Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Learning Afghan culture can save lives of Nato soldiers

Published Oct 07, 2012 03:15am


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Nad-e-Ali district of southern Afghanistan's Helmand province – AFP (File Photo)

WASHINGTON: The uptick in insider or “green-on-blue” attacks by members of Afghan security forces against their US and Nato counterparts has seriously undermined Nato’s trust in its Afghan partners and is straining the US-Afghan military relationship. Gen John Allen, the commander of US and allied forces in Afghanistan, recently told CBS News’ “60 Minutes” that he is “mad as hell” about the attacks, adding, “we’re willing to sacrifice a lot for this campaign. But we’re not willing to be murdered for it.”

Such attacks have killed more than 50 allied troops this year, including 30 Americans, up significantly from the 2011 toll. These episodes underscore a growing threat and a challenge to the US exit strategy. Predictably, the assaults have become an effective tool for the Taliban, which seeks to drive a wedge between Afghan and US forces.

Fewer than a quarter of the attacks have been attributed to Taliban infiltration, which President Hamid Karzai has pinned on foreign intelligence services. The Pentagon has said the attacks’ underlying causes are personal animosity, grudges and cultural frictions from resentful Afghan soldiers. Allen has cited short tempers, owing to the month-long Ramazan fast in August, though this was not the first Ramazan or first hot summer in Afghanistan since the beginning of the Afghan mission.

In response, Washington temporarily scaled back joint operations, and training of some Afghan forces was suspended temporarily so that soldiers could be re-screened and the process for screening Afghan army and police recruits amplified. The US intelligence presence in Afghanistan has been expanded; Nato soldiers have been ordered to be within arm’s reach of a loaded weapon at all times; and “guardian angels,” or spies, have been planted in most Afghan units.

While these efforts may help, effectively countering the incidents will require greater cultural and social knowledge of Afghan security forces — and lack of cultural awareness is still too absent from the conversation.

The Afghan Defense Ministry only recently issued pamphlets, titled “Cultural Understanding — A Guide to Understanding Coalition Cultures,” to educate Afghan soldiers on the practices of American and coalition troops.

Karzai has publicly bemoaned many US actions, saying that US troops overlook important aspects of Afghan culture, especially during night raids. Most American soldiers are no more educated to be culturally sensitive than are ordinary Afghan soldiers, and they all carry individual and cultural baggage. Too often, the Taliban exploit these weaknesses to woo villagers who have been upset or embarrassed when they see or hear of Nato troops infringing on their homes and mosques, violating their privacy during searches, killing innocent people, desecrating Holy Quran or appearing to express disrespect for family and local values.

Senior US officials recognise that much more could be done to educate troops in Afghanistan on local norms. But such awareness is not always practiced, even in joint bases or training facilities. Afghan soldiers have reportedly been verbally abused or ridiculed in front of other soldiers, and they are said to be increasingly undermined by foreign troops. A 2011 unclassified study of mutual perceptions of more than 600 Afghan security personnel and US soldiers noted that many Afghan soldiers found US soldiers to be “extremely arrogant, bullying, unwilling to listen to their advice, and were often seen as lacking concern for the safety of civilian[s] and [Afghan soldiers] during combat.”

The Defence Department should embrace a more culture-centric approach to Afghan partners. While US service members are supposed to undergo cursory training on Afghan culture and customs, the military appears to concentrate on soldiers who are to have regular contact with locals. Too many US soldiers receive just a half-day’s cultural awareness seminar or a PowerPoint presentation before being deployed.

The cultural advisers embedded with foreign military and civilian teams — who are to provide advice and simplify communication in local languages — are also insufficient. Most are US-educated civilian professionals employed by the military or defence contractors, and they are often disconnected from daily Afghan life. Many have been recruited from the Afghan diaspora, and they are extravagantly paid — usually $180,000 to $220,000 per year. Afghan soldiers distrust many of these western advisers, whom they see as out to make money and/or as spies for US troops.

US and Nato troops need to work more closely with civilian professionals and linguists to adopt a more culturally tolerable communication style. Greater respect for local culture and improved treatment of Afghan forces would categorically minimise the odds of Afghan forces becoming willing to kill their US and Nato partners. There will always be some uncertainty in Afghanistan. But greater cultural understanding would alleviate some of the tension that continues to produce violence.

By arrangement with the Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Comments (20) Closed

pakistani Oct 07, 2012 07:06pm
how can you compare a ficvtion based film with the hard events of real life. and specially the where which you devastated by suing for your proxy wars. Muslims were hero for your when it was agianst Russian and after their fall they becomes terrorist for you. but the fact is American will going towards it's own direction in pursuits of getting world recources and political hegemony. Every rise have it's fall. YOu have your seen your rise in WW2 and now's your fall you people need to see. good luck.
shab khan Oct 07, 2012 09:40am
one very simple and most universal truth... afghanistan is the land of afghanis and no one has the legetimate right to force itself on afghans. and all these opinions are crap and we muslims dont care what pannetta or america are thinking and saying because we have every right to live freely as american wish for themselves.
Ahmed j Oct 07, 2012 09:38am
Learning Afghan culture has come after twelve years. This is another sign of US understanding of their own weak position in Afghanistan.
Vigilant Oct 08, 2012 10:00am
"Learning Afghan culture can save lives of Nato soldiers" it's like saying that if a intruder enter your house & starting living and governing after learning your ways of life then he could be accepted as family member.....what a pathetic article
Nauman Oct 07, 2012 06:09pm
No reasonable person or people should agree with the conquests that were done centuries ago. How can you justify the invasion of Afghanistan in modern times? Everyone has conquered something in the past, but now we live in a civilized world. How can you claim to be civilized when you justify invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan by comparing them to some conquests in the dark ages? If your problem is some brainless muslims glorifying conquests centuries ago, then I must say, does this justify your invasions in modern times? If so, please get rid of this charade of being the most civilized country in the world.
Rashid Oct 08, 2012 10:27am
They can be saved only by accepting Islam and submitting to Allah.
Fahd Oct 07, 2012 12:42pm
1st chapter at the end.... LOL
True Pakistani Oct 08, 2012 03:05am
- well said, jennifer. you are a lady after my own heart.
Sajjad Oct 07, 2012 10:19pm
Hi Jennifer you are right in some aspects but please remember the masses always do the right thing .It is the leaders who go wild .When Russia was superpower it invaded Afghanistan , when Muslims were in power they invaded other countries.When Britain was super power they invaded other countries.Cutting long story short , we as a human beings have to stand and raise our voice for the right thing and doesnt matter whether we live in america Africa or afghanistan
kayamat Oct 08, 2012 12:38pm
Nato forces should follow Sharia laws. Then not only that they will become enlightened people, there will also be no conflict whatsoever.
Zazi Oct 08, 2012 03:23am
Well said Khan. Afghans, Pashtune warriors will win in the end. As always.
Jennifer Oct 07, 2012 01:30pm
Typical hypocrites. I saw a Pakistani film in the US while visiting a friend And the main character boasts about how Muslims ruled Spain and India for so many years. Don't remember the exact name but is conquering and ruling landss a matter of pride for the Muslims? then why cry hoarse when others do, though its not even your own country? No wonder the world has no sympathy with the Muslims.
Ahmed j Oct 07, 2012 05:15pm
Dr M Ahmad Oct 08, 2012 06:41pm
Learning as well as respecting.
Viz Oct 08, 2012 04:37pm
Trust me my dear friend, This is not US weakness, but only kindness. If US army's rules of engagement are lifted and international media kicked out of Afghanistan, then US will show how to win a war completely decisively in 10 Days. Please dont count our Humaneness as your bravery.
Viz Oct 08, 2012 04:31pm
oh, now its a simple fiction based film. But what abou that anti-islam film. You didnt look at it this way also. Again Hyprocrites.
Viz Oct 08, 2012 04:25pm
Please save yourself first from your poverty and debt, then think of converting people. I hope Muslims in general are not so brainwashed.
Yawar Oct 08, 2012 01:08am
The pride Muslims show is not about conquering Spain but rather about establishing civilization in Europe during the dark ages. A civilization that saw the best universities and advances in many different fields. A civilization that protected Jews from being persecuted in Europe. Also, you cannot compare two different time periods. In the olden days it was the norm to usurp land by force whether the perpetrators were Muslims or Christians. But in these modern times, the world has every right to protest foreign occupation be it Saddam Hussein in Kuwait or Argentina in the Falklands.
Wasim Kayani Oct 08, 2012 03:26pm
Not learning but respecting.
A Shah Oct 07, 2012 12:25pm
Wrong - it should read "Learning Western culture can save lives of Afgans"