The recent American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has reminded many in the military of a profound truth that has been little talked about. For decades, the U.S. Army Special Forces knew this dirty little secret, but it was something they kept to themselves and rarely shared with outsiders. The secret, however, was rather obvious, for all to see, especially in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. You just couldn't talk about it. Officially. Out loud.
The nasty bit of news is that not every tribe, culture or ethnic group is equal in its talents or abilities. In wartime, this sort of knowledge is a matter of life and death. The Special Forces understand, for example, that not all the tribes and ethnic groups in Iraq are identical, and that there are some sharp differences between these groups. Same thing in Afghanistan.
This is all old news for the Special Forces. Nicknamed the Green Berets, the Special Forces were created in the early 1950s with the mission of organizing guerrilla forces behind enemy lines. As a natural corollary to their guerrilla mission, they also began to develop a counter-guerrilla doctrine. In the early 1960s they came to the notice of President John F. Kennedy, who poured a lot of resources into the program (and also gave them their berets), seeing it as a solution to the increasing problem of communist-sponsored wars of national liberation.
Many of the founding members of the Special Forces got their first experience working with World War II guerilla forces (while serving the predecessor of the CIA, the OSS, or Office of Strategic Services). But where the Special Forces, as an institution, got its core competence was in Vietnam. There, the post World War II operators performed outstanding work, an effort that is largely ignored outside the Special Forces community.
In the late 1950s, South Vietnam was increasingly embroiled in a civil war with communist groups, this a lot of Special Forces personnel were soon serving as advisors in Southeast Asia (about 1,100 in 1961, roughly half of all US personnel in Vietnam). The Special Forces presence grew steadily through the 1960s. The Special Forces spent most of their time in the Central Highlands of Vietnam (an area that extended into both North and South Vietnam). There the Special Forces operators formed a highly effective force of fighters recruited from the many tribes that lived in the area.
The Special Forces soon discovered that not all Montagnard groups had the same military potential. Several tribes were outstanding soldiers, however. These included the Hre (110,000 people in the tribe), Renago (10,000), Rhade (120,000), Sedang (70,000), and, arguably the best of all, the Nung (15,000, with more in North Vietnam). All were originally from south China, except the Rhade, who were Malay-Polynesian (Pacific Islander). Rarely did more than ten percent of a tribe join Special Forces organized units, so the outstanding reputation of the Nung --they were the most likely to be selected for particularly difficult assignments—was formed by a virtual handful of fighting men.
Many of the Montagnards were in it for the money as much as for the adventure. Their own jungle economy made little use of money, so the Special Forces often had to pay them in gold or goods. But this was still cheap. The highest paid Montagnard warrior made less than the lowest ranking U.S. soldier (you could put ten Montagnards in the field for what it cost to send one American out to fight). However, the Montagnards were not comparing themselves to Americans, but to Vietnamese, and they could not but notice that Uncle Sam paid them more than what South Vietnam officers earned. In the elite "Prairie Fire"/ SOG scouts the lowest paid Nung received about $60 a month, more than what a South Vietnamese captain made. The Montagnards were paid in piasters (the South Vietnamese currency), but there were always plenty of traders bringing in goods for the Montagnards to spend their new wealth on. The Montagnards thought this was a most accurate and fair pay scale. The South Vietnamese generally kept their mouths shut.
After Vietnam, many of the thousands of Special Forces operators who served there, wrote down what they had learned, largely in official reports and training materials, but also in books and articles published publicly. In the next three decades leading up to September 11, 2001, the Special Forces operators went around the world working with the armed forces of over a hundred nations. They found that what the Vietnam era operators had discovered, was true all over. Some cultures produced better soldiers, some were easier to work with, more trustworthy, more reliable.
Of course, the British could have told (and sometimes did) the Special Forces that they already knew this. Britain had discovered this in India centuries earlier. There, the British recognized some cultures (and there are hundreds of them in South Asia) as "martial races" (good soldiers). Thus, after two centuries, the British still recruit mercenary soldiers from the Gurkha tribes of Nepal. Like the Nungs of the Vietnam, the Gurkhas make very good soldiers. Some cultures do not.
It's not politically correct to mention that, in general, the Arabs, at least for the last few centuries, have not made very good soldiers. But this was a reality that the Special Forces in particular, and American troops in general, had to deal with. But in Iraq, there's another problem, and that's the decades of tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party. This created a situation similar to what West Germany encountered when it absorbed East Germany in 1990. After 55 years of Nazi and communist dictatorship, the population was ill-prepared to deal with democracy and a market economy. Americans encounter the same thing in Iraq. Too many people are passive and lack entrepreneurial spirit. The latter is needed to create economic activity and jobs. In Germany, the younger East Germans were more prone to take advantage of their new freedoms. But the older generation was stuck in the "wait for orders from above" mentality. Decades of state terrorism has a lasting impact.
The terrorism campaign of 2003-8 was driven largely by the Sunni Arab minority. This group had run Iraq, even when it was part of the Turkish empire (until 1918), for centuries, and had a lock on entrepreneurial and military opportunities. This also demonstrated the presence of one of the local "Martial Races" in the region. That's the Bedouin tribes. Many of the people in southern and western Iraq (both Shia and Sunni) are Bedouins, or were before they moved in and settled down. To the west, the Bedouins in Jordan took advantage of British military training, and the training of competent officers and NCOs, to create one of the most formidable (according to both the British and the Israelis) Arab armies in the region. Thus during the Sunni Arab effort to retake control of Iraq via a terrorism campaign, it was the bad guys who had the most fierce fighters on the side. The Shia Arabs, suffering from centuries of economic and military suppression, had a less useful tradition to draw on. Once the Sunni tribes were convinced to turn against the Sunni terrorist movement (which included al Qaeda), the terrorists were finished.
Up north, the Kurds also had a fighting tradition. Until 1918, the Iraqi Kurds were part of the Turkish homeland. But the British added Mosul province to the newly created Iraq in the 1920s, to deny Turkey the oil fields in northern Iraq. But the Kurds (who are ethnically related to the Iranians) had a tradition of serving capably in the Turkish army (the Turks liked to call them "Mountain Turks," a tag the Kurds tended to reject, despite the complement the Turks were paying to Kurdish military prowess.) Many notable warriors in Arab history, like Saladin, were actually Kurds. Naturally, the Kurds also had an entrepreneurial attitude that Saddam was unable to suppress.
Afghanistan has a similar mosaic of cultures, although most of them are very "martial." But most also have a hard time adjusting to the modern world, as witness the medieval minded Taliban. But the Special Forces has seen it all, and has spread their knowledge and cultural skills throughout the American military, and allied forces as well. Thus when U.S. troops enter a foreign country, they not only try to find out, "who will fight," but also, "who can fight."