operations center. A large plywood desk cluttered with papers and laptops occupied one side of the room. The plywood walls were covered with maps, framed pictures of soldiers who had been killed while serving in Schweitzer’s command, and a poster of the World Trade Center towers burning. But the first thing that met my eye when I came through the door was a pair of plain black-and-white posters hanging side by side that listed the tenets of Pashtunwali: sanctuary, hospitality, revenge, and so on—the Pashtun code of ethics. Schweitzer said that he was introduced to Pashtunwali and the HTT simultaneously, a few weeks before deploying to Afghanistan for his second tour.
“That’s when we started understanding Pashtunwali,” he said. “The minute [the HTT] plugged in their computers.”
In his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, in 2002, Schweitzer said he had been “focused singularly and myopically on the enemy.” Pashtunwali, or anything else related to Afghan culture, didn’t figure in his battle plan. Even if an HTT had been available five years ago, he wouldn’t have known what to do with it. “I would’ve used it to have a better understanding of the population so I could eliminate them,” he said. “You can do that with the HTT, but that doesn’t win the fight. What wins the fight is not having to shoot folks, is not having to create any kinetic operation, but to win the people through non-kinetic, non-lethal effects. It’s a balance.”
Schweitzer was unequivocal in his support for the HTT. He was conscious of how that might sound to his peers—“whacked,” was how he put it. But he assured me his enthusiasm was grounded in facts. Since February, his brigade had reduced kinetic operations by 60 percent in favor of “non-lethal forms and sets of maneuver,” which had reduced both American and Afghan casualties. More than one third of the districts in his area of operations pledged their support to the Afghan government for the first time. Since Operation Maiwand ended, there have been more shuras conducted in Ghazni, more schools opened, and ten times the number of jingle trucks—brightly painted trucks with chimes hanging off them—carrying commercial freight through the region.
At the ground level, the HTT acted as an intermediary for soldiers like Captain Aaron White, a company commander who worked closely with the team during Operation Maiwand. In the tiny village of Kuz Khadokehl, a few miles southwest of Ghazni’s provincial capital, one of White’s mission parameters was to find potential recruits for an auxiliary police force, but he told me that he hadn’t been sure the town was “worth trying to turn.” Tracy convinced him that it was. Eliciting help from White’s Afghan informant, she engineered a meeting of the village elders in the mullah’s house. As White described the shura to me, he sounded a little like a baffled groom grateful for the services of his wedding planner.
“Tracy was like, ‘Okay, there’s such a huge difference of where you sit in the shura,’” he said, “‘who sits to your right, and who sits to your left.’”
Tracy coached White on appropriate body language, and how to read gestures of deference, such as hand kissing, in order to understand the village hierarchy. Most important, Tracy and Rick invited officers from the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the U.S. Army’s Ghazni Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to participate in the shura. Afghans were wary of American promises of reconstruction, many of which have gone unfulfilled as internal corruption and the war in Iraq have siphoned off resources.
The shura was a “home run,” Rick told me. “Aaron could’ve ran for mayor in that town the next day and got elected by a landslide vote.” In exchange for irrigation wells and a gravel road from Kuz Khadokehl to the district center, White received cooperation in the form of new recruits for the auxiliary police force. For his part, White insisted that none of it would have happened without the HTT “whispering in my ear.”
But any advances made during Operation Maiwand have to be viewed in the context of events that occurred in the weeks after the operation ended. The Taliban kidnapped twenty-three South Korean aid workers in Ghazni and held them hostage for more than a month, moving them from one location to another—no small feat, considering that Operation Maiwand was supposed to have driven a wedge between the Taliban and the local population. (Insurgent attacks in eastern Afghanistan, which includes the provinces of Khost and Ghazni, are up 40 percent in 2008.) And apparently life in Ghazni didn’t get any easier for truck drivers. An Afghan man who worked for a trucking company that supplied Salerno laughed ruefully when I told him that the U.S. military believed it was safer to travel through the area now.
“Ghazni is very danger, not fine,” he said. “Maybe it’s fine for them because they have got their weapons. So for us, especially when [the Taliban] get to know that we are working with you guys in here, they will cut our head.”
One day I joined the Khost PRT on a medcap to the village of Shembawot. Sergeant Hunt, a sandy-haired National Guard reservist from Arizona, sat in the front passenger seat, scrolling through the track list on an MP3 player he had patched into the Humveeintercom. A herd of Jersey cows ambled across the road, halting our convoy. The turret gunner slewed the muzzle of his machine gun away from the children who came out to watch the spectacle. They waved at us and stuck their thumbs up in the air.
I took my headset off and pushed my helmet back to mop the sweat from my brow. Looking out my window, I was startled to find myself face to face, so to speak, with a woman wearing a chadri, the most severe style of burka. Her entire body was hidden beneath loose folds of bright blue fabric. Not even her feet were visible. I raised my hand reflexively to wave, but the gesture was lost somewhere between three inches of bulletproof glass and the white lacework mask concealing her face. Then the Humvee lurched forward, transmission roaring, and we were on our way again. I slipped my headset back on. The Black Eyed Peas crackled in my ears. What you gonna do with all that junk? All that junk inside your trunk?
About five miles west of Khost city, the convoy—four up-armored Hum vees, two Toyota pickups, and a lumbering cargo truck carrying medical supplies—veered onto a dirt road.
“Every time I go down this road the Duke goes crazy,” Hunt said.
The Duke was an electronic jammer designed to prevent insurgents from remotely triggering radio- controlled IEDs. The system’s interface, a small box that lights up in the presence of certain frequencies, was zip-tied to a steel rail inside the Humvee. I had no idea what the flashing lights meant, so I avoided looking at them. Up ahead I could see a jingle truck decorated with white flowers idling at the side of the road. Dozens of bearded men dressed in white salwar kameez (long tunics and pajama pants) and white prayer caps milled around near the truck. I toggled the switch on my communications cable to listen in on the convoy’s radio traffic.
“Is that a wedding?”
“What’s going on up there?”
“We’re the wedding crashers, baby!”
“The medcap, is that it?”
“That’s a negative, they don’t even know the medcap is coming.”
Men stood at the roadside, hands on their hips, regarding the convoy with obvious contempt. The road narrowed to the width of an alley as mud-brick walls rose at least five feet above the gunner’s head. We were being funneled into the heart of Shembawot, which lay somewhere beyond a blind, ninety-degree turn that swallowed the front of the convoy. I was no tactician, but it seemed like an ideal ambush situation. As long as we kept moving, I told myself, we would be all right.
“Roger that, we’re all going to stop,” said a voice over the convoy frequency.
A jingle truck somewhere in the village was blocking the lane. Our Humvee rolled to a stop with a slow squealing of brakes. Outside my door, a man sat on a thatch mat eating green grapes. He was close enough to talk, if I could have rolled my window down. He popped a grape into his mouth and squeezed it like a vise between his front teeth. I tipped the rim of my helmet at him and tightened the chinstrap. The convoy inched forward.
“Three kids, they were walking by, he just spit at us,” reported a soldier in one of the Humvees up front. Children, soldiers will tell you, are the bellwether of any village. They often sprinted hundreds of yards over sharp stones, barefoot, just to watch the Humvees roll by. They spat at you in bad places.
The convoy snaked through the village to a compound located high on a hillside. Inside were a small medical clinic and the bombed-out shell of a boys’ school. The Humvees fanned out to form a defensive perimeter. I accompanied Ensign Chris Weis to the clinic. The doctor, a tall, balding man with dark pouches under his eyes, greeted us at the entrance. Through an interpreter he expressed how glad he was that we had come. Corpsmen brushed past him, carrying boxes of deworming medicine, vitamins, and toiletries. As they set up a triage station in the clinic’s blue-tiled hallway, the doctor ushered us into his spartan office. Insurgents had twice attacked his clinic in the past year, he said. He needed a new security wall, and he insisted that the Khost PRT’s commander had promised to build it two months ago. The doctor was eight inches taller than Weis, and as he spoke he leaned slightly forward, hands clasped behind his back. Weis jotted notes on a pad of paper.
“I don’t mean to belittle you, but you really must use your government,” Weis said, “because they’re the ones that are responsible for the future of Afghanistan.”
The doctor blinked slowly as the interpreter explained Weis’s response. If he’d heard it as many times as I had in the past few weeks, it shouldn’t have come as news. With violence at record levels across Afghanistan, the talk among U.S. diplomats and generals was all about connecting Afghans to their government. Military operations had to have an “Afghan face.” Reconstruction projects, such as the doctor’s security wall, had to be vetted through local development councils. This lesson in self-reliance seemed lost on the doctor, however.
“I don’t believe in the government, they do not take care of us,” he said through the interpreter. “I got lot of threat, like I got night letters. The gate of my compound was blown up. My home was set on fire.” Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents infiltrated villages at night to post anonymous threats, or night letters, on the doors of mosques, clinics, and schools. I asked if I could see the most recent night letter. The doctor took a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and unfolded it. On one side someone had scrawled a message in Pashto.
“Like, it says we will give you the last chance,” the interpreter said. “You have to quit the job.” He turned the paper over and pointed to photocopies of Pakistani banknotes. Three Pashto words that translated as “American,” “infidel,” and “dogs” were written below the bills. “It means you guys like money… Do you want you dollar, a shroud? Do you know shroud?”
“A death’s shroud?” I said.
“Yes, when the people is died,” the translator said. “It is up to you, two option.”
“Can I have this?” Weis said. He tucked the night letter in his pocket. “I need to know when you got this, though, to help you.” The doctor repeated his story, his tone growing more beleaguered. Five months ago the Taliban set his house on fire; three months later they blew up the gate to his family compound.
“How do you defend yourself?” I asked him.
The doctor turned to me and said in English, “I don’t sleep.”
“He says, ‘It is our country,’” the interpreter said. “‘We cannot work somewhere else. We have to defend.’”
“Yeah, you do,” Weis said. “And I think you’re doing the job that you need to do for the people of Afghanistan, here in the clinic.”
“He says, ‘I appreciate you, that you also have a homes back in the States,’” the interpreter said. “‘You have kids, you have wifes, for you left everything—’”
“My son, I always show my son off,” Weis said. He pulled out his wallet and presented the doctor with a photo of his blue-eyed baby boy. The doctor nodded politely, then continued to explain what was going on in his village. People couldn’t even watch television for fear of being attacked, he said. The government was corrupt. When someone was arrested for planting land mines, President Karzai gave him cash and released him. Those people needed to be killed, not rewarded.
“We have to reconcile with our enemies in order to win the fight,” Weis said. “And I think what President Karzai is doing is getting a feel for these bad people, and if they really want to repent and help Afghanistan, then he can release them.”
The doctor spoke quickly now, a note of desperation in his voice. The interpreter stumbled to keep up. The bad guys come into Afghanistan from Pakistan, he said. They don’t listen to advice; they don’t want reconciliation. They should be killed. There should be a checkpoint in the village staffed with policemen from other tribes, other districts, because if the policemen came from Shembawot, they would be reluctant to kill their fellow villagers, their cousins.
“Reconciliation,” Weis said impatiently, “is a vital part of winning Afghanistan and staying a united people.” The conversation stalled. Children began lining up on the clinic stairs. It was time to go to work. But Weis didn’t want to leave the doctor empty-handed. He told him that he had five televisions to give away.
“Sehi shua,” the doctor sighed. “Okay.”
“Do you think they even want TVs?” I said.
“If they’re open enough, the village elders.” Weis shrugged. “What you have to do is give them to the elders first, so they hold their power base.”
Weis’s generosity seemed misplaced. The “power base” in Shembawot was clearly anti-American. And, as the doctor had just said, watching television here was an act of provocation. Perhaps giving away televisions was supposed to be a cunning psyop campaign to spread American influence.
For security purposes we would take a different route out of Shembawot, avoiding the road altogether. The Humvee door closed with a heavy clank. Strapping myself in, I noticed a text message appearing on the blue force-tracker, an LCD screen that displayed a contour map of the area along with real-time locations of friendly forces. The message confirmed something that one of the Afghan interpreters had told me earlier. We hadn’t driven through a wedding party; it was a graduation ceremony at the village madrasa. All the cultural signposts were there, if you knew how to read them: the white clothing, the white flowers, the whitewashed rocks. The author of the text message, sitting behind a keyboard miles away, described the event as an “anti-coalition forces rally.”
When I returned to Salerno that evening I talked to Tracy about the medcap. Although the Khost PRT’s base was nearby, the HTT had never worked with them, partly because Khost province was thought to be stable.
“But that sounds like a thoroughly entrenched Taliban presence,” Tracy said. “It had all the metrics there—women not showing up, the little kids not integrating.” I mentioned the doctor’s night letter and his frustration about the village’s security situation. Tracy shook her head. It was too bad, she said. The PRT had missed an opportunity to gather critical information. Had she been there, she would have interviewed the doctor at length about the evolution of the Taliban threat, and why he thought they were gaining influence. It was quite possible that the doctor was allowing the Taliban to use his clinic, “especially if there’s a madrasa in there that’s all fired up,” Tracy said. Otherwise they would have killed him a long time ago. She asked me if I’d noticed anything on the ground outside the clinic.
“Rocks, that’s about it.”
“Any needles?” I thought about it for a moment and recalled that a soldier had warned me to stay away from some discarded syringes. “That’s significant,” Tracy said. It was a clear sign that the Taliban had been there. They often stole medical supplies, treated themselves, and tossed the refuse in the compound. Soldiers were too preoccupied with providing security to notice such patterns, she added, which is why they needed an HTT to guide them.
After Tracy left the office, Steve Fondacaro came in to check his email. He thought it was a bad idea for me to go on missions—the Taliban had the base “pattern analyzed,” he said, and were just waiting for the opportunity to kidnap a journalist. I told him about the doctor and Tracy’s take on his situation. It seemed hopeless, I said. No amount of cultural analysis was going to help the doctor. Fondacaro agreed. Security was a fundamental need, he said, like food and shelter. Without it, people like the doctor had been forced to make compromises, and all of our American platitudes and encouragement “didn’t mean shit.” Fondacaro leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. But we could look at the doctor’s predicament as an opportunity, he said. Everybody in the village knew the guy was getting night letters. If we “nailed” the Taliban one night, that would send a clear message.
“Who’s the audience? The people. If I demonstrate success in protecting this guy’s life against a known threat, and I win . . . ” Fondacaro paused and looked over his shoulder at the empty room. “Audience, what do you think? Everybody’s holding up nines: 9.5, 9.8. It’s simply a decision that’s got to be made.”
The mess hall was closed by the time I left the HTT’s office. I walked to the interpreters’ compound to get something to eat. Yousef, a tall, bespectacled man with a closely cropped beard, greeted me at the door of their communal tent. “Did you go out today?” he asked, and offered me some tea.
“Do you know this village called Shembawot?” I asked, taking off my boots.
Both Yousef and Hakim, another intrepreter I’d worked with, simultaneously exclaimed, “Oh shit!”
“It’s a bad place,” Hakim said, grinning.
“I was scared out of my mind,” I said.
The terps, as they called themselves, had already eaten, but they offered me what was left of the flatbread. I chewed on it and sipped green tea while they smoked and watched a Pakistani “teledrama” starring a rather heavyset man and woman arguing loudly over a chicken. The name of the show was Whose Chicken Is This? Abdul translated the dialogue, which was in Pashto.
“This is mine!” shouted the woman.
“Control your mouth!” yelled the man. “Your chicken is coming to my cock and laying eggs in my house!”
Three days before I left Afghan istan, I went with the Khost PRT on an overnight mission to Musa Khel, a remote mountain village where the PRT was building a new boys’ school. The journey took three hours. No wider than the Humvees, the road was a rutted dirt path that twisted along the walls of steep canyons. We dodged fallen boulders and errant livestock; we scraped by oncoming jingle trucks that pulled into niches in the mountainside to let us pass. Afghan farmers had carved terraces out of the slopes, breaking up the monochromatic brown of the earth into luminescent green strips of corn and wheat. Rocks pried from the ground were piled in the center of every field, and the riverbanks were dotted with carefully raked mounds of bark and tinder washed down from the mountaintops. In this merciless landscape, nothing went to waste.
The PRT set up a security perimeter on a hilltop not far from Musa Khel. I ate dinner with the PRT’s commander, a Navy submarine officer named David Adams, two interpreters named Ayez and Arif, and an envoy from the U.S. State Department. We sat on a plastic tarp, balancing in our laps plates of spicy stew with potatoes and chunks of gristly meat. I asked Adams if he thought his PRT made a difference in how Afghans perceived Americans. He set his plate down and lit a fat cigar.
“Here, the people are still with us, so there’s a chance,” he said. His PRT was responsible for $17 million in development projects, almost ten times what the State Department had allotted for Khost province in 2006. “But once they don’t want you in their country, they don’t want you in their country,” he said. “I don’t think you can buy it.”
“There’s more bang for our buck here,” the envoy said. He had spent the past three and a half years in Iraq and then had requested a post in Afghanistan. “The outrageous part is really the amount of money that’s still going into Iraq that probably isn’t having any net effect,” he said. “Whereas here it’s been restricted based on all the effort over there. And it’s hurt us. It’s hurt us here.”
“Mohamed Atta trained within ten miles of Khost,” Adams said, puffing on his cigar. “We had to come here.”
We talked late into the night about the intricacies of Pashtunwali. Ayez patiently fielded our questions in near-perfect English. He tried to explain why cordon-and-search operations, in which soldiers surround villages and search homes for weapons, were the source of so much resentment. By American standards, it was one of the most basic and benign of military tactics. Shots are rarely fired. In Afghanistan’s conservative “Pashtun belt,” however, compound gates are sacrosanct. To breach the profound insularity that governs so much of Pashtun life by entering them uninvited, armed or not, was an act of utmost gravity. And it wasn’t just American soldiers, Ayez said. Afghans didn’t like other Afghans coming into their family compounds either. He nudged Arif, who sat next to him.
“I can go to his guest house,” he said.
“But not his compound,” the envoy said.
“Never, never,” Ayez said, wagging his finger. “He’s going to kill me if I go.” Why? I asked him. Ayez was silent, as if the answer to my question was so obvious that I might come to the conclusion myself if he waited long enough. Finally, he sighed and said, “He doesn’t want me to see his wife. I don’t want him to see my wife, ever. It is called the family respect.”
“So if I come into your house you’d have to kill me?” Adams asked.
After a long pause, Ayez said, “Without knocking?” And they all laughed.
The next morning we met with the mullah of the village’s madrasa, which was located on a hilltop that overlooked the site of the proposed boys’ school. We sat on the ground in a small courtyard in front of a dilapidated mud-walled building, surrounded by madrasa students and a scraggly flower garden. From inside the building I could hear boys chanting verses from the Koran. The mullah was a handsome man in a white turban, with deep-set brown eyes, thick eyebrows, and a dark beard. He didn’t address anyone directly. When he spoke, he stared grimly into the center of the circle as Arif interpreted for him. The State Department envoy asked him if the Americans were doing as much good as they were harm in Afghanistan.
“It’s equal,” the mullah said. “There is a bug on a blanket, and you set a fire on the whole blanket.” Adams asked him if any of his students or teachers were going to attend the groundbreaking ceremony. They would if they were invited, he said, and stood to leave. Adams presented him with a small bundle of pencils and blank notebooks, but the mullah didn’t touch them. After he left, a few of the older students remained with us in the courtyard. This was the first time they had ever talked to Americans, and they were guarded.
“How many of you would like to visit America,” the envoy asked. “Raise your hands.” Not one student raised his hand. The envoy tried a different tack. He wanted to know if the students, being taliban in the proper sense of the term, found it offensive that we used the term only to refer to fundamentalist militants. No, they said. They were capable of distinguishing the word’s use in what they called “a combat zone.”
“Well, it must be annoying,” the envoy said.
“The only thing that keeps the gap between us, that’s like sometime you raid in madrasas,” one student said through Arif. “Maybe there’s a talib has a feud with somebody else, a personal dispute, and some other person give you the information, and you raid the whole madrasa.”
“Do you think that the Americans will be welcome in Afghanistan, as guests, based on how we’re behaving right now?” the envoy asked. The balance was shaky, the student replied. “We want to try and get the balance more good and less bad,” the envoy said. “We also know the day that the Afghan people no longer want a guest in their country is the day the guest”—he swiped his hands together—“better leave fast.”
“Can you mark your time in Afghanistan,” the student said, “like how long you will stay?”
“The welcome mat, when you roll it up, we go,” the envoy said.
“The welcome rug, if the government will roll it up,” the student said, “or the people?”
The envoy chuckled. “Touché,” he said to me under his breath. Turning to the student, he said, “We hope that the government and the people are the same.”
Our small plane shuddered down Salerno’s runway. The gray wall of portable barriers marking the edge of the airfield fell away. From the ground, the most prominent features of the landscape were mountains. But the higher we climbed, the more clearly I could see the vast network of compound walls honeycombing the ocher plains. The imposition of foreign invaders, the economy of scarcity, the rugged topography—all had conspired over millennia to make tireless wall builders of the Afghan people. The terrain, both human and natural, resembled a cross section of a beehive, thousands of dusty, interlocked, mud-brick cells.
Fondacaro’s head lolled on the seat in front of mine. He was exhausted, but his trip wasn’t over yet. He was headed to Iraq. Five more HTTs were deploying there at the end of the month. In some ways, it didn’t matter what Tracy and Rick had accomplished in Khost. The Army had identified a deficiency, and HTTs were the only solution available. Fondacaro now had official requests for a total of twenty-six teams, one for each active-duty combat brigade. At Salerno, I’d asked him whether it was too late for HTTs to have any real impact. Despite the failure of our tactics and policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was optimistic that his program would not only survive the outcome of these wars but thrive. There was no shortage of conflict in the world. Wars were brewing in Somalia, Nigeria, Indonesia, South America, the Philippines.
“All these areas are getting ready to blow up, just like this, just like Iraq,” Fondacaro said. In this world afire, Human Terrain Teams would be on the ground far ahead of military forces. Every hot spot would have a tailor-made HTT cell at its center, feeding a constant stream of analysis to policymakers and generals. “Here we have the military in the lead, in Afghanistan,” Fondacaro said. “In Mindanao, the social scientists would be in the lead.”
As a vision of the future it was pragmatic and, I feared, too optimistic. The military will always be a blunt instrument, whether it is crashing through walls or entering through a door held open by an HTT. But as long as we use our military as the primary tool of our foreign policy, one could hardly improve upon this vision. The plane banked north toward Kabul, passing a thousand feet above barren mountaintops. Looking down, I saw ancient goat trails etched deep in the windswept scree. They had probably been there for ages when Alexander the Great’s armies crossed the Hindu Kush, and they will no doubt remain long after our armies have gone.
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