THE PAST DECADE has been a period of tremendous growth for the U.S. Army. In addition to a modest increase in manpower--a trend which will soon be reversed--the Army has become more agile, more adaptive, and more technologically sophisticated. However, perhaps the greatest advances made are doctrinal. Eleven years of experience on the counterinsurgency (COIN) battlefield and the 2006 publication of a field manual (FM) on the subject have codified hard-earned lessons regarding, among other things, the importance of culture in a COIN environment.
America's war in Afghanistan has given its army no shortage of painful and sometimes embarrassing lessons regarding culture. A recent unclassified study of green-on-blue incidents--instances in which Afghan security forces have committed acts of violence against their NATO partners--found that many of these acts may have been motivated by anger over what Afghans perceived as culturally offensive behavior. These included such things as lack of respect toward elders, disregard for the "privacy" of Afghan women, and urinating in public. Experience has also shown that a failure to understand local culture has in the past made the U.S. military less effective at COIN. Consequently, deploying military personnel today receive instruction on appropriate behavior and cultural norms in the areas to which they are deploying.
However, these efforts betray a lack of understanding of culture beyond a presumed "baccalaureate" level. FM 3-24, the Army's doctrinal publication on COIN, begins with the statement, "Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man's warfare--it is the graduate level of war." The United States has grudgingly admitted that the war in Afghanistan has become an exercise in nation building. Insofar as a key element of U.S. strategy has become the development of a competent Afghan National Army (ANA), it appears that it has also become an exercise in culture building.
Several years ago, the author had the privilege of attending a talk by Roshan Safi, the Command Sergeant Major of the Afghan National Army. He had come to the U.S. Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, to observe training that U.S. units underwent before they deployed to his country. At a gathering of senior noncommissioned officers (NCOs), he laid out the progress made by the Afghan National Army and discussed the partnership between NATO forces and the Afghan security forces. He said, "We can learn from you, but we will never be you." Safi understood the importance of what he said, but almost certainly it was lost on those of us in his audience.
For those who have trained, partnered with, and mentored the Afghan National Army, the experience has been both rewarding and frustrating. Progress has occurred in some areas, but in other areas, basic problems we seemingly ought to have solved years ago persist. The same study that addressed green-on-blue incidents also gathered data about the perception of the ANA among U.S. personnel. The results were not surprising: American soldiers consistently view their Afghan counterparts as untrustworthy, unmotivated, and inept.
Despite these perceptions, we have placed an ever-greater focus on developing a large, professional Afghan National Army. The United States has pumped billions of dollars into training and equipping the ANA, employed various embedded training and partnership schemes, and steadily increased the number of advisors assigned to ANA units. While expectations have tempered somewhat (with the catchphrase "Afghan good enough" currently in vogue), conventional wisdom seems to hold that, with patience and training, the ANA will reach a level of competence and strength that enables it to be a truly professional force. To that end, partner units have sought to strengthen the NCO corps through education and professional development programs, to raise morale with quality-of-life programs, and to transform the ANA into an organization capable of planning and conducting complex security operations independently. …