Some Anthropology associations have been worried about the US Army recruiting trained anthropologists to help in the war on terror.

Part of this is because they remembered how anthropologist helped the US during the war in Southeast Asia, and they viewed the war around Viet Nam wrong (huh…fellahs, ever hear of the boat people? the Cambodian killing fields? they wouldn’t have happened if the US hadn’t run out on their allies).

But some of this was due to opposition to the war on terror for political reasons (alas, most of the opposition to the war was due to Bush: One truly doubts that a President Gore would have found it a problem).

But as a doc who spent most of her life in cross cultural situations, you might want to note that one doesn’t have to be an anthropologist to learn about culture, although using the tools of anthropology help put customs into context.

Strategy Page has an article here about working with the many varied Afghani tribes, with the US soldiers using the advice and cross cultural training by the Special Forces.

To work cross culturally you need to respect those you are seeking to help, and so they report that the Army goes in and socializes with those living in the villages, and often gives them medical assistance.

Few in the US realize that there are still pockets in the world where life is “short, nasty and brutish”, because we take civilization for granted. In such an area, locals stick to the customs they know, and trust their relatives (clan connections) and one needs to lubricate the good will with lots of gifts to those in charge (read bribes).

A lot of American and other reporters (even those from Pakistan or Iran) may not be accurate: for example, right now, despite reports of “taliban advances” and their take over of the Swat valley, how many news reports recognize that when thousands of stay at home tribesmen flee, maybe the Taliban is not winning?

The reporters are also prone to echo Taliban propaganda: X number of civilians were killed by US bombs, for example, overlooking that the civilians were “human shields” held by the Taliban to assure safety, and the last time I looked, using civilians as human shields is against the Geneva conventions.

The Al Qaeda jihadis are foreigners, of course, but so are a lot of the Taliban, since they are composed of groups from different tribes and clans. And according to Strategy Page, a lof of what the naive reporters call Taliban attacks are actually drug gangs, who are in it for the money.

Finally, too many US reports seem to assume Islam is uniform.

It is not. The strict Islam of the Taliban/Alqaeda, which is inspired by the strict Saudi version of Islam, may not be the same Islam as practiced by the locals (think Jerry Falwell at New York’s St. Patricks Day parade). Religion is one reason that Iran may be sort of helping get rid of the Taliban too: because if the Taliban take over, it means more refugees, more narcotic flowthrough Iran (which already has a high adddiction rate) and of course, a Sunni theocracy next door.

Persia once ran Afghanistan, so if President Obama withdraws from Iraq or Afghanistan, it could be China and Iran who will fill the power vacuum in the area.

I think what I’m trying to say is that without cross cultural understanding, and a bit of historical knowledge, the war on terror won’t succeed.

But what makes things worse is that the headlines give you a false story.

Finally, sometimes a small thing overlooked by the headlines could result in a tipping point.

Strategy Page notes the explosion of cellphone use in Afghanistan as one cultural change that the Taliban oppose, but the people like.

Again, this is a small thing that few Americans ( who usually had land line phone coverage for years) can appreciate.

Here in rural Asia, even our farmers own or can borrow a family cellphone, and you can buy a “load” to text for fifty cents or less at a local “sari sari” store (small variety shops usually on the ground floor of a house that cell soft drinks, ice and snacks in every village).

Cellphone coverage doesn’t require expensive lines; merely a tower and has transformed the lives of rural people, allowing them to keep in touch with their relatives and friends. When the NPA here, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, blow up cellphone towers, they don’t exactly make friends.

And, of course, cellphones in the hands of unhappy locals can make a big difference in war.

So winning hearts and minds is a big part of the war on terror, but it is hard to judge how well it is going because the reports are too often biased by elite US/European or even Pakistani/Arab reporters who are culturally different and think differently than the locals.

Hmmm…maybe we need to embed Anthropologists with the AP and AFP and Aljezeerah reporters.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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