Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ways to treat civilians in Afghanistan

This from a CNN documentary. You could see some American soldiers coming to a remote village of Afghanistan armed to the teeth. They came with a translator and asked if there was any terrorist around. My heart bleeds for these soldiers, because I think that the way they have been told to act is not right and that it puts them in more peril than it should.
What would you think if you were an old Afghan peasant who never saw a foreigner before? Now suppose you yourself go to work and there is a Martian there with big weapons asking you if there are terrorists around? What would you say?
A lot of Afghans have no idea what a terrorist is to start with. It is not the right question, because Afghan have a whole series of subdivisions in their mind, and Talibans is too big a word: some they like, some they dont. Explain that you are there for peace, ask them if there are problems with robbers or armed people that you can help with, but asking for terrorists or even Talibans directly are not good words and it is no way to start a conversation. It is like saying we came to kill more neighbors of yours, not a great idea.

You know this, but people forget: there is a cultural difference between people who live from agriculture and city people. You can see that in the United States: the values, the rhythm of life, the politics are different. In general, agricultural societies are more set in their ways and live more by rules, because they see less diversity.

I did work next door to an Afghan young man many years: we were in France; he could not go back to his country thanks to the Russians. He was a very peaceful and nice gentleman with no sense of time. He was also very sensitive to what is polite and what is not: it is basic in all agricultural societies. There are ways to talk to people. Many years ago, I worked in Ireland and I observed the same thing: the sense of time was not the same as mine, and the rules of politeness could not be overlooked. In Ireland, for instance, it is impolite to ask a direct question before you have a conversation, it is why Gallup answers were so unreliable at the time: many people considered that the method was offensive; I do not know if that has changed. My guess is that it has not changed much in the western part of the island.

The mistake here is to come as a bare army: why on earth, at least on the documentary I saw on CNN did not they come to a remote small village with some elders from the next village, it they were willing? They would, as a courtesy, because they are very polite and neighborly people, and they want to protect visitors. They would of course if they did not think of us as the new invader. To say the least, soldiers need to come with more people in civilian clothing: people that old civilans can relate to. It takes more time, but it is the way it should be done: make friends here, go to the next place. Why on earth are our soldiers not told to have a conversation before they ask about terrorists? If there was one in the surroundings, the elders would not tell us anyway, because the perception of us is not good, so it is just as well to spend five minutes talking about the weather and the fact that we are on a peaceful mission, and ask if they have enough food. It is basic politeness, folks. Being blunt and efficient is not the way Afghans work.

I am not saying that all Afghans are "nice", I know that there is a lot of armed people and small tribes of thugs, drug dealers and terrorists, but how are we going to find them in that difficult terrain if we behave like the Russians? There is a U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual that every soldier should read: it is full of good advice, and it is not that complicated; in one sentence: Talk to people as if they were your grandparents, but do not believe that they will behave as your grandparents would.

We need the population to help us, and it will not, if we do not respect its customs and if they do not understand what we want. Let me recommend the book of LCOL John A. Nagl Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. It is a fantastic read for anybody interested in our success in Afghanistan. If one of your loved ones is in Afghanistan, send this book over: it could save lives.

1 comment:

amanda said...

It would be as simple as this: put yourself in their shoes. This approach helps in so many situations. You would expect the US military to be on top of it as many resources as it consumes and the access it has to- well, everything- so the assumption is probably that the way they say do things is the best way and it's not like the soldiers have any place to question. (When you enlist you become property and you follow orders, I don't think a lot of people have a grasp on this concept. I'm not knocking it, my family is military, it helps- alot- if that's the sort of thing for you and it should never be anything other than a voluntary commitment.)

More thought should be going into these decisions at a higher level. We're not doing nearly as well as we could in any of our current armed conflicts.