August 17, 2009

A couple posts on terps

See Registan and Afghan Quest today for interpreter horror stories.

I mean, I almost kinda get the Bagram story. Getting on-the-spot accreditation for base privileges for local Afghans is far more complex than it needs to be, certainly, but I can see any base having problems with two Afghans showing up unannounced and expecting unrestricted access right away. Yes, it sounds like it was more painful for Old Blue than it had to be, but there was always going to be some inconvenience involved there.

Josh's story about denying an Afghan-American with a security clearance access to a convoy brief before she departed on that same convoy, however, is just baffling. I can't imagine what those involved were thinking. Some soldiers and airmen are simply not cut out for service involving contact with other humans: sounds like the PRT in question was commanded by one for a while.

It's not the inconvenience to us, per se, either. In my experience, Afghans were rarely flummoxed by long waits or queues: snappy service is not something they're really used to at the moment. It's the loss of face involved in these sorts of encounters, something in retrospect we always discounted, as well.

Posted by BruceR at 12:52 PM

Continuing on in their fine tradition

I can't imagine why Montreal's Concordia University would feel the need to tolerate as a faculty member an individual who gloats online at the violent, horrific, lingering death of an anthropologist in Afghanistan.

Oh. Right. Never mind, then.

Seriously, there are all sorts of obvious issues with the military's use of anthropologists and some valuable critiques have been written. Prof. Forte links to a particularly good one by Dr. Patricia Omidian, here. But when he puts into text his own needlessly angry and vituperatively cruel statements like "I imagine that few would be willing to bet their wages that there is a woman in that photo" he is going beyond the bounds of the civil discourse that he claims he wanted to have on the subject, to wit, to "criticize, rebuke and reject" military anthropology, and only succeeds in demeaning himself and his institution instead.

P.S: Calling the U.S. armed forces a "genocidal killing machine that is directly responsible for the murder of millions of innocent civilians since its inception" isn't a useful way to win arguments, either.

P.P.S.: For the record, I'm not a big advocate of the HTS approach. Given a choice, I suspect you could get more value and less ambiguity by using the same resources to cross-train more military personnel in the social sciences and local cultural knowledge, and improving reachback to academics in the States, than you could by drafting civilians onto military field teams that interact with the local population. The analogy I would use is doctors and medics. At FOBs you can have academically trained medical staff, and even some civilian medical personnel at places like KAF, but forward of that you use military medics exclusively. This seems sufficient to quell any lingering Hippocratic Oath concerns by all involved, and I would see anthropological ethical concerns with HTS fieldwork similarly. As this article argues, by taking good people out of Civil Affairs or Psyops or Intelligence to man the new system, you also risk beggaring the old ones of the talent they need. My disagreement with Prof. Forte here is that repeatedly calling anthropologists who happen to have been killed in military service "zombies" and the like is needlessly antagonistic and non-constructive for an academic.

Posted by BruceR at 10:56 AM

Today's essential Afghan reading

FRI on the Kabul bombing, and other complaints. I agree the Anna Husarska article he links to is particularly stupid, for reasons besides those he dwells on. (The subhead is quite possibly the silliest and most tautological sentence I've seen written in English in some time.)

More importantly, her one citation of value, a USAID study, doesn't say what she thinks it says. It talks about conflicts between military and NGO reconstruction in *Panjshir*, far from the fighting. So it's not particularly relevant to, you know, the part of the country where the action is to start with, as the author tacitly admits. But that's not the real problem.

Husarska should probably have read all the way to at least page 14 of the same paper, where the author talks about how it was a pointless USAID reluctance to be even seen to be cooperating with the military that led to aid being stopped entirely in that province for a full year. There's idiocy in both cultures, to be sure, but as the author puts it in this case, it was solely risk-aversion at USAID that led to all the civilians involved losing credibility with Afghans, while the military continued to enjoy "a very productive and close relationship" with Panjshiris. (This in a province where the requirement for a military presence at all is questionable, and NGOs enjoy full freedom of movement, remember.) In her conclusions the author argues that aid organizations need to be more flexible in its approach, like the military.

In other words, Husarska cherry-picked the one remotely critical quote about the military PRT effort in a strong paper about the limitations of both organizations in a permissive Afghan setting. You know, one doesn't need to go all the way to Jalalabad to be a sloppy researcher and a hack journalist: Foreign Policy could probably have saved some travel expenses here.

As for the one quote Husarska liked, it refers to bringing in U.S. veterinarians rather than supporting the local Afghan vets. Which sounds stupid, true, but it's a version of the same problem that has basically stopped all VMO (village medical outreach)-type efforts, using military medical personnel to treat civilians, in much of the country. We're depriving the local doctors of their livelihoods, you see. Which may well be true, but the alternative seems only likely to breed more resentment towards us. Afghans know we have excellent doctors on our bases, and they know we're not helping with their ailments for some reason that would be meaningless to a father with a sick child. That's got to rankle, after a while. How would you feel, in their place? Saying the military should focus only on security must leave some room for resource-sharing or we will end up appearing the inhumane occupiers our enemies say we are.

Posted by BruceR at 09:44 AM