Guest column: Jade Wu: In Afghanistan: American behavior needs to change

By Jade Wu


In the somber aftermath of the recent tragic restaurant bombing in Kabul, Americans are reassessing their situation on the ground. Yet while security units investigate, did individual Americans relate their own behavior to the attack?

In the last dozen years many internationals have grown lax about protecting sensitive information, complacent in following safety procedures, and sloppy with their conduct towards Afghans. They fail to remember that local staff are not ornaments in a room but human beings actively listening and watching, some not having foreigners’ best interests in mind. Under such work conditions in a stressful environment, can Americans afford to be anything but cautious?

While working in Kabul on a U.S. government-funded rule of law program in 2012, I saw how many Americans often carelessly handled sensitive information. They frequently left their computer programs open and backpacks unsupervised in an office they shared with Afghans. Similarly they sometimes discussed confidential matters in cafeterias and hallways.

Beyond that, many dined out almost every weekend in one of the few security-approved restaurants, setting patterns and making these venues attractive targets for insurgents.

In the Kunduz Regional Training Center in 2012, an American supervisor never locked his offices and sleeping room, though one of these contained a visible safe. When he wrote down the team’s weekly appointments in the city, he left that information in one of these rooms, often unattended and accessible to local staff who were not allowed to know these details. After repeated suggestions to secure these areas, he refused, stating all was safe inside the camp.

He failed to see that even his best Afghan employee could be forced to betray information, putting the whole team at risk.

Nor was sensitive information limited to work-related material. In Kabul one American purposely and frequently substituted the word “enshallah”, which in Dari means God willing, with the word “enchilada” when speaking to local staff. Though this was humor on the surface for foreigners, it needlessly stirred up resentment in Afghans. For a people so imbedded in their faith, mocking Islam in any way subtracted from American safety and success.

So did the abuse of alcohol. Though foreigners need to relax and decompress, they often forgot it was illegal for Moslems to drink. On the same Kabul compound, drinking bouts in the evenings often resulted in unbecoming behavior and expletives. On these occasions, foreigners lost any respect they might have had from local security guards patrolling the camp and who, no doubt, commented in the community about what they saw.

Though it is impossible for Americans in Afghanistan to always know the right thing to say or how to behave, it is important they remember they are constantly being watched. Keeping Afghan staff at a distance or treating them uncivilly is not the solution. If anything, Americans need to be collegial with their local counterparts for self-preservation. Oftentimes Afghan colleagues can relate intelligence that has not reached the security office.

In January 2012 I had an appointment in Kunduz with an Afghan judge. The morning of our meeting he cancelled, revealing it was unsafe at the courthouse.

Deciding what should be disclosed to local colleagues is difficult. To be sure, Americans must have a certain amount of trust and confidence in their staff as many lead training sessions and manage projects. Still these Afghans are vulnerable to enormous outside pressure to give away information. Americans need to remember that no matter how devoted these locals are to their programs, they are Afghans first and their loyalty is likely to themselves and their families if threatened.

Consequently, American behavior and sense of responsibility in Afghanistan need to change. Having spent countless taxpayer dollars on security in-country, it would be a mistake for the U.S. to allow seemingly small acts of carelessness with potentially disastrous consequences to continue. Correcting these actions is no small matter but critical in a war zone, one that is tantamount to saving billions of dollars and lives.

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