New US Military strategy in Afghanistan
Full-Metal Research: Lieutenant Jeremy Jones, a member of the human terrain team, gets some rare time with the locals during a public ceremony.
Credit: Photograph by Jason Florio
After I bid farewell to Jones, I try to get some perspective on what I've experienced the past few weeks. So in Kabul, on my way out of Afghanistan, I take a page from Jones and talk to an Afghan. I meet with Masood Karokhail, a 30-something MBA grad. He has leveraged his direct connections with Pashtun tribal leaders into his own "human terrain mapping" business. Three countries (but not the U.S.) are paying him to carefully map hostile regions and the fault lines between tribes. Karokhail points to the giant satellite maps on the wall with overlays of grazing areas, creeks, and tribal boundaries. He lays out the very common-sense idea that small tribal land disputes are open sores that the Taliban exploit, gaining more and more toeholds as the government fails to do anything. Pushing them back is a matter of getting in and resolving these conflicts before they expand into an insurgency.

That said, he thinks that the Americans may have missed their window to understand the region. "Today we have hundreds of researchers in Afghanistan but with no access. If the social scientists had been here in 2001 they would have a lot more access. Now everyone is interested in the Pashtuns, and the Pashtuns don't want to talk with the foreigners."

I ask him if he ever works with the U.S. Army's human terrain teams. "I try to stay away from them," he says. Anthropologist Michael Bhatia, the HTT member who was killed by an IED in Afghanistan, was his friend. "I talked to him three weeks before he was blown up. I said, What are you doing, driving around in a Humvee? You can't be in the military and expect to work with the very people they are attacking."

Karokhail has captured the crux of the problem. My time with Jones taught me more about how Americans think and operate in Afghanistan than how Afghans think and operate. The resurgent Taliban is thrilled to see the Americans make many of the same mistakes the Russians did here: worn-out troops isolated in hardened forts defending a weakened central government promoting a foreign agenda. HTTs are supposed to bring down the cultural barrier between the military and the locals, but the biggest enemy is the natural inclination of troops to be troops, not social workers. Strangely enough, the Taliban is far more expert at meeting the basic needs of Afghans: namely, by fighting the corrupt central government and providing justice and security. Until that changes the Afghans will be more inclined to identify with the "enemy" than the well-intentioned guests.

After I returned to the states I felt almost bad informing Fondacaro that my experience with the human terrain team hadn't quite lived up to his shining vision. But my skeptical observations were outdone by the HTT's own nightmarish trajectory. In November team member Don Ayala, a former security contractor, was with social scientist Paula Loyd, asking Afghans about the price of fuel, when a local, apparently angered that Loyd was not covered, threw burning gas on her. The Afghan was restrained, but when Ayala heard how severe Loyd's injuries were – she suffered second- and third-degree burns on more than half of her body – he allegedly walked up to the prisoner, put a pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger. Ayala is facing second-degree murder charges. Then later in the month HTT took another blow when a team member was arrested on charges of once working as a spy for Iraq.

It's not exactly the interaction with the locals the U.S. military had in mind for the human terrain teams. In an uncharacteristically succinct and downbeat moment, Fondacaro admitted to me that he is "building an airplane in flight." Considering Jones's noble efforts to bum rides just to find Afghans in Afghanistan, it might be an improvement if the teams even had an airplane.

Read the U.S. Army's response to this article.