In Afghanistan trust no one and question everything
In yet another attack by a ‘rogue’ Afghan soldier, four French troops were shot dead last week.
Proponents of the current post-modern war fighting doctrine continue to believe we can make people love us. Counterinsurgency has been a convenient doctrine swallowed by Western leaders as a politically correct way to fight a war. But it is built on the well-meaning principle of “hearts and minds” when it is nothing more than an unhealthy blend of social engineering and pork-barrel politics.
The fact is in Afghanistan they love you until the money stops and even then, as the latest incidents show, nothing will bridge the cultural divide.
A recent report, A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility, by military behavioral scientist Dr Jeffery Bordin underlines a debilitating mistrust between Coalition forces and members of the Afghan National Security Forces. Bordin’s report uncovers a growing unease between ISAF-NATO forces and the ANSF who they are either training or working alongside with the goal of transitioning security to these local soldiers.
Since 2007 there have been 27 incidents involving the killing of 58 Western personnel representing 6 per cent of all deaths over that period. This report was completed before the three rogue actions on Australian soldiers and the deaths of the four French troops.
One of the growing revelations in the report is that these latest killings are not hard-core Taliban who have infiltrated the system. In fact blaming the Taliban on the all the violence in Afghanistan has always been a mistake on behalf of observers of the Afghanistan war. Violence in Afghanistan is inflicted by several groups. There is the Pakistan-based Taliban. They are a mixture of foreign radicalised extremists being provided sanctuary in the border area of Pakistan. Just like the Al Qaeda aligned Haqqani Network, they have absolutely no interest in the future of Afghanistan and are irreconcilable.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., astutely pointed out in his 1977 biography of Robert Kennedy the notion that reforms can be carried out in a wartime situation by a beleaguered regime is “the fatal fallacy in the liberal theory of counterinsurgency, with the United States so often obliged to work through repressive local leadership, the reform component dwindled into ineffectual exhortation.”
Then there are the local Taliban. They are immersed within the local tribal ecosystem and couldn’t care less about taking over Afghanistan or what happens in Kabul. Many of the local Taliban are not Talibs at all. They are disgruntled, poor, disenfranchised and government-abused and beaten local men.
A good deal of the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that have killed Coalition troops were not placed by the Taliban but by local men paid to carry out the foreign Taliban’s dirty work. The other two groups are not Taliban at all but whose acts of thuggery and brutality are falsely claimed to be Taliban. Here we are talking about the warlords, drug barons and criminals.
Criminals in Afghanistan have grown fat off foreign aid through their quasi-construction and logistic companies. As with any gang, if their miss their share of the aid money, people get killed. The current fad of counterinsurgents who believe in “hearts and minds” cannot afford to alienate a large segment of the population, and are very hesitant to target criminal organisations that are supported by a significant segment of the indigenous society, even if the criminal enterprise causes substantial harm.
In Afghanistan, as with other places where we have taken it upon ourselves to nation build, we primarily see the population as a homogenous group with generalised problems. As if this is the case in our own backyards of modern day marginal-seat based political campaigns. The dominant hegemony in the West is multicultural pluralism, which is not about celebrating diversity but “sameness” because equality of outcome is far more politically acceptable to modern day social engineers than equality of opportunity.
As Paul Collier explains, evidence from recent surveys found that with modernisation proceeding in places like Africa, identification with ethnicity increases. Winning over the population in a diverse tribal and ethnic religious-based land such as Afghanistan would require a plethora of mini-COIN campaigns, each one requiring a generation of boots on the ground and foreign money.
In Afghanistan we further inflamed the diverse social and mostly isolated population bases through a series of manufactured, inorganic, blunt, one-size-fits-all instruments that were and often continue to be an anathema to the local cultural and social architecture, particularly outside Kabul.
Afghans are far better at sorting out their own problems than we will ever be at imposing our values and systems upon them. In an incident in 2010 three of local staff of humanitarian organisation were held up at gun point, the car shot up, the driver shot in the arm and USD $30,000 stolen, it wasn’t the Afghan National Police who sorted it out - they were too frightened. The issue was resolved after we sat with the village elders and asked them how they traditionally solve such a crime.
I told the elders if the money was not returned within 72 hours I would be telling 350 fighting aged men that one of the village elders had been responsible for organising the hold-up which meant they would not be paid their wages. This was an unequivocal message in a language they understand. Within 48 hours every dollar was returned.
It is hardly surprising that one of the biggest risks to Coalition soldiers will come from the ANA or ANP, and this will only grow as trust breaks down and frustration grows. You can never really know who you are dealing with in a place like Afghanistan. The same people who assist you in the day can quite easily shoot you at night.
Following a Shura in Gilan District, Ghazni not far from Forward Operating Base Warrior in 2010 our vehicle was the target of an IED attack. This is despite plenty of assurances that our return journey would be safe and shaking hands on a deal to put over 400 fighting aged men to work.
In many ways the human engagement in Afghanistan is much like that experienced by TE Lawrence in the Middle East during the First World War. It would be prudent to remind ourselves of his advice. Never let your guard down even with the ones closest to you. No matter how close he became with Faisal’s men he never relaxed his peripheral vision. Lawrence said to never say an unnecessary thing: watch yourself and your colleagues all the time: hear all that passes, search out what is going on beneath the surface, read their characters, discover their tastes and their weaknesses and keep everything you find out to yourself.
In Afghanistan we needed two interpreters. One to translate the literal meaning of our discussion and the other to watch and sense what is “really” being said – this person was more important than the first.
Finally, regardless of how hard we try to shape the environment in a place like Afghanistan we will never mold the people to our way or thinking. Like water being poured onto sand the effect may only last as long as we are prepared to keep pouring.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…