x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

US-Afghan rupture was built into the DNA of both sides

Americans expected some Afghans to be their ¿friends¿ against other Afghan enemies. The nation's reaction to recent events show how flawed this view is.

Everything is unravelling in Afghanistan. Whatever tattered political structure was holding things together seems to have reached a stage of being completely torn apart. Even the Afghan president Hamid Karzai has turned against his US sponsors.

We should have seen this coming. It would be simple and convenient to lay everything at the door of the American occupation forces, but we should also consider the inevitability of this outcome given the clash of two totally different cultures and societies. The corrupt Afghan government was never going to bridge the gap between the Afghan people and the US forces.

This breakdown has been building with each successive scandal, starting with the "kill team" war crimes, which saw Staff Sgt Calvin Gibbs convicted in November of ordering his squad mates to murder civilians and mutilate their bodies. The most recent massacre of 16 civilians, including children, blamed on Staff Sgt Robert Bales has caused a great deal of agonising in the US media, but it was far from an isolated incident.

This is not a one-way street either. Increasing numbers of Nato-trained Afghan soldiers have turned their weapons on their supposed benefactors. Attacks on French, British, Spanish and US soldiers have dispelled any illusion of camaraderie in the ranks.

Often the events are linked, which has made Nato forces wary after the Sgt Bales incident.

These incidents have worsened in the past year or so, but the fundamental rift lies much deeper. For many Americans, Afghan soldiers and civilians are seen as backward, illiterate, uncouth and, importantly in some cases, Muslim. Rank-and-file soldiers refer to Afghans as "towel heads", or even worse. A climate of mutual respect in those circumstances is impossible.

According to a syndicated column by Eric Margolis, Why Afghans are turning on their US allies: "Many US GIs hail from the deep south. They are inundated by virulently anti-Muslim fundamentalist Christian propaganda that calls Islam the 'religion of the Devil'."

These emotions are palpable, they cannot be suppressed and they are always visible to the target.

On the other hand, Afghans as a people are inordinately proud, sensitive and unforgiving. A British proverb, also cited by Margolis, puts it rather crudely: "You can only rent Afghans for so long. One day they will turn and cut your throat."

Afghans in the national force being trained by the Americans are mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks. But here the Americans have failed to understand a crucial point: even after the break-up of the USSR and the emergence of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Afghans of the corresponding ethnicities never proposed joining the new states. Despite Soviet efforts to promote divisions, across the ethnic divides (and despite the inter-ethnic rivalries and even hatreds), they are all proud of their Afghan identity.

The Americans expected some Afghans to be their "friends" against other Afghan enemies. The recent burning of Qurans at Bagram Airbase, deliberate or not, showed how flawed this view is. It was Afghans who were enraged, not some particular subset of them.

The US does not understand that it faces Afghans who, regardless of their own divisions, are now united against the occupation. In working with the Afghan National Army, they are facing the enemy within.

To be fair, US troops on the ground find themselves in a nightmare situation where they cannot trust anybody and, in most likelihood, don't even know why.

The murders involving Sgt Bales, and the string of attacks on Afghan civilians that preceded this incident, have to be seen in this light. This is the response of a military that is far superior, but is at the same time helpless. In the US rank and file there will be powerful frustration with their superiors and with their "allies" in the Afghan forces.

On March 14, there was a bizarre, telling sequence of events during the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's visit to Helmand Province. In a very unusual move, US marines were told to leave the tent, disarm and return to listen to Mr Panetta's address.

In the aftermath of the Bales massacre, is it possible that US commanders were not sure about the safety of the Defense Secretary in the presence of so many armed marines? Or, as is perhaps more probable, was it a display of sensitivity to the Afghan soldiers who are used to being disarmed routinely? If the latter is true, it would be far too little, far too late.

Either way, it will be another black mark left by this war in the annals of US military history.

 

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer