A Gun in One Hand, A Pen in the Other

By Spring, Silvia; Ephron, Dan | Newsweek, April 21, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Gun in One Hand, A Pen in the Other


Spring, Silvia, Ephron, Dan, Newsweek


Byline: Dan Ephron And Silvia Spring

*****

In "A Gun in One Hand, A Pen in the Other," we incorrectly identified retired Col. Steve Fondacaro as a veteran of Special Forces. He was a Special Operations Force officer with the 75th Ranger Regiment. We also described Thomas Johnson as a Pashto speaker. Johnson says he knows a bit of Pashto but not enough to be labeled a speaker. And we incorrectly referred to the company BAE Systems as British Aerospace Engineering. NEWSWEEK regrets the errors.

*****

The Army is spending millions to hire 'experts' to analyze Iraqi society. If only they could find some.

Marcus Griffin had never been to the Middle East before he arrived in Iraq last fall, as part of a project to help the U.S. military decipher the country's intricate social nuances. An anthropologist from Christopher Newport University in Virginia, Griffin knew much more about the Philippines, having accompanied his social-scientist father on a two-year research project there as a teen. In Virginia he'd been studying Freegans, those superenvironmentalists who forage for food in restaurant and supermarket Dumpsters. And so, during a recent outing with the unit he's attached to in Baghdad, Griffin rummaged through the trash of an Iraqi sheep rancher, looking for patterns that would tell him something worthwhile about the neighborhood--and by extension, about Iraqi society. "Well, they're drinking a great deal of Pepsi," he said dryly to a NEWSWEEK correspondent. When a man in a checked kaffiyeh emerged from one of the homes, Griffin peppered him with questions. Where did he get his electricity? (A generator.) Did his children attend school? (No, they're too young.) How did he make a living? (From his sheep.)

Though he wears Army fatigues and carries a gun, Griffin is a civilian, part of a controversial program known as the Human Terrain System. According to a Pentagon blueprint from 2006, the idea is to recruit academics whose area expertise and language skills can help the military wage a smarter counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. These specialists, among other things, are meant to map the population of towns and villages, identify the clans that matter and the fault lines within them, then advise U.S. commanders on the right approach for leveraging local support.

But implementation of the $40 million project, which was handed to British Aerospace Engineering (BAE) without a bidding process, has fallen short, according to more than a dozen people involved in the program and interviewed by NEWSWEEK. Of 19 Human Terrain members operating in five teams in Iraq, fewer than a handful can be described loosely as Middle East experts, and only three speak Arabic. The rest are social scientists or former GIs who, like Griffin, are transposing research skills from their unrelated fields at home.

For their services, the anthropologists get up to $300,000 annually while posted abroad--a salary that is six times higher than the national average for their field. (The teams also include some active-duty service members who are paid their regular military salary.) Most team members admit they are hampered by an inability to conduct real fieldwork in a war zone. Some complain that the four-month training they underwent in the States was often a waste of time. Matt Tompkins, who returned home in January after five months in Iraq, said he thought his team provided helpful input to its brigade, but the contribution was more superficial than planners of the program had conceived. "Without the ability to truly immerse yourself in the population, existing knowledge of the culture -- is critical," he said in an e-mail. "Lacking that, we were basically an open-source research cell."

Recruitment appears to have been mishandled from the start, with administrators offering positions to even marginally qualified applicants. The pool of academics across the country who speak Arabic and focus on Iraq, or even more broadly on the Middle East, is not large to begin with. …

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