The "Ugly American" Trainers

November 19, 2012 Topic: Post-ConflictSecurity Region: AfghanistanUnited States

The "Ugly American" Trainers

Efforts to prepare the Afghans to fend off the Taliban on their own suffer from cultural tone-deafness.


Much has been made about the difficulties we have in training the Afghan Army and police. Most noted are the so-called green-on-blue incidents in which those we train turn their weapons on their trainers and kill U.S. troops. But these incidents are not due to Taliban fighters enlisting in the Afghan Army or police. As Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul, explained in the Washington Post, “fewer than a quarter of the attacks have been attributed to Taliban infiltration.” The rest are due to cultural frictions.

At stake is not merely the ability to prevent our young people from being killed by our ally but also the pace at which we can extricate ourselves from Afghanistan without fear that its regime will collapse the moment the last American takes off. In Iraq, we face a similar challenge: the main projection of power Washington has left in the country is U.S. trainers who, while rarely shot at, are nonetheless failing.


It is all too obvious that our trainers have not read The Ugly American nor watched the movie of the same title. The message is not that Americans are ugly but that they are naive. Our intentions may be noble, but we do not begin to understand the local culture, and we are way too ambitious. No wonder we are doing so poorly.

The training mission in Iraq is collapsing. The New York Times called it the biggest aid mission since the post-WWII Marshall Plan, but it has already been greatly scaled back and, after many billions wasted, may shortly be shut down completely. Buildings are left unfinished, and Iraqis are alienated.

One reason for these failures in both countries is that we are culturally tone-deaf. It turns out that many of the trainers we are sending to Iraq are retired American cops who have little preparation for the mission. Naturally, they are trying to teach Iraqis to do things the way Americans do them at home. As a result, Iraqis feel that they are wasting their time by attending the training classes. One anecdote will stand for many that are making the rounds. Our trainers suggested to the Iraqi police that they watch for two signs in a person likely to be a terrorist: sudden large withdrawals from bank accounts and binge drinking—this despite the fact that most Iraqis have no bank accounts and jihadists consider consuming alcohol a sin.

In Afghanistan, even more than in Iraq, American trainers ignore the main finding of the neoconservatives: government programs that seek to change people are bound to fail. Hence, we best rely as much as possible on local methods and seek to change only those details we must. Less gets you more. If this is true for Los Angeles and Chicago, you can be sure it also holds for Marja and Kabul.

All this is ignored when we take the illiterate sons of farmers and shepherds, who are very accustomed to fighting with AK-47s, and insist that they use M16s. Anybody who has fired an AK-47 (or, in my case, the similar Uzi and before it, its predecessor the Sten gun) should not be surprised that the Afghans “spray and pray,” rather than aim through the M16 sights. This is what they are used to and it works, if you have enough experience in learning to shoot short bursts, so as to not run out of ammunition. The AK-47 requires little cleaning, even in the desert dust. The M16 is more accurate at greater distances but only if a soldier keeps it clean and keeps adjusting its notoriously sensitive sights.

American soldiers are loaded with heavy gear that weighs fifty pounds or more. It takes an ugly American to fail to note that many Afghans are generally much shorter and lighter built than Americans. Put all this gear on them and they can barely budge.

We want soldiers to read maps and the police to read Miranda rights to those they capture. Yet more than 95 percent of the recruits are illiterate. They cannot even make out the serial numbers on their guns, so each will hold on to his weapon and become familiar with its peculiarities. And one must wonder what it means in the Afghan context to be told “And if you cannot afford a lawyer . . .”

Sometimes our trainers become truly ambitious. To have an Afghan military, it needs an air force, right? Well, we were smart enough to supply the Afghans with Russian helicopters, which for some reason are best suited for the Afghan rugged terrain. However, we insist that the commands by Afghan pilots will be given in English. This requirement further complicates the training mission. No wonder after years of training there are no more than a handful of Afghan pilots.

We must narrow our agenda, sorting out those technical and behavioral habits that the Afghan police officers and soldiers must acquire—and let go of all the rest. This, in turn, may mean that rather than “embedding” our units within theirs, we should provide their units with support—in the form of intelligence, firepower, transportation and so on—but will not join ranks in the field. Such support would allow them to fight largely their way—and it will be make it less likely that they turn their arms on us.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World, was published by Transaction.