Cultural sensitivity key to U.S. role in Afghanistan
August 31st, 2012
10:36 AM ET

Cultural sensitivity key to U.S. role in Afghanistan

By Javid Ahmad, Special CNN

Editor’s note: Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul, is a program coordinator with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own.

As noted by Ahmad Majidyar yesterday, the killing of three Australian troops this week marked the latest in a string of insider, or so-called green-on-blue, attacks by members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) against Western troops. These attacks have severely eroded NATO’s trust in its local partners and they present a major challenge to the U.S. exit strategy.

There is no shortage of explanations for the attacks. The Afghan government has pointed its finger at Pakistan’s spy agencies for orchestrating the infiltrations. But these accusations directly contradict the Pentagon’s assertion that the vast majority of attacks on American soldiers are triggered by personal grudges, grievances, and cultural clashes from disgruntled individuals, and are not the product of Taliban infiltration. Indeed, U.S. commander General John Allen has blamed shortened tempers on the month-long Ramadan fasting season in the sweltering August heat, although this clearly isn’t the first Ramadan to have been marked in Afghanistan, nor the first hot summer there.

Washington has taken measures to counter future incidents, including a greater U.S. intelligence presence on the ground, an order for NATO soldiers to carry loaded guns at all times, and embedding “guardian angels” into Afghan security units to spy on fellow soldiers. Kabul, too, has tightened its vetting process for new recruits, which now includes biometrics and background checks, all run through databases at the Kabul Military Training Center. Applications that used to be one page are now a few pages. Recruits are also required to submit character references from influential village and tribal elders.

It remains to be seen how these measures will help contain the problem, but another important element has yet to be explored: if the assertions concerning personal animosity and cultural friction between Afghan and Western troops are true, then it is time to address them head on.

The Afghan government often complains that foreign troops ignore key aspects of local culture and norms, particularly during contentious night raids. Too often, insurgents exploit these shortcomings to win over locals who feel they have been humiliated by the actions of foreign troops: intrusions of homes and mosques, the seemingly indiscriminate killing of innocent people, and perceived disrespect for family and cultural values.

A disgruntled Afghan soldier can react with his gun, but local villagers will either accept the humiliations or turn towards the Taliban. Senior U.S. military and civilian officials have acknowledged that the United States could and should be doing a better job at cultural awareness education. But cultural awareness is not always properly practiced even in training facilities and joint bases, with reports of Afghan soldiers undermined, verbally abused, and mocked in front of their fellow soldiers by Western troops – all actions that add to their resentment towards foreign troops.

The system of cultural advisors embedded with foreign military and civilian teams – whose job is to facilitate communication in one of the two local languages, Pashto or Dari, and provide cultural advice – is also inadequate. Most are employed by Pentagon and defense contractors, and are often U.S.-educated professionals who are detached from daily Afghan life. Lavishly compensated and recruited from the Afghan diaspora, most such advisors appear to be motivated largely by the money.

The United States and NATO military personnel need to work more closely with their cultural advisors and linguists in order to adopt a more culturally acceptable approach to communication style and become better attuned to religious values. Without question, there is a link between cultural awareness, personal relationships, and ultimately, success on the ground. Greater sensitivity in the treatment of Afghan soldiers by foreign troops and greater respect for local culture will significantly lessen the likelihood of Afghan soldiers turning their guns on American and NATO troops or becoming willing “insiders” for the Taliban to accomplish their dirty work.

Ultimately, increased cultural awareness translates into better personal relationships between foreign and Afghan troops – and greater success on the ground.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Culture • Military

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Idahosa

    With or without education, you cannot just take the desert life out of these people even if they are of the desert

    August 31, 2012 at 11:30 am | Reply
  2. Abdullo

    Cultural sensitivity show goes down the drain, the moment you kill one of them. So forget about it.

    August 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  3. Mike Smith

    Since 2001, neither the army nor the Marine Corps has ever required a single minute of cultural training for a single soldier or Marine before deployment to Afghanistan. Not a single minute is mandatory. Weeks and weeks are spent marching and shooting at the rifle range, but not a single minute is spent on cultural training.

    Cultural awareness training remains entirely optional, and the military facilities which provide it are horrendously bad, using Iraqi-Americans as "Afghans" and totally unqualified instructors teaching totally irelevant material to the few troops whose commanders insist on a few hours of "training." The U.S. military has never given a s**t about cultural training.

    This is why men are dying from these incidents - because the U.S. military simply doesn't care. - I know what I'm talking about – - – I worked for five years within the system to try to fix this problem and got nowhere. The military doesn't care about culture or its soldiers and Marines dying. Period.

    August 31, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  4. 100 % ETHIO

    I want see comments made by Jew and Muslim, cse they both putting US in these mess.

    August 31, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Reply
    • Mohammed

      What! It is the Jewish who caused wars for America. Many Americans are getting fooled by Jews
      Jews doesn't want peace to happened between America and Arabs. Jews have planned America to be turned like Middle East wars for their own benefits.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:47 am | Reply
      • Ethan MenconiEthan.menconi@gmail

        That was very meanspirited, and a little bit racist

        November 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  5. JeffinIL

    Stop training them, tell them, "You're on your own. Enjoy the Taliban.", and leave.
    If they wish to make leaving difficult, leave with extreme prejudice.

    August 31, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  6. USMC Forever

    All of this idiotic finger pointing is truly irrelevant! The real blame here belongs to the Afghan people themselves since they do not want foreign rule and never have! They will always try to find news ways of fighting foreign occupation, regardless of who the foreigners may be, The question here is, just when are the idiots in Washington going to realize this?

    September 1, 2012 at 2:15 am | Reply
  7. markdonners

    America talking about "culture". That must be the biggest joke of the century. An american wouldn't know culture if it hit him in the face. The only culture America knows is unlimited criminal violence and murder against people who have tradition and culture, starting from the assaults on the American Indian who had their lands stolen and their people massacred by the invading hordes of "American" (translation: white ex-cons from the jails and swamps of Europe)

    September 1, 2012 at 8:49 am | Reply
    • Patrick-2

      Thank you, markdonners. You said it very well and so very true, too. Even our language(English) is the crudest one spoken in Europe and perhaps around the world. German is far more beautiful!

      September 1, 2012 at 9:42 am | Reply
  8. joe anon 1

    re afganistan,number 1 cultural sensitivity would be: dont invade, destroy afganistan.

    September 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  9. j. von hettlingen

    Most of the Afghans in the government forces are not educated. There we have a clash of civilisation. Western troops take for granted that their Afghan counterparts know the same things as they do. Also Afghans' loyalty is foremost towards families, clans and tribes. They still don't have developed the sense of national unity. They join the army because unemployment is so high and although many of them hate Karzai and his cronies.

    September 2, 2012 at 6:12 am | Reply
  10. Matt

    It is Biblical the Guardian Angels vs Maliki the Angel of Death.

    September 2, 2012 at 6:53 am | Reply
  11. Matt

    You can't even get that right. Who is going to win Christ or Allahu. That is the war at least from the Taliban side, the crusaders Angel watching over Muslims. I tell you what take the puter program from the cops that choose operational names so it does not offend people. When you leave the SAS behind get an elder to adopt them as a son into the family. Sweet. For the interim period when the 5 year plan was being implemented Hamid was my adopted father and I was his adopted son, part of the family.

    September 2, 2012 at 7:14 am | Reply
  12. Matt

    Leave the night vision gear on your way out so at least we can cut a deal with our Taliban brothers.

    September 2, 2012 at 7:17 am | Reply
  13. Matt

    How I am going to find one of the five of you a family. To protect your family of four.

    September 2, 2012 at 7:24 am | Reply
  14. Matt

    Never forget Allahu is merciful.

    September 2, 2012 at 7:40 am | Reply
  15. Matt

    Fair enough then.

    September 2, 2012 at 8:14 am | Reply


    September 3, 2012 at 5:25 am | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Gee whiz, according to what you posted above, you sound like you've been brainwashed by the right-wing news media! After all, the grievances the Iranians have against this country is great indeed beginning with the 1953 overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh and replacing him with the horrific Shah Reza Pahlavi and now we're trying to starve that country into submission!!! Enough already!!!

      September 3, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  17. kommstdumit

    I agree with the author, an increase in cultural awareness would reduce likelihood of intercultural misudnerstandings, foster relationships between foreign and Afghan troops, and certainly would not have a retroactive effect on what is trying to be accomplished on the ground. Though understanding "culture" itself is tricky, it cannot be denied that integrating "cultural" sensitivity into the training prior and during a stay in any foreign country for US troops would be beneficial in the long term.

    September 5, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  18. Astersheen

    Zero is the number of troops to leave after 2014

    February 9, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Reply

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