Small Wars Journal

The Koran Burnings and Murder: The Afghan Response and Our Missed Opportunities

Tue, 04/03/2012 - 5:49am

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.

Categories: culture - COIN - Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

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.


For those that are interested, the AAN has come out with a new study on the 'Taliban' and the state educational system.

It would appear that the Quetta Shura Taliban have come to the realization that co-option of the educational system is a functionally acceptable method for promulgating their normative (the prism of perception) ideology.


Tue, 04/03/2012 - 11:49pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Why on earth would anyone want to open up Afghanistan to "trade in commerce, ideas and immigration"? Immigration? To Afghanistan? Is anyone on earth that desperate?

This idea keeps being repeated in various quarters, but there's just no substance to it. There's no potential gain in Afghanistan that even begins to measure up to the cost of achieving it.

Bill C.

Tue, 04/03/2012 - 5:59pm

In reply to by gian gentile

Philip Bobbitt:

"The current conflict is one of several possible wars of market-states as they seek to open up societies to trade in commerce, ideas and immigration; which excites hostility in those groups that want to use law to enforce religious or ethnic orthodoxy."


Tue, 04/03/2012 - 2:44pm

In reply to by gian gentile

I'd contend that COL Gentile's post raises a broader point, which may (or may not) be that there is a liberal (in the classical rather than Democrat versus Republican sense of the term) philosophy that seems to operate in our current foreign policy writ large, rather than "just" COIN strategy and/or operations. (As it so happens, illustrating the perversity of language, this classical liberalism arguably resides more with our contemporary conservative policy elites than our contemporary liberal policy elites, but aside from this barb, I will simply laud SWJ's admirable ability to avoid the partisan fray.) Enlightened and educated masses will behave in certain predictable and desired ways, be it in Weimar Germany or today's Afghanistan; if we aid Libyans (or, say, Syrians), they will be grateful and perennial allies; Egyptians freed from autocratic rule will trend toward democracy and capitalism; if we engage China as a trading partner and it adopts our version of capitalism, it will become democratic (in precisely the same way as we are) and an ally, pursuing nothing other than higher standards of living and abdicating any desire to pursue political power as an end in itself or as a means of security. I suspect reality is at a minimum more nuanced, and quite possibly even offers grounds for a complete and utter rebuttal of such notions. Edmund Burke, where art thou?


gian gentile

Tue, 04/03/2012 - 1:22pm

The point about "education" also assumes that if a people are "educated" (as the author is suggesting for Afghanistan) they will then see the truth and move away from extremism. Yet by way of historical analogy the germans in the 1930s were a highly educated people and they moved absolutely toward extremism and not away from it.

The problem with this emphasis on "education" of the Afghan people as the solution to our problems there is that it is ultimately premised on the theory of counterinsurgency that says if the counterinsurgent force provides things to the local population (in this case education) they will move away from the insurgents.

"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 sentiment often gets stated. However, one should be careful what one wishes for when it comes this particular desired outcome as it is a manifestation of the mirror image logical fallacy. Neither the Deobandi nor Wahabbi fundamentalist (think of what this word means in the context of bid'dah) perspectives are uninformed and neither are 'extremist' except through the prism of Western perception. Literacy in Arabic will open a vast trove of information to the student. This information (a simple understanding of the concept of Qur'anic abrogation coupled with differentiating between Medinan and Meccan era verses) is even more likely to justify a deleterious viewpoint in regards to infidelity (and therefore the infidels) then it is to result in anything else.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 04/03/2012 - 9:59am

In reply to by gian gentile

Agreed. I believe the primary populace in need of education in Afghanistan is the populace of intervening foreigners. If we had understood Pashtunwali better in 2001 I suspect an acceptable agreement could have been reached with Mullah Omar to meet his duties to his AQ guests as well as our need for revenge against the same. Water under the bridge now.

Yes, Afghanistan will continue to evolve as more of the populace become more educated. True and equally immaterial to the current insurgency. The revolutionary insurgency against the Northern Alliance-based governance we elevated into power is not driven by ideology. It is driven by the reasonable perception that but for our intervention, it would not be the government. Similary the resistance insurgency against ISAF is not driven by ideology, it is driven by a very natural perception that our presence inappropriate.

We've been in "school" for over 10 years now, but I'm not sure how much education we have gained from the experience.

gian gentile

Tue, 04/03/2012 - 7:35am

A from-the-heart, thoughtful piece.

But if it is correct as the author suggests that the "long term" solution in Afghanistan is "education" I wonder how long the United States must stay there to see the "education" of Afghanistan through.


Tue, 04/03/2012 - 7:10am

The incident described and its resolution, while positive, had little or nothing to do (from what I can read) with religion/Islam, and everything to do with tribal traditions. Yes, dealing with the Mullah as spiritual leader in the room denotes that religious component, but in this case the point being mad is not a religious, but a cultural one.

It's been my experience that westerners/military folks are more than happy to discuss Islam with Afghans, which is part of the issue. Rather than trying to find a common ground in a religious belief (which efforts are going to be hampered by the firmly-held belief by many in areas where education is at a minimum, since most there will view any non-Muslims as infidels despite 'people of the Book' protestations), why not continue to deal with them as humans?

I would also contend that as a Judeo-Christian, if you dropped a canister on my sleeping daughters, that I'd be just fine with you dropping off some cash and calling it a day. That's not Judeo-Christian methodology: that's a colonialist mentality wherein we are certain that uneducated folks will be happy to collect a payoff in place of the hungry mouths we just removed from the land of the living. It's not a cultural misunderstanding, it's a complete failure to ask ourselves: 'What would I expect from a foreign military power that just killed my kids?'