Korans burned, Americans killed, rage grows: What can military do?

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Afghan unrest has only escalated after copies of the Koran were burned, apparently by mistake, on a U.S.-run military installation north of Kabul. Two American soldiers were killed Thursday, shot by a man in an Afghan army uniform who escaped into a crowd of anti-American protesters outside their base.

These clashes aren’t new. The Times’ Laura King notes that ‘turncoat shootings’ had been eroding trust between Afghan and Western forces over the last two years, with dozens of attacks occurring.


Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, in turn, has long chastised Western forces for failing to respect Afghan cultural norms, King writes. His office now wants NATO to put the people who burned copies of the Koran on public trial, Reuters reported on Thursday.

How well does the military understand Afghans -- and is that its job? Wednesday, we interviewed an anthropology professor who studies cultural issues and the military. Now, The Times turns to another expert: Remi Hajjar, a lieutenant colonel and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Northwestern University who is studying cross-cultural competence in the military.

Since the protests first broke out over the mistaken Koran burnings, things seem to be escalating. What, if anything, could be done to defuse it at this point?

I can’t help but wonder how much of this is tied to what I’ll call a longstanding simmering that’s turning into a boil. We’ve been in Afghanistan for over a decade now. I think that the patience and the tolerance for these kinds of mistakes has diminished for the people of Afghanistan.

PHOTOS: Afghans protest alleged Koran burning

It was a month or two ago that service members had desecrated corpses of Taliban or other enemies and that caused some backlash as well. It makes you wonder how this is possible in 2011 and 2012.

But despite the military’s solid efforts in building cross-cultural competence over this period of time, we’re talking about millions of human beings. There are going to be isolated cases of mistakes. I don’t think they’re reflective of the institution as a whole. I hope it doesn’t overshadow the genuine strides we’ve made in trying to help Afghans.

At this point, I hope our military asks Karzai and asks some of the critical leaders in Afghanistan what they suggest, what can we do? That could be a very nuanced sort of approach. The answer they might get in Kabul could vary greatly from a remote village in eastern or southern Afghanistan.

What do most recruits go in knowing about Islam?

The ones that have gone through sufficient training and ideally not just rote classroom instruction but some practical exercises, they probably at least know the basics.

But the problem with understanding Islam -- or any religion -- is the way it is practiced is remarkably different from place to place to place. For instance, a mainstream Muslim in America, that person’s level of offense could be markedly different than the people that heard about it in a remote area in Afghanistan. Multiple deployments bring more knowledge, a firsthand understanding of how Islam is practiced in different places.

The military now has culture centers, which weren’t in existence pre-9/11. They’re not manned enough to train the entire organization at once; they use the train-the-trainer concept. And with financial issues, I’m sure they’re going to suffer some losses. The government has to make tough choices about funding hardware versus soft skills.

As someone who studies cultural competence in the military, do you find that there’s more receptivity to this kind of thing or do people resist it?

I think there’s been substantial growth in 2011 compared to 2001.There was resistance toward what was seen as this sissy, weaker, kinder, gentler, sort of peacekeeper behaviors and skills and orientations. There has been a sea change. But having said that, as a Ph.D candidate I’ve done some interviews very recently with people deployed in Afghanistan and other places and there is still resistance.

When people hear you’re the head of a culture center, they can’t publicly say they’re against it. But I got some chuckles and frowns. It’s a very tough skill set to develop -- someone who has all the warrior skills but is also a quasi-State Department unit, a peacekeeper. In many ways those skill sets are diametrically opposed. It’s a very tough human being to produce. Special forces are elite for a reason.

The good news is, by and large, even if people harbor their own concerns about “Why do I have to do this?” the sense of duty usually takes hold. Cross-cultural competence is a function of survivability -- like knowing how to fire your weapon. It can keep you and your teammates alive.

But it still takes time to get the military to embrace that. The military had really been gearing up for that massive war with Russia that never happened. It’s always been preparing for that. Now it finds itself between a rock and a hard place and it’s no secret that the military is going to draw down once again. It’s no easy feat, what the military is trying to do.


Man in Afghan army uniform kills two American soldiers

Koran burning: Can military do more to avoid offending Muslims?

Second day of protests in Afghanistan over mistaken Koran-burning

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles