Federal Politics

Coalition of the unwilling to understand

With apologies to film director Ken Kwapis, they're just not that into us. We're talking about Afghans - and not just the few who confound our Western sensibilities by taking a gun and shooting foreign troops, including three Australians last week.

Viewed against coalition military casualties over more than a decade of what began as the war on terror, so-called green-on-blue killings are few in number. But, beyond the understandable grief and anger in Australia and other coalition countries, there's a need to appreciate the greater breadth of cause and affect behind the killings - of which there have been more than 40 this year.

Think - reaching that snap-point, at which the hand goes out to pick up a weapon and the fingers then consciously engage the trigger, is at the extremity of a body of feelings that motivates the shooter. Seeping more widely and deeply across much of the Afghan national psyche is a pent-up anger that can be quite poisonous before it becomes murderous.

As coalition officers explain it, the Taliban instigates maybe 10 per cent of the killings, and manipulation by intelligence agents from neighbouring countries accounts for another 15 per cent. That leaves a hefty 75 per cent on our own doorstep. With this realisation, it becomes clear that instead of a counterinsurgency challenge, we [as in the coalition] have a cultural conflict to address - hence the Afghans just not being into us.

Raise the culture question and, in some quarters, you'll hear complaints about how ungrateful the Afghan people are after all we have done for them. However, the truth is we didn't do anywhere near enough. Worse, we make only the sorriest efforts to understand them.

That 75-per-cent figure is the result of NATO investigations of individual death. Most are attributable to personal disputes, rooted in the coalition's failure to better educate its forces on the complexities of Afghan life and culture. Feda Wakil, head of recruiting for the Afghan National Police, told The Washington Post: ''[NATO troops] are not arriving with enough knowledge … they are learning from Afghans overseas who do not fully understand our culture.''


Every day is filled with slights for the Afghans - imagined and real. This is where stories of foreign forces raiding Afghan homes, burning Korans, desecrating the corpses of Taliban fighters, shooting rampages by individual American fighters and errant bombings by NATO aircraft feed the fires of local anger.

They are fed further by the treatment of the Afghan forces. Some are locked in their dormitories at night and their weapons are taken away. Concrete barriers separate their barracks from those of coalition forces. The two groups tend not to eat together and increasingly, there is less socialising and more distrust.

Attempting to explain the Afghan psychology, Afghan officers talk of the ease with which perfectly normal behaviour by foreigners is read as an offence against the ''sanctity'' of their life and culture.

In remote Kunar province, Commander Sayed Rahman told The New York Times that soldiers from rural areas became spiteful and resentful at the attitude of their foreign mentors. ''They know nothing except their religion and their traditional codes,'' he said of his rural countrymen.

Some Afghan officers are incredibly open in explaining how they and their men feel. ''I too have been personally hurt by the way American forces behave towards my soldiers, our villagers, our religion and culture,'' Major Hasanzada told Newsweek. ''Too many of them are racist, arrogant and simply don't respect us.''

The major candidly recounted how one of his men had confessed that he wanted ''to empty my bullets in the [Americans'] chests''.

As the Afghan commander explained to Newsweek, even the simplest comment by a foreigner could lead to explosive misunderstandings. One of his men was so distraught when an American revealed he did not believe in God, that ''he quit the army within days, and gave his salary to poor local people''.

The foreigners' easy use of profanity is a constant problem - especially the F-word, the literal meaning of which is readily understood by some Afghans. An American soldier passing Afghan women carrying great quantities of firewood on their heads exclaimed, ''those f---ing Afghan women really work hard''. But the translation of this, which found its way into the local rumour mill, was that the American was shamelessly lusting after local women, the major explained.

Coalition forces are on order now to keep their weapons cocked at all times. And whenever they are among their ''trusted'' Afghan colleagues, one or more of the Americans is posted as an anonymous ''guardian angel'', whose sole duty is to be ready to take down the would-be Afghan murderer in their midst.

Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at Columbia University who has just signed on as an adviser to the Obama administration, blogs about the breach of trust in a vicious cycle: ''[Coalition forces] cannot help but become more suspicious of their Afghan counterparts … yet a training and advisory mission is one necessarily built on trust.

''The Afghans must surely sense the Americans and other Westerners do not fully trust them, and it would only be natural for them to respond to that mistrust in kind.''

Afghan authorities go through the motions of sharing Western grief and outrage. They say they are putting undercover agents into all Afghan military units to watch for would-be killers, which means every individual Afghan can reasonably believe every American and every other Afghan around him suspects him.

Afghans will be far less enamoured of this assignment than their American counterparts, because in a country in which life has been made so cheap, with a historic culture of violence now being smothered by a foreign culture of military violence, the locals will see it all as unnecessary coddling of the foreign forces and a great waste of resources.

And if Afghan forces take it badly when they hear their foreign partners do not trust them, there will be a double blow to morale when they are told their own commanders are spying on them too. The Afghanistan war did not have to end like this.