A Wall Street Journal article titled "Draft Army Handbook Wades Into Divisive Afghan Issue" has sparked controversy about the American military's response to jihadist culture in the Middle East. According to reporter Dion Nissenbaum, a draft version of an Army report about the "social-cultural shock" in Afghanistan "suggests that Western ignorance of Afghan culture, not Taliban infiltration, has helped drive the recent spike in deadly attacks by Afghan soldiers against coalition forces."
The Army handbook reportedly instructs American soldiers in Afghanistan to avoid discussions of Islam or any other religion, debates about the war, derogatory comments about Afghans and the Taliban, advocacy of women's rights and equality, homosexuality, homosexual conduct, and pedophilia. These cautions apparently imply that troops expressing American values are to blame for "green on blue" violence that claimed the lives of 63 members of the U.S.-led coalition this year alone.
Some observers are outraged by the Army manual, which Afghanistan commander Marine General John Allen declined to endorse, because it appears to recommend acceptance of grossly offensive Afghan behavior. Similar reactions occurred in November, 2009, shortly after self-identified jihadist Maj. Nidal Hasan killed thirteen soldiers at Fort Hood, TX. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said, "[A]s horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.”
Any recommendation that American soldiers condone repugnant behavior would indeed be outrageous. But we need to see the actual Army handbook before jumping to conclusions that may obscure the threat of violence by Afghan "allies" harboring jihadist attitudes. American troops need to know about cultural threats in Afghanistan − not for reasons of acceptance or political correctness, but for reasons of personal safety in that dangerous region of the world.
Risks of withholding information were demonstrated in March 2009, when an Afghan soldier deliberately killed two Navy lieutenants, male and female, in Afghanistan. Lt. Florence Choe, 35, was a beautiful wife and mother of a two-year old girl. Lt. Choe was known for her dazzling smile and love of her work as the morale (MWR) officer in a medical training team that mentored the Afghan National Army at a regional hospital in Afghanistan.
On March 27, 2009, Florence Choe and her friend, Navy Capt. Kim LeBel, were running with two male officers on a track along the fence line of Camp Shaheen, located near the Pakistan border. Because most of the fighting was occurring south of there, the group felt safe in the presence of Afghans armed with AK-47s. That confidence proved tragically misplaced when an Afghan soldier stationed in a base watch tower shot Capt. LeBel in her arm and Lt. Choe in her thigh. Then he came down from the guard tower to shoot Florence Choe again.
Navy Lt. Francis Toner confronted the Afghan, who killed Toner with five shots before taking his own life. Lt. JG Carlos Montos ran for help while the wounded Capt. LeBel laid still on the ground playing dead. She lived to tell the story in the Spring 2012 edition of the USO magazine, On Patrol:
Lt. LeBel's article includes a passage that is relevant to the current debate about the Army manual:
"We were wearing our physical fitness uniform shorts, not really understanding how offensive we must have been to the Afghan soldiers who saw us. Women in Afghanistan are covered from head to toe in public. As the four of us ran laughing down the fence line heading for Camp Spann, an Afghan soldier who was watching over us just an hour before descended from his tower and turned his AK-47 on us as we approached him."
In May 2011, a 70-page unclassified Army "Red Team" report by Jeffrey Bordin, Ph.D. described in detail many Afghan cultural practices that are abhorrent to American troops:
A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility: A Red Team Study of Mutual Perceptions of Afghan National Security Force Personnel and U.S. Soldiers in Understanding and Mitigating the Phenomena of ANSF-Committed Fratricide-Murders
Pages of the Red Team report that describe repugnant cultural practices, such as cruelty toward women, animals, and children (pedophilia) are brutally frank and difficult to read. Still, as long as our forces are in Afghanistan, they need to understand the risks of violence from infuriated "allies" whose cultural values (e.g., support for suicide bombers), were formed in medieval times. Some armchair critics expect our forces to take on the task of changing benighted attitudes, but that dangerous mission is beyond the scope of American soldiers overseas.
The Defense Department should have investigated and acted upon hard lessons learned when an Afghan tower guard attacked Lt. Choe and her colleagues for wearing shorts on a military running track. A thorough review also should consider possible unintended consequences of misguided legislation approved by Congress seven years before.
The Abaya Controversy
In 2002 a female A-10 pilot, Lt. Col. Martha McSally, objected to restrictions on the dress of women stationed at Prince Sultan AFB near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Col. McSally (an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 2012) made international news when she protested a requirement that American military women stationed there had to wear the head-covering abayas and be accompanied by men in the back seat of vehicles when traveling off-base.
McSally had a point −American women, especially Christians and Jews, should not have to wear abayas while serving overseas. But spokesmen for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) did a poor job explaining reasons why cultural differences in the Middle East require force protection measures to save lives. In Saudi Arabia, misogynist "religious police" often imprisoned and sometimes killed women seen in public wearing insufficiently modest dress. Mutawa extremism was especially dangerous near Prince Sultan AFB, located near Mecca and other places that Muslims revere.
There was no Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to protect the legal rights of Americans taken into custody by Saudi authorities. Col. McSally nevertheless filed a lawsuit and successfully pushed Congress to pass legislation forbidding commanders from ordering women to wear abayas. The resulting statute required that military women be provided information about the law, but not about the elevated risks they might face for disregarding Saudi dress and behavior codes.
Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes II recommended defeat of the bill because it would "unreasonably limit commanders' authority to use their best judgment to protect the men and women under their command." Haynes further warned that the law "could be interpreted to forbid an officer from expressing an opinion, on the ground that doing so may be viewed as a form of compulsion."
The House heeded these warnings and did not approve an abaya amendment to the annual defense bill. But then-Rep. Heather Wilson (R-AZ) joined with feminist Rep. Caroline Maloney (D-NY) to sponsor a free-standing abaya bill that passed the House on a voice vote. The Senate passed similar legislation on a 93-0 vote. (More information on the 2002 abaya controversy and legislation is available here.)
Seven years later, in another Muslim country, Florence Choe and a male colleague were murdered by an Afghan guard tower soldier who, according to eyewitness Kim LeBel, became enraged when he saw them wearing athletic shorts on a military base running track. How many other "green on blue" attacks have been sparked by similar cultural clashes? The Defense Department should investigate and take prudent steps to protect troops who, for their own protection, need to understand cultural threats.
This is especially important when openly gay soldiers are deployed to regions where homosexuality often is punished with death. As stated in the 2011 Army "Red Team" report, "It seems extremely inappropriate, unethical and outright naive to try to build 'trusted' relations among ANSF [Afghan National Security Force] members with such extremist beliefs and pejorative perspectives."
Misogyny and sexual brutality in Muslim countries is offensive to western sensibilities, but withholding information will not solve that problem. Our soldiers, including women, are respected in Afghanistan, but cultural threats are real and extremely dangerous. Life-saving information should not be denied or confused with subservience to Middle Eastern customs and attitudes that put unknowing troops at risk.
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