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Cultivating Afghanistan: Anthopologists and the Insurgency

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As they pursue their aid mission in eastern Afghanistan, the Agribusiness Development Team contends with a complicated insurgency that operates in an intricate, tribal culture. The ADT soldiers use specialized social scientists, both in Afghanistan and back home in Indiana, to better understand Afghan societies.

In Khost Province, a controversial group called the Human Terrain Team, or HTT, provides the Indiana soldiers with on-the-ground information. Comprised of social scientists embedded with the military, HTTs have been operating in Afghanistan since February 2007. Late that year, the American Anthropological Association issued a memorandum, criticizing the military’s use of the academic discipline. But one of the anthropologists, Alec Metz, argues the HTT mission is vital to the war effort.

“The HTT mission is to provide the brigade with the socioeconomic and cultural understanding of the people,” Metz said.  “The idea being in a counterinsurgency environment, the center of gravity is not any particular bit of terrain, but the actual people in the area in which it operates. It’s imperative that this brigade understands the people in its AO (Area of Operation). They’re trying to influence them, to win them over. And it’s not an easy fight either. And it’s not anything they can fight with any of the traditional ways they’ve been trained. It’s not kinetic.”

When asked about the tribal structure in Khost Province, Alec Metz has one word for it:

“Complex. Very, very complex. In Khost, your really just have a patchwork. If you had to break it down into two main groups, you could say hill people and valley people. We also have nomadic Pashtuns who come from as far afield as Kabul. We have gypsies. It runs the gamut.”

In some cases, tribal conflicts bleed over into the insurgency. The Taliban-controlled Sabari District in the north of Khost Province is a case in point. Formerly a quiet region, Sabari became a battleground after a UN mediator allegedly mis-adjudicated a land dispute between two tribes. The Taliban used the subsequent fighting as tinder for the insurgency.

Indiana University Political Science Professor Abdulkader Sinno, an expert on insurgencies, provided the Agribusiness Development Team with perspectives on Afghanistan and its war. Sinno said the insurgency springs in part from the fundamentalist Pashtun culture:

“Much of Afghanistan is conservative. The Pashtun areas are even more conservative — the most conservative in Afghanistan. For them, that’s normal. To have a conservative order; Islamic law.”

The insurgents are sometimes called the Neo-Taliban, as they are a new iteration of the Islamic fundamentalists who ruled Afghanistan prior to 2001. The Neo-Taliban includes some old jihadists from the Soviet war and a small number of Al Qaeda Arabs. But Pashtuns from the tribal regions along the Afghan-Pakistan border are crucial to the insurgency. In Khost, the Haqqani Network, led by a former mujaheddin Jalaluddin Haqqani, and his son, Sirajuddin, are the most active fighters. Sinno said being in their home region gives the Haqqanis an enormous advantage.

“Haqqani has been there consistently over the years,” he said.  “He is ensconced in the social structure of the region. He knows everybody. He owns that region. The Haqqani group, think of it as the fire that keeps things simmering.”

But Sinno said the Afghan population wavering between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed central government are the key to the war.

“There are other groups there who are more important to the insurgency than the ones who are fighting, and those are the people sitting on the fence.”

Sinno said most Afghan families have relatives in the insurgency, and most government officials have open lines of communication with the Taliban.

“There could very well be a tipping point where those groups begin to commit to the resistance as opposed to the government, and if that tipping point is reached, then the whole war is lost.”

So as the U.S.-led forces battle both a popular insurgency and an indecisive Afghan populace, cultural familiarity and time are in the Taliban’s favor.

“This is the huge advantage of the insurgents. They don’t have to win any battles, all they have to do is outlast us. Outlast the United States,” Sinno said.  “The Taliban know that. They’re smart enough to know. You may have heard, the most famous saying of the Taliban leaders, ‘The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.'”

In the next segment : non-governmental aid organizations look at military-run development programs.

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