Our politically correct war in Afghanistan
From working with U.S forces in Afghanistan, many Commanders observed how Afghanistan had become a politically correct war.
Ralph Peters hit the nail on the head in his 2006 New York Post article when he observed that it is hard enough to bear the timidity of our civilian leaders - anxious to start wars but without the guts to finish them - but now military leaders have fallen prey to political correctness.
Unwilling to accept that war is, by its nature, a savage act and that defeat is immoral, influential officers are arguing for a kinder, gentler approach to our enemies.
The Polish Commanders, who controlled the battlespace in Ghazni where I worked, could go to jail if any of their soldiers were killed or if civilians were accidently killed. No wonder the Ghazni was one of the most hostile Provinces in Afghanistan where the strongest Tribe commands respect.
This sounds like the precedent being set by a similar case being pursued against three Australian soldiers. In the face of this highly scrutinized conflict in a complex battlespace we must acknowledge Australian soldiers have served their political masters well beyond the expectations placed on previous generations.
As everyone from Alexander the Great to the British and the Russians discovered, Afghanistan is an extraordinarily complex, lethal and diverse environment. Yet, in this modern era of war where soldiers are expected to be humanitarians as much as warriors, Australian soldiers, more than almost any other, have the right sense of cultural situational awareness required to succeed in Afghanistan.
Cultural situation awareness is as important for keeping you alive in Afghanistan as force protection for a number of reasons.
First, everyone sees an area of operations differently, depending on their experience or how close or far they are from the “real action”.
Second it is extremely hard to know what is happening – trying too hard to find out can get you killed…and so can not knowing. Third, knowledge of an area of operation is very time-specific and location-specific.
Finally, observations from one time/place may or may not be applicable elsewhere, even in the same campaign in the same year.
Former Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General Charles Krulak discussed modern day war in his book The Three Block War. In his paradigm, he described situations in which military forces will have to conduct different operations within close proximity to each other. Specifically, he described a situation where, on one block, Marines may be fighting a high intensity battle against regular forces, the next block they might be fighting against irregular forces, and the next block they are conducting humanitarian assistance.
Australian troops in Afghanistan are in a classic three block war and under the paradoxical demands of being a war-fighter and peacekeeper, they are making a distinct contribution to the unconventional engagement in Afghanistan.
Soldier to soldier they match the United States on skills and ability. On the human terrain they are equally as effective at dealing with the capricious nature of local Afghan politics. In a land where respect is only granted to the strongest tribe Australia soldiers are delivering the right balance of hard and soft power.
This is not about a kindler gentler soldier - it is about understanding the environment in order gain the appropriate influence using the appropriate tools to gain support of the people. In the end it is the right amount of firepower and breaking bread that will gain the support of the people to undermine the insurgency.
Australian soldiers understand that most local Taliban could easily be picking up an AK-47 one day and a shovel to clean a karez the next. Yet, and this is the key, our troops recognise that both actions are in direct support and protection of their local interests. Neither action is intended to be part of a global jihad or to install a new government in Kabul.
Afghan’s respond to what some may call traditional characteristics of bravery, courage, honour and are very polite, even though tomorrow they may kill you. Australian soldiers understand these basic instincts and the Australian battle space Commanders are well respected by the U.S. military because of their ability to quickly obtain cultural competence.
To understand this state of mind in Afghanistan I had two interpreters. One to translate the literal meaning of discussions with tribal elders and the other watch and sense what is “really” being said – this person is more important than the first.
Essentially, what I am saying is that in the context of battlefield engagement, understanding culture is much more than cultural awareness or sensitivity briefings or documents for leaders and planners to keep on file. It requires military leaders and planners to continue to evaluate the campaign for cultural reactions and their consequences on the success of the mission. Australian soldiers should be recognised for their prowess in this modern discipline of soldiering as much as they are for classic war-fighting.
Jason Thomas worked in South East Afghanistan with U.S forces implementing counterinsurgency activities and worked extensively in the civil war area of Sri Lanka. He is a PhD candidate at Curtin University focuses on Mapping Islamic Radicalisation in Australia.
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