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Another controversy surrounds the U.S. military and the war in Afghanistan. Americans want to win over local people in Afghanistan, and so they're relying on the advice of civilian social scientists to understand the local culture.

Some American academics do not like this. They see serious ethical problems with using social science techniques for military objectives.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

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COREY FLINTOFF: Kristin Post stands out at a meeting in Marjah, a farming region in Helmand Province that was seized from the Taliban in February. The 36-year-old researcher is tall and fair, dressed in an Afghan headscarf and a Marine uniform. She's the only woman in a group of U.S. Marines, Afghan army troops and bearded local farmers.

When the Marine commander suggested a meeting with elders at 10 o'clock on a Friday morning, Post gives him a polite reminder.

Ms. KRISTIN POST (Social Scientist, Human Terrain System, Department of Defense): Colonel, the prayer time is on Friday.

FLINTOFF: The colonel's plan would interfere with prayer time for the Muslim farmers. Post is part of a Department of Defense Human Terrain team. She's been interviewing local farm families, trying to get a sense of the people and their relationships to one another.

Ms. POST: And already you start to get a picture of how things work. There's splits, there's division, there is, you know, reasons, there's tracks almost, like the wrong side of the tracks, right side of the tracks you could see.

FLINTOFF: That kind of information is gold to Marine commanders, who are engaged in a counterinsurgency strategy known as clear, hold and build. In order to hold the ground they've cleared, the Marines want to show that they can provide lasting benefits to the people by building education, health care and the economy. They need to identify people they can work with without tripping over the network of alliances and rivalries that make up the community.

But not everyone agrees that civilian social scientists can or should be providing that kind of information to the military. Hugh Gusterson, a member of the executive board of the American Anthropological Association, says the Human Terrain Program violates his group's ethics code.

Gusterson, a professor at George Mason University, says that social scientists working for the military violate a key precept of their discipline - namely, that anthropologists should do no harm to those they study.

Professor HUGH GUSTERSON (George Mason University, Member, Executive Board, American Anthropological Association): One possibility is that just by being seen talking to people in an American military uniform, people could be opening themselves up to reprisals.

FLINTOFF: Gusterson says another problem is that local people questioned by the Human Terrain teams can't give their voluntary informed consent to take part in the interview.

Prof. GUSTERSON: If you show up in an American military uniform, surrounded by people with machine guns, asking if people would like to have a chat with you, it makes it very difficult for them to give truly free consent.

FLINTOFF: Steve Fondacaro, a retired Army officer, is the project manager for the Human Terrain System. He has little patience with such complaints.

Mr. STEVE FONDACARO (Retired Army Officer): The first thing is, is that the villager knows that he doesn't have to speak to anybody. None of the villagers are coerced by the U.S. military in any way, to do anything, unless they're shooting at us.

FLINTOFF: Fondacaro says his researchers are trained to let interviewees know that they're not required to answer questions. But in a larger sense, he says, the critics of the program are setting standards that are impossible to meet in a war zone.

Mr. FONDACARO: The problems being described by our critics here is being one of absolutely impossible. You can't possibly do no harm, and you can't possibly gain informed consent. So, I can only surmise from that, that I guess our course of action, then, is to give up.

FLINTOFF: Fondacaro says his teams aren't going to give up because they see it as more harmful to deny the military a means of obtaining important information.

Back in Marjah, Kristin Post says she thought she might face ethical questions while doing her job, but that she hasn't found that to be the case.

Ms. POST: But what I see and what I would think anybody would judge to be true, is that we're using social science research methods to save Afghan lives and military lives. And I can't see anything unethical about that.

FLINTOFF: But Gusterson says a group he helped co-found, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, has obtained hundreds of anthropologists' signatures on a petition asking Congress to remove funding from the Human Terrain System project and shut it down.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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