Hiding Report on Fratricide in Afghanistan Doesn’t Make It Go Away

On January 20, the New York Times carried what they at first thought was a scoop on a “classified” report (pdf) on Afghan military and police personnel killing NATO forces. After they were told that the Wall Street Journal had written on the report back in June, they admitted as much in a correction. They later added another correction after I pointed out that a version of the report clearly marked “unclassified” could be found easily even though the Times referred to the report as classified. It turns out that the report had indeed been published first as unclassified but then was retroactively classified while the Wall Street Journal article was being prepared.

Events over the last few days serve to demonstrate the folly of trying to hide damaging information rather than openly reviewing it and trying to learn lessons from it. The report in question went into great detail to document the cultural misunderstandings that exist between NATO forces and their “partner” Afghan forces, and how these misunderstandings escalate to the point that Afghan personnel end up killing NATO personnel. In the executive summary of the report, we learn that “ANSF members identified numerous social, cultural and operational grievances they have with U.S. soldiers.” Arrogance on the part of U.S. soldiers often was cited, as well.

This clash of social values is at the heart of the newest wave of anti-US and anti-NATO violence in Afghanistan which erupted after an Afghan employee found Korans among materials being burned last week at a NATO base. A part of the response to the Koran burning is that on Saturday, two NATO personnel were killed inside Afghanistan’s interior ministry building. BBC reports that an Afghan police officer is suspected in the shootings:

Afghanistan’s interior ministry has said one of its own employees is suspected of the killing of two senior US Nato officers inside the ministry.

Officials earlier named police intelligence officer Abdul Saboor from Parwan province as the main suspect behind Saturday’s attack.

The NATO response to the killing was swift:

Nato withdrew all its personnel from Afghan ministries after the shooting.

The importance of this move cannot be overstated. At a time when the plan calls for an accelerated schedule of handing over security functions to Afghan military and police, NATO is now admitting that relations with them are so bad that no NATO personnel can be present inside the very ministries with which they need to work.

Refusing to address the issue of cultural clashes didn’t make them go away. In fact, cultural differences are at the heart of the current crisis that threatens to disrupt the entire plan for withdrawing from Afghanistan. Ironically, when I first wrote on the New York Times’ discussion of the report, I speculated that it was being used as a vehicle for senior military personnel to describe how we can’t possibly withdraw from Afghanistan on the current timetable because Afghan security personnel aren’t up to the task. With the cultural backlash fueling this latest crisis, the call to extend the occupation has now spread beyond the military to the State Department, as US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker took to the airwaves on CNN yesterday to argue that the withdrawal plan needs to be delayed:

The United States should resist the urge to pull troops out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule due to the violence against Americans over the burning of the Koran at a U.S. military base, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker said on Sunday.

“Tensions are running very high here. I think we need to let things calm down, return to a more normal atmosphere, and then get on with business,” Crocker said in an interview from Kabul on CNN’s “State of the Union.”


“This is not the time to decide that we are done here. We have got to redouble our efforts. We’ve got to create a situation that al Qaeda is not coming back,” Crocker said.

When even “diplomats” refuse to understand the underlying cause of violence in the current situation, it’s hard to see how it will be defused. An extreme clash of cultural values has been shown to underlie the tensions between NATO and Afghan personnel, but the response to having this pointed out has been to attempt to bury the report by retroactively classifying it and to declare that we need only to “get on with business” to complete the failed mission in Afghanistan.

Update: Oh look. CNN’s Barbara Starr does more stenography to spread the idea that the Afghans are not doing enough to quell the violence and that this is just spontaneous violence in response to the Koran burning:

In the latest sign of how strained U.S. and Afghan military relations have become, a senior U.S. official tells CNN, “There is a strong sense inside the Obama administration that the Afghans did not do enough to quell the violence” that has erupted since the burning Qurans and other religious material a week ago.


But the ministry killings are generating exceptionally raw feelings because they took place inside a secure Afghan government building.

“There is no doubt an incident like this chips away at trust,” the military official told CNN. “I am not going to tell you there hasn’t been concern.”

Both officials said the United States believes many of the violent demonstrations have sprung up spontaneously and while the Taliban has claimed some credit so far, there is no evidence of a broadly organized effort.

Yup, these are just spontaneous demonstrations and there is no reason to look at underlying reasons for why Afghan personnel would attack NATO personnel. After all, that report has been classified, so we shouldn’t mention it.

18 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    From Juan Cole:

    Two US military advisers to the Ministry of the Interior were shot dead on Saturday by an Afghan security man. It turns out, according to recovered security tapes, that they were watching footage of the protests and cursing out the protesters, then speaking badly of the Qur’an. The Afghan argued with them that they should be more respectful, and when the argument escalated, he drew on them and shot them both dead.

    If this story is true, it distills the arrogance and bigotry of some US personnel in Afghanistan (they are in someone else’s country). They didn’t deserve to meet that end, but cursing the Qur’an in a Muslim country in front of a local Muslim is about the most foolhardy act I can imagine. The strong evangelical element in some parts of the US military makes it particularly unsuited to more or less running a largely illiterate Muslim nation that is deeply religious. Evangelicals are the American group that has the highest disapproval of Islam.

  2. gdavidbrown says:

    “but cursing the Qur’an in a Muslim country in front of a local Muslim is about the most foolhardy act I can imagine.”

    Any intimation that someone should/could be murdered for doing that provides strong evidence for justification of anti-Muslim feelings.

  3. Jim White says:

    Jake Tapper had some very good questions for Jay Carney today on a topic closely related to this discussion:

    TAPPER: How much does the White House think that the incidents, the four U.S. service members who have been killed by ANA or Afghan security forces — how much does he think — and the protests that are — that are going on throughout the country — how much does he think these are just because of the Quran burning incident? And how much does the White House think this is — that was just the tipping point for an overall exhaustion and anger about things that have happened due to the American presence?
    CARNEY: Well, I think that’s — those are very important questions. And I haven’t had that discussion with the president or members of his national security team, although I can say in general, we are keenly aware of concerns expressed in the past by President Karzai and others about the way that we operate there and the need to be sure that we operate in a — in a way that enhances our cooperation and doesn’t detract from it.
    And we work very carefully to try to do that.

  4. JThomason says:

    Thanks for this post. Remember the nexus between Al Quaeda resentment at the US military presence in Saudia Arabia and the Muslim resistance forces against Soviet incursons in Afghanistan which were CIA supported. Of course a total “apocalyptic” solution would make history irrelavent. As unpopular as it might be to question why US forces have not been welcomed with open arms in Iraq and Afghanistan it is a realistic question. And no one is poised to fill a power vacuum in so called Wazeristan as these people have never succumb to an imperial power. Unlike the pagan hoades that the Church was able to overrun in Europe, Islam developed as a reaction to Imperialism and exists as a “new age” alterantive to Medieval Christianity. No one deserved to die for profaning the Koran but the incident does draw out for illustrative purposes the deep forces that are at play in the spirit of the Afghanis. And I am thinking Mormans going door to door there would fare little better.

  5. rugger9 says:

    @Jim White: #3

    True enough, Islam is now where we were in the Middle Ages, where faith was enough to kill, a lot. As noted by Prof. Cole, however [and Mr gdb needs to troll elsewhere IMHO], it doesn’t excuse their actions, but it does explain them. No different than going into some of our worse neighborhoods loaded in jewels but no protection all the while daring someone to do something about it.

    One other thing to note about the Evangelicals is that they have essentially taken over the Air Force Academy, lots of articles and discussion about that dating to a WashPost article May 13, 2005. Truthout had an article on 9/30/10 about an underground group of cadets observing the takeover, 6/16/05 article on antiwar.com [you may need some salt for this] about “heathens” not being welcome, which included Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and anyone else not “christian” enough in their view. Given the amount of time needed for this to become big enough for the WashPost to write about, these two officers may have been some of the true believers.

  6. joanneleon says:

    @Jim White: Jim, thanks for posting that exchange between Tapper and Carney. I think Tapper asked exactly the right question and I think Carney hinted at one of the most important answers when he referred to Karzai’s earlier complaints. I think he may have been referring to the night raids and torture at the Bagram prison.

  7. Jim White says:

    @joanneleon: It turns out there’s even more. Marcy found that the question just before Tapper’s is really interesting, too. Check this video around 23 minutes in, where Carney argues that we’re dealing with a couple of isolated events when it comes to fratricide.

  8. rugger9 says:

    @Jim White: #9
    And we still have those chicken hawks who don’t want to leave, conveniently invested in those operations and countries that would profit from continual war. Argue as one might about this particular situation, whether these two “asked for it” [and no, they didn’t], but even one circumstance like this is too many because of the trust issue raised.

    The commands should have been clear from the top down about remaining respectful and sensitive to flash points. After all, the troops on the ground are the first and easily hit targets. The fact this latest on happened inside the key government ministry with respect to security should tell everyone, even Carney, that we can no longer tell the sheep from the goats, and perhaps Karzai should get what he’s said many times that he wants: our departure.

  9. GKJames says:

    There’s more than a whiff of obtuseness over this “clash of social values.” It’s Crocker’s job, of course, to talk about “get[ting] on with business,” but what, exactly, is that “business?” Sure, it’s a battle among suits in far-away corridors of power. But any sane person knows that the notion — on which the entire strategy and its gobs of billions are based — of training Afghan forces so that NATO can depart and peace can reign throughout the land is pure farce. The book burning and American apologies for it are just symbols for the bankruptcy that the enterprise has been all along.

    What remains a mystery to me is why any element of the US military is remotely interested in continuing this dead-end project of using multi-million-dollar, 21st-century warrior types to play whack-a-mole with feudal guys in flip-flop.

  10. rugger9 says:

    @GKJames: #11
    Unless they are politically driven careerists [and there are plenty of those in the mid-upper echelons] the military isn’t all that keen on undefined missions. It was the singular lesson we supposedly learned from Vietnam.

    What this is really about is that the oil companies don’t want to pay for pipeline security from Kazakhstan if I remember correctly, it could be Uzbekistan, where a large gas field sits.

  11. Acharn says:

    @JThomason: When I was at an Army language training program in 1967, I met a Special Forces sergeant who was Ukrainian and had been a lieutenant in the Waffen SS. People have forgotten than when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the Wehrmacht were greeted with flowers and wine as liberators. That lasted about a week, until the Sonderkommandos arrived and the Wehrmacht themselves demonstrated that they considered the Slavs subhumans. I have to say that some of our military believe that Muslims, whether Iraqi, Afghan, Saudi, Iranian, or Moroccan, are subhuman. And show it. You would think by this time the dumbest recruit would know better than to burn ANY book in a Muslim country. Unfortunately, we will never be told who was the idiot who ordered that, because the Army always protects officers.

    I haven’t seen many news sources pointing out that the Afghan crowds are not only protesting the burning of the Koran, they are also outraged by the night raids and the air attacks (and drone attacks) killing children.

  12. P J Evans says:

    You would think that someone who is stationed in a Muslim country would know better than to swear at or burn a Quran. (If they’re evangelical Protestants, maybe they should be asked how they would feel if someone came into their hometown and cursed at and burned bibles.)

  13. Bob Schacht says:

    Here is where American exceptionalism gets us into trouble. We go in, disregarding all previous imperial invasions because WE ARE DIFFERENT. I think that during Bush’s first term they really believed that. During his second term, Bush and his top level advisors decided to ignore Cheney and his minions, but by then it was too late to make any real changes. I think maybe that term was dominated by damage control.

    When Obama took over, he basically had to deal with a military bureaucracy dominated by Bush-think when it came to cultural issues. Remember his infamous “I don’t do nuance”?

    “Joe, I don’t do nuance.” –George W. Bush to Sen. Joseph Biden, as quoted in Time, Feb. 15, 2004


    I wonder if Holbrook was really much better. A brief tour of the State Dept a few weeks ago gave me more hope for appreciation of cultural nuances in the current state dept.

    Bob in AZ

  14. Bob Schacht says:

    After reading through the comments, I sense another theme.
    When Al Qaeda moved into Pakistan, they did what you do there: They married into local families (OBL did this, too). That makes you kin to the locals, and signals an intent to stay.

    Americans, on the other hand, mostly rotate out after a few years. JSOC teams, which stick around longer, learn the language, etc., still don’t marry into local families and settle down. And we’ve advertised our departure. So when we talk about “militants,” what does that really mean in cultural terms?

    Bob in AZ

  15. rugger9 says:

    @Bob Schacht: #16
    “Know your enemy” is the most critical tenet of military thinking from Shi Tzu to now [in writing at least]. What Shrub did was foster a climate of idiocy, revel in it, and send off the upper level idiots to kick ass unprepared for what waited for them. Recall Rummy’s comment about going to war with the Army you have. He was justifying not providing the body and HUMVEE armor needed in Iraq [recall the hillbilly armor], but the hearts and minds aspect of it was critical too. One can thank Faux News and the rest of the RW Wurlitzer for the “subhuman” attitude, it’s taken straight out of Signal [the Nazi mag].

    Not-fun fact: there were two body armor types used, one approved by the Army and IIRC Dragon Skin. The Army approved one had vulnerabilities and was harder to use than Dragon Skin [KNOWING these details, by the way], but the Army threatened to withhold the death benefit for any soldier killed wearing Dragon Skin. I’m sure there were payoffs among the REMFs involved, but it was quite the flapfest in 2003-2005.

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