March 2, 2012

“Ooooh, Major Far-nan-do, we’re gonna sell you to the Taliban for a million dollars . . . laa-di-laaa . . . we’re gonna trade you for a new truck . . . for a new house!”

It was late at night in Helmand province last summer, and my Afghan army companions — Jawad and Raz Mohammed — were improvising a song in Dari, clapping their hands to the beat. They could barely get through a verse without bursting into laughter. I did my best to laugh, too. We were friends, and they were joking, but for a moment it made me wonder: Could I trust these men? Would they try to sell me? And what was I doing out here alone? In fact, was it safe for any of us, a few thousand U.S. advisers, to be embedded in Afghan military units across the country?

After the recent burning of Korans at a NATO base and the violence that has followed, I’m not the only one worried about the prospects for the advisory mission in Afghanistan. The accidental desecration of Islam’s holy book, in which five U.S. soldiers were found to be involved, and the resulting riots and killings of American troops reveal a crisis of trust between Afghans and Americans. To rebuild that relationship, we need to focus not just on the Taliban insurgency, but also on dissolving Afghan security forces’ resentment of coalition troops and defeating the pervasive notion that our forces are in Afghanistan to destroy Islam.

As an Army major, it is not my role to debate policy. However, my job in Afghanistan over the past year gave me a unique perspective on the difficulties of building trust. I was on a small team of special operators, governance experts, and Dari- or Pashto-speaking U.S. officers embedded with coalition and Afghan units across the country, coaching, advising and listening to their problems. Sometimes we wore beards and Afghan uniforms and patrolled in Ford Rangers rather than armored trucks, and often we were the only Americans on remote bases — all in hopes of getting a real sense of what Afghan soldiers thought when their Western partners weren’t around.

One of the first things we learned was the power of a simple narrative, repeated endlessly by the Taliban: The coalition is here to occupy Afghanistan and destroy Islam. This message is at the core of the Taliban’s strategy; the group uses it to draw recruits, win sympathy from civilians and encourage soldiers to defect. While the Afghans we worked with protected us from harm — often at great risk to themselves — sometimes doubt would creep into our conversations: Why do you speak our language? Are you a Muslim? Why not? Do you want to take away our religion?

Many of these men had never heard of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They didn’t know why we were in their country.

Any coalition action in Afghanistan — no matter how accidental — that feeds the perception of a Western-led war on Islam endangers the mission and destroys trust. The smallest mistakes are amplified by the Taliban through videos, magazines, DVDs, Web sites, personal visits and other methods. A committed cadre of Taliban agents will infiltrate peaceful demonstrations to incite violence and provoke a strong coalition reaction — so that the cycle of mistrust can begin again. To defeat this threat to the U.S.-Afghan relationship, leaders at all levels must not only avoid making unforced errors but also take actions every day to convince their Afghan colleagues, then the local population, that they respect Islam.

For example, just west of Kandahar last summer, my team came across an American platoon that worked with the Afghan army to engage local religious leaders. Though hesitant at first, the Afghan soldiers got permission to pray in the village mosque alongside the civilians they protected. Later, when two young children were killed by a Taliban mine, the soldiers — at their advisers’ recommendation — encouraged the mullah to denounce the incident from his mosque’s loudspeaker, sending a powerful message to the population about the hypocrisy of the Taliban’s actions: What kind of Muslim would kill our innocent children?

In the aftermath of the Koran-burning incident, it is this type of local, immediate response — from Afghan to Afghan — that has the best chance of shaping perceptions. During this tense time, American advisers all over the country should sit down with their Afghan colleagues to discuss the Muslim faith, and should listen more than they talk. I did this nearly every time I visited a new Afghan unit, in response to questions about my own faith. Once the Afghans saw I was eager to learn about Islam, they took care of me and defended my presence to the local population.

As damaging as religious misunderstandings can be, the gradual drawdown of coalition troops presents its own challenges. Advisers, working in remote areas and facing the threat of Taliban infiltration, sometimes respond by separating themselves from the Afghans, withdrawing behind barricades, strict rules and technology. On one patrol in southeast Afghanistan last year, we watched a line of sputtering Afghan army pickup trucks try to clear a road laden with IEDs while American forces trailed at the rear in heavily armored vehicles bristling with advanced anti-mine devices. The Afghans muttered as they hopped down from their trucks to search for the explosives by hand: “Are they cowards? Are their lives more important than ours?”

Later, we saw a well-known Afghan colonel who had fought the Taliban for many years get roughly searched; he was nearly denied admission to an operations briefing with American forces. In both cases, the Americans were following procedure — yet they were unknowingly sabotaging their mission. While Afghan officers may smile politely in meetings, they trust you only if you’ve shared danger and hardship. There is no shortcut to earning their respect.

Of course, the U.S. military should not do away with armored vehicles or rules, but it should pay close attention to the experience, training and judgment of those selected to be advisers. Not everyone can do this type of mission. Every day, with every action, an adviser must weigh the impact it could have on Afghan relationships. In this sense, NATO’s withdrawal of personnel from Kabul ministries after the shootings of American officers, while understandable, has temporarily achieved the Taliban’s intent — separating coalition advisers from their Afghan partners.

Yet even in some of the most dangerous areas of Kandahar, we saw the best advisers bridge this gap: They smiled and made friends but carried a loaded pistol under their shirt. They spent hours drinking tea but looked doubly close at the Afghan who claimed to have just returned from leave in Pakistan.

The last obstacle to the American-Afghan relationship is resentment within the Afghan security forces. I do not imply that Afghan units are hotbeds of anti-Americanism — they are not. My team of advisers embedded with nearly 20 Afghan battalions across Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and we were always well received and protected. But when we talked to the Afghan soldiers in their language, we heard many frustrations with how coalition soldiers treated them.

They complained of young U.S. soldiers acting like drill sergeants, screaming and cursing at the Afghans and making them do push-ups. (While this behavior is common in American basic training, in the respect-based culture of Afghanistan, such treatment is a violation of one’s honor.) We stayed in camps where the Afghans slept in straw huts with smoke from a trash fire blowing on them, while coalition members lounged in air-conditioned trailers. During Ramadan, a month in which Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sundown, we watched American troops dragging their Afghan colleagues on an operation and noisily drinking water in front of them in midday summer heat.

These types of cultural misunderstandings and oversights rarely lead to “green-on-blue” (Afghan-against-American) violence. More often, they erode trust and respect — and with them, the ability of coalition units to influence their Afghan partners.

Yet the raw talent to succeed in the advisory mission is there within the ranks: Nearly everywhere we visited, we encountered advisers doing phenomenal work with their Afghan colleagues, fighting the challenges I’ve described and building trust in the process. In this environment, language, cultural fluency and long-term relationships are priceless. But advisers rarely receive serious language training and usually quickly rotate through Afghan units, making it difficult to form close relationships. And while last year’s surge in resources and troops has allowed the coalition to reverse the Taliban’s momentum in southern Afghanistan, it has occasionally bred arrogance: Why work through Afghans when you can do the job yourself?

Thus, the true challenge of the advisory mission is not finding brave and talented Americans, but overcoming institutional and bureaucratic hurdles — the tendency to assign jobs without regard to skill or aptitude, to think in terms of resources instead of relationships, to neglect training that doesn’t come on the rifle range. This is a challenge that can be overcome if leaders are willing to break with conventional practices and embrace the idea of smaller embedded teams of well-trained advisers. Even if they are vastly outnumbered, Americans will be safer and more effective if they are forced to rely on the Afghans.

The loss of U.S. soldiers on secure bases, at the hands of Afghans we thought to be allies, is much harder to accept than the loss of soldiers on patrol. Yet this is a fundamental part of the conflict in Afghanistan. Even if coalition forces refuse to let the threat of Taliban infiltration alienate them from their Afghan partners, even if they continue to demonstrate respect for Islam and bridge cultural divides, we will lose good people in similar incidents. The Taliban is ruthless and committed. But the Afghans don’t hate us, despite the fact that sometimes we try really hard to make them hate us.

I never told my singing Afghan friends, but later that night in Helmand, I was startled from my sleep, nervous about their joke. When I opened my eyes, I saw a shadow in the doorway. Struck with fear, I reached for my pistol, only to realize that the shadow was Jawad, the one who had joked about selling me to the Taliban. He was guarding me as I slept.

flujan@cnas.org

Fernando M. Luján, a major in the U.S. Army Special Forces, is a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security.