| by John Stanton
“Stay the hell away from Afghanistan. We’re at the tail end of this war, and it’s become mostly about making a quick last buck for contractors. Especially “Big Army” is driven by a lot of pressures that make it very hard for commanders to make truly reasonable decisions. Right now, it’s all about short-term results due to political timelines. Social science just doesn’t fit into that — for many, this isn’t as much a war as an industry…Wait until about 2020 for the military system to rearrange itself.”
( January 25, Virginia, Sri Lanka Guardian ) Before moving on to the core story (below), there is news on Amir Hekmati, the Iranian-American being held on death row by the Iranian government for alleged spying. At one point during his contractor-military career, Hekmati was working at a refugee camp West of Bagram, Afghanistan. The camp was described as better than most with two school buildings. “The people were well-taken care of,” said a source, “the camp was private and not United Nations.” Hekamti was working with Iranians located at the camp in Afghanistan. “He was a trusted agent sort of guy.” The refugee camp housed Iranians and Kurds among other nationalities. “A mixed bag” is how the camp was described. Another source indicated that it was not “appropriate to comment because of the sensitivity of the matter.”
The insights provided this month (below) on the war on Afghanistan provided by a soldier there are illuminating. It should win some sort of recognition from the journalism community. Strip out the focus on the OSD-Intelligence, US Army Human Terrain System, and replace it with hundreds of other programs/ideas designed to “win” in Afghanistan/Iraq (cups of tea, all of government, smart power, analytics) and what you see is that even in January 2012, on the eve of President Barak Obama’s State of the Union Address, American political, economic and military leaders remain blissfully ignorant of the world around them. The thinkers in academia, media and think tanks cling to the powerful and seek their blessings. Subservient as they are, they offer no real critique or new direction for the USA and its people.
Now, US leadership is taking the country to the brink of war with Iran and its proxies. Iran is a nation far less dangerous, racist and anti-Semitic than Saudi Arabia. If that were not enough, the US is making a military push into Africa (Nigeria and Uganda) and is groping its way back into Asia, Southeast Asia. The sanctions and embargo on Iran have rekindled the West versus East madness of the Cold War. It’s whitey versus non-whitey again: What’s our energy doing under their worthless sand?
The sanctions and embargo will affect the Asian economies as well perhaps forcing energy prices up and destabilizing currency arrangements. If Iran can’t make currency swap deals with Asia and India/Pakistan it may well resort to military action. Further, the BRICS are not likely to sit idly by as the USA and EU seeks complete dominance of the world’s dominant energy sources and trade/shipping routes and lanes. Then there are the wildcards like Israel, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and the Kurdish and Baloch rebels and the provinces in which they live. Who knows if the governments currently in charge will last?
This is an extraordinarily dangerous game the USA and EU are playing and it may well lead to a kinetic global war. The question here is this: How can the USA afford it all? How many more dollars can it print? What about the Homeland? Do we really fear Boka Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army? Already these groups are being pumped up as the next AQ.
The whole of Africa is the most worrisome matter. The US has a very small footprint in the nations of that massive continent other than through its Foreign Internal Defense program. Its trade with the nations of Africa according to the CIA Factbook and the US Trade Representatives’ Office amounted to $95 billion (US) last year. The European Union’s trade was nearly $300 billion while China’s was $170 billion. China trades with nearly every nation of the African Continent in percentages greater than the USA. Non-US global mining and energy companies dominate the African landscape (there is only one US mining company in the top ten).
It is easy to see the US going bankrupt as tries to be everywhere at once on earth. The homeland is expendable it seems. And there is not enough manpower in the all-volunteer military to complete the full spectrum dominance so sought after by the country’s political, economic, military and academic minds.
Finally, Real Journalism: Thank You!
The Student Doctor Network contains two posts that sum up the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan perfectly. Those are listed below in italics.
The scene is advice being given to someone interested in joining the HTS. Forget about the fact that it is HTS. There is not a soul familiar with it that isn’t sick of the acronym and the incredible amount of money and bullshit that has been expended to make HTS glow and work correctly.
Replace HTS with hundreds of other US programs undertaken over the past decade (money + bullshit) that were designed to “win” in Afghanistan and Iraq. One can’t say anything more than that it is tragic that no one is accountable or, for that matter, even cares about the waste product in lives, money, time.
And it is set to continue.
“Don’t be taken in by the mystique that HTS is trying to build as a burgeoning intelligence organization. Yes, what they do is classified (as are flight times and a million other mundane things). They might even tempt you with “you might work with Special Operations Force’s…rarely are people here impressed by the “value added” offered by a lot of the HTS guys the Special Operations Task Force encounters. And those HTS guys are hand-picked. If they had to work with your average Human Terrain Team, HTS would quickly be kicked out of the SOF world for good.
It’s a miserable environment. Press reporting about HTS has died down, because the internal on-goings have become less salacious and sensational. But that doesn’t mean things have got better. What critics like John Stanton used to write is about 60% true and is still laughed about internally by people who see the same problems at their teams today. Sadly – because the Army really needs this knowledge and HTS doesn’t even come close to providing it, I can almost guarantee you will be miserable, unless you’re willing to drink the Kool-Aid and pretend things are alright. Which brings me to scholarships…Because there’ll be no room for cognitive dissonance once you actually apply to PhD programs.
You’ll find that the bigger issue is that HTS simply isn’t very good. It’s actually very bad. The quality of both your peers and especially your superiors will be generally poor and the quality of your products even more so. I still encounter Human Terrain Teams on a frequent basis as I travel around Afghanistan for my current job, and they’re almost universally derided or ignored by the units they support.
I’d say the HTS concept isn’t too far off the mark. It’s the execution that fails miserably. And that organization is emphatically not going to improve, because it is in a quality death spiral: the best people leave, the worst people stay — and the worst people are mostly recruited at the top, with no promotion chances for those at the bottom because of a nod-to-my-retiree-friends requirement that Team Leaders be of a certain retired rank (I’ve never met a battle-space owner who cared about the Team Leader’s former rank except in a negative way, because so many are arrogant/defensive about it). So, once again, forget about HTS. Others and I believed we could change the organization from the inside. It won’t happen. Nor will a decent alternative spring up anytime soon (unless you’re willing to throw your hat in with civilian intelligence agencies — not a bad job choice at all, if they ever do decide to move away from drone strikes and more towards people skills again).
In terms of better use of social scientists, then, I’d say stick with academia, but focus your research away from the esoteric and more towards the relevant. There are a lot of little “human terrain” organizations out there now, staffed by contractors, usually overpaid and under qualified. I can’t think of a single useful article I’ve read on Afghanistan written by these people. What I do see endlessly cited are books and articles by serious academics and analysts such as Afghan Analysts Network. These independent guys have a far, far deeper and useful understanding of Afghanistan, and their products are far more useful to commanders (kind of ironic, right?).
I should also add that a lot of the need for “understanding cultures” in the military is actually based on the inability to understand people, period, or rather our (the military’s) unwillingness to obey the Golden Rule. So much of what we do in Afghanistan to anger the local population would just as much anger any American, European or Japanese person. Yet, because we don’t want to change our behavior too much, we look for social scientists to validate what we do by finding justifications/”loopholes” in the local culture that somehow allow us to continue raiding houses at night without pissing people off. So, do keep that in mind if you truly want to influence what the military does.
If you’re looking to become a Subject Matter Expert on the conflict zones of tomorrow, good luck. Pick one country or region, but remember that there’s a roll of the dice involved — on September 10, 2001, we didn’t know we’d be invading Afghanistan. Also remember that a lot of the countries at the top of our list, e.g. Yemen, are now practically inaccessible to academics. And without years of on-the-ground experience, you’ll be a hollow “expert”. That’s why I’d recommend some of the smaller West African countries and other places that are more permissible, but still are at risk of instability without attracting too much scholarship from lots of academics. But, to be frank, do you really want to study a country just in case you can get rich and famous off of it going to hell?
Social scientists (people with MAs and PhDs) are largely second tier in terms of quality. They’ve gotten better – there are far fewer crazy social scientists – but that’s somehow also meant fewer and fewer people with relevant backgrounds. You get a bunch of young thrusters who are trying to make a career, but these often don’t know what they’re doing in terms of Afghanistan. Some adapt, despite HTS. But I’ve never heard of anyone getting into a decently-ranked PhD program afterwards. Then the social scientist cohort seems to jump 20-30 years to people close to retirement, who really don’t know what they’re doing either, and often bring with them physical frailty and an arrogance that comes from age rather than experience. It’s highly demoralizing, and you can’t expect much of positive mentoring relationship.
But your biggest problem will be the Team Leaders. It’s extraordinary how few have relevant experience, how many are low quality, and how little is done about the many bad apples. They are required to be military, but very few have served in the past ten years. Those that have usually did so in an unrelated role, with limited contact with the Afghan/Iraqi population. Most are there for one reason: they couldn’t get promoted in the military and now want to cash in on the war before the money goes away. The amount of ego at that level is skull crushing, and these guys are the primary reason why teams often (usually?) fail to offer anything useful, and why so many people leave. Have a look at published articles by HTS people. Most of them are about HTS itself, not Afghans. That’s a reflection of the sad thing about HTS – the internal workings of the organization ultimately overshadow and outmuscle any attempts to do serious scholarship focused on target populations. Try to find HTS articles that are about Afghans.
If you want to have some patriotic adventures before your PhD, I suggest you consider any of the civil affairs fields of each military branch. The Army has the largest Civil Affairs contingent, and the opportunities to do cool stuff all over the world in the reserves are very, very abundant. Many assignments across all civil affairs are very unusual and not what you’d expect from uniformed service. You could do that and still either do a research-intensive day job and/or start on your PhD. Plus, you’d get leadership opportunities that you’d never get in HTS. Civil Affairs is a very human -centric, empathy-heavy career field, and I think it would be very rewarding to almost any burgeoning psychologist. And it would look great on your resume.
John Stanton is a Virginia based writer specializing in national security matters. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org