Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Digital/Star War, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Iraq, Politics of Empire, War and Poverty | Tags: counter insurgency, digital war, drones, Human Terrain Systems, Human Terrain Teams, robotic warfare
From Viet Nam to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan a lot has changed. But some days I am surprised at how much has not changed in the approach to local people. In the absence of tools sometimes called weapons to win hearts and minds the military has turned in two directions, higher technology, and social research.
It is hard to get people to talk candidly with you about their goals, dreams, hopes and personal problems when you carry a gun. Well actually I don’t know this for sure because I have never carried a gun. But I have learned that conversations don’t go very far in villages when I enter accompanied with soldiers or if there is suspicion that I am connected to soldiers.
Modern warfare usually incorporates something called counter insurgency. An insurgency is a rebellion as in an armed movement against foreign invaders or their own government. Those who carry out insurgency usually fight with sticks, rocks, guns, and the forced or willing cooperation of the local population. Unless the powers that be kill everybody, break everything and completely cut off water and food the insurgency usually grows. Building schools, passing out candy or even building irrigation systems doesn’t usually change things fundamentally because the favours, funds and fountain of development helps one side in the community but makes those sides who do not get anything even madder. The battle is called winning hearts and minds. The notion of getting to the heart awakens the imagination to a love affair. You get to the mind through the heart. Thinking right requires consent of the heart.
To get hearts and minds headed in the right direction imperial armies and their coalition partners, local and international, need to know very precisely who leads the enemy so that they can be killed. The CIA was set up to track down the necessary information but very quickly in its history it was derailed to perform operational duties, carrying out secret attacks that could not be traced at least not right away. It takes dangerous and often gruelling decades long work to get good information. Reliable information is called intelligence but in the real world of agency intelligence the product is not always based on intelligent facts because no one was able to assemble reliable facts. So short cuts are needed like analysts who are supposed to be good at reading the signs or what use to be called tea leaves.
I learned this first in Viet Nam when occasionally I met well groomed American civilians – my age or only slightly older – swaggering through wherever I happened to be. Sometimes we would have relaxed conversations during which each of us tried to figure out what the other knew. It took me months and years to realize that these folks were working from a very different framework than the one that I was learning from villagers. At first I thought I was just naive, and unable to read the signs. Later I realized that these folks were not listening to the same people I was. Still later when I became convinced that the war in Viet Nam would come to nothing good, I lost confidence completely in whatever template the smart well dressed civilian contacts seemed to put forward.
From Viet Nam to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan a lot has changed. But, some days I am surprised, at how much has not changed in the approach to local people. In the absence of tools sometimes called weapons, to win hearts and minds the military and its operational partner, the CIA has turned in two directions, higher technology, and social research.
Unmanned vehicles (drones) now circle the skies of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan with precision cameras scoping out targets and precision laser guided missiles ready to release their terror at the push of a button from command room pilots and staff thousands of miles away. Hired informants, some of whom are double agents on the ground may suggest targets. These attacks in Pakistan have caused a furor among Pakistani people. The US Defence Secretary’s budget this year calls for spending $2 billion on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, with much of the money going to drones.
Complementing the drones, digital warfare’s current crown jewel, is another innovation, Human Terrain Teams (HTT), unveiled in 2005. HTT are as radically low tech, as Predators and other robots are high tech. The teams incorporate professional anthropologists, other social scientists, linguists and analysts, who are assigned to forward area units. The civilian and military HTT team members who advise commanders may or may not carry weapons. The researchers talk to and listen to the local population to understand power, conflict, and grievances so that responses both developmental, relief, and military may be wisely targeted, timed, and conditioned for maximum effect. The use of anthropologists has brought warnings from their professional association. The first ethical responsibility of an anthropologist is to “do no harm.”
Some Human Terrain Team members report that the hardest part is overcoming the suspicion of being part of the American military – no surprise to development, relief, and human rights workers or unarmed peacemakers who carry out their work in militarized zones. This year 40 million dollars more was added to the US defence budget for Human Terrain Teams.
Part of me is sympathetic to a military commander who is usually left to his or her elementary instincts in relating to a local population. I have never felt that I was sufficiently knowledgeable or listened enough to local people when I travelled in peacemaking work. Admittedly, I had a little less to contend with than the soldier. I wasn’t as encumbered by the confining traditions and culture of combat and enemy talk. But let’s face it basic survival instincts are common to all of us who work under life threatening situations.
Will the Human Terrain System work? We’ll see. Probably not! Insurgencies of all kinds have a lot of control over the initiative. Insurgents can figure out how to influence Human Terrain Team members. Interviews can be finessed. Local culture can be tilted to encourage attack on an intertribal or intra tribal enemy A good researcher should be able to sort the truth from the wasted words. But can they? There is little that is reliable fact in a war situation where the first victim is truth itself.
If social research gets to the truth why have there been so many disputed bombings in Afghanistan where so many civilians have been killed? Is the problem cameras from above, analysis or social research. The analysing industry will grow. Human Terrain Teams will become part of the lexicon of war like psychological operations units, civic action officers, special forces and other specialized units that someone once thought would change everything and make those elusive hearts and minds more accessible and manageable.
This leaves me with other kinds of peacemaking, the kind without uniforms, drone protection from the sky, a culture of enemy talk and personal arms. I may not have complete confidence in Human Terrain Teams but I believe peacemakers and development workers too can deepen their capacity to listen to and enlarge cultural understanding too. Peacemakers are not engaged in a contest over control of hearts and minds. The only victory is peace. The sounds and visuals along the way give encouragement and hope. Peacemakers believe that the seeds of peace already exist. The point is to have eyes to see the signs, ears to hear its cadence and a voice to talk it out. In the absence of enough unarmed civilian peacemakers if Human Terrain Teams can help this to happen I will be the first to celebrate.
“I tell you,” he (Jesus) replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)
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