Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Human Terrain Systems, Anthropologists and the War in Afghanistan

While political science was the academic discipline which the wars of the twentieth century drew upon, the asymmetrical wars of the twenty-first century now look toward anthropology with hopes of finding models of culture, or data on specific cultures to be conquered or to be used in counterinsurgency operations. But anthropology is not political science, and anthropologists have different commitments to those who share their lives and vulnerabilities with them.


I've talked a bit about this before. The article raises the question of ethics in anthropology, particularly as it arises in times of war. This article looks at the work of Montgomery McFate who is the public spokeswoman for the Human Terrain Systems (HTS) and anthropology. The ethical dilemma is great.

As Price notes; "Today, in Iraq and Afghanistan, anthropologists are being told that they’re needed to make bad situations better. But no matter how anthropological contributions ease and make gentle this conquest and occupation, it will not change the larger neocolonial nature of the larger mission; and most anthropologists are troubled to see their discipline embrace such a politically corrupt cause."

At this time HTS is under the auspices of the US military. A document at Wikileaks outlines the military's handbook for HTS personnel. The American Anthropological Association has bluntly declared HTS as unethical. To that end there are difficulties in recruiting experienced anthropologists into the program. It was this reason that the military took over from private enterprise. David Price also points out that the government and intelligence agencies have other less obviously ethically challenged jobs for anthropologists.

Read the article.

About the Author:

David Price is a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologist. He is the author of Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, published by Duke University Press, and a contributor to the Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ new book Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual published last month by Prickly Paradigm Press. He can be reached at

Price, David. 2009. "Human Terrain Systems, Anthropologists and the War in Afghanistan". CounterPunch. Posted: December 1, 2009. Available online:

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