Culture guides to tackle Afghan insider attacks
10 September, 2012
KABUL: Don't take offence if NATO soldiers exit the shower naked or ask to see a picture of your wife – it is normal and no reason to open fire, intone new cultural guidelines from the Afghan Defence Ministry.
Five thousand copies of a hastily-written 28-page brochure have been distributed among 195,000 members of the Afghan army, most of them illiterate, in the latest attempt to clamp down on a phenomenon known as insider killings.
So far this year, Afghan security personnel have shot dead at least 45 NATO soldiers, the majority of them American, threatening to jeopardise Western plans to train Afghan forces to take over when they leave in 2014.
NATO attributes around 75 percent of the attacks to grudges, misunderstandings and cultural differences, so the Afghan ministry has taken matters into their own hands with avuncular advice for soldiers, even if they can't read.
More than 10 years after NATO troops came to Afghanistan, Western habits – like winking, swearing and raising the middle finger – need to be spelt out to make sure Afghan troops in the deeply religious country do not feel offended.
"Even minor cultural differences can cause friction and misunderstanding," says the "Brochure for Comprehending the Culture of the Coalition Forces" before listing taboos in Afghan culture that are seen as perfectly normal in the West.
"A coalition soldier might well walk in front of someone who is praying without realising it, or put their feet up on a table or desk so that they point at people in the room – do not take offence," the pamphlet said.
Another is blowing your nose in public. "This practice is very common among coalition member countries. If a coalition force member blows his nose in your presence do not consider it an insult."
A further cross-cultural minefield is chatting about relatives and showing off pictures of wives and daughters. "Coalition troops may ask about the women in your family. Do not take it as an insult or humiliation, they want to be friendly. You should tell them that Afghans do not discuss their families and women with others," the pamphlet said.
Contrary to Afghans, the booklet says NATO soldiers may wink, stick up the middle finger and exit the shower naked, but again advised Afghans not to take it personally. "Remember all misunderstandings are unintentional," it warned.
And advice for heated moments was simple. "If you or your ISAF colleagues become angry, stay away for a while until the situation becomes normal. In that case, tell your commander to help you, and to mediate or reconcile between you and your ISAF partners," the pamphlet reads.
The scale of insider attacks by Afghan troops against their NATO allies is unprecedented in modern warfare and threatens to derail the West's carefully laid withdrawal plans, analysts say.
Analysts and officers agree that no other modern war, including those in Vietnam and Iraq, has seen so many cases of allies turning their weapons on international troops, but wrestle with the reasons for the phenomenon. Taliban insurgents claim responsibility for many of the attacks, saying their fighters have infiltrated the Afghan army and police, but NATO says the majority of the incidents are due to cultural differences and personal animosities.
The spike in attacks has alarmed the US-led NATO force to the extent that all soldiers have been ordered to be armed and ready to fire at any time, even within their tightly protected bases. That level of distrust undermines NATO's plans to work increasingly closely with Afghan forces as they prepare to hand over responsibility for security ahead of the withdrawal of their troops by the end of 2014.