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.