STUTTGART, Germany — A social science research center is under development at U.S. Africa Command headquarters, where researchers from the academic world are being recruited to help map the complicated human terrain on the African continent.
The research center, which falls under AFRICOM’s knowledge development division, will be designed to focus on the long-term with an eye toward forecasting potential flashpoints and preventing them from developing into conflicts.
But mixing military and social science has long been a source of controversy, going all the way back to the Vietnam era when information collected by researchers was used for targeting people.
More recently, the Army’s Human Terrain System, used in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been met with resistance from groups such as the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, made up of social scientists opposed to the mingling of academia and the military.
Though defenders of the Human Terrain System argue that social scientists are providing information to commanders that potentially can reduce levels of violence, opponents say human terrain mapping benefits the U.S. military, not local populations.
As AFRICOM sets out to recruit and build its staff of social scientists, word is beginning to spread about the latest effort, and some professors are already expressing similar concerns.
"There is a contradiction between anthropology and AFRICOM or the U.S. military," said David Hughes, an environmental anthropologist from Rutgers University’s Center for African Studies.
Hughes, who participated in an interview for a position on the AFRICOM team — a position Hughes said he was never interested in but wanted to learn more about — contends that academic researchers shouldn’t accept employment with the Defense Department.
While pursuing national security interests is the military’s objective, "Our concern is to take the concerns of the subject first and foremost. It would be difficult to negotiate that conflict," he said.
For example, researching the degree of pro or anti-American sentiment in a given area and turning over those findings to the military could open to door to selective targeting of individuals, according to Hughes.
"Then I might immediately endanger my subjects. This is the sort of thing we don’t want to be involved in and facilitate," said Hughes, whose department has issued a statement vowing that it would not collaborate with the military’s efforts in Africa.
AFRICOM officials, however, say fears about militarizing social science are misplaced. So are comparisons between AFRICOM’s research center and the Human Terrain System, which embeds academics on the battlefield to provide cultural advice to commanders in support of their missions, officials said.
"We have no combat mission in Africa," said Col. Dean Bland, who is heading up AFRICOM’s research center effort and insists the social scientists would have no role in targeting people.
Rather, the academics will fill in gaps in knowledge and help commanders craft more effective programs, he said. For example, as military training initiatives are developed, having an awareness of the ethnic mixes and traditions in a given area would be valuable information, he said. Knowing when there’s a disenfranchised minority sub-group in a region also would be valuable as the military tries to anticipate flashpoints and prevent conflict, he said.
"You have to understand how societies tick to make better decisions," Bland said.
Examining the relationship between geography and environment, culture and politics, and how these factors can come together to create instability is a new approach to intelligence-gathering, Bland said.
The research center will deal largely in the unclassified realm. The intent is to work together with other think tanks, non-governmental organizations and release reports into the public domain, Bland said. Papers will be peer-reviewed and the work will be available for others working on the continent, he said.
Despite some early criticism in academia, recruiting hasn’t been a problem, Bland said.
Currently, about a dozen staffers are on board. Within six months, the knowledge development team is expected to be fully manned with 25 to 30 members. The majority will be based in Stuttgart. A team of about six people will be stationed at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, where they will work closely with AFRICOM’s Combined Joined Task Force-Horn of Africa.
At times, the Germany-based members could deploy to the continent for short research missions.
The need for a research center, Bland said, boils down to the fact that there’s a lot the military doesn’t know regarding Africa — a continent of 53 countries, hundreds of languages, tribes and cultures.
Indeed, Africa is a place Americans generally know little about and tend to regard as one big country instead of a diverse continent of nearly one billion people, AFRICOM officials say.
Could AFRICOM’s social scientists help leaders anticipate events, such as the violence that followed last year’s elections in Kenya? Could they advise commanders on the potential destabilizing effects of global warming and desertification in certain regions? Could the next genocide be prevented?
That’s the goal, though measuring effectiveness will be difficult, Bland said.
"We’ll never know if we are successful, because if we do our job right, flashpoints will go away," Bland said.