Article — From the September 2008 issue

Human Quicksand

For the U.S. Army, a Crash Course in Cultural Studies

( 2 of 10 )

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.

Steve Featherstone’s last article for Harper’s Magazine , “The Coming Robot Army,” appeared in the February 2007 issue.

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