[Marxism] Academic tool of imperialism killed in Afghanistan
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jun 24 06:14:59 MDT 2008
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Scholars Mourn a Colleague Who Lost His Life in Afghanistan
By DAVID GLENN
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
"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
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
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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