Her mission orders in Afghanistan: Map the human terrain
By Jim Landers / The Dallas Morning News | Friday, March 13, 2009 |

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, Afghanistan - For Audrey Roberts, the journey to this remote base in eastern Afghanistan began 18 years ago in Plano, Texas. When she was 8, Audrey dropped the first volume of an encyclopedia on the floor of her home to see where the open pages would lead her. The word "anthropology" caught her eye.

Today, she sits in a plywood hut at the base while outgoing blasts of 155-mm artillery shake pictures off the wall. She is an anthropologist working under contract for the U.S. Army.

Roberts talks with Afghans about their tribes; about the way they make their living, about power, religion, migration, feuds and fear. The information is meant to give the soldiers an appreciation of Afghan culture and insight into how best to counter a growing insurgency.

"I was rocketed five times last night," she said with nervous energy. "I’ve survived two IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and lots of small arms fire. The question of, ’What’s it worth?’ comes up almost every day."

She does it for the 18-year-old soldiers, she said, young men and women caught in an era where they are expected to be ambassadors of the United States making violent, split-second decisions.

The U.S. military began deploying Human Terrain Teams to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007, shortly after a new Counter-Insurgency Manual was pushed out to the Army and the Marines stressing the importance of cultural awareness. There are six teams now in Afghanistan and another 21 more in Iraq.

Roberts and eight others at this base map the human terrain of three provinces - Khost, Paktia and Paktika - for the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division.

In the year she’s been at this base, the Human Terrain Team has helped the military understand that Afghanistan, though wracked by war for 30 years, is now very different from the land the United States invaded in 2001, and vastly changed from the place the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.

Islamic fundamentalism is only one factor in a mosaic of motivations among several different groups fighting for power. Military planners who have grasped this information say they are using it to look for ways to turn the insurgents against each other and to identify groups that might be willing to negotiate.

Roberts’ team, led by Maj. Alex Wells, learned about a peace initiative among a split tribe that tribal mediators hoped would end one of the more dangerous strands of the Afghan insurgency. (The initiative is still percolating.)

The team documented how Taliban extremists and other insurgents break apart village societies by beheading police chiefs and mayors and threatening members of religious and tribal councils.

They’ve also found communities pushing back against roughshod treatment by insurgents, the Afghan government and U.S. forces.

Again and again, the team has reported disgust among Afghans with the government of President Hamid Karzai over corruption and unkept promises of schools, roads and electricity.

And they’ve described how high prices for fuel and food, drought, animal diseases and other economic catastrophes have forced young Afghan men to leave the country in search of work - or to join the insurgency for the money.

"Why is there increasing instability? It isn’t because of ideology," Roberts said. "It’s because there are no jobs. And the bad guys pay quite well."

When the Salerno Human Terrain Team arrives in a village for interviews, the commotion and the presence of heavily armed soldiers make it highly unlikely that Roberts will be invited for tea.

Still, she has an ingratiating smile.

Even though they are often nervous about being seen talking to an "American soldier," Afghans quickly open up to Roberts with complaints about the lack of security in their villages.

In interviews with shopkeepers in the village of Zormat, Roberts heard bitter criticism of U.S. bombing raids targeting Taliban but killing civilians as well. They objected to nighttime raids that violate the dignity of a household by exposing Afghan women to U.S. troops.

"Just because a man has a beard and moustache and is a devout Muslim doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy," said Sayed Hassan, a customer in the bazaar. "The Americans and their allies should understand our culture."

Roberts is a small, energetic woman - five 5 feet, four 4 inches tall, 113 pounds. She works the streets of Afghan villages wearing combat boots, a helmet, Army fatigues, an armored vest and ammo clips for the M-16 rifle she carries, though usually her work tools are a notebook and pen.

She sits on her knees or cross-legged in the dirt, beside a Pashtu-speaking translator, as she asks about tribal networks, a shopkeeper’s suppliers, the concerns of the community.

When it dawns on her audience that the person in helmet and fatigues is a woman, one of the men usually waits for the end of the interview to ask if she’s married.

She isn’t.

"I’m married to Afghanistan," Roberts said later with a half-hearted laugh. "I can only be involved emotionally with one thing."

Audrey Roberts was born in Cincinnati - one minute later than her twin sister, Erika. The family moved to Plano when Audrey was 4. The sisters went to Plano Senior High School, where Audrey graduated a year early and just after turning 17. One memorable moment from those years was the time Audrey punched a boy in the face who was trying to pick up Erika.

"Nobody makes me bleed!" the boy roared as he tossed Audrey on the hood of a car. He dated Erika for four years, and all three are now good friends.

Erika works disaster response with the American Red Cross and is a graduate student at the University of North Texas. Their mom, Karen Roberts, keeps a home in Plano, where their father died four years ago.

Audrey stayed constant to her anthropology goal and chose it as her major at the University of Colorado. Dreams of traveling to the remote corners of the Amazon to discover lost tribes gave way to a fascination with how studies of culture could influence policy. She worked in Boulder with a conflict resolution group. Roberts wrote an honors thesis on the role of Palestinian women in the violence against Israelis.

She went to Columbia University in New York for her master’s degree, where she studied local forms of democracy and how affected communities viewed the international campaign against human trafficking.

Roberts’ first overseas study of cultural issues was in Serbia, where she worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on reconciliation issues. She made her way to Afghanistan in 2007, working with a group seeking to ensure that the government and the military were aware of gender issues. She learned about the U.S. military’s interest in greater cultural awareness and joined the Human Terrain Team as a private contractor employed by BAE Systems.

The human terrain mapped out by scientists like Roberts breaks apart perceptions that the U.S. military’s enemies in Afghanistan are all religious fanatics, and helps the military better understand the customs and circumstances of the Afghan people. Wells, the Salerno team leader, said the U.S. Army hopes to expand the program so that several more teams are deployed in Afghanistan.

Roberts argues that there are several insurgencies under way here. There are opium traffickers with private armies. There are gangs of criminals kidnapping wealthy Afghans and foreign civilians for ransom. There are al-Qaida terrorists and Taliban warriors following their old leaders Osama bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar. But there are also new Taliban fighting without direction from leaders across the border.

Roberts has lost two colleagues to violence in the past year.

Michael Bhatia, her mentor and best friend on the HTT group at Salerno, was in a Humvee blown apart by an IED last May. Bhatia and two soldiers were killed.

Roberts talked about the smell of the bomb on Bhatia’s notebooks and the description of his body given to her by one of the soldiers at the scene. She wears a copper bracelet engraved with Bhatia’s name and the place and date of his death.

She talked about Paula Loyd, an anthropologist doused with gasoline and set on fire by a man in Kandahar in early November. Two months later, Loyd died at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

"Right after it happened, Paula supposedly said, ’How am I going to write my report now with these hands?’ " Roberts remembered. "When they told her she would need reconstructive surgery on her face, she said, ’Well, I was thinking of having some work done anyway.’

"We thought she was going to be OK," Roberts said. "But then the infection, and the pneumonia. It was a shock."

As a result of Bhatia’s death, the Salerno team members were required to travel in heavily armored trucks known as MRAPs. Roberts travels wearing ballistic glasses to protect her eyes from flying debris. She keeps two tourniquets in the pockets of her Army fatigues, and - if you are traveling with her - she makes sure you know how to use one.

Roberts’ contract runs through May. She said she’d like to stay involved in mapping Afghanistan’s cultural terrain. She’d also like to get a doctorate in anthropology and sharpen her focus on the way cultural awareness should inform policy.

The work of the Human Terrain Teams is controversial. The American Anthropology Association has condemned the work as a corruption of social science because it provides the military with intelligence to use against the insurgency.

Roberts said her work was not classified, and was available for any and all military and civilian groups working to support the Afghan government.