October 5, 2012

Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul, is a program coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The uptick in insider or “green-on-blue” attacks by members of Afghan security forces against their U.S.and NATO counterparts has seriously undermined NATO’s trust in its Afghan partners and is straining the U.S.-Afghan military relationship. Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, recently told CBS News’s “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 U.S. exit strategy. Predictably, the assaults have become an effective tool for the Taliban, which seeks to drive a wedge between Afghan and U.S. forces.

Fewer than a quarter of the attacks have been attributed to Taliban infiltration, which President Hamid Karzai has pinned on foreign intelligence services, largely Pakistan’s. 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 Ramadan fast in August, though this was not the first Ramadan 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 rescreened and the process for screening Afghan army and police recruits amplified. The U.S. 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 U.S. actions, saying that U.S. 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, burning Korans or appearing to express disrespect for family and local values.

Senior U.S. officials recognize 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 U.S. soldiers noted that many Afghan soldiers found U.S. 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 Defense Department should embrace a more culture-centric approach to our Afghan partners. While U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-educated civilian professionals employed by the military or defense 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 U.S. troops.

U.S. 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 minimize the odds of Afghan forces becoming willing to kill their U.S. 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.