Social Scientists Deployed To The Battlefield As the White House turns its focus to the war in Afghanistan, President Obama has stressed the need to win over "the hearts and minds" of the Afghan people. That's the goal of teams of anthropologists and social scientists who are currently embedded with troops in Afghanistan. Washington Post Reporter Vanessa Gezari, who's writing a book about the 'Human Terrain System', explains how it works. And Dr. Karl Slaikeu, a psychologist and conflict resolution specialist currently along side troops in Afghanistan, offers a first hand perspective.
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Social Scientists Deployed To The Battlefield

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Social Scientists Deployed To The Battlefield

Social Scientists Deployed To The Battlefield

Social Scientists Deployed To The Battlefield

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As the White House turns its focus to the war in Afghanistan, President Obama has stressed the need to win over "the hearts and minds" of the Afghan people. That's the goal of teams of anthropologists and social scientists who are currently embedded with troops in Afghanistan. Washington Post Reporter Vanessa Gezari, who's writing a book about the 'Human Terrain System', explains how it works. And Dr. Karl Slaikeu, a psychologist and conflict resolution specialist currently along side troops in Afghanistan, offers a first hand perspective.

KORVA COLEMAN, host:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is reviewing a new report from General Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan. He insists American and NATO forces need a new strategy to prevail there. Part of that new approach is a so-called civilian surge now underway. There's a sharp inflow of anthropologists, engineers and even psychologists embedded with troops in Afghanistan working to win local hearts and minds.

The project, known as the Human Terrain System, has been strongly criticized by some academics and the American Anthropological Association. Joining us to tell us more is reporter Vanessa Gezari. She wrote about the Human Terrain System in last weekend's Washington Post Magazine. Also joining us from Afghanistan is Dr. Karl Slaikeu. He's a psychologist and conflict resolution specialist with the Human Terrain System. Welcome to the program.

Dr. KARL SLAIKEU (Psychologist): Thank you.

Ms. VANESSA GEZARI (Reporter, Washington Post): Thanks.

COLEMAN: Vanessa, what's the Human Terrain System supposed to do? What is it going to accomplish?

Ms. GEZARI: Well, that's a good question, I mean, and two different questions. What it's supposed to is help the Army, although some other parts of the military as well, in practice, to get a better sense of the people they're operating among in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and it does that by sending social scientists and anthropologists to embed with teams that are in combat and on the front lines.

But what it's actually going to accomplish is yet to be seen. It's great to have civilians out on the front lines in really difficult places, but it brings with it a lot of risks. But these guys do think and approach things different from the way soldiers do. I mean, most of the soldiers who are out on foot patrols, you know, in Southern Afghanistan, for example, are between the ages of 18 and 23, and they're not really trained to engage with locals.

They're not trained to know anything about the area they're in. And so, you know, civilians with expertise in various areas can really bring something to the conversation that U.S. forces are having with these folks.

COLEMAN: Karl, how have you assisted? What have you actually done to help U.S. troops understand better, Afghan people and how they live and work?

Dr. SLAIKEU: Well, my role as a social scientists is embedded with a military team. And our main job is to begin by looking what the battalion in my case is aiming to do in what they call their full-spectrum operations, and that includes partnering with villagers to build in their communities.

And so I interview people. I interview villagers, and I meet with the military leaders and consult with them on helping to build bridges with the people on these parts of their operations.

COLEMAN: In 2007, the American Anthropological Association strongly objected to the Human Terrain Program, and Karl, they worry that anthropologists and social scientists would be seen just like troops, and information that was gathered could be used to hurt Afghans. What's your view on this?

Dr. SLAIKEU: Well, I had a lot of questions about this program before I decided to join it, and I researched it thoroughly, and I read the critique that you just mentioned. I concluded there was a major misunderstanding, that the program that I saw in the Human Terrain System was being confused with some programs in the past that did not work well.

There was the concern about informational use for lethal targeting. As I mentioned to Vanessa in her article, I've seen nothing that supports that.

COLEMAN: This is also a dangerous program, Karl. Three of the Human Terrain members were killed in the field in the space of eight months, and you have taken the place of a woman who was killed. What is moving you to do this?

Dr. SLAIKEU: I had a son who served as a Marine in Iraq, and thankfully, he came back alive. But when he went over there, I looked at this issue of, you know, what's he going over there for, and you know, I had to prepare to lose my own son going into a situation like that. And that began extensive reading on my part about what this was all about, and I concluded there was a logic to this war that was just not being communicated well to the American people. And after a lot of soul-searching, I determined that this was really something worth doing. So I signed up for their training, and I've been deployed to Afghanistan in February of this year.

COLEMAN: If you're just joining us, I'm Korva Coleman, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with reporter Vanessa Gezari. She recently wrote about the U.S. Army's new Human Terrain System in Afghanistan for the Washington Post Magazine. Also joining us is Dr. Karl Slaikeu. He is a psychologist and conflict-resolution specialist. He is working with the Human Terrain System.

Vanessa, from what you've been seeing, can you identify some of the major challenges that the Human Terrain Project faces?

Ms. GEZARI: The challenge of the controversy that stems from the American Anthropological Association's criticisms of the program is not a small one, and these issues are not easily resolved, either. That's not an on-the-ground challenge, but it's a challenge in terms of recruiting the best people for this program.

You know, the program says they have a long waiting list of qualified people who want to do this work. I've heard from others, and I think it's true in academia, that many people are very suspicious of getting involved with something like this because of the history of using social scientists in conflicts, you know, going back to the 19th century, and especially in colonial conflicts.

So I think this is something that needs to be worked out among both academics and the military, and that's part of why this program is interesting. But on the ground, there are big challenges involved with putting civilians out on the very front lines. There are challenges, as well as advantages, to that. I mean, in the case of Paula Lloyd, I mean, here was an extremely highly qualified social scientist.

This is the social scientist who Karl Slaikeu replaced. She had spend years in Afghanistan and was really seen as a heroine by many Afghans who she worked with.

COLEMAN: And she was killed, wasn't she?

Ms. GEZARI: She was, and she died very violently doing the work of engagement, which is the work that these teams do, and which is important work but also, you know, not the kind of work you can do if you're constantly thinking about protecting yourself because it involves putting yourself out there in a certain way.

COLEMAN: Karl, have you worked outside the U.S. before?

Dr. SLAIKEU: No, I've not worked outside the U.S. I've traveled, but not - this is my first experience of working full time outside the U.S. or in a war zone.

COLEMAN: What do you feel that you bring to this program?

Dr. SLAIKEU: Well, I think the core of social science work is interviewing and understanding what another person is saying, and my work in conflict resolution is involved in mediation and talking to people who are basically at war with one another over something, and one part of what a mediator does is to have a private interview or what we call a caucus with people - to hear interests and matters of the heart and so on, things that are terribly important to that person that they might not want to share with an opponent or certainly with an enemy. And so that's what I bring to the process of interviews with villagers and also in talking with a wide range of coalition-force people.

COLEMAN: Karl, who gets changed more in this process, the social scientist or the soldiers?

Dr. SLAIKEU: You know, there's a third party to that, and that's the villagers. I don't think you can who's changed more here, but it's been my experience that the Human Terrain System is leading to change, not only in the social scientists, in the military, but also in the villagers. And I think that that's in the nature of the process that we all change as we interact with one another, and we do things together.

So I think it's hard to rank order who's going to change more, but I see change happening in all three.

COLEMAN: Dr. Karl Slaikeu is a psychologist and conflict resolution specialist in the Human Terrain System. He was kind enough to join us by phone from Afghanistan. Vanessa Gezari is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post and Washington Post Magazine. She's been covering Afghanistan since 2002, and she joined us by phone from Dubai. Vanessa and Karl, thank you both for speaking with us today.

Ms. GEZARI: Thanks for having me.

Dr. SLAIKEU: Thank you.

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