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Anthropologists And Counterinsurgency

Richard Shweder, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, had an interesting op-ed in The New York Times over the weekend, in which he defends some of his fellow anthropologists who are working with the U.S. military on counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the academic anthropological community isn't thrilled about the practice. But Shweder points out that cultural sensitivity is a pretty crucial part of any successful counterinsurgency operation, and it seems counterproductive for ivory-tower anthropologists to insist that American foreign policy be less ethnocentric while at the same time condeming those members of their profession who are doing their best to actually help achieve that goal:

Ms. McFate stressed her success at getting American soldiers to stop making moral judgments about a local Afghan cultural practice in which older men go off with younger boys on "love Thursdays" and do some "hanky-panky." "Stop imposing your values on others,” was the message for the American soldiers. She was way beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I found it heartwarming.

I began to imagine an occupying army of moral relativists, enforcing the peace by drawing a lesson from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans lasted a much longer time than the British Empire in part because they had a brilliant counterinsurgency strategy. They did not try to impose their values on others. Instead, they made room--their famous “millet system”--for cultural pluralism, leaving each ethnic and religious group to control its own territory and at liberty to carry forward its distinctive way of life.

While we're on the subject of counterinsurgency, over at the blog Abu Muqawama there's a counterinsurgency reading list that looks to be quite useful for those of us seeking to learn more about the topic.

--Josh Patashnik