Cultural Insensitivity Contributes to ‘Insider’ Afghan Attacks, Says U.S. Military Officer
A recent spike in deadly attacks by Afghan soldiers and police trainees against their NATO allies could be attributed to pent-up frustrations from years of U.S. military occupation, said a U.S. Army Special Forces officer who has served multiple tours in Afghanistan.
In the wake of a string of so-called “green-on-blue” attacks against NATO forces, there is growing concern that the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan — to train and equip local military and police forces to take over security duties by 2014 — could be at risk. U.S. special operations commanders last week temporarily ceased training until all 16,000 Afghan police recruits are vetted. At least 45 NATO troops have been killed by Afghan trainees.
Army Special Forces Maj. Fernando Lujan, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said these rogue incidents could have been predicted based on lessons from years of working with Afghans. “Everyone is talking about green-on-blue attacks. That is something that we have had a lot of direct experience with in the field,” Lujan said Sept. 4 during a panel discussion hosted by the Center for National Policy, in Washington, D.C.
“Friction [has been] generated as a result of a large force presence,” said Lujan. The contrast between NATO and Afghan force size and wealth, too, can be overwhelming for some recruits, he said.
“When you have a force ratio of 100 Americans sitting on a base to 20 Afghans living in straw huts,” a sense of humiliation could drive an Afghan to commit a violent act, Lujan said. “We forget they’ve been living there for six or seven years with limited opportunities to see their families. And we’re there with all the advantages that we have,” he said. “It gets very easy to forget about what they think, consider their opinion and bring them onboard for planning,” Lujan said.
NATO commanders, who are under extraordinary pressure to deliver results and turn over security responsibilities to the locals, might not be aware of the built-up anger, Lujan suggested. The typical attitude of NATO trainers is, “give me six Afghans to go on patrol,” Lujan said.
The use of a Western model for basic training also can be source of deep unhappiness for Afghans and could ultimately drive them to turn on their trainers, he said. U.S.-style basic training — a mix of direct orders, physical punishment, yelling and screaming — doesn’t fit well in a “shame and honor based society,” Lujan said. “We live in the coziness of a rule of law society,” he said. For Afghans, “perceptions of insults to their honor can be very serious,” he said. “Those factors add up. They add to the friction.”
One of the lessons from this experience is that sometimes a smaller force can be more effective, said Lujan. “There is an argument for operating with a smaller footprint,” he said. “We saw that in Colombia,” where the United States deployed a force of just 400 to help train local counterdrug units. At its peak, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan exceeded 100,000.
Having fewer resources creates a more collaborative environment, Lujan said. It “drives cooperation. … You have to work with partners. It drives creativity without pulling your weight around.”
During previous tours in Afghanistan, Lujan’s teams patrolled with Afghans in small groups. “They took care of us,” he said. “They really value the notion of sanctuary and hospitality. If you’re there as a guest to work with them, that is a completely different dynamic than when they see a slave and master [relationship], or an occupation,” he said. “If you start to appear as an occupier, throw your weight around and bully them, they’ll react completely differently. That is the unseen danger.”
The Pentagon, meanwhile, is seeking to downplay the impact of insider attacks on NATO's mission in Afghanistan. Defense Department spokesman George Little said Sept. 4 that NATO training of the Afghan army and Afghan national police forces "continue unabated."
The goal remains to train and field 352,000 Afghan forces by October, Little said. "We remain on track to reach that milestone. ISAF, working with the Afghan government, is exploring counterintelligence initiatives to thwart insider threats and is working to develop joint protection plans. ... Fundamentally, our partnership with the Afghan military remains very strong, and our service members continue to train and work alongside Afghan partners every single day."
Photo Credit: Army