Staff Editorial: Increased cultural sensitivity required

A U.S. military goodwill operation undertaken in southern Afghanistan this week sparked outcry after villagers realized that the soccer balls they were given were inscribed with the Saudi Arabian flag, complete with holy inscriptions.

Although the backlash so far has been relegated to small-scale protests, the sacrilegious act does not bode well for a military campaign that many analysts say has been suffering in recent years.

Military officials said the gaffe was accidental, but it accentuates a greater problem – namely, that military operations must incorporate greater levels of cultural sensibility in order to reap the desired rewards.

Efforts have been made in this area in both Afghanistan and Iraq with positive outcomes, but a recent Newsweek report shows that a lack of cultural ties has been instrumental in the failure to catch wanted fugitive No. 1, Osama bin Laden.

Soldiers and covert agents operating along the Pakistan and Afghanistan border – the ungoverned mountain area where many believe bin Laden and his top lieutenants to be hiding – evidently failed to adequately learn local customs and cultural subtleties, and as a direct result relations with the tribal inhabitants has been poor.

This area, which includes Pakistan’s frontier territory of Waziristan, could hold vital clues to one of history’s largest manhunts, but a lack of experts, understanding and cultural acclimation has effectively prevented American forces from establishing long-term bonds with the inhabitants.

Acts perpetuated by al-Qaida and its sympathizers have horrified the world time and again, but we must not forego basic civility and traditions in favor of reckless abandon.

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