In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian anthropologist named Tracy.

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to U.S. combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team’s ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations – in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe – has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division unit working with the anthropologists here, said that the unit’s combat operations had been reduced by 60 percent since the social scientists arrived in February, and that the soldiers were now able to focus more on improving security, health care and education for the population.

“We’re looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist’s perspective,” he said. “We’re not focused on the enemy. We’re focused on bringing governance down to the people.”

In September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates authorized a $40 million expansion of the program, which will assign teams of anthropologists and social scientists to each of the 26 U.S. combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, military officials are scrambling to find more scholars willing to deploy to the front lines. Since early September, five new teams have been deployed in the Baghdad area, bringing the total to six.

Yet criticism is emerging in academia. Citing the past misuse of social sciences in counterinsurgency campaigns, including in Vietnam and Latin America, some denounce the program as “mercenary anthropology” that exploits social science for political gain. Opponents fear that, whatever their intention, the scholars who work with the military could inadvertently cause all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence gatherers for the U.S. military.

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University, and 10 other anthropologists are circulating an online pledge calling for anthropologists to boycott the teams, particularly in Iraq.

“While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world,” the petition says, “at base, it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties.”

In Afghanistan, the anthropologists arrived along with 6,000 troops, which doubled the U.S. military’s strength in the area it patrols, the country’s east.

A smaller version of the Bush administration’s troop increase in Iraq, the buildup in Afghanistan has allowed American units to carry out the counterinsurgency strategy here, where U.S. forces generally face less resistance and are better able to take risks.

Since Gen. David H. Petraeus, the overall U.S. commander in Iraq, oversaw the drafting of the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual last year, the strategy has become the new mantra of the military. A recent U.S. military operation here offered a window into how efforts to apply the new approach are playing out on the ground in counterintuitive ways.

In interviews, U.S. officers lavishly praised the anthropology program, saying that the social scientists’ advice has proved to be “brilliant,” helping them see the situation from an Afghan perspective and allowing them to cut back on combat operations.

The eventual aim, they say, is to improve the performance of local government officials, persuade local tribesman to join the police, ease poverty and protect villagers from the Taliban and criminals.

Afghans and Western civilian officials, too, praised the anthropologists and the new U.S. military approach but were cautious about predicting long-term success. Many of the economic and political problems fueling instability can be solved only by large numbers of Afghan and American civilian experts.

“My feeling is that the military are going through an enormous change right now where they recognize they won’t succeed militarily,” said Tom Gregg, the chief U.N. official in southeastern Afghanistan. “But they don’t yet have the skill sets to implement” a coherent nonmilitary strategy, he added.

Deploying small groups of U.S. soldiers into remote areas, Schweitzer’s paratroopers organized jirgas, or local councils, to resolve tribal disputes that have simmered for decades. Officers shrugged off questions about whether the military was comfortable with what David Kilcullen, an Australian anthropologist and an architect of the new strategy, calls “armed social work.”

“Who else is going to do it?” asked Lt. Col. David Woods, commander of the 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry. “You have to evolve. Otherwise you’re useless.”

In another district, the anthropologist interpreted the beheading of a local tribal elder as more than a random act of intimidation: The Taliban’s goal, she said, was to divide and weaken the Zadran, one of southeastern Afghanistan’s largest tribes. If Afghan and U.S. officials could unite the Zadran, she said, the tribe could block the Taliban from operating in the area.

Creation of the teams began in late 2003, after U.S. officers in Iraq complained that they had little to no information about the local population. Pentagon officials contacted Montgomery McFate, a Yale-educated cultural anthropologist working for the Navy who advocated using social science to improve military operations and strategy.

McFate helped developed a computer database in 2005 that provided commanders with detailed information on the local population. The next year, Steve Fondacaro, a retired Special Operations colonel, joined the program and advocated embedding social scientists with U.S. combat units.

McFate, the program’s senior social science adviser and an author of the military’s new counterinsurgency manual, dismissed criticism of scholars working with the military.

“I’m frequently accused of militarizing anthropology,” she said. “But we’re really anthropologizing the military.”

Roberto J. Gonzalez, an anthropology professor at San Jose State University, called participants in the program naive and unethical. He said that the military and the CIA had consistently misused anthropology in counterinsurgency and propaganda campaigns and that military contractors were now hiring anthropologists for their local expertise as well.

“Those serving the short-term interests of military and intelligence agencies and contractors,” he wrote in the June issue of Anthropology Today, an academic journal, “will end up harming the entire discipline in the long run.”

Arguing that her critics misunderstand the program and the military, McFate said other anthropologists were joining the teams. She said their goal was to help the military decrease conflict instead of provoking it, and she vehemently denied that the anthropologists collected intelligence for the military.

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