Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Anthropological Assumptions and the Afghan War

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Anthropological Assumptions and the Afghan War

Article excerpt


The war in Afghanistan incorporates a series of questionable anthropological assumptions. Quite aside from the involvement of anthropologists in the war's "human terrain projects," the current administration has continued a mistaken view of the tribes of the region, the reasons why there have been no attacks on the American homeland from the Afghan-Pakistan border region, the nature of suicide bombing, and the reasons why a singular model for all counterinsurgency plans may fail. By carefully analyzing these assumptions, anthropologists may offer a more refined critique of their own work and the goals of the present war. [Keywords: War, terrorism, anthropologists and war, suicide bombers, counterinsurgency]

These are the times that try anthropologists' souls. Legal cases may force one to choose among contending ideas, public policies may test one's concepts against reality; but no greater challenge to one's theories exists than when they are applied in war.

The involvement of anthropologists in warfare is hardly new. Ruth Benedict's study-at-a-distance of the Japanese in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) may be the most famous instance, but it is hardly unique: Anthropologists have participated in war-related work since at least the time of World War I. It is not, however, the merits of anthropology's involvement in war that is at issue here but the assumptions, whether muted or explicit, that continue to affect the political and military decisions of the present administration in its pursuit of the Afghan war. The problems become more visible when a number of those assumptions are considered for the anthropological issues they incorporate, issues that include the nature of tribes in the region, whether the Afghan- Pakistani border is indeed the launching site for attacks on the US homeland, the sociological underpinnings of suicide bombings, the meaning of social differentiation in the cultures of the area, and the extent to which similarities at a professedly global level mask the realities of the local.1

Why Do Tribes Matter?

During his three-month review of the war in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama reportedly told his advisors: " I just want to say right now, I want to take off the table that we're leaving Afghanistan...What I'm looking for is a surge. This has to be a surge" (Baker 2009, see also Woodward 2010). Notwithstanding the enormous cultural differences posed by the Afghan situation-differences of which the administration is well aware-this would appear to remain quite close to the military strategy applied in Iraq. Even though it is a matter of disputed interpretation, many military and civilian figures now agree that whatever momentary diminution in violence may have occurred in Iraq has not simply been due to the insertion of additional troops.2 Not only was violence tailing off in urban areas already "cleansed" of competing religious groupings when additional troops were sent into those cities, but the more significant change came with the involvement of the nation's tribes.3

For years the US ignored the region's tribes, even though three-quarters of Iraqis identify with some 150 different tribes, most of the 40 percent of Afghans who are Pashtun identify with two major tribal groups, and those living along the Pakistani border are divided among 60 major tribes and an additional 77 in the region of Baluchistan.4 For years American soldiers referred to the tribes as part of "Indian country," while officers were ordered by Washington to stay out of tribal politics.5 Military and state department officials, who saw tribes at best as a pre-modern form of organization, neither understood the nature of tribes as a class of political forms nor why they mattered (Jaffe 2007). It was in large part when the tribes came to us-not the other way around-that things began to improve. This "Awakening Movement," which began in the Anbar Province in the winter of 2005-2006, involved tribal leaders who decided to cooperate with American forces to end the violence against them and other Sunnis that was being perpetrated mainly by foreign al-Qaeda militants-and then only after the Sunnis had lost what was effectively a civil war in the big cities. …

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