Human terrain

After Paula Loyd was murdered in a bazaar near Kandahar, journalist Vanessa Gezari uncovered a story that embodies the tragic arc of US involvement in Afghanistan

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.

About a month or so into my reporting, Paula got attacked. It struck me as an utterly unprecedented kind of attack. There had been a couple of other Human Terrain team members killed, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, but both were killed in explosions where they were clearly not the intended targets. This one was so personal. It just didn’t seem like a regular Taliban attack to me. Afterward, at least one story I read said that the Taliban set women on fire all the time, which is not true. It bothered me that journalists, and certainly the leaders of the program, were willing to attribute any kind of bad act to the Taliban when the whole point of the program was to get below that and really understand violence in Afghanistan. Violence in Afghanistan is complicated, and it’s not all about the Taliban.

How has this kind of systematic effort to utilize cultural intelligence not been a part of the American military at least since Vietnam? It’s unbelievable. And perhaps what’s more unbelievable is that, given how problematic this program has been, this whole idea may now be buried for another 30 years. The problem with the lessons learned in Vietnam was that the ultimate failure of the American effort there made a lot of people, particularly in the Army, bury their heads about this kind of stuff. For that reason, we lost a lot of ground. And cultural knowledge is one of the places where we lost it most.

There were programs like this in Vietnam and they ran into a lot of the same problems. To me, the more interesting question is that, all these years later, when intelligent people tried to build a program like this, why did they repeat so many of the mistakes of the Vietnam era? The programs that were created in Vietnam that involved social science were exceedingly controversial among academics, as was the Human Terrain System; they had the same kind of problems about overlapping with intelligence. They raised the same basic questions that we still haven’t answered, such as how do you do this well and respectfully and ethically? Can you? I just don’t think you can start learning about Afghanistan in the middle of a war. But on some very basic level, a lot of people in the hierarchy of the Army think language and culture are not important.

What is the future of the Human Terrain System? It sounded like it was an embarrassment in a lot of ways. It’s both an embarrassment and, for some, a weird kind of triumph. There was an Army investigation into allegations of mismanagement and fraud in the program—inflating time cards and accusations of racism and sexual harassment within the training program. Congress is reportedly discussing cutting its funding. Because this program hasn’t worked well, the temptation for Congress is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That’s a difficult thing to change. How do you train soldiers for every country in the world? What are we going to do, train everybody in Chinese? Okay, then we’re going to have a war in Syria.

But even though the program had all these problems, it got rave reviews from some commanders. The teams that worked were really useful and they’d never had something like this. The commanders have their intelligence shop, and those people tend to be very focused on things like, ‘Something just blew up and we want to know who planted the bomb.’ But the reality is more, ‘This section of road is disputed between two tribes who have been fighting for about 150 years. It’s disputed because whoever controls it can collect tolls on that road and shake people down. That bomb is actually part of that.’ Not just, ‘We’re the Taliban and we hate Americans.’ That’s the classic kind of thing that happens in Afghanistan all the time—disputes over water, disputes over land, because that’s where money is. If you control roads, that brings money to your family and your tribe.

What is your take on Don Ayala? I have complicated feelings about him. I’m quite friendly with Don because we’ve been talking to each other about the stuff in this book for a few years. He was incredibly open with me about what happened. I couldn’t have written the book without him. Personally, I like him. But what interests me about his story is the moral ambiguity of it. You should not be too comfortable with how you feel about him. You should have mixed feelings, that’s appropriate.

What struck me about the last chapter is that I can read about Afghanistan day after day, year after year, and rarely be forced to think about Afghans in the way that this chapter made me think about them. Could you talk a little about how you approached that chapter? The last chapter is really key to the book. It was a huge part of what pushed me to do this. No one got at that story about who this guy was who attacked Paula. It was totally lost. It’s often totally lost. We just don’t see these people as full human beings. I’ve never had as tough a time getting access to somebody as I did to Salam’s family. I wanted to go out and meet his father and see his wife and his kids. That’s generally been possible, but this was a very special case. Maiwand is a difficult place to get to. I couldn’t go with the soldiers; that just wouldn’t have worked. We had to kind of triage it. We got enough in the end that I know what I think happened. I think this guy was mentally ill. He might not have been particularly fond of Westerners and there might have been some Taliban guys or sympathizers who kind of goaded him. When we talked to his father, I thought, ‘Okay, I know what’s going on here.’

But to get to that understanding you had to hear a range of stories—delivered as fact—about who Abdul Salam was and why he did what he did. It was a great gift to me that we got all of those other stories first, because it showed how difficult it is to get to the bottom of anything in Afghanistan. This kind of reporting isn’t often done because it takes two years, three years, to do that investigation. I don’t know if you’ve read Nick McDonell’s e-book, Green on Blue. He’s a Time magazine reporter. It’s about one of these attacks in Helmand by an Afghan Army soldier on some marines. It’s a great piece. Similarly, it takes 60 pages to get to the point of, ‘Who the hell knows?’

If we say we really want to know about these people, let’s really know about them. Let’s not just tell the story that we think is the right story. Let’s not turn this into a cartoon; let’s not turn this into a myth. With Paula Loyd, that was happening and it will no doubt continue to happen.

Not unlike how the military, with considerable help from the media, did with the stories of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch. These stories really bother me. I have a strong negative reaction to stories that feel glossy, because I know from being in these places that the truth is much more interesting, much more complicated, and much more rough and disjointed than that. And I wanted to convey that.

Is there a way to approach that kind of complexity in daily reporting, or do you have to write a book? I think there’s a way to approach it, but I have real concerns about the way the pace and structure of daily reporting force certain kinds of narratives to be told and retold, especially in a moment when there are fewer and fewer reporters, especially overseas, to tell different stories. There’s less and less interest and demand for the story behind the story, the unexpected story, from the desk. There are some great editors out there and some papers that still have a deep bench—The New York Times has published a lot of wonderful stories off the news about Afghanistan lately.

But the pressures are clearly in the opposite direction. Yeah, but it’s more organic than just the pace of daily media. We make a lot of assumptions about the world in order to make sense of it quickly so we can move on with our lives. On one level, this is a book about storytelling. It’s about the way we use stories to organize things that disrupt our lives, that make us really uncomfortable. Because it’s much more uncomfortable to think that this person who killed this great, gentle American woman had these problems and there was nowhere in his country he could go to get help, and he was poor and probably not educated and he was the butt of jokes in this village. I’m not saying we should feel sorry for him—he did a terrible thing—but understanding this guy makes it a much more complicated story. Then you have to ask questions like, ‘Who exactly are we fighting here?’ One of Paula’s teammates, Clint Cooper, said to me, ‘There’s no good and bad. This war is just crazy.’ He felt that the more he actually talked to Afghans, including guys who had been picked up as insurgents, the more he thought, ‘Wait a second. Where’s this bad Taliban people talk about?’ That was an amazing moment for me because Clint was a lifelong military intelligence guy, a former interrogator. He’s stepped back from that, but his politics are not on the left; same with Ayala. They both came to the conclusion that this situation is just really, really complicated. In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien wrote that war’s ‘only certainty is of overwhelming ambiguity.’ He also wrote that ‘in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.’ Maybe it’s utopian, but I wish there was more space for ambiguity in our daily journalism.

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.