Counter-Terrorism: Culture Can Be A Killer


February 23, 2011: Knowing the enemy, and those they live among, has been an increasingly powerful asset for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. No one knows this more than U.S. Army Special Forces operators, who have been speaking the languages, and living the culture of the Middle East and Afghanistan for decades. One of the more important things they have learned is that, despite the hard core Islam espoused by the Taliban (courtesy of fanatic Wahhabi preachers, and money, from Saudi Arabia), most Afghans are more accommodating to Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. Afghans are, for a variety of reasons, still pretty anti-Semitic, but not to the degree Arabs are.

Afghans also 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 attitude problems. This is largely the result of a cultural problem unique to Islam. The religion 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 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.

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, 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.

Until the 1980s, Afghanistan was a minor part of the territory covered by the 5th Special Forces group. 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 is 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 depart. Afghanistan is the kind of country (four major ethnic groups, hundreds of tribes and clans) that needs Special Forces long term.

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 appears to have solved this, even if it was done 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 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. It's expected they will make superior Special Forces operators (as Special Forces troops are called) as well, and be able to work well with Pushtuns. So far they do, but not as well as Pushtun operators.

The original Afghan commandos are more similar to U.S. Army Rangers, although they also serve as a special response unit for emergencies. The Afghan commandos are used for operations where additional skill and reliability are required. The Afghan commandos also carry out raids, and some have been given additional training, so they can operate closely with foreign commando units.

The Afghans take well to commando training, and respect commandos in general. The Russian Spetsnaz commandos were feared and respected by Afghans during the 1980s war, and U.S. Special Forces, and various contingents of foreign commandos, have also impressed the Afghans. While a warrior culture, the Afghans never developed the systematic training that makes soldiers much more effective. Most Afghans realize that it's this training that creates the formidable foreign commando warriors. So, when given an opportunity to get this kind of training, there are plenty of enthusiastic volunteers. Now that Afghan Special Forces have proved that they can do the job, recruiting is easier. Talented young men can aspire to something besides becoming a warlord or leader of a drug gang. There is one potential problem, however; corruption. Tribal loyalty is so strong that it encourages corruption when it is at the expense of some other tribe and enriches your own. While few American Special Forces operators have been involved in corruption, the number of Afghans may, based on the local culture, be higher. There is also the experience in other poor countries, where special operations troops are lured away, by higher pay, to criminal enterprises. So far, none of this is a problem. But based on past experience, it's only a matter of time.

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.





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