The fallout from the events surrounding the Koran burning and subsequent murder of 16 villagers by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales may have pushed the mission in Afghanistan to a strategic tipping point. Given the current conditions, only the most courageous leadership at every level will recover the legitimacy of NATO and the United States that is critical to accomplish the mission. I suggest basic lessons in cultural leadership can propel leaders to take their critical place during this crisis. Their absence will create a void that will lead to missed opportunity and ultimately to mission failure.
In 2010 I was responsible for the accidental death of two little girls in a remote village in Southern Afghanistan. The events occurred in a village that sat in the middle of a critical valley that the Afghan Army and my Infantry Battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division had just fought very hard to gain control of. During a night patrol my company commander fired an infrared illumination round because there was a report of potential enemy activity. The canister that released the parachute flare was blown off course due to unexpected high-altitude crosswinds. The canister crashed through the roof of a house and landed squarely in the middle of the bed where the two little girls were sleeping. The round crushed both girls and slightly wounded their mother.
When I learned of the incident, my Afghan Army counterpart and former Mujahedeen Commander recommended that we immediately go to the site and hold a Shura (counsel with the elders) to discuss the situation and seek forgiveness. His point was this could not be done through an apology or showing up with reparations money. He suggested that we look the victims in the face, treat them with honor, and ask for grace because we were only humans and the situation was only an accident.
When we arrived, I was amazed at the number of Afghan men who had come to the Shura. Most of them wanted a way to make sense of the incident. There were also a number of senior Mullahs who had come to the Shura. The Mullahs were an audience we always had problems engaging. I think they were there because there was an understanding that they would make an announcement that they were going to “hand the valley back to the Taliban”. This would have made sense to the villagers in the audience who were looking for justice.
In America our decision-making, deliberate and reactive, emanates from our Judeo-Christian culture. Likewise, the Afghan culture is driven by the cultural context of Pashtunwali. Pashtunwali is generally defined by three concepts: honor, revenge (or justice), and hospitality (or asylum). When we make decisions regarding situations in Afghanistan (tactical or strategic), if leaders do not account for this context, they are setting the mission up for failure.
Too often in Afghanistan we offer an apology or monetary reparations and expect the incident to be over and forgotten. This makes sense in our Judeo-Christian culture but does not begin to pass the test to an Afghan. Neither an apology nor money satisfies an Afghan’s need for honor or justice. Instead, there is a clearly defined process to gain forgiveness (they are not just crazy). An Afghan is obligated by Pashtunwali to extend forgiveness and hospitality if the right steps are taken. Likewise, an Afghan is obligated to seek forgiveness if he wrongs another.
When we sat down at the Shura and discussed the incident the Afghan Provincial Governor, Army Commander and Police Commander took lead. What became apparent was that the villagers did not have a problem with the Afghan government representatives; they had a problem with the Americans because it was our round that killed the girls so I asked to speak at the negotiations. I sat in front of the Senior Mullah and asked that the bloodshed stop with me since I was the responsible American Commander. I offered the Mullah a knife I carried and asked him to take my blood rather than allow the incident to continue the previous violence in the valley. I promised him the deaths were an accident and I told him that I was the only one that should be held accountable for the accident.
I never feared this offer would be accepted because of the lessons my Afghan mentors had taught me about Pashtunwali. The Mullah accepted the gesture and told me I could put away the knife. I later asked for forgiveness and promised to honor the family. Several weeks later after the exchange of a small food delivery for the funeral celebration, and with violence still almost non-existent in this valley, we met with the father of the family. At the meeting we offered an appropriate condolence that was negotiated by an interlocutor along with a direct apology and request for forgiveness. The father accepted the apology and extended his forgiveness.
The lessons that should be learned extend beyond this specific example. To move forward and achieve the expressed goals in Afghanistan NATO (especially American leaders) must better understand the basic culture and customs of the Afghans. Most important to America is that the lessons of this example can be reversed when America needs hold our Afghan partners accountable for their failures. The fundamental but missed opportunity of “Partnership” was always mutual accountability. Furthermore, westerners cannot be afraid to discuss Islam with Muslims. There are more opportunities for common ground and common good than divisiveness if we talk about the importance of sharing values that drive our actions, than if we require moral neutrality. When dialog about religion is restricted it concedes the issue (which defines the existence of the common villager and his relationship with the government) to the Taliban. An intelligent enemy, the Taliban will exploit this exposed vulnerability. Finally, the only long-term solution in Afghanistan is education. Only when the common Afghan can read their own religious doctrine (that is typically only allowed to be written in Arabic) will they stop listening to the uninformed minority that expresses extremist ideology. This will not only end the cycle of violence but also open the door for long term opportunity. Taking these steps requires courageous decisions at every level of leadership. At this decisive point in the campaign, enlightened leadership embracing these steps has never been more relevant.
About the Author
A native of Chicago, IL, Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander was the Battalion Commander of 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment from May 2008 to June 2010. The Battalion deployed to Afghanistan from September 2009 to September 2010. During this time the Battalion served under Regional Command – South in Zabul, Uruzgan, and Kandahar Provinces. LTC Oclander also served in Baghdad as the Brigade Executive Officer of 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division during the Operation Iraqi Freedom Surge, January 2007 – March 2008. Previously LTC Oclander served as the Plans Officer for the Multi National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) in 2005 during which time he wrote the first Operational level Campaign Plan for MNC-I. LTC Oclander is a 1990 graduate of the United States Military Academy, a 2003 graduate of the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a 2004 graduate of the United States Marine Corps School for Advanced Warfighting. He currently works on The Joint Staff. His awards include three Bronze Stars.