As the Canadian Forces shifts its mission in Afghanistan from combat to training, a new report warns that yawning cultural chasms remain a huge obstacle to creating a self-sufficient Afghan military.
"A Crisis in Trust and Cultural Incompatibility," a 70-page survey led by a U.S. Army behavioural scientist, highlights problems between NATO soldiers and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The May, 2011, study shows that a decade into the war, the nominal allies are often at odds - nearly 60 Western soldiers have been killed by ANSF members in the past four years, many deliberately, for perceived provocations.
Western governments are pinning their hopes for Afghanistan on their ability to tutor standalone national-security forces. Yet soldiers on the ground find that one of their biggest challenges is to instill basic values, such as respect for human rights. The allied forces can no longer gloss over the recurring issues that lead to mutual mistrust, the authors say - NATO and ANSF need to be explicit on what behaviours they can tolerate from one another, and which ones they cannot.
The study, first reported by The Wall Street Journal last week, was conducted by U.S. researchers in eastern Afghanistan. Focus groups were comprised of more than 600 ANSF members and scores of U.S. soldiers. Pentagon officials are distancing themselves from the report, but the "red team" behind the study (essentially the military equivalent of devil's advocates) clearly voices long-standing rank-and-file perceptions.
For example, the report says that many ANSF members complain that U.S. soldiers tend to be "extremely arrogant, bullying, unwilling to listen to their advice."
"Canadian soldiers were viewed as having better attitudes and more respectful," the study adds. (The report cites an incident in which an Afghan villager brandished a Koran, claiming it prohibited infidel soldiers from searching his house. U.S. and ANSF soldiers got into a heated argument over who would search the house before Canadian soldiers cooled the situation down.)
Meantime, Western soldiers are often contemptuous of their Afghan allies. The most frequent complaints about the ANSF are "pervasive illicit drug use, massive thievery, personal instability, dishonesty, no integrity," according to the U.S. soldiers surveyed in the study.
They also griped about Afghan corruption, secret Taliban alliances, and ANSF members being engaged in "the torture of dogs." The study recounts a 2010 incident in which ANSF fired on a Canadian convoy after a "fender-bender traffic accident," but the Canadians refrained from firing back.
More systemic moral conundrums arise. On Wednesday, Ottawa released documents speaking to the alleged torture of detainees whom Canadians had handed over to Afghan jailers.
The study says that because NATO soldiers are now being slain by ANSF partners at a rate of about one a week, generals can no longer write off the killings as isolated and rare events. "Such proclamations seem disingenuous if not profoundly intellectually dishonest," reads the study.
While it acknowledges some killings resulted from military incompetence and Taliban double agents, it says many are heat-of- the-moment violence as tempers flared. "The researcher hypothesized that many, if not most, resulted from deep-seated animosity, often stimulated by social and personal conflicts, as well as perceived cultural and theological affronts."
The study says Canadian solders complained frequently about their security partners molesting local boys. "Although not reported by U.S. soldiers who participated in the study, there have been numerous accounts of Canadian troops in Kandahar complaining about the rampant sexual abuse of children they have witnessed ANSF personnel commit."
The study says such complaints of abuse included "the raping and sodomizing of little boys" and that "one reason some Afghan civilians prefer insurgents over the ANSF are the latter's propensity to seize their little boys at checkpoints and sexually assault them."
These complaints are not new. Three years ago, allegations of sex-abuse cover-ups in Afghanistan built to the point that Defence Minister Peter MacKay felt obligated to publicly deny any Canadian complicity.
One of the soldiers who went public with such allegations against the ANSF was Corporal Travis Schouten, whose formal complaint about a specific alleged child rape went officially unsubstantiated by the Canadian military. "I think it's unfortunate that we didn't really do anything about it," Cpl. Shouten said in an interview this week. "We should have said, 'Culture be damned, we're going to do something about this.' "
He added: "If we had trained those guys with the same ethics and standards as we trained our own soldiers, we would not have as many problems with the Afghan security forces as we have now."