Storytelling Vanessa Gezari interviews elders on an Army base in Zormat, Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of the US Army)
Vanessa Gezari’s new book, The Tender Soldier, tells the story of the Human Terrain System, a controversial effort by the Pentagon to use teams of civilian anthropologists and other social scientists to gather cultural intelligence in Afghanistan and Iraq. The program was developed to give soldiers a more accurate and nuanced understanding of the countries where they were fighting, and the people who live there. Gezari’s book also is the story of Paula Loyd, one of HTS’ most gifted field-team members, who was killed by an Afghan man named Abdul Salam in Maiwand, in southern Afghanistan, and of Don Ayala, a former Army Ranger who shot Salam dead in the chaotic minutes following the attack. HTS leaders quickly condemned the tragic incident as a case of targeted Taliban violence against a blonde American woman. Gezari didn’t buy it. CJR’s Brent Cunningham discussed the book with her in September.
What was the most difficult part of the reporting? That my gut told me, from the moment the attack happened, that this story was a metaphor for the larger story of the war. You had the arc of American intentions, which I believe were good in a lot of cases, and I certainly met a lot of military people who were trying to do the right thing. But the way this program turned out not to be what it was intended to be echoed a lot of other elements of the war. We went in thinking this would be simple and direct—part revenge, part counterterrorism, part humanitarian aid mission. But as time passed, it turned into something much more opaque. It’s one thing to see that story, to feel it. But being able to actually execute it was really hard.
It sounds like your reporting in Afghanistan had you on the lookout for a story that could embody the missteps that shaped our experience there. I had an interesting experience covering Afghanistan. I was there in 2002 for the first time. I had gone over as a young freelancer. I had actually left the US on September 10, 2001, with the idea that I would go freelance in India for a couple of months. That’s how I ended up spending a lot of time in Afghanistan between 2002 and the beginning of 2004. It was the early, optimistic stage of the war. The Taliban had quickly been chased out. In general, there was a real sense of hope about what could be accomplished there. That was the time that I got to know Afghanistan. I didn’t spend a lot of time with the military. I spent a lot of time with Afghans in the villages. You could do that then; it was much safer.
In 2004, you returned to the US and got a job as a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times. For the next three years you didn’t write about Afghanistan. Then, in 2007, you left the Times, moved to Washington, DC, and started freelancing again. But first you made a short trip back to Afghanistan. It was amazing how things had turned. We’d been pouring money into this place and slowly increasing the number of troops. But the Taliban was making incursions into parts of the south and east and taking control of villages. For some years there had been a campaign by the Taliban to attack Afghans who took prominent roles in the new government, who joined the police, and who were outspoken moderates—and the results had been devastating. Opium production was up, and there was a lot more money going from opium growth into the insurgency. There was a lot more corruption in the government.
I wanted to write something about this, but the opportunity didn’t come until late summer of 2008. I had been writing for The Washington Post Sunday Magazine, and my editors there had mentioned this program called the Human Terrain System that had been getting some press. It had rolled out its first team in ‘07, and a year later nobody had done a deep look at what it was.