For the British military, engaging with local civil society in the midst of a “hot conflict” like Afghanistan presents a whole different set of challenges. Squadron Leader Gordon Summers returned from Afghanistan at the end of 2008 after a period running the operational Military Stabilisation Support Teams there.
“All troops have the importance of engaging with the local population heavily stressed upon them. The British Army has drawn a lot from experiences in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, and those lessons are applied where appropriate. You have to be both accepted and trusted by the local population if you are to effectively counter insurgents.”
At district level, the Military Stabilisation Support Teams working for the UK civilian District Stabilisation officer are in daily contact with the local District Governor and his staff. But for troops on the ground, the first challenge is to identify the people they need to engage with.
“If you go to a village and simply ask who the village elders are, there are normally people hanging around and they’ll tell you. If you ask who can call a shura, (a village meeting) you’ll be shown where the elders live. Normally in a formal shura, only elders will speak since they’re regarded as people able to properly convey the feelings of the village with authority.”
“One thing that particularly struck me when, during clearance ops in Nad Ali we got the district governor into a newly liberated village, was the enormous residual power that you’ve got within the traditional and ancient Pashtun shura system. Within a couple of hours of us entering one village he did a quick trip round and - whilst we estimated that there were no more than 400 families remaining - he brought 150 -200 local adult males to shura within about thirty minutes. It was quite staggering - the power and enduring appeal of this democratic system.”
The job for the Military Stabilisation Support Teams and indeed all troops is to assess the needs of a village by speaking with the elders as well as the wider village society on patrol, to prioritise spending and recruit and deploy cash for work teams to make good any damage through the Afghan Ministry for Rural Reconstruction to, for example, make good wells or irrigation systems.
“This is where interpersonal skills, diplomacy and the willingness to accept what other societies consider important come to the fore. For example, elders will sometimes ask for improvement to mosques even though bridges & wells urgently need repairing and to Western minds this would seem a far more pressing need … you have to see it from the local, national perspective rather than your own. Ghurkas are particularly good at this, they generally come from similar village based, agricultural societies so they’re very good at picking up what the local dynamics and imperatives are.”
In practical terms, soldiers will sometimes find themselves in the role of advisers and project managers, even running “claims clinics” to tutor the locals within their own villages. Local people are recruited and employed in Cash for Work teams to rebuild and maintain villages to counter the issue of unemployment.
“Experience taught us that locals will take compensation money if it’s simply paid as a lump sum and then run away to live elsewhere with relatives, leaving their villages depopulated. Trying to regenerate depopulated villages became a real issue around Musa Qaleh, for instance. In that location, to counter Taliban intimidation we encouraged the local Chief of Police to remind people of their Islamic duty to co-operate with the government and instead of simply giving them compensation money we gave assistance and materials whilst maintaining a military presence but did it all visibly through the Afghan authorities to increase their credibility. The key to our exit strategy is nurturing credible Afghan government.”
Squadron Leader Summers believes the most important thing for “outsiders” is to try and understand what drives the local people and what’s important to them.
“Everything works back from that. There are different tribes, inclinations, codes and leanings but Afghans are fundamentally a very pragmatic, ethnically diverse people. People think of Afghans primarily as fighters but they’ve been international traders living within the crossroads of Asia for centuries and that means most of them want to see a prosperous rather than a poor economy....For instance, if a bazaar has been run down by conflict, once security returns the locals will invariably kick start the bazaar very quickly with minimal support and that will pull agricultural produce back into the centre of the village.”
NGOs and other bodies that may have access and links to different sections of the local community are thin on the ground in Afghanistan, certainly in Helmand, which means military personnel have to constantly draw on diplomacy and pragmatism.
Women and children
“Women still remain the dominant influence on children and getting women on side to persuade their children to not join Taliban should not be a hard sell but it’s access to them that’s extremely difficult. The male age group between 15-20 years is a crucial influence target for both the legitimate Afghan government and the Taliban.”
“Plans have been mooted for creating women’s networks built around for example, the small, agricultural practices that are divided on gender lines according to the crop being grown. But this has to be approached with kid gloves because the Afghan male psyche is used to control of its women and anything that might conceivably be perceived to threaten that is a speedy route to alienation.”
“However, you have to walk the fine line between help and encouraging a dependency culture which ultimately stifles initiative.”
“The military tends to be driven by pragmatism and achieving results so we are particularly able to accept things for what they really are and determine what’s achievable. We have to develop human capacity which at the very least means mentoring Afghans in effective and honest governance.”