Leadership: Selling The Value Of Culture Clash


June 2, 2015: After decades of pushing for a better cultural understanding of current or potential enemies (not to mention allies) the U.S. Army Special Forces are winning more believers among the senior military and political leadership of the United States and its allies. The Special Forces has long pushed the idea of getting to know the enemy really well even if that often involved living among the people the enemy depends on for support. This has always been a powerful asset for U.S. troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and before that Vietnam. U.S. Army Special Forces operators speak the languages and know how to live in the cultures of the Middle East, Afghanistan and other parts of the world and have been doing this for decades. But there has always been a reluctance among senior political and military leaders to accept the Special Forces insights when it clashed with the popular, and often incorrect beliefs about how those cultures actually worked. The Special Forces pushed especially hard for diplomats and foreign aid officials to pay more attention to the pervasive and destructive corruption that makes Arab and South Asian countries so unstable and productive recruiting grounds for Islamic terrorists.

For example one thing the Special Forces noted was that despite the hard core Islam espoused by the Taliban (courtesy of fanatic Wahhabi preachers, and money, from Saudi Arabia), most Afghans were more accommodating to Christians, Hindus and Buddhists than Arabs. Afghans are, for a variety of reasons, still pretty anti-Semitic, but not to the degree Arabs are. Special Forces also pointed out that Afghans don't get on well with Arabs. Even though the Taliban got their Islamic radicalism from Arab clergy (along with AK-47s and economic aid sent from Saudi Arabia), they see Arabs as effete braggarts with bad attitudes. This is largely the result of a cultural problem unique to Islam.

Islam was founded by an Arab (the prophet Mohammed), and spread vigorously by Arab armies for several generations. The Moslem holy book, the Koran, is written in Arabic. While eventually translated into many other languages, Arabs, and many conservative Moslems who are not Arab, believe the Koran should only be reproduced and studied in Arabic. While a tenet of Islam is that all Moslems are equal before Allah (God), Arabs believe they are a little more equal.

Thus when thousands of Arabs went to Pakistan in the 1980s, to help the Afghans fight the Russians, there soon developed a culture clash that has not gone away. The Arab mujahedeen (holy warriors) saw themselves as superior to the "primitive" Afghans (who were ethnically Indo-European, not Semitic like most Arabs). The Afghans picked up on this and were somewhat miffed about it  as they saw the visiting Arabs as a bunch of pompous warrior wannabes who wouldn't last long out in the hills. The bad blood between the Arabs and Afghans remains and U.S. Special Forces exploit that by being more respectful of Afghan culture, and downplaying any comparisons between life in Afghanistan and the United States (despite more Afghans wanting to move to the West than to the Middle East.) Afghans can't help but notice that they look more like most Americans than Arabs. Special Forces had a hard time convincing senior decision makers that this culture clash was real and ought to be exploited more aggressively.

Because Afghanistan became one of the last Cold War era battle zones it came to be a major focus of Special Forces efforts. Until the 1980s Afghanistan was a minor part of the territory covered by the 5th Special Forces group (which specialized in everything from the Middle East to Afghanistan). Most of the 5th's attention was focused on Arab countries in the Middle East. But that all changed when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and Special Forces troops ended up across the border in Pakistan, helping run the program to equip and assist the Afghans who parked their families in Pakistani refugee camps, and went back to fight the Russians. Lots of 5th Group operators learned Afghan languages (Pashto and Dari), along with the culture. After the Russians left in 1989, the Special Forces dialed down interest in Afghanistan. But that all changed on September 11, 2001. Since then, the 5th has been worked hard coping with assignments in Iraq and the Middle East, as well as Afghanistan. Special Forces troops in general have been spending more time learning about Afghanistan, and that knowledge often came from sustained contact with Afghans at the village level. This knowledge is passed back to help with training other Special Forces operators, and U.S. troops in general.

The U.S. Special Forces has gone even farther in this cooperation and assisted the Afghans in creating Special Forces units similar to the American ones, where each unit specializes in working with specific ethnic groups, or tribal coalition. The goal was a force of four Afghan Special Forces battalions, each with 18 A-Teams. Given the success of American Special Forces, that are trained to understand Afghan culture and speak the language, it was believed that Afghans doing the same thing, would perform even better, and more than double the number of Special Forces troops, specialized in dealing with Afghanistan, available. Moreover, this means that Afghanistan will still have a Special Forces capability once U.S. forces departed. Afghanistan is the kind of country (four major ethnic groups, hundreds of tribes and clans) that needs Special Forces long term. The Afghans took to this approach and their small Special Forces organization is one of the most reliable and effective military outfits in the country.

There were some unique problems in training the Afghan Special Forces candidates. Unlike the United States, there is a much wider social gulf between officers and NCOs in Afghanistan. But for Special Forces to work, there has to be very close cooperation between officers and NCOs. The Special Forces training solved this by convincing the Afghan officers that this kind of closeness was a special technique unique to Special Forces operations and essential for A-Teams to succeed. But initially ten officer candidates dropped out because this kind of relationship with NCOs was too much for them to handle.

There were ethnic problems as well. Most of the Afghan Special Forces will be needed in the south, where the Taliban come from and where Pushtuns (40 percent of the population and historically the dominant group) are the majority. Many of the minorities in Afghanistan (Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen) have long been united in their opposition to Pushtun domination. The Tajik are 25 percent of the population and the Hazara (Mongols, a reminder of the medieval Mongolian invasions) 19 percent. The remainder are mostly various Turkic groups (Uzbeks and Turkmen). All of these groups are wary of the Pushtuns, but will work with them if they do not feel threatened. Because of the war with the Taliban, fewer Pushtuns join the army, and many more Hazara (who have long been persecuted by the other groups) do. Thus there were twice as many Hazara as Pushtuns in the first Afghan A-Teams. But the Hazara are much better educated than the Pushtuns, and make better soldiers. The Hazara turned out to make superior Special Forces operators (as Special Forces troops are called) as well, and able to work well with Pushtuns. So far they do, but not as well as Pushtun operators.

The Afghan Special Forces provides a pool of cultural and military experts that U.S. soldiers can consult with, especially when developing training material (on Afghan culture and customs) for U.S. troops. One problem the Afghan Special Forces did not have was difficulty in persuading senior leadership of how important cultural differences were. Such cultural differences have long defined Afghanistan and no politicians operating at the national level can ignore nor the the fact that these cultural problems also occur throughout the region.



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