Special Operations: Cultural Sensitivity As A Weapon


March 1, 2012:  As foreign troops reduce their numbers in Afghanistan over the next two years American Special Operations Forces (commandos and Special Forces) will increase their activity because these troops will advise Afghan soldiers and be available to carry out especially tricky missions. The U.S. Army Special Forces will be particularly effective because they know the languages and cultures in Afghanistan.

The effort to train the new Afghan soldiers and police required that thousands of troops and civilians (usually former military) be brought in. These have been of limited effectiveness because of language and cultural barriers. Normally, the U.S. Army Special Forces handles training of foreign armies and they are expert at it. Special Forces troops have the advantage of knowing the language and culture of the foreign troops they train. One lesson that was quickly learned was that while you can teach these foreign recruits through an interpreter it helps a lot if you get up to speed on the local culture. The Special Forces provided some of their people to help train the American trainers on that point, but over the past seven years a body of information and "lessons learned" has been collected and used to help train the trainers. One of the more important lesson learned was that, even if you don't speak the language, spend as much time as possible with your trainees. That means eating with them and living very close to their barracks. Be available at all hours and keep a good translator handy at all times.

The cultural awareness picked up in Iraq has not always proved useful in Afghanistan. For example, in Iraq a knowledge of the history of the Iraqi army, and respect for that, proved very useful. The Iraqis were particularly proud of how they held off the Iranians during the 1980s, and making positive references to that paid off. No mention of the two wars they had with the Americans. They already knew all about that and don't want to hear any more. The Afghans, on the other hand, have no sense of their army having been defeated by the United States since everyone looks on the defeat of the Taliban as a group effort by the Afghan people and Americans to chase out some religious fanatics. But at the same time Afghans have no particular pride in any "Afghan Army." The only military organizations Afghans admire are tribal or warlord militias that won some battles in the past (often against another Afghan tribe).

Where the Special Forces shine in Afghanistan is in the depth of their cultural understanding and their ability to keep acquiring more of it. Special Forces have been active in the area as far back as the 1980s. Since 2001, thousands of Special Forces operators have passed through Afghanistan, most of them multiple times. The Special Forces guys speak the language and pay attention to the local tribal and ethnic politics. The Special Forces are popular with most Afghans, both for their cultural sensitivity and their reputation as mighty warriors. The Taliban respect the Special Forces combat abilities and avoid fighting them gun to gun. The Special Forces are trained in intelligence collection, and after 2014, they will be a major source of timely and accurate information about what's really going on.

But the biggest problem the Special Forces have to cope with in Afghanistan is the fact that there are several wars going on simultaneously. There are the wars between various Pushtun tribes, plus the hostility between the Pushtuns (40 percent of the population) and the other tribes (Tajik, Turkic, and Hazara). Then there are the drug gangs, who fight to be left alone so they can produce some 90 percent of the world's illegal heroin and opium. Finally, there are the Taliban, a Pushtun faction that briefly controlled most of the country in the late 1990s. They want that power back and are willing to kill to get it.


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