In 2011, Joshua Corbett, now an editorial and commercial photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska, deployed to Paktika Province, Afghanistan. "Let me be clear: I was not, and never have been, a soldier," he says. "I never went to basic training, and I didn't sign on for 6 to 8 years." But he did carry a rifle. As a member of a small Human Terrain System (HTS) team embedded with infantry units from the 101st and 172nd, Corbett functioned in the capacity of a social scientist, researching local tribal dynamic, politics and economics, and advising commanders on the socio-political aspects of counterinsurgency. "I was there to answer the question, 'why does the local population act the way it does?'"
The deployment of Human Terrain Teams has been extremely controversial since the program launched in the mid-2000s. In October 2007, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a statement expressing disapproval of the program, claiming that it "violates the AAA Code of Ethics." But advocates of the program argue that Human Terrain personnel like Corbett (who holds an MA in International Relations from John Hopkins) provide information to frontline commanders that is crucial to preventing unnecessary bloodshed in environments where a lack of cultural awareness could prove catastrophic. Corbett and his team were thus deployed to an area in need of that kind of support: Paktika, a volatile border province in southeastern Afghanistan and home to one of the largest insurgent networks to emerge during the war. This is his story.
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Photos by Joshua Corbett