Coalitions and Ethical Relativism: Challenges for Those on the Ground

DR DAVID WHETHAM is Reader in Military Ethics and Director of the King’s Centre for Military Ethics.

Editorial note: This article contains content some readers may find upsetting.


In the latest volume to come out in the book series from the European Chapter of the International Society for Military Ethics, I write about the spectrum of ethical challenges and dilemmas that have been faced by ABCA military personnel over the last 20 years of operations. While the range of issues has been broad, one of the recurring themes that coalition personnel report on is the challenge of working with indigenous partners who appear to have different ways of looking at some situations. Specifically, what is one expected/required to do when the partner you are working with does something that you know is wrong, but they appear to regard as perfectly acceptable?

Particularly in the early years of the War on Terror, guidance was sought from above for various challenges, but often not received when it was needed, leading to many people on the ground adopting a default relativist position to try and deal with the reality they were faced with – ‘things are just different here.’ Many were also very conscious of not wishing to be seen as ‘ethical imperialists’, imposing their own cultural and ethical values in a place where they did not belong.

One of the most profound challenges was faced by coalition forces embedded with the Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) in various parts of Afghanistan. In this role, coalition personnel were expected to work closely alongside local forces in various capacities, be they Afghan National Army (ANA) or police (ANP). Most of those personnel upheld the highest standards of behaviour. However, in some areas, Thursday nights in particular were notorious for the practise of bacha bazi, where young male ‘conscripts’ were expected to engage in sexual acts with older men. Had the activity been limited to consenting adults, that itself would have been unlikely to cause a problem. However, checkpoints, supposedly set up to provide security to the local area, were instead being used as opportunities to target and select prepubescent boys who would then be raped. Even if age had not been an issue, there was no question of the local population arguing with or defying such a powerful local figure so any idea of consent was clearly not applicable. Friday prayers were considered to absolve those involved of any sin. Was this really something that just had to be accepted because ‘things are different here’?

The simple answer is ‘no’ but, unfortunately, war is never simple. Coalition personnel should, of course, respect local customs, but that does not extend to saying nothing while your ally rapes his way through the young boys in the local population. The fact that the practise tended to occur just before prayers for forgiveness demonstrates that those doing it also did not actually regard what they were doing as ‘right’ even if it was common. Indeed, the fact that the Taliban did not tolerate the paedophilia was one of the reasons that they managed to maintain support amongst a population being abused by the very people supposed to be protecting them. For coalition militaries to be seen supporting those carrying out the abuse was hardly conducive to effective counterinsurgency strategy when seen in these terms – a point Kilcullen makes well.

But, that did not mean that national governments were always keen to address the situation or provide advice to their personnel. Whether through a fear of generating unsympathetic headlines at home, or a worry about upsetting key allies, for a long time there was a vacuum of official guidance on the ground, leaving personnel to try and reconcile their core values with the task at hand. Trying to do the right thing in a context in which coalition personnel have no legal authority over the personnel they are there to train is difficult (even more so when those people ‘are’ the law). Situations involving armed people could very easily escalate, especially where honour was apparently being questioned. This was also, unfortunately, often only one of many ethical challenges that needed to be dealt with. Some of those challenges, perversely, could only be addressed with the help of the very people who were carrying out the abuse. Living with the resulting cognitive and moral dissonance has been a profound challenge for many people.

That was why ultimately, it was so important for the long-term solution to come from the policy level rather than expecting individuals to ‘muddle through’. In this case, an effective institutional response to prevent the abuse from continuing was eventually put into place by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in which, for example, the police force of an entire area was removed for retraining (and the removal of criminal elements). While they were away, they were temporarily replaced with well-trained, well-resourced and well-motivated Afghan police units who did their jobs in a professional manner. The returning ‘cleaned up’ police officers were made very aware that they had a lot to live up to and that the local population now had both high expectations of what real police are supposed to act like, and also that they had an independent complaints procedure, bypassing those local police, should any abuse return. While that may have been of little comfort to the historical victims, change did take place and that change was ultimately ‘owned’ by the local population.

Ethical relativism does have an intuitive attraction because on the face of it, different cultures and societies do appear to do things in different ways, sometimes accepting and applying different ethical standards. But it is easy to confuse ‘is’ with ‘ought’. Cultural or ethical sensitivity does not require us to stand by and watch acts that are abhorrent, especially when they also contradict the values held by those who are directly involved in the situation. There are certain core values that are and must be shared by all cultures and societies if they are to survive and flourish. We should always be prepared to stand up for these, and policy makers need to be aware that presenting personnel on the ground with tasks that unintentionally challenge core values without providing any further help or guidance is dangerous on many levels for both the personnel themselves and the mission they have been sent to accomplish.

Image: A village sits in a valley in the Hindu Kush Mountain Range in Laghman Province, Afghanistan September 7, 2008. In the absence of flat ground, local farmers create terraces in the side of the mountain to plant crops in. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse/Released), via wikimedia.

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