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Transforming attitudes

Jeffrey Schwerzel considers the importance of cultural and religious factors in peace- support operations and argues for systematic, NATO-wide cultural-awareness training.

It's good to talk: Peacekeepers are dependent to a large extent on the goodwill and cooperation of the local population (© SHAPE)

"I've already served in Bosnia and Kosovo," the young officer said to me. "Surely Afghanistan's just the same?" He was attending the ISAF IV Mission Rehearsal Exercise at Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum, then called AFNORTH, and expressing a common sentiment among soldiers preparing to deploy in Afghanistan. I was the cultural adviser to the exercise trying to give the mission's officer corps a flavour of the country they were being sent to, its culture, and some idea of what they should expect from Afghans and how they should relate to them.

While clearly there are some similarities between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, on the one hand, and Afghanistan, on the other, there are at least as many differences. The notion, therefore, that experiences from the Balkans are automatically transferable to Afghanistan, or even that in important ways all predominantly Muslim countries are governed by the same rules is naïve at best and potentially dangerous at worst. Despite this, not everyone present recognised the potential impact of cultural and religious issues on the task ahead. Indeed, some officers were adamant that such factors would not have any impact.

Perhaps such attitudes should not come as a surprise, given the nature of NATO's new peace- support operations and the speed with which the Alliance has been transforming in recent years. The shift of focus from preparing for war-fighting in Europe to peace-support missions, including humanitarian, peacekeeping and peace-making tasks, in places as far away as Afghanistan and Iraq, could hardly be greater. The demands are very different and, to operate effectively in a peace- support situation, soldiers and officers require additional skills and specialist knowledge.

The new operations are so-called "three-block" missions. A soldier serving in Afghanistan or Iraq may have to perform police-like tasks as part of a peacekeeping patrol. He or she may then become involved in humanitarian activities. And later, he or she may be engaged in a lethal exchange of fire, all in the course of the same day. Soldiers need to be equally proficient in all these tasks. Moreover, they themselves are expected to operate in multinational formations.

Culture's double impact

Cultural and religious issues influence peace-support operations in two ways. Firstly, the soldiers in multinational formations themselves come from a variety of cultural backgrounds and must manage their differences to work together effectively. Secondly, soldiers must tailor their operating styles to local circumstances to maintain good relations with the local population.

Successful cooperation among soldiers from NATO countries is often taken for granted since these individuals are assumed to share the same basic values and may even have some prior experience of training together. However, academic research suggests that cultural and religious differences can and do lead to strained relations and decreased mission effectiveness. Indeed, recent research examining cooperation between Dutch and German troops in Afghanistan by Sjo Soeters and René Moelker of the Royal Netherlands Military Academy in Breda indicated that, despite minimal perceived cultural differences, the working relationship proved problematic at times. This was in contrast to smooth Dutch-German cooperation both at the German/Netherlands Corps' joint headquarters in Münster, Germany, and on deployment in Kosovo. Suffice it to say that cultural interoperability in multinational formations is not straightforward.

Despite this, culture is rarely a major consideration in a commander's pre-deployment preparations. There is, after all, no obvious example of mission failure as a result of cultural differences. However, diverging expectations, attitudes and ways of thinking can lead to tension and friction among soldiers of different nationalities. Moreover, lack of trust or, worse still, the loss of trust between peacekeepers from different countries may limit a commanding officer's options and cause him to hesitate to order actions, even though he judges them appropriate. General Klaus Reinhardt, the second KFOR commander, considered himself as much a diplomat in Kosovo as a military commander. Moreover, bridging and overcoming differences within his own team took up a great deal of his time.

In addition to technical and tactical issues involving different rules of engagement and national caveats, more fundamental notions of how peacekeeping should be carried out may lead to friction among allies. What is considered appropriate behaviour for troops from one "peacekeeping culture" might not be for others. Even something as seemingly mundane as the wearing of armour and dark sunglasses is interpreted in different ways by soldiers from different countries. Some feel that such attire unnecessarily intimidates the local population, thereby generating an air of hostility that, in turn, increases the risks faced by all peacekeepers.

A breakdown in relations with the local population can, of course, be fatal to any operation. Peacekeepers are, after all, dependent to a large extent on the goodwill and cooperation of the local population for their own safety and their ability to perform their duties. As a result, avoiding offence is paramount. But without expertise in local cultures and religions, it is impossible to draw up effective guidelines concerning issues such as patrolling during festivities, entering places of worship, setting up roadblocks and searching women. Moreover, for fear of causing offence, commanders may unnecessarily limit their options and avoid the course of action that makes most sense from a purely military point of view.

At the mission rehearsal exercises for Afghanistan, a common view expressed by officers was that Afghanistan was an extremely backward country, both technically and culturally. Some who had already visited Afghanistan on reconnaissance trips compared it to "going back in time a couple of hundred years". While these views are understandable given the limited time the officers had to learn about Afghanistan, lack of insight into local life and empathy with the population may contribute to avoidable errors of judgement. Indeed, peace-support operations have seen the emergence of the strategic corporal, who, by making a mistake while on patrol or elsewhere, risks undermining the entire mission.

Cultural awareness training should become a standard and integral part of preparations for all NATO peace support

In an extreme case in Somalia, lack of knowledge of local culture and customs on the part of Canadian peacekeepers, in combination with a range of other factors, contributed to a number of incidents of abuse. This culminated in the torturing to death of Shidane Arone, a 16-year-old boy, in 1993. When this incident came to light, a parliamentary enquiry was launched, which commissioned wide-ranging studies of both the events themselves and the circumstances in which the peacekeepers were operating, including a socio-cultural inquiry by Donna Winslow, now of the Free University of Amsterdam. In its wake, the Canadian Airborne Regiment was disbanded and a wide-ranging reform process set in train, with the result that cultural awareness has moved much higher up the agenda.

In other instances of excessive behaviour by peacekeepers in Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and, most notoriously, at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the troops involved had received little or no cultural-awareness training. This obvious shortfall, therefore, almost certainly contributed to the development of prejudice towards the local population and eventually to their dehumanisation. Moreover, the consequences of what may be isolated instances of abuse are magnified when brought under the glare of international media, a trend that will only increase in the future.

Cultural interoperability

The importance of interoperability has long been recognised at NATO. Indeed, the Alliance has launched a variety of programmes and set up offices, committees and working groups to deal with standardisation. To date, however, this has been an exclusively technical exercise, and has not included cultural interoperability, whether the cooperation of forces on a cultural level or cultural awareness of local circumstances.

To be sure, the importance of culture and religion in peace-support operations is increasingly recognised, though generally at a national rather than an Alliance level. Troop-contributing nations are responsible for preparing their soldiers for missions, and many have already incorporated cultural-awareness training into the deployment preparations for their contingents. Moreover, Mission Rehearsal Exercises organised by NATO Headquarters to prepare soldiers for deployment are also now frequently incorporating some cultural-awareness training into the programme. But these are all ad hoc initiatives.

Considerations of culture do not currently form a standard part of NATO's planning, training, and operational procedures. There is no Alliance doctrine that makes such training obligatory, nor any doctrine that deals with any cultural or religious issues in the context of operations. Specific policies towards local cultural and religious matters are left to the commander's discretion with the result that different commanders can interpret in different ways what "respect for local culture" entails. Since what is good for Turkish troops, may not be for Norwegians, a measure of freedom of interpretation is appropriate. However, the absence of central guidance may be symptomatic of wider shortfalls.

In addition to running operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO is currently intensifying its Mediterranean Dialogue with seven countries in the wider Mediterranean region and seeking to forge stronger cooperative relations with the broader Middle East through its Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. Yet, at present, NATO Headquarters in Brussels has no Arabists, Farsi speakers, Islamic experts or anthropologists. To take forward and make a success of so ambitious a political agenda, it will surely be necessary to recruit specialists with linguistic, cultural and area expertise.

Cultural-awareness training should become a standard and integral part of preparations for all NATO peace-support operations. Indeed, all relevant policymakers should be given courses on cultural and religious affairs as they affect their work in the same way that they are given computer courses. To achieve this, NATO needs to establish minimum training standards for all troops participating in NATO-led operations in exactly the same way that it determines minimum levels of technical interoperability. And NATO should certify the training. This is work that could be undertaken by the Alliance's various educational facilities as well as CIMIC Groups North and South.

In the coming years and decades, NATO will remain engaged in peace-support operations and likely take on new missions in places of which it has, at the moment, little knowledge or expertise. Since it will be involved in crisis management and peace-building for the long haul, cultural preparations for such operations should form an important element of the Alliance's transformation. Indeed, a transformation of attitudes must underpin the entire transformation process.

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