Find a Security Clearance Job!


Center for Army Lesson Learned Logo

Understanding Afghan Culture

Newsletter 12-18
September 2012

CALL Newsletter 12-18: Understanding Afghan Culture

The Real Challenge in Afghanistan: Toward a Quantum COIN

By A. Lawrence Chickering

This article was originally published in the 23 August 2011 e-Journal issue of Small Wars Journal,

Pessimistic stories are everywhere in the media about the war in Afghanistan, now in its tenth year. The military war seems to be going well, but political pressures are increasing to withdraw, driven by stories on doubts about the sustainability of our development programs to promote "nation-building".1 The real challenge in Afghanistan often gets lost. One can get a sense of it from soldiers' accounts from the field there. Here is Phat Doan, a Vietnamese-American, writing recently in the Small Wars Journal. He enlisted to go to Afghanistan, trying to redeem the failure in Vietnam:

[My military compatriots] had frustrations with their counterparts, mostly to the apathy. Many of the Afghanistan National Army [ANA] soldiers showed an indifference [sic] attitude toward the American training efforts.2 The ANA soldiers didn't take trainings seriously and even joked around in serious situations. If the ANA soldiers die, it is Inshallah [Allah's Will]. The ANA soldiers saw the war as the Americans' responsibility. Hence, they referred the ANA soldiers as "creatures", a kind that lives off others' efforts, not as "human" counterparts.

The author tries to imagine the response of American soldiers to the Afghans' apathy, their lack of commitment, if not their active hostility. (He refers to Taliban insurgents as "the Taliban man"-individual insurgents who blend with the locals, invisible to us, but well known to the locals. )

It is hard to understand what they [the American soldiers] go through. . . . [H]ow would you explain the feeling of telling your family you just got hit, suffering traumatic brain injury, on Christmas Eve, all thanks to the Taliban man? How would you explain the feeling of watching the dust cloud of an exploding IED swallows [sic] your brothers, knowing the locals standing nearby have prior knowledge of the buried IED but fail to warn you? How would you explain the feeling of losing your love one and seeing the locals with smirks on their faces? Only your brothers in arm could share those feelings and bear with you through it. [Italics added. ]

Most of the concern expressed about psychological traumas suffered by returning soldiers is grounded in condemnations about the general brutality of war-about war being hell. Yet Phat Doan encourages us to reflect on a much more devastating issue, which overwhelms general statements about war. Doan asks us to imagine the impact on soldiers who return from a year in hell, fighting for people who don't deserve our help and don't want it-people who actively support our enemies. He continues:

To them, the majority [most American soliders], it was madness. Why should they smile and wave at the locals that secretly support the Taliban man? Why should they care if the locals have foods, clean water, medical clinics and schools when the locals secretly signal the Taliban man of their coming? Why should they hand out care packages to the local children when it is their dad the Taliban man? To them [American soldiers], it didn't make sense. [Italics added. ]

"[I]t was madness [italics added]". Their whole experience was madness. And we are surprised at their psychological trauma? The only thing surprising is that many more do not suffer it. One can imagine their trauma is not, essentially, about the general hell of war, but about sacrificing for people who are helping their enemies.

Doan's words set off a rage that we are doing this to American boys and girls who are making these sacrifices. Most people who understand this immediately decide that we need to get out-the sooner, the better. This isn't about whether the war is "worth it"; it is about making sacrifices for people who don't want us and are actively helping our enemies.

The conclusion that the Afghans "don't want us and are actively helping our enemies" oversimplifies the reality. The challenge is to understand that "apathy" is a central element in the traditional concept of self, and it does not mean the same thing in a tribal society as it does in the advanced industrial democracies, with our individualistic concept of self. Understanding this leads to a very different conclusion. I do not, in fact, think we should just "pull out". If we continue, however-possibly for years-we need to be much clearer about the issues we are facing there than we are.

Rethinking Afghan "Apathy"

The mainstream view of Afghan motivation, which runs through the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (CFM), is that although people in countries threatened by insurgencies may appear apathetic, they are actually afraid, and they are unhappy with the performance of their government. Thus, the twin objectives of COIN: to protect the people and to strengthen the government's ability to earn their support by providing them services, including security.

These objectives respond to only a small part of the real challenge there and provide limited guidance about what we need to do.

We need to rethink the problem of "apathy" and how to respond to it.

Consider the security and services explanations for the problem. Where is the security concern of the soldiers Doan describes in the Afghan National Army (ANA)? If "Allah's will" governs, and if they are surrounded by soldiers (including Americans), what is there to fear? What services are Afghan soldiers missing to explain their alienation from the Afghan government? There is nothing in the security and services explanation that explains why Afghan soldiers show "indifference" "toward the American training efforts"-or why they don't "take trainings seriously"-or why they think the war is "the Americans' responsibility. " What is wrong with the training that allows them to refer to ANA soldiers as "creatures", "a kind that lives off others' efforts, not as 'human' counterparts"?

Training of the Afghan National Army is running far behind schedule. This concern goes back so long that it should be obvious something is wrong with our understanding of how to motivate people in a tribal society, promoting the sense of intention that is necessary for effective fighters. (The Taliban, incidentally, do not suffer this challenge because its revolutionary, messianic narrative sustains followers' commitment. )

This perspective suggests we should be skeptical of optimistic claims about progress in building the Afghan army, which now has 400,000 soldiers and is growing. Stories of heroism of individual Afghan units do not trump the point I am making. Descriptions such as Doan's as well as the general difficulty building an effective Afghan army suggest that "apathy" is retarding efforts to train an effective army. Our training reflects very little understanding of how to motivate Afghan soldiers; we need to understand the problem, and we need to address it.

And what about Afghan villagers, who are always described as "terrified" by the Taliban's brutality? So terrified that they have found no way to warn U.S. soldiers when they have prior knowledge of a buried IED? So terrified that they punctuate their failure with smirks on their faces?

The security and services explanations do not ring true in relation to these real life descriptions. What else might be going on?

Doan reports on his experiences and those of people with him. They are reporting from the most "difficult" places: the south and east. Are there places in the south and east that are not so difficult-where, perhaps, people are not apathetic and where the Taliban man is not welcome?

There are such places, places that show a very different reality. We need to learn from them.

The Problem of Stake and the Challenge of Empowerment

Motivating Afghans, both in the army and in rural communities, is essential for any kind of progress. There has been little serious debate on this subject because there is little understanding of it. Public policy and public policymakers-and academics in general-are most comfortable when issues are objective. (I agree with David Brooks's observation that intellectuals are "emotional avoidants"-comfortable when dealing with the objective, but uncomfortable when conversation moves from head to heart. )

When concern shifts to issues of culture and psychology (e.g. , motivation), the conversation becomes subjective; and policymakers usually address them with throwaway lines about the importance of culture, nothing more. They avoid these issues because subjective issues are beyond their expertise and comfort zone. (A dramatic example of this appeared in a huge, cover-page feature in Foreign Affairs, in which the lead author argued there are no general [subjective] issues across the greater Middle East; there are only complicated differences in [objective] political conditions in different countries.3 This broad view invites us to ignore as irrelevant any and all subjective issues, while surrendering to the reality of objective complexities we cannot influence. This position, which is built into our mechanistic intellectual idiom, runs throughout all discussions and debates about the region. It is the seminal, underlying assumption that animates the fatalism and passivity in our entire debate about foreign and national security policy. )

To address the continuing conundrum of Afghanistan-and of all tribal societies-we must move away from our objective and mechanistic idiom and look seriously at issues of culture and psychology, which means focusing on subjective issues.

The issue of motivation is of course central to increasing the role of other people in COIN and reducing our own role. When we are the only significant actors, it is obvious that little can be achieved-which is where we have been for ten years in Afghanistan.4

Our current, mechanistic policies operate from a "Newtonian" concept of motivation.5 The common sense view, which comes from mechanistic Newtonian physics, is that everything that happens happens because we do something (we train Afghan soldiers, we "help" Afghans). This local causation makes everything we do essentially about us, no matter how we protest that of course the challenge really needs to be about them.

We maximize impacts when we shift from a Newtonian to a quantum logic and empower people to have a stake in their own societies and encourage them to take responsibility for both development and security. Such empowerment becomes a quantum force as it connects them and they start to promote both, independently of us. When they become actively and independently involved, the total resources supporting COIN increase exponentially.6

How to do this?

When GEN Petraeus was a lieutenant general deployed in Iraq in 2006, he wrote an article laying out fourteen basic principles of COIN.7 His first principle is about the importance of ownership, promoting a stake in a society for people who have no stake. He referred to a frequently-quoted statement of T. E. Lawrence, writing in 1917: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands," Lawrence wrote.8 "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. . . . [T]he work . . . may take them longer and it may not be as good as you think, but if it is theirs, it will be better."9

Part of his point is about ownership, ownership from what they do. Their ownership becomes even greater when they have a role in deciding what to do. If the issue is building a school, local people are empowered and get ownership by building the school. They get even more ownership when they participate in deciding to build the school.

Lawrence's insight about ownership and empowerment is important to build social capital, and it is also important for maintaining the school: when people are just given things, they rarely have ownership, and they will often not maintain them. (The development field is flooded with stories about unsustainability because recipients of help, lacking ownership, do not maintain what people give them.)

Most people embrace Lawrence's insight abstractly but ignore it in practice because the insight conflicts fundamentally with almost universal philanthropic and donor norms and practices. Focusing on ownership rather than on the school or well focuses on the psychology of the recipient of help rather than on the help itself. The help is about the present; the internal state of the recipient is about the future. While philanthropists are nearly unanimous in embracing Lawrence's insight, their practice-no matter what they say-is about the objective: concrete, measurable help in the present. Having a stake and ownership-which are about the subjective-is about the future. It is the key to sustainability.

Helping is about creating a perfect present but (often) no future. Sustainability and the future come from accepting an imperfect present for a powerfully sustaining future. The key is giving people a stake in the society.

This insight is essential for development and also for recruiting people out of their apathy, engaging them to care. This is the great challenge that Doan describes-the most difficult challenge we need to overcome in Afghanistan and in any traditional and tribal society.

Motivating the Afghans

Empowering people rather than helping them would make an important difference in motivating them-in encouraging them to care. Consciousness is the other subjective issue that is important for motivation, moving traditional people beyond tradition and habit to conscious (rather than role-driven) connections, promoting (for example) the importance of educating girls.10

On the issue of ownership, it is obvious what we should be doing: everybody agrees about it. If we did it, perhaps combined with a really serious communications strategy communicating to people throughout the country, we could probably start to change realities on the ground very quickly.11 Yet what we should be doing-empowering rather than helping Afghans-conflicts so fundamentally with basic philanthropic and donor norms and practices, and even with important elements in our nature, that it is hard to be confident we could do it with the consistency that would influence perceptions widely and would really start to change Afghan's apathy and indifference.

We are an archtypically practical people, and "accepting an imperfect present for a powerfully sustaining future" is just not in our nature. Helping people puts all focus on the helper. Helping is what moral and religious teachers implore us, every day, to do for the disadvantaged. It makes the privileged feel good to help people less fortunate.

Unfortunately, helping them also disempowers them because it fails to honor their capacities and resources. It treats them as having only needs, no resources. And the result is the appalling spectacle of what Doan observes in Afghan soldiers and in the Afghan people. We can see the same spectacle in many other disadvantaged communities that are beneficiaries of massive forms of "help".

We need to take the focus off ourselves, the helpers, and put it on the people we want to help. We need to see that unless they are empowered, unless they have a stake in their societies, they will be disempowered "creatures" who look to us to do everything. It is terrible for them, and it is terrible for us.

Some readers are probably thinking that with all of the billions of dollars we are spending on nation-building in Afghanistan, we must be empowering at least some people. We undoubtedly are in many places. And in those places one may suppose that apathy is a greatly reduced problem. We are not, however, empowering many others, including those Doan observes. There the problem of apathy dominates people's lives.

Although it is theoretically easy to solve this problem, it is hard to see solving it in practice. First of all, there is little understanding of these issues among senior policymakers in the government; and where there is no understanding, nothing tends to happen. Without understanding, there will be no capacity-because of poor policies and misaligned institutional structures-to do anything, systematically, about it. There are just too many stories about real experiences, where the "helpers" talk about empowering but are in fact helping and disempowering, to believe there is any consistent understanding guiding our nation-building programs. (By "helpers", I am referring to Provincial Reconstruction Teams [PRTs] run by soldiers who lack adequate training for nation-building, and even to civil society organizations [CSOs] that should know better, which are systematically disempowering and intensifying apathy, indifference, and even active hostility. )


Widespread "apathy" among the tribal people in Afghanistan may be the most important impediment to any reasonable outcome there. It is certainly a major impediment to any exit strategy for us, and reducing it is also crucial for our fighting men and women, encouraging them to understand we are not fighting a hopeless and undeserving cause.

"Apathy" is a largely correctable problem if one understands its sources. Whether it comes from a lack of a stake in the society or from a preconscious concept of self, ―apathy freezes everyone in place and makes it hard to get anything done. It is likely, in fact, that widespread "apathy" is an important factor encouraging the widespread corruption that is the subject of so much comment. Corruption facilitates action that is problematic in tribal societies, with widespread "apathy" and low social trust (which limits cooperation between people).

The antidote to apathy is empowerment. Empowering Afghans or other tribal people is a difficult and complex challenge. If we cannot bring ourselves to understand and address the complexities, we should really start dismantling our operation and prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan. The consequences of this, I believe, would be horrendous-resonating across the region. One can only hope that we have the moral and spiritual resources to embrace this challenge and see it to a positive conclusion.

End Notes
1. Karen DeYoung, "Afghan Nation-building Programs Not Sustainable," Washington Post, June 7, 2011.
2. Phat Doan, "Us and Them", SWJ, [date]
3. Lisa Anderson, "Demystifying the Arab Spring", Foreign Affairs, May/June 2011.
4. See A. Lawrence Chickering, "The New Physics: Key to Strengthening COIN‖, SWJ, 1/16/11 - with multiple comments. The link is
5. Ibid.
6. See A. Lawrence Chickering, "Civil Society and Counterinsurgency - II: Mobilizing Armies of Citizens for COIN", SWJ, published 11/24/10 - with multiple Forum comments;
7. LTG David Petraeus, "Learning Counterinsurgency: Observations from Soldiering in Iraq", Military Review, January/February 2006.
8. T. E. Lawrence, The Arab Bulletin, August 1917.
9. Quoted from David Petraeus, "Learning Counterinsurgency: Observations from Soldiering in Iraq", Military Review, 2006.
10. See A. Lawrence Chickering, "Challenges Ahead in the Middle East", accepted but not yet published in the SWJ.
11. I wrote an article about how to design such a strategy in A. Lawrence Chickering, "Humanizing "The Man": Strengthening Psychological and Information Operations in Afghanistan", SWJ, [date].

Table of Contents | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12

Join the mailing list