August 25, 2009
Posting date: 8/25/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan
Soldiers in combat expect other soldiers to share in the risks inherent in the job. While we might not expect the air wingers at Bagram to experience the same things that those of us in infantry units experience, we do however expect other infantry units to be taking on a somewhat similar risk load, even if those units are from a different country. The risk of death in this conflict is much lower than in conflicts from the past, but all the same everyone expects everyone else to be doing their part.
And the knowledge of this expectation is what makes it hard for me when I can’t get my ANA to do more than four or five patrols in a week. When I see the US Army here going out every day, and often more than once a day, while my Afghans play volleyball, it makes it a little hard to feel proud of the job I’m doing with them. At times I’m almost ashamed at the scheduling meetings when I tell the Army guys that the ANA are taking another day off for “religious classes." When questioned about this issue, I laugh it off and say the ANA are in it for the long haul.
We do what we can here to get them to work more, but overcoming the attitude of the culture in general towards work is tough, and overcoming the Afghan military cultural problems that stand in our way is even tougher. I’ve asked myself many times how it is that I can instill in the Afghans the appreciation and sense of obligation toward working hard. And I still don’t have an answer. I asked the question of a cultural anthropologist that came to stay with us for a week. He replied that it would take a generation at least. I’m not even sure a generation would be long enough, as the Afghans have a fundamentally different way of looking at the world as compared with Americans. I suppose one might call the Afghans Stoics at heart. Whereas Americans tend to have a can-do attitude and are ready and willing to make efforts to better themselves and their situations, the Afghans are more fatalistic, and nothing sums their attitude up better than the ubiquitous phrase “Ishah Allah” (If God wills it) which they utter so often. If everything is in God’s hands and you can’t control your own future, why bother? Initiative goes right out the window.
Afghan military culture doesn’t help our cause either. Many Afghan officers don’t lead by example. Most do not go out regularly on patrols. When the Afghan officers aren’t often sharing the dangers of their men, the men aren’t going to feel that risk is fairly distributed, and thus will be less likely to believe in the mission and do a serviceable job.
Additionally, Afghan officers are afraid of making any type of non-conforming decision that might get them into trouble. The Marine Corps tries to push decision-making down to the lowest level, whereas the ANA tries to remove decision-making from as many levels of leadership as possible. For example, we have a couple of ANA artillery guns here at the base, but we can’t shoot them without calling the battalion commander 20 miles away and asking his permission. If we want to change the patrol plan on the fly due to changing conditions, or simply to make it better, we often can’t because we have to have permission from the battalion to make those kinds of decisions.
Granted, I realize the ANA will often invoke the idea of permission from the battalion in order to avoid doing work, but their hesitancy to do anything different or risky for fear of making a mistake is real. Doing the standard but ineffective job is a far better course of action for an Afghan officer than the unconventional but potentially effective course of action. If something goes wrong and you were following convention, then blame lies elsewhere. If you make a decision to do something outside of what was planned or normal and then things go wrong, you are the one to blame and the punishment here can be severe and based upon the whim of one man.
In this, Afghan military culture merely reflects the conforming, authoritarian culture of Afghanistan as a whole. The Iraqis were identical in this regard. Of course, all militaries can be seen as conforming and authoritarian culturally, but as Americans we recognize that for leaders to develop, they need to be given responsibility, and if their actions and decisions fall within an acceptable range of what we’ve been taught and trained, we’re not going to second-guess those decision-makers, at least not to the point of punishment. We respect that bit of individuality. The Afghans generally do not.
The bright spot is that the younger officers I’ve worked with are much better than the older guys. Afghan Army officers basically come in three varieties: the older officers who were Russian-trained or influenced; the former mujahideen fighters/commanders; and the new, younger, American-trained generation. The former mujahideen fighters make pretty good officers and are revered by their men, but don’t have the education or formal schooling and don’t listen to advice. The older officers, in the words of my best interpreter, a former ANA 1stSgt, “don’t ever want to leave the base” and have an excuse why they can’t do anything about their problems or act on our suggestions. The new generation of officers is much more willing to do operations, listen to our advice, and make some changes on the fly if need be, although they’re still somewhat afraid to make mistakes. Unfortunately, for now the power lies with that older group of officers. Hopefully, once the younger, American-trained generation comes of age, things will start changing rapidly for the better.