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August 31, 2009
What is the “human terrain” in Afghanistan?

Photo: Vanessa Gezari

Since 2007, an experimental Pentagon program has been sending teams of civilian anthropologists into the hardest-fought regions of Iraq and Afghanistan to understand the needs of local communities. The mission has become increasingly important to U.S. military strategy, but remains deeply controversial.

Social scientists work within frontline combat units to gather information and advise soldiers about the workings of the local economy, tribal structures, cultural norms and other elements of what the military calls the “human terrain.”

Journalist Vanessa Gezari of the Pulitzer Center is currently reporting on the Human Terrain project in Afghanistan. She is responding to your questions and comments about her story in The Washington Post Magazine.

Post your questions and comments below and Vanessa will answer them in the coming week.

Visit “Afghanistan: Human Terrain” to view Vanessa’s dispatches from the field, including slideshows and  links to additional resources.

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Q: Has there ever been a single anthropologist working on a HTS team that has ANY field experience in the country (Iraq or Afghanistan…soon to be Nigeria, Chad etc.) where they are deployed?

If the answer is no (it is), then Vanessa Gezari has to explain to us why her article did not focus on how clueless human terrain experts actually are.


Kathie m. should read a book about the situation. Read the World is Flat and you’ll also see how much our OWN business spans the world and vice versa. I don’t know when people are going to forget about what got us in this situation; we are there and leaving the country in tatters is not an option. When was the last country or empire that invaded Afghanistan with the intention of building a government and infrastructure? This is something that needs to be done and it isn’t easy to do when we don’t know what they need. We can do a lot, but whatever we do can backfire if not done properly. The military is not there to kill terrorist or insurgence, we are there to rebuild, if insurgence want to hinder that process then they will be dealt with.


I would hope someday we will learn to mind our OWN business – yes, 9/11 was a terrible crime – but how many innocent lives have been lost to date in Iraq, Afghanistan, along with the deaths of some of the guilty parties… What is there to be gained by punishing anyone – it wont restore a single life. In my opinion, it is hollow justice and more of the innocent will be punished – anyone with a bit of sense would have referred the 9/11 attack to the World Court – rather than try to teach a lesson through more violence – the result of violence is just more violence… It is a step in the right direction to try to understand another culture, but difficult when most of the communication to date has been the deaths of those who were never involved in the first place.


In Iraq, WMD gave validation for our troops in a war . Now Afghanistan has been occupying our troops for too many years with what result? Is this loss of life justified? A lesson learned should be: One cannot impose democracy on a country that in no way demonstrates it ability to carry out this obligation.


I don’t think there is anything worth winning in Afghanistan. The government is totally corrupt. The country is not under the control of the national government. We have been there for 8 years and have nothing to show for it. I think that Afghanistan is not worth the life of one more American or British soldier. I was in Vietnam, and the whole show in Afghanistan has a familiar ring to me. We get deeper and deeper and then try to justify the KIA’s by sending more troops.


Of course we can. It all depends on what the party of No is up to now. they love to scare everyone about everything, to keep people on edge and question the motives of our new Administration.


Hello Vanessa – How long do anthropologists embed with military forces in the field? Has there been much progress in the last two years? All the news indicates a worsening situation in Afghanistan. Thank you, Anne

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