Program to Embed Anthropologists With Military Lacks Ethical Standards, Report Says

December 03, 2009

In the shadow of President Obama's decision to send 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan, social scientists remain deeply anxious about the roles they are being asked to play in American counterinsurgency strategy.

A report released here Thursday during the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association expresses serious doubts about the Human Terrain System, a three-year-old military program that embeds scholars within military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program's creators argue that it has improved the military's ability to understand local cultures and social networks. But skeptics have said that the program has been severely mismanaged and that it has not established clear ethical guidelines for its participants.

"Where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment," the report says, " … it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology."

And the program's aims are murky, the report continues. Is it a research program? An intelligence program? A program for improving the cultural awareness of military commanders? Ask three different Pentagon officials, the report suggests, and you will get three different answers.

During a news conference on Thursday, Robert Albro, the chair of the 11-member committee that wrote the report, suggested that anthropologists might be able to productively cooperate with the military in other ways—but the human-terrain program is probably best kept at arm's-length, he said.

'A Thorough Assessment'

The association's unhappiness with the project is not new; its executive board formally "disapproved" of the human-terrain program in 2007.

The new report was not designed to tell scholars what to do, but instead to compile basic information about the program and to consider its relationship to anthropology, Mr. Albro said. "The important thing for us to do in this report was to do a thorough assessment, talking with people who have had a variety of different experiences with the program." said Mr. Albro, an assistant professor of international communication at American University. "We tried to be as exhaustive as we could be."

Mr. Albro and other committee members emphasized that they interviewed people with a broad range of opinions about the program, including some who believed that it played a vital role for the military. "In the significant majority of cases with which we are familiar," the report says, "those involved are seeking in good faith to pursue ethical conduct and work."

Nonetheless, Mr. Albro said, the human-terrain program should long ago have developed formal ethics rules to guide its participants. (In an e-mail message to the committee in April, an official with the program said that such rules were in development. But to the best of the committee's knowledge, Mr. Albro said, the rules have not yet been put into place. Officials at the program did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)

Only a small minority of the social scientists who have joined the human-terrain program are actually anthropologists. (Larger numbers have degrees in political science or international affairs.) But in news-media accounts and among Pentagon brass, the program's scholars are often referred to indiscriminately as "anthropologists."

That distorted terminology is troubling, Mr. Albro said, because it might blind policy makers and the public to the kinds of insights that anthropologists might actually be able to provide to the military.

The report notes that the human-terrain program's role is still under debate within the military itself. In an April essay in Military Review, Major Ben Connable, a Marine foreign-service officer, argued that the program is ill-designed and that it does little to solve the military's fundamental need for language and cultural skills.

The report is not yet available online, but it will probably be posted on the association's Web site within the next several days, according to an association official.