Human Terrain Teams

Human Terrain Teams

The three short articles by an anthropology professor from California seemed out of place beside a large area map and various military memoranda on a plywood wall at combat outpost Tarmiyah, about 20 miles north of Baghdad. Not long ago, the accompanying note demanding that all platoon and squad leaders not only read the articles, but pass the information along to their men, would have made most commanders in Iraq laugh at the thought of burdening their already overworked junior officers and NCOs with articles by college professors. But the conduct of the Iraq War has taken a decidedly cultural turn, thanks to the belated recognition of the realities of battling an insurgency in a country spiderwebbed with clan and tribal loyalties and rivalries.

When Gen. David Petraeus took over as head of Multi-National Forces--Iraq (MNF-I) in early 2007, he called for an end to the policy of "commuting to work," a tactic that had sequestered American forces on sprawling bases, separating them from the populace by large blast walls and acres of barbed wire. Part of the idea behind sending 30,000 more troops to Iraq in 2007 was to get Americans off those bases and into company-sized outposts in villages and cities. Living "among" the people would make American troops both more visible and more accessible, and force both sides to understand one another a little better. Or at least to try.

The articles on the wall at Tarmiyah were a direct reflection of this cultural turn. One explained how to tell a "fake" sheik from a real sheik. (In the Iraqi countryside, you can't go anywhere without meeting at least one self-proclaimed sheik.) Another outlined the Muslim bargaining tactic known as the Suhl ritual. The third, a short vignette called "The Old Man in the Corner," told the story of a group of Iraqi men pressuring an American unit for assistance. Each of the young men assures the Americans that he is important, and the only one worth doing business with. Besieged by all the wheeling and dealing, the Americans never notice an old man who, instead of approaching them to join in the hard bargaining, sits off by himself in the corner of the room. And in ignoring him, the Americans miss a chance to affect real change in the neighborhood.

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