“Afghan Road Rage”: on the frontline of Public Diplomacy, the real PAOs

Fellow blogger Armchair Generalist recently highlighted an item by Thomas Ricks in the Washington Post about “Afghan Road Rage.”  Ricks highlighted a recent email (July 18, 2006) written by Command Sergeant Major Daniel Wood  and circulated to all Army general officers on Army standards of conduct in Afghanistan.  In the memo, Wood nails the need to understand the enduring diplomacy with the public in public in conflict.
AG provided excerpts from the memo but the entirety (cribbed from Political Opinions) is useful for my purpose. Emphasis added by me.


Wanted to ensure widest dissemination throughout the force. As many of you may or may not have seen and heard over the last week, we (American Military) have taken a beating in the press (US, Afghan and International) and it is not altogether undeserved. Our warriors are described as unconcerned for safety, negligent, offensive, rude, callous, occupiers, hostile, disrespectful… you get the point. These terms have been used in reference to our driving techniques, convoy procedures, verbal and hand gestures from the vehicles, TTP of throwing water bottles and or rocks at Afghan Civilians and pointing crew served weapons at non threatening drivers and vehicles. Let me be clear when I say that the actions of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airman and Marines are a direct reflection on the Non-Commissioned Officers of the services. NCOs are the trainers of our force as well as the standard setters and enforcers. We collectively are allowing this to occur.

You may not have broken the code yet and if you have, bear with me. We have a relevant and capable force and our leaders are innovative, adaptive and confident. We have been trained to confront uncertainty and to solve complex problems. We are currently engaged with an enemy that attempts to win battles in the press where the tide of public opinion is the ammunition and make no mistake… this ammunition is effective, especially when it has credibility. The effective engagement of the “middle ground” or the people of the rural communities and villages of this country is where the long war will be won. EVERY TIME you move down a road in this country, you are affecting this middle ground either positively or negatively.

If your convoy or vehicle cuts off local vehicles, forces them off the road or out of a lane, leaves adults and children in a big cloud of dust, does not allow pedestrians to cross the road or makes people jump out of the way, you are effectively giving ammunition to the enemy. When a driver, TC or Gunner flips someone off or gives some other negative hand gesture or yells at people in a offensive way or throws things at pedestrians, you have just set back the efforts of those who have gone before you and possibly given an Afghan citizen a reason to follow anybody but the “arrogant westerner” and the Government that they back.

The disciplined use of weapons, in part means that you know when and where to point your weapon. If the gunners in your convoys do not understand this concept, I need you to get into the process and explain what constitutes a threat. It is imperative that our warriors know how to operate in a non-threatening situation as well as a threatening situation and most of all to be able to tell the difference. The last few years has taught us that we must be able to change focus from waving and smiling to engaging the enemy with extreme prejudice in a matter of seconds… it is the nature of this war. We need to ensure that we are not creating a more hostile environment based on our behavior.

We must never lose sight of humanity as we wage this war. We have the Law of War and the Rules of Engagement that guide our actions and conduct. We are a values based Military and we cannot afford to lose the moral high ground. The enemy thrives on weaving a web of lies about our society and our Armed Forces. It is critical that we prove their lies to be just that… lies. The people of Afghanistan are developing a more educated outlook concerning the American military every day. Your warriors are painting that picture or writing a chapter in that book whenever they travel the road of this land.

I need every Non-Commissioned Officer in the CJOA to get after this. Cover it in your convoy briefs, hold NCOPD classes and speak with your warriors about the necessity of winning this type of battle. We cannot give the enemy this type of advantage. Help your people make the connection between their actions on the roads and in the local communities and the success of our mission to build credibility and confidence in the Government of Afghanistan. We have got to turn this tide now and I know that we can through your efforts. Ensure that there are consequences for those who choose to treat the people of this country with less respect than is due them. Do what NCOs do; make corrections, enforce standards, lead by example and train your warriors. Senior Enlisted Leaders from all services; implement a plan that will Educate, Enable and Encourage your people to be culturally aware and safe.

We are at war and this land is inherently dangerous due to the type of enemy that we fight. Nothing said above was meant to say that anyone should be less aware or battle focused. I know that you operate
daily in a potentially deadly environment and every warrior needs to remain sharp. Take a moment to read the note below from the Army Chief of Staff, General Schoomaker. Although directed to soldiers, I am sure that you will find it applicable across the services. Thank you for what each one of you do every day in service to our Nation and for the people of Afghanistan. We will win this.CSM Daniel R. Wood, CSM, United States Army, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan

AG’s comments are (as always) worth reading and focus on the quality of the NCOs to lead the troops. This is true and today’s recruits are tomorrow’s NCOs.

The importance Wood places on perceptions of the people overdue and under-appreciated. He recognizes the importance of winning over the population, something many both in and outside of the military do not get. John Nagl in the JHU Rethinking seminar just a couple of weeks back, and in his book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, emphasizes the reality of getting the population on your side. Notable is the emphasis on SWET: sewage, water, electricity, and trash. By focusing on SWET in the AOR, there was a clear decrease in insurgent attacks that correlated directly to the SWET program (which included picking up trash twice weekly). This is the theory of addressing Broken Windows by American metropolitan police departments: start small and the community helps.

The moral high ground argument also echoes back to the recent appearance of the JAGs on Capitol Hills. When asked about whether we can win the “War on Terror” if we do not follow the Geneva Conventions, one of the JAGs said we cannot win if we do not.

Connecting action with deed and purpose does build credibility. The ammunition, as Wood aptly describes it, is based on perception. Perception of the occupier as displayed by their actions.

Does sacrificing a little credibility matter? Yes. USMA’s Department of Military Instruction has a ‘case study’ of the inexpensive means insurgents can lever allies away in the unattributed Sowing Dissension in Insurgencies. In this case, the 3rd party operatives mounted cheap InfoOps that, along with a hit and run under disguise, redirected SF operations and broke alliances. Mounting the operation wasn’t difficult nor was it expensive, as the enemy demonstrated.

Wood’s memo is excellent and should be read by all in the military and
civilian sectors in Afghanistan, Iraq, and everywhere else (even TSA
agents in the US… ). This includes everybody from Embassy personal to the combatant and non-combatant allies of ours in various theaters around the globe:  notably private military contractors. Consider an interview in the movie Shadow Company with a security contractor laughing off an Iraqi complaining with “so what if my warning ricochet hit your car?”

Woods realizes that perceptions do matter. Videos laughing off killings give ammunition to the enemy. To reject this is to fail to understand the nuances of insurgency, their support systems, and distinctions between goals and methods. More importantly, to reject this rejects real hetergeniuty of the “enemy” and their support.

Just some quick thoughts on this very important memo that understands the foundation, as proven through history, of winning wars.

The world is complex as are the solutions, but sometimes it can be so easy. Act like professionals, all of us, and we will deny the easy ammunition to the enemy.

3 thoughts on ““Afghan Road Rage”: on the frontline of Public Diplomacy, the real PAOs

  1. I’m glad you printed out the entire memo. I would have preferred the long version, but time and tides wait for no man. Or something like that. It is a good memo – we have good NCOs, but it’s a hell of a job to keep the troops straight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  2. Excellent synopsis of what needs to be done, but the implementation is the hard part. In order to make this happen we are talking a cultural change, and not just in the military, but throughout the country. Our servicemembers are a direct reflection of who we are as Americans – they don’t come from special, segregated parts of the country. Making this change will take a lot more than one highly positioned NCO.

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