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Social Scientist in Army's 'Human Terrain' Program Dies in Afghanistan

May 09, 2008

Michael V. Bhatia, a graduate student in political science who was serving as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain program, died on Wednesday in Afghanistan.

Mr. Bhatia graduated from Brown University in 1999 and was pursuing a doctorate in political science and international relations at the University of Oxford. Since late last year, he had been working with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division as part of the Human Terrain program, a controversial effort in which scholars advise military personnel about local social structures.

The program has prompted widespread criticism, but Mr. Bhatia strongly supported it, according to a memorial notice that was posted on Thursday by Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies.

The institute quoted a November 2007 letter in which Mr. Bhatia wrote, “The program has a real chance of reducing both the Afghan and American lives lost, as well as ensuring that the US/NATO/ISAF strategy becomes better attuned to the population’s concerns, views, criticisms, and interests and better supports the Government of Afghanistan.”

The Watson Institute’s notice does not describe the circumstances of Mr. Bhatia’s death, but an e-mail message circulated on Thursday said that he had been killed by a roadside bomb near Khost, an eastern city near the Pakistan border, perhaps in an incident reported by the Voice of America. Two NATO soldiers died in that same attack.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Defense declined to comment on Thursday, citing a policy that forbids public discussion of casualties until at least 24 hours after the next of kin have been notified.

After graduating from Brown, Mr. Bhatia worked for several nongovernmental organizations and conducted research in East Timor and Kosovo. He was an author of two books, one of which was published just last month.

In a 2004 paper, Mr. Bhatia and two colleagues criticized the management of the NATO-led intervention in Afghanistan, arguing that U.S. and NATO troops relied too heavily on local militias and warlords and had done too little to help ordinary citizens feel secure. —David Glenn