The scheduled US and NATO exit from Afghanistan in 2014 depends upon training sufficient Afghan security forces. That is why the sharp increase in so-called "Green on Blue" attacks is of such concern to coalition commanders.
These are incidents in which Afghan militia, police and army trainees turn on their NATO trainers. So far this year, 45 coalition soldiers have been killed in this fashion, a fifth of all coalition casualties, up from 35 in all of 2011 and 20 in 2010. Fifteen were killed last month alone.
Some training programmes have been temporarily stopped. NATO trainers have fortified their compounds against their own students. When training is under way, one coalition soldier-known as a guardian angel-keeps his weapon locked and loaded at all times ready to protect his comrades. These are not arrangements likely to encourage trust or learning.
US commanders insist that the attacks are not the result of Taliban infiltration of Afghan security forces but arise instead from personal grievances and cultural misunderstandings between Afghan trainees and NATO soldiers.
A social scientist working for the US military concluded that Afghans had taken particular offence at the attitudes of American soldiers towards women, at their toilet practices, and at their frequent profanity.
For its part, the Afghan army has produced for its own soldiers a brochure designed to increase cultural understanding of NATO soldiers. It addresses, among other concerns, the nose blowing issue: "This practice is very common in the culture of coalition countries. If a member of the coalition forces blows his nose in your presence, please don’t consider this an offence or an insult."
What are we to make of the idea that cultural misunderstandings and prejudices lie behind "Green on Blue" attacks?
In 1935, there was an earthquake in Quetta in what is now Pakistan. A battalion of the British Indian army was sent to help clean up. One of its companies, composed of high caste Kumaonis, refused to bury the dead in the ground that it would break their caste.
Whether through conviction or calculation, the Indian soldiers made use of their cultural beliefs to try and escape a distasteful task. They were outmanoeuvred when the British and Indian officers, among them a Brahmin, set to work as an example to their men, who were shamed into joining.
A similar situation arose in Burma in 1945, where the British Indian army fought the Japanese. A Pathan company was accompanied by a mortar unit that was portered by elephants. The huge amounts of dung they produced attracted flies and left a heavy stench around their positions. When their British officer asked the Pathans to clean up the dung, they refused on "cultural and religious grounds". Even the sweeper would not help, saying he was responsible only for human excrement.
Tactfully seeking a precedent, the British officer pointed out that the Pathans had cleaned up mule dung earlier in the war. "An elephant is sort of a big mule," he said. After some more gentle cajoling, his men set about their unpleasant but necessary work.
In these examples, South Asian soldiers used "culture" as a field to negotiate conditions of work, to make minor protests, and to insist on respectful treatment. Of course, many of those involved may have sincerely believed in the dangers of caste pollution. But such fears took on meaning in a context of imperial subordination and dirty work. It was if they were saying, "I may have to serve in the army of the British Raj for pay, but I will insist on my dignity."
That is, there was an irreducibly political dimension to the invocation of "culture" as a basis for protest.
Imperial oppressors and occupiers prefer to forget the politics of domination. They like to believe that the "natives" are fundamentally irrational religious bigots. The job of the imperialists is of course to civilise, modernise, develop and enlighten these "natives". But in the meantime, one must be very careful about their prejudices.
When Queen Victoria took over the government of India after the revolt of 1857, she announced: "We do strictly charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under Us, that they abstain from all interference with the Religious Belief or Worship of any of Our Subjects, on pain of Our highest Displeasure."
It was as if 1857 was about cartridges greased with animal fat or shadows falling over Hindus cooking, rather than an indigenous uprising against foreign conquerors.
Similarly in Afghanistan, "culture" may well be the medium through which Afghans express their feelings. But it is beyond absurd to think that Afghans are killing NATO soldiers because they blow their noses or show pictures of their wives or urinate in public.
Afghans are killing Western troops because the US and NATO are in occupation of their country. The Taliban does not need to "infiltrate" the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police. Every Afghan knows they are occupied; every Afghan feels keenly the embarrassed sting of subjugation.
It is in the political context of foreign occupation that "culture" takes on particular meaning and significance. The Afghans are saying: "You have invaded my country, occupied it for more than ten years, killed thousands of us, and you can’t even respect my religion when I am working for you?"
The US and NATO would do well to take a page from the British Raj. The British fetishised respect for the cultural quirks of their South Asian soldiers but also paid them very well. Currently, the pay of Afghan soldiers and police-often the sole breadwinners for their families-stands at well under half the average annual household income in Afghanistan.
But US generals are fooling themselves if they think correct toilet practices are going to save their troops from the defeat that President Obama has scheduled for them in 2014.
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research