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.