Afghan troops get a lesson in American cultural ignorance

During the Vietnam War, American soldiers shipped out armed with government-issued guides to the distant land and the mysterious people.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has tried training sessions, embedded cultural advisers, recommended reading lists and even a video game designed to school the troops in local custom.

But 11 years into the war, NATO troops and Afghan soldiers are still beset by a dangerous lack of cultural awareness, officials say, contributing to a string of insider attacks that have threatened to undermine the military partnership.

So the Afghan army is trying something new: a guide to the strange ways of the American soldier. The goal is to convince Afghan troops that when their Western counterparts do something deeply insulting, it’s likely a product of cultural ignorance and not worthy of revenge.

The pamphlet is intended to “strengthen our understanding of our [NATO] counterpart,” according to an English translation of the pamphlet that was provided to The Washington Post. But in doing so, it also reveals seemingly minor — and rarely acknowledged — cultural faux pas that have created palpable tension between the two forces.

“Please do not get offended if you see a NATO member blowing his/her nose in front of you,” the guide instructs.

“When Coalition members get excited, they may show their excitement by patting one another on the back or the behind,” it explains. “They may even do this to you if they are proud of the job you’ve done. Once again, they don’t mean to offend you.”

And another tip: “When someone feels comfortable in your presence, they may even put their feet on their own desk while speaking with you. They are by no means trying to offend you. They simply don’t know or have forgotten the Afghan custom.” Pointing the soles of one’s shoes at someone is considered a grievous insult in Afghanistan.

The guide also warns Afghan soldiers that Western troops might wink at them or inquire about their female relatives or expose their private parts while showering — all inappropriate actions by Afghan standards.

While some of the tips may be amusing to an American audience, the intention is deadly serious.
Fifty-one coalition troops have been killed this year by their Afghan counterparts. While some insider attacks have been attributed to Taliban infiltrators, military officials say the majority stem from personal disputes and misunderstandings.

The 18-page pamphlet, officially titled “Cultural Understanding — A Guide to Understanding Coalition Cultures,” was introduced this month by the Afghan Defense Ministry. Written in Dari, the primary language in much of Afghanistan, it will soon be distributed to Afghan military leaders across the country. The booklet will be taught in three one-hour sessions to all soldiers as well as new recruits.

As NATO winds down its mission here, the “Cultural Understanding” guide marks the Afghan army’s most significant effort to identify long-standing points of contention and confusion between the two forces. It also seems aimed at restoring support for a foreign troop presence that has seen its popularity plummet during the course of the war. Despite widespread misgivings among the Afghan public, in the guide the coalition is depicted glowingly, often in florid language.

The United States is “a little like a lovely carpet. Different colored strands combine to make a beautiful whole.”

NATO’s coalition is described as a “work of art.”

But every work of art has its flaws. The task of laying out a set of commonly misinterpreted behaviors fell to Brig. Gen. Mohammad Amin Nasib, the bearish, affable head of religious and ideological affairs at the Defense Ministry, and his senior military adviser from the NATO side, Michael W. Gore, a mild-mannered Navy commander and chaplain.

“Some would argue that we’re too late, but any time is the right time to promote understanding of each other’s culture,” Gore said. “The Golden Rule goes a long way in any culture in helping to foster tolerance and understanding.”

Nasib wasn’t as buoyant. “Unfortunately, it’s too late,” he said. “It should have been done early.”

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan since 2012. He served previously as an education reporter in Washington, and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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