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Hearts and minds

March 3, 2010

Even as US troops take on Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, officials at NATO headquarters are turning to civil society groups, hoping to correct past mistakes and build new cultural relations.

Kids and German soliders in Afghanistan
NATO soldiers are being told to put their rifles on their backs and talkImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

American-led troops are currently embarking on a massive new surge in Afghanistan. At the same time, NATO is also attempting to work on cultural relations with that war-torn country.

In order to do this, the international military alliance is turning to bodies like the British Council, a public agency best known for teaching English to foreign students or, during the dark days of the Cold War, opening libraries behind the Iron Curtain.

At a conference in Brussels recently, top NATO officials insisted there is a clear need for cultural relations in military operations. "Of course this is not without problems," NATO colonel Per Mikkelson admitted. "We know some organizations will not be seen with the military, for security reasons, and we need to learn how to navigate such problems."

Afghan boy rides past US troops
Building trust is seen as the biggest challengeImage: AP

Mikkelson insists that at a basic level, soldiers are getting much better training in situation awareness, and is confident this approach is rapidly becoming a mindset. "Put the rifle on the back, take off the helmet, the sunglasses, and talk to people, address them the right way," he advises soldiers. "Respect their religion, for instance during Ramadan. Do not eat or drink in public. When you are entering a house, observe the rules, like taking off your shoes. All these things build confidence."

Building trust

But the British Council's chief executive Martin Davidson says all this does add up to cross-cultural communication. He says non-military organizations need to work with local communities to build lasting trust.

The Council's expertise, he insists, goes well beyond dialogue, pointing to its Access to Justice programs in Sierra Leone and Iraq, where the Council is helping to build local higher education programs for young Iraqis. The Council also carries out extensive research - for example on attitudes to education in Pakistan.

For Davidson there is a clear role for cultural relations in NATO operations. "When you hold ground militarily, what are you going to do? You actually have to engage in providing support to local populations and rebuilding, and working within the constraints of local civil society."

But for some, it is equally important to talk to the right people. Ahmad Siroos Popal is now at the University of Erfurt in Germany, studying for a Masters in Public Policy. He has only been in Europe for two months, having lived all his life in Afghanistan. Ahmad argues that the international community has consistently made the same mistakes by talking to imams rather than individual Afghans.

British Council logo on door
NATO has called on the British Council for helpImage: AP

Doomed plan

"From past experience, it is not going to work," says Popal. "We have to engage directly with the people. If you want to empower the people, and if you want to win the hearts and minds of the people, then you have to talk to them, not the imams."

But Davidson points out that there needs to be the political will to engage local communities. "It requires willingness and skill to listen to what people have to say, and you also have to work hard on practical projects that are going to have relevance to the community, often within a very short period of time."

The problem for the international community in Afghanistan is that there are no quick-fixes. Developing trust in people scarred by nearly a decade of a bloody NATO occupation is not an task that can be completed overnight.

Author: Nina-Maria Potts (bk)
Editor: Rob Turner