Posted by: Christian | September 15, 2008

Nadir plays the Americans

About a year and a half ago Afghanistanica wrote about deliberate misinformation leading to innocent civilian casualties:

…recent bouts of civilian casualties in Afghanistan might have been the result of deliberate misinformation by “tribal rivals.” […]. I would hope that NATO/US troops are no longer falling for this BS. I’ve heard that they have become quite skeptical about local information and are especially wary of walk-in informers. [But] I imagine that they just don’t have the time and resources to follow up on every report. I would also hope the situation is not as bad as late 2001/early 2002 when on the say-so of some random guy the Americans wiped out a convoy of tribal leaders on the way to a (the?) Jirga.

But as illustrated by the recent raid on Azizabad this is still happening.

Al Jazeera English visited the village of Azizabad and confirmed earlier reports that the villagers blame a tribal rival by the name of Nadir Tawakil (or Tawakal) for providing the Americans with the false information that a Taliban meeting was taking place in the village.

I try to stay away from discussing issues that are well covered by others. So I’m not posting this to point out the American military’s wretched communication skills, nor to discuss the moral implications or the issue of “hearts and minds.” I’m posting this to illustrate how sophisticated many of the players on the ground are. Many of them may lack a formal education, they may even be illiterate. They may have never been outside of Afghanistan, save perhaps some time spent in a refugee camp in Pakistan or Iran. They may remain silent, saying little or nothing at all. They may feign ignorance. They might just concur with everything that you say. They might not even be visible, instead operating through proxies.

But never assume that you are smarter than anyone in this country. Your education does not count for much here. The social cues you are accustomed to watch for are very different here. There have been cases of “simple villagers and peasants” deceiving anthropologists who lived amongst them for as long as a year. Comparatively speaking, a US Army officer is easy “prey” for deception by men such as Nadir Tawakil.


  1. Good point, well made.

  2. Also in agreement. I work with several Army and Marine Corps officers who’ve returned from tours in Afghanistan. I’m sure such manipulation was atrocious in the early days of OEF, but I’d like to think its improving (Azizabad aside, if thats possible).

    Most of my co-workers relate how they immediately tried to learn the tribal/social makeup of their AOR. For instance, my friend John would explain how local Kuchis would tell him that an entire village is Taliban; he would question the guy and figure out that either the village is feuding with the nomads or they are competing over grazing areas. He would then dismiss the claim. The same would happen when differing valleys/tribes/clans/extended families would accuse others of being Taliban–although he noted the claims and looked into them, many times it would turn out to be a local dispute.

    Nonetheless, this sort of manipulation is ongoing and dangerous–its scary to think of how long the Afghans have been playing this game…

  3. There is still something funny about this whole episode. People are talking about it as if the Americans heard a whisper about Taliban troops and dropped a bomb.

    When you read accounts of soldiers on the ground, they often find that it’s too HARD to get air support during operations: American commanders are well aware of the toll civilian casualties take on the overall mission and routinely deny air support requests from their own soldiers when collateral damage is deemed to be high.

    It seems to me that for the Americans to carry out such a strike in an area with civilians, they either had a highly-trusted, reliable source give them credible information, or they were able to get secondary confirmation on the ground. Either way, there is more to this story than a hatfield-mccoy tribal feud that the Americans foolishly bought into. As the previous commenter points out, it’s not like Afghan duplicity is a surprise to anybody working there.

    I just wonder if we’ll ever get the full account of what happened.

  4. Well, RObert Gates aplologized personally today, the ROE got rewritten yesterday so it seems pretty clear to me that something must have been wrong with the original US version. You dont get the Sec Def in to kowtow over minor details. Im wondering about the joint agenda of Mullen (in Pakistan) and Gates (Kabul)…?

  5. What a stunning revelation – that “simple peasants” can be smarter than us. Umm, didn’t we already learn that lesson in Viet Nam?

  6. We are STILL experiencing a complete lack of understanding of the culture. Despite the fact that I may be an expert of my AOR, it is the nuances of cognition and relationships that cause us to confuse what is reality; not to mention the deliberate deception. I have been on the ground in Afghanistan two years now and I am appalled at our lack of understanding of the culture and how really duplicitous it is. Not to mention our penchant for hasty, short term analysis decisions and throwing money at our problems. After 7 years at war, “We still dont get it!!”


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