[Marxism] Academic tool of imperialism killed in Afghanistan

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jun 24 06:14:59 MDT 2008


Today's News

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Scholars Mourn a Colleague Who Lost His Life in Afghanistan


In the summer of 2003, during the post-invasion interlude when Iraq 
seemed almost calm, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an 
essay warning that the United States was on the verge of losing the peace.

Dozens of similar arguments appeared that year, but this one, written by 
a 26-year-old graduate student named Michael V. Bhatia, is as methodical 
and devastating as any of them.

U.S. civilian and military leaders had no serious plans for governing 
postwar Iraq, Mr. Bhatia wrote, and they seemed almost proudly ignorant 
of the Iraqi population's viewpoints. During and after World War II, by 
contrast, the Defense Department spent heavily to train civil-affairs 
officers and plan for postwar governance, relying on recent German and 
Japanese immigrants for guidance.

Four years later, to the surprise of some of his friends, Mr. Bhatia 
joined one of the U.S. military's most visible efforts to fix its 
mistakes. Last October he flew to Afghanistan—a country he already knew 
well—to become a civilian employee of the Human Terrain System, a 
controversial program that embeds social scientists within Army brigades.

To some, the job seemed like an odd distraction from Mr. Bhatia's 
academic career. At the age of 30, he had already published one book and 
completed work on another. He had several other projects in the works, 
and he had lined up a visiting professorship at the University of 
Tromsø, in Norway. That position would have allowed him to finish his 
dissertation for the University of Oxford—a study of the demobilization 
and disarmament of militias in Afghanistan. In December, he wrote to a 
friend that he had "one chapter left to write, two to revise."

On May 7, two months before he was scheduled to come home, Mr. Bhatia 
was killed by a roadside bomb near the city of Khost, in eastern 
Afghanistan. Two U.S. soldiers died in the same attack.

Mr. Bhatia was the human-terrain program's first casualty.

"There are no words to describe the loss. None," writes the program's 
director, Steve Fondacaro, in an e-mail message to The Chronicle. 
According to Mr. Fondacaro, Mr. Bhatia's extensive knowledge of 
peacekeeping operations meant that he knew "what we wanted to 
accomplish, where we were going, and how to get there so much better 
than we did ourselves."

And while some scholars and friends did not understand Mr. Bhatia's 
decision to join the program, they also mourned a scholar whose budding 
career showed rare courage and commitment in dangerous milieus.

"Michael was not driven by anything trivial or minor," says James Der 
Derian, who directs the global-security program at Brown University's 
Watson Institute for International Studies.

The two men first crossed paths in the late 1990s, when Mr. Bhatia was 
an undergraduate at Brown, and then became close when Mr. Bhatia held a 
fellowship at the Watson Institute in 2006-7. "To keep going back into 
conflict zones, as he did, you have to have an almost superhuman 
dedication," says Mr. Der Derian. "But I think that superhuman quality 
was also his most human. He really did have empathy, and he really did 
think that he could help better the situation."

No Half Measures

When Mr. Bhatia arrived at Brown from the suburbs of Boston in 1995, he 
already wanted to study international relations. But it was a friendship 
with Jarat Chopra, an assistant professor at the Watson Institute, that 
propelled him specifically into peacekeeping and post-conflict 
resolution. Sarah Havens, a classmate and close friend of Mr. Bhatia's 
who is now a lawyer in New York, says that people on the campus used to 
joke that Mr. Bhatia was a miniature version of Mr. Chopra: Both were 
workaholics and ethnically half-Indian, and both had odd senses of humor.

Mr. Chopra, who is now working for a United Nations project in Somalia, 
says that the mid-1990s were a propitious time for someone to begin a 
career in conflict resolution. "With the end of the cold war, the field 
of peacekeeping exploded, and Brown was a sort of nucleus for 
peacekeeping studies," he says. "Michael arrived very much in that context."

During his junior year, Mr. Bhatia spent time at a refugee camp in 
southwestern Algeria, near the disputed territory known as the Western 
Sahara. In 1998, at the age of 20, he testified about the Western Saraha 
conflict before the United Nations General Assembly.

In that testimony, he sounded a theme that would persist throughout his 
career: If outsiders are going to intervene in a conflict, they should 
not take half-measures. They should understand the local context and 
bring enough resources to establish temporary sovereignty and prevent 
new outbreaks of violence.

He warned that the United Nations and the governments of the region were 
focusing too narrowly on plans for a referendum on Western Saharan 
independence. "The international community's role and responsibilities," 
he said, "should not end with the holding of the referendum."

Witness to Chaos

In the summer of 1999, just after he graduated from Brown, Mr. Bhatia 
traveled with Mr. Chopra to East Timor, where the United Nations was 
preparing a referendum on independence from Indonesia.

Here unfolded exactly the kind of disaster that Mr. Bhatia had warned 
about in the Western Sahara context: The East Timor referendum itself 
came off peacefully, but the independence vote was followed by an 
onslaught of violence from Indonesian militias, which the United Nations 
was unprepared to resist. The chaos finally ended three weeks later, 
when the United Nations authorized an Australian-led military force to 
enter the territory.

Mr. Bhatia saw the carnage at first hand. "It was a lot for someone at 
that age to have to experience," Mr. Chopra says. "But he never 
faltered." Over a period of a week, the two men traveled from shelter to 
shelter with a small group of election observers, trying to help where 
they could.

"One of the really heartbreaking moments for both of us—Dili [East 
Timor's capital] had essentially been burnt, and the flames were 
gradually closing in on one last road," Mr. Chopra says. "And we were at 
that point at what was a Red Cross compound, with a lot of kids there. 
And then Indonesian troops came and pointed at us and said, 'We're 
taking you to the main U.N. compound.' And we probably could have 
resisted. But someone from the Australian government was there, and they 
said, 'We think you should go.' And the writing was on the wall, as it 
were. The notion was, well, then this place was going to be burned next, 

"And I think it tore us up forever after that, to have left that place," 
Mr. Chopra says.

Mark O. Plunkett, an Australian human-rights lawyer who traveled with 
Mr. Bhatia that week, has grim memories of his own. "Our worst fears 
came to unfold around us," he says. "We had to decide whether we were 
going to run with the U.N., or whether we were going to stay and take 
the risks. The city's burning and people are being shot and planes are 
arriving, and all of this crisis erupts about whether we should leave."

Mr. Bhatia always voted for staying. "He saw that at the end of the day, 
we had the passport, we had the resources, we had the privileged 
nationality," Mr. Plunkett says. "We can always come and go, but these 
people are stuck there. That was the lesson of East Timor. They can't 
leave. We can. In theory we could get on a plane, and in an hour or two 
we could be in Bali, sipping a piña colada. But Michael was never 
comfortable with that. Never comfortable with that. Michael was never 
satisfied with our Western, well-resourced side of the parallel universe."

Meeting the Taliban

Only a few months after returning from East Timor, Mr. Bhatia headed 
into another conflict zone, working with the International Rescue 
Committee in Kosovo. In 2001, with a Marshall Scholarship in hand, he 
began his studies in international relations at Oxford.

The same year, he made his first trip to Afghanistan. "Michael called me 
up out of the blue, asking if I could help him do field work," says 
Jonathan Goodhand, a senior lecturer in development studies at the 
University of London.

Mr. Bhatia talked Mr. Goodhand into letting him join a research 
delegation sponsored by the Overseas Development Institute, an 
independent British think tank on international development and 
humanitarian issues.

The researchers' mission was to study how international relief 
organizations were coping with the severe restrictions placed upon them 
by the Taliban regime. (Besides Mr. Bhatia and Mr. Goodhand, the 
research team included Mohammad Haneef Atmar, who is now Afghanistan's 
minister of education.) They made the trip in the summer of 2001, on the 
eve of the September 11 attacks and the U.S. invasion.

"Going around in the field with him, I could see that he could pick up 
certain things faster than I could," says Mr. Goodhand. "He could 
process information extremely quickly, and he had really mastered the 
academic literature on Afghanistan. But he wore his knowledge lightly. 
He was very confident, but he always kept on the right side of that 
line. He didn't cross over into being arrogant."

In 2003, just four years after graduating from Brown, Mr. Bhatia 
published his first book, War and Intervention: Issues for Contemporary 
Peace Operations (Kumarian Press). In a passage that might shed light on 
his later decision to join the human-terrain program, Mr. Bhatia argued 
that the United States must devote serious resources to peacekeeping, 
and that the international community should welcome such resources 
despite the past errors of U.S. foreign policy.

"Even among the most bitter of former opponents and affected 
populations," he wrote, "the deployment of American contingents under a 
peace operation is treated with both awe and respect. ... This role and 
corresponding responsibility are not easy to deny."

Peacekeeping in Transition

As Mr. Bhatia drafted that book in 2002, the practice of peacekeeping 
was beginning a painful transformation. Where Bosnia, Kosovo, and East 
Timor had been relatively localized, self-contained conflicts, the major 
peacekeeping operations of this decade, beginning with Afghanistan, have 
been seen by some as part of a worldwide counterterrorist project.

"There is a very big question about where peacekeeping is going," Mr. 
Chopra says. "It's lost its impartiality after September 11. This is 
something that Michael and I never had the opportunity to talk about. 
The U.N., the World Bank, and all of these international institutions 
have been brought into the war on terror. All those inventions which 
came into being during the 90s have come to be used in a war-fighting 
context. And there's been a shift from the notion of the peacekeeper as 
not having an enemy—'the enemy is the war'—to the notion that you have 
an enemy. That's a fundamental shift."

Mr. Bhatia himself was often sharply critical of the U.S. response to 
September 11, 2001. He guest-edited a 2005 issue of Third World 
Quarterly—a journal whose editorial board includes high-profile leftists 
like Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk—on "terrorism and the politics of 
naming." In an introductory essay, he argued that the term "war on 
terror" was ill-chosen and demagogic. Instead of looking carefully at 
the complex dynamics of terrorist movements, he wrote, the government 
and the news media tend to cite each new terrorist atrocity "as further 
evidence of the fundamental brutality of the opponent, [evidence that] 
is used to cement their otherness and savagery."

At the same time, however, Mr. Bhatia never opposed the invasion of 
Afghanistan, and he would spend long evenings arguing with left-wing 
colleagues who took that position.

In a widely discussed 2004 white paper that Mr. Bhatia wrote with two 
colleagues on behalf of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an 
independent policy institute based in Kabul, he urged NATO member 
nations to put more resources into the intervention. The American-led 
coalition has been too willing to cut deals with local militias, he and 
his co-authors wrote, but has not put nearly enough resources into 
nation building or providing everyday security to Afghan citizens.

In 2005, Mr. Bhatia spent several months traveling throughout 
Afghanistan to study the U.N.-sponsored process of demobilizing 
militias. Much of that research was incorporated into Afghanistan, Arms 
and Conflict: Armed Groups, Disarmament and Security in a Post-War 
Society (Routledge, April 2008), which Mr. Bhatia wrote with Mark Sedra, 
a research scholar at the University of Waterloo, in Canada.

"His research involved hundreds of interviews with individual 
militiamen," Mr. Sedra says. "He was extremely courageous, and he was 
committed to Afghanistan. I remember talking to him once about the 
option of doing some field work in other places. And he said, 'No, I'm 
devoted to Afghanistan right now.' So I know that he felt a tremendous 
intellectual commitment but also cared a lot for the country itself."

The new book makes it obvious why the Army might have wanted Mr. 
Bhatia's expertise. His chapters offer extraordinarily detailed 
information about the histories, occupations, and motivations of 
combatants in six different provinces of Afghanistan. He urges NATO 
officials to become more sensitive to local contexts, including arms 
races between neighboring villages. He also asks that attention be paid 
to "the vast scale of victimization, occurring during all periods of the 
conflict, as well as the psychological consequences of both war and 

Disputed Terrain

Last September, Mr. Bhatia arrived at Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, to 
begin training for the human-terrain program. He had begun corresponding 
with the program's director, Mr. Fondacaro, eight months earlier, as 
part of a research project about security-sector reform in Afghanistan. 
Only slowly did he begin to consider joining the program himself. He 
signed up in August, according to Mr. Fondacaro.

He had told few people about his decision to enroll. "I perpetually 
wrote him letters of recommendation for each one of his steps," Mr. 
Chopra says. "With the exception of this last one. He didn't ask me. I 
don't know why. I don't know what the circumstances were."

One person with whom Mr. Bhatia did consult was Thomas J. Biersteker, a 
former director of the Watson Institute who is now a professor of 
political science at the Graduate Institute of International and 
Development Studies, in Geneva.

"Michael was very conscious of, and very reflective on, the 
controversies around the program," Mr. Biersteker says. "He was someone 
who really thought long and hard about it. I know we talked about it 
before he went. He took the criticisms very seriously. In a sense, he 
was the kind of person who was on both sides."

The Watson Institute was full of debates about the human-terrain program 
in 2006-7, when Mr. Bhatia had his visiting fellowship there. One of the 
program's most vocal critics, Catherine Lutz, is a professor of 
anthropology and international studies at Watson. She and many other 
anthropologists have argued that the program is too similar to 
historical military programs that have sought to exploit 
social-scientific knowledge in order to become more effective agents of 
domination. (Ms. Lutz declined to comment for this article.)

In March 2007, the institute played host to a three-day meeting of a 
special committee of the American Anthropological Association, whose 
mission was to assess the ethics of the human-terrain program and other 
kinds of cooperation with the military. Most of that meeting was 
private, but there was one public session, a video of which is archived 
at Watson's Web site. Toward the end of the session, Mr. Bhatia spoke 
from the audience, offering comments as an outsider to anthropology.

He said he appreciated many of the anthropologists' ethical concerns. 
"People are adopting anthropology's methods for studying 'the other' 
without adopting either their ethics or their perspectives," he said. 
But he went on to suggest that "reducing otherness" might be a valuable 
role for social scientists to play within military units.

He then asked a question that suggests he was already weighing the 
possibility of joining the program. "If you are involved," he asked, "to 
what extent can you dictate a freedom or an ability not to provide 
information? ... If you are involved or are engaged with military actors 
on the ground and that space between reducing otherness and potentially 
being involved in targeting starts to get blurred, when can you say, I'm 
not simply going to provide that information to you? And whether that's 
a space that can actually be negotiated. Or is that just naïve?"

(Months later, after he arrived in Afghanistan, Mr. Bhatia wrote to 
friends that he was confident that his team's work had nothing to do 
with targeting villages or individuals for military attacks.)

Sgt. Joseph M. Kather, a human-terrain member who trained with Mr. 
Bhatia at Fort Leavenworth, says that with Mr. Bhatia's death, "This 
program has probably lost the best asset it ever had." Beyond his 
regional expertise, Mr. Bhatia had a rare gift for winning people's 
trust, Sergeant Kather says. "People were just drawn to him."

In e-mail messages written during the weeks before he died, Mr. Bhatia 
said that he was exhausted but pleased with his work. In one late 
message, he wrote, "As for me, I'm working incredibly hard, working off 
a bit of salmonella poisoning right now, making a big impact on the 
brigade strategy, program is being protested by the American 
anthropological community for no reason, about to head off for a winter 
field mission, plan to return in the fall, then head to Norway for a 
four-month visiting fellowship, finish the dissertation as soon as 
humanly possible, and resume life outside of a forward operating base."

Ms. Havens, Mr. Bhatia's college classmate, says that he was bothered by 
the criticisms of the program

"I think it takes a certain kind of integrity to put your boots on the 
ground and do things that will have a real-life effect," says Ms. 
Havens, who has represented detainees at the U.S. Naval Station at 
Guantánamo Bay. "Especially if your background is grounded in people who 
can kind of sit back and have academic debates that, you know, you can't 
really ever be faulted for. So it was a very brave thing for him to 
do—both in terms of risking his life and coming under scrutiny from 
other people in his profession."

She adds that she and Mr. Bhatia occasionally disagreed about politics 
and foreign policy, but says that usually she "would just give up."

"It's not that he was overbearing or arrogant," she says, "but he just 
so loved to have a discussion, and was so enthusiastic. It would have 
been a three-hour conversation, and at the end of it he would have had 
15 more arguments at his disposal than I would have. So I mostly just 
sat by the sidelines while he argued with other people, sometimes for 
hours and hours."

Mr. Chopra, meanwhile, is very uneasy about the human-terrain program 
but says he was eager to talk to Mr. Bhatia about it.

"I really resisted making any comment or suggestion or any reservation 
about his decision to join the human-terrain program," he says, "because 
I wanted to wait for him to come back and tell me what it was all about. 
He would have given me a far more insightful view of what it was all 
about than anything I could have read about it. That's the conversation 
I was waiting to have."

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