Wednesday, August 31, 2016


The Deadly Consequences Of Cultural Insensitivity In Afghanistan

A member of the Afghan National Police walks behind a U.S. Army soldier during a joint patrol in Kandahar Province. So-called "green-on-blue" attacks are often attributed to cultural differences.
A member of the Afghan National Police walks behind a U.S. Army soldier during a joint patrol in Kandahar Province. So-called "green-on-blue" attacks are often attributed to cultural differences.
By Frud Bezhan
If a foreign soldier asks to see a picture of your wife, don't take offense -- but don't show it to him either. And if he blows his nose in your presence, or exits from the shower naked in your presence, don't be alarmed. These actions are not intended to insult, and are no cause for retaliation.

These are among the bits of cultural advice being provided to recruits being trained for Afghanistan's fledgling security force. Contained in an extensive guidebook being distributed by the Afghan government, the advice is intended to establish codes of conduct to reduce attacks by Afghan soldiers and police against foreign troops serving in Afghanistan.

Such "green-on-blue" attacks, as they are commonly known, are often attributed to cultural differences that emerge as foreigners train Afghanistan's future security forces.

Ignorance can have deadly consequences. The NATO-led coalition force says Afghan security forces have killed at least 45 international troops in such insider attacks.

And while the common reaction is to blame Taliban militants, NATO says only about one-quarter of the attacks can be pinned on enemy combatants who infiltrated Afghan forces. The great majority, rather, are due to misunderstandings, cultural differences, and Afghan soldiers harboring personal grudges against some of those training the 350,000-strong Afghan National Army and police force.

Cultural Taboos

The 28-page "Brochure for Understanding the Culture of Coalition Forces," which has been distributed to some 5,000 Afghan soldiers so far, sheds light on the huge cultural divide that still exists some 11 years after the U.S.-led invasion (see excerpts here).

In a deeply religious and conservative country with an instilled culture of honor and pride, the guidebook lists taboos in Afghan culture that it says are routine in the West. It reminds Afghans not be offended if a foreign soldier puts their boots on a table, swears, or pats them on the back. "Remember that all misunderstandings are unintentional," the guidebook advises.

"Even slight cultural differences can cause friction and misunderstanding," it adds. "If you or your coalition colleagues become angry, stay away for a while until the situation is defused."

As the number of green-on-blue attacks has risen, NATO has implemented various measures to keep them in check, albeit with little success. The coalition, for example, has made it compulsory for international troops to carry loaded weapons at all times. Efforts have also been made to strengthen vetting and screening procedures for new Afghan recruits, with the U.S. military employing an eight-step vetting process for the past year.

Patrick Hennessey, a former British soldier who served in the southern Helmand Province, says the distribution of such guidebooks is a welcome development. Previously, he says, it was only Western troops that received cultural-awareness education.

Patrick Hennessey (right) poses with Qiam, an Afghan National Army officer, in Helmand in 2009.Patrick Hennessey (right) poses with Qiam, an Afghan National Army officer, in Helmand in 2009.
Patrick Hennessey (right) poses with Qiam, an Afghan National Army officer, in Helmand in 2009.
Patrick Hennessey (right) poses with Qiam, an Afghan National Army officer, in Helmand in 2009.
"I think it's a step in the right direction. I don't think by handing out a few leaflets you can stop the problem overnight, but I think it's important that both sides have recognized the importance of this and that both sides have tried to do something," Hennessey says. "If it helps alleviate the problem and helps reduce some of the surprise and aversion, then that can only be a good thing."

Nevertheless, Hennessey also notes that the effort may not have a far-reaching impact, considering that many members of the Afghan force are illiterate.

Perceived, And Real, Insults

Hennessey, who has embarked on a literary career since quitting the army in 2007, recently published "KANDAK: Fighting With Afghans." The book explores the often comically bad first meetings and the mutual mistrust between Afghan and international troops.

Hennessey explains that a normal occurrence in Western militaries, such as being shouted at by your superior officer, can be taken as a grave insult by Afghan soldiers.

"The genesis, or [source] of resentment, that seems to have fed into moments when Afghan soldiers have turned their weapons [on Western soldiers] seems to be because they perceive themselves being slighted by being shouted at, or some sort of perceived insult," he says. "Very few of these attacks seem to be about somebody who has a political, religious, or ideological hatred of Westerners in Afghanistan or who is an out-and-out Taliban sympathizer."

Hennessey also stresses that such attacks cannot all be written off as Afghans misinterpreting foreigners’ culture. There are indeed times when foreign soldiers look down upon their Afghan allies. As an example, he recalls that Afghan troops sometimes smear black kohl under their eyes, which foreign troops mock as makeup. Afghan troops also appear to share a greater "brotherly bond," which reveals itself in hand-holding and other common gestures that are generally taboo among foreign soldiers.

Add in Afghan soldiers' shabby uniforms, lack of discipline, and sometimes scruffy appearance, Hennessey says, and you have the building blocks for a negative stereotype of Afghan soldiers that portrays them as lazy and untidy. He says it is important to nip such avenues for ill will in the bud because they can lead to dangerous friction.

"All the little [cultural] differences added up to a much bigger problem of just not getting each other -- Afghan and British soldiers who after a while had just given up, thinking they could never truly understand each other," Hennessey says. "The single most dangerous thing is that the two sides don't trust each other because then they don't openly communicate and they second-guess."

Frud Bezhan

Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to 

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Ben
September 13, 2012 20:26
I`ve not seen such paid hypocrisy.Author uses the help of some British soldier making literature career.This delicate sencible Afgan Muslims!They did not explode the Buddha`s statues,burn,mutilate live people,deprive women all human rights and despise all "infidels". Obama`s military commanders make everything for appeasing the Muslims and sometimes this looks rediculouse.
In Response

by: Anonymous
September 14, 2012 09:08
I am sorry "ben". It is their culture and it is their property. Stop sticking your noses everywhere.
In Response

by: John Galt from: California
September 18, 2012 02:39
Hey! We invaded and conquered their country...fair and square.

by: human from: earth
September 14, 2012 15:13

These aggressors in Afghanistan have been meddling in the affairs of this society for decades, who would expect them to have manners?
In Response

by: Anonimouse from: Western Hempisphere
September 14, 2012 23:50 that really a valid reason to turn a gun on someone? Plenty of "manners" have been evident by the providing things like literacy, voting rights, human rights, electricity, running water, medical care. Too bad some Afghans are unwilling to allow their fellow countrymen the opportunity to crawl out of the 7th century.

by: V.E. Perkins from: U.S.A.
September 14, 2012 23:53
I wonder if Patrick Henessey reflected on how patronizing he
appears posing for the picture with his hand and arm resting on
Qiam's shoulder. It's ironic that the picture should contradict his
ostensible message of cultural sensitivity.
In Response

by: End the War from: Here
September 16, 2012 23:15
NATO is pretending that this is about cultural misunderstandings. A more obvious cause is the thousands of civilians killed by NATO (at the very least 3,000 to date by UN figures), the occupation of the country by US/NATO for 10+ years and the interference by the west in Afghanistan over a much longer period. Some of the comments above show the ignorance and racism of many Americans / Westerners. I do not support the Taliban or Al-Qeda - equally I do not support imperialist invasions of countries dressed up as human rights missions.
In Response

by: bill from: finland
September 18, 2012 18:48
define civilians please.
according to the Taleban they are all civilians when it suits them. However there can be no doubt that the people who are killed by the Taleban and their suicide children are definitely civilians. They are very often killed for simply standing up to the Taleban, or being perceived as assisting the ISAF forces.
Most people in Afghanistan who can speak freely are very worried about the ISAF leaving their country, especialy the women.
Remember also that they have an elected government, not a perfect government but a freely elected one which includes women.

by: Michael Kerjman
September 17, 2012 12:25
To my personal acquaintance with, even barracks might tell of the personnel’s national belonging-if in this case Afghan soldiers have been allowed in.

However, the Coalition Force boys are steadily being murdered by local recruits not because of a manhood-linked jealousy.

by: Anonymous
September 18, 2012 04:05
"In a deeply religious and conservative country with an instilled culture of honor and pride" oh...oh ok i must have misunderstood the definition of honor and pride cause i thought using lines of women as human shields was quite the opposite. my mistake.

by: Dan Thrapp from: Columbus Ohio
September 18, 2012 07:27
They don't need training they have had centuries of war and killings. Its a little more than naive to be giving them weapons. Only allow them weapons after the last troops are gone! Let me carry sticks and bubble gum!

The biggest mistake is not teaching them they lost the war. They have little to say or input on all matters. Be skillful in education teaching them reasoning and problem solving to abandon Islam.

Surprising after a real war like WWII these problems did not exit. I wonder why? Massive punishment with massive destruction equals massive compliance!
In Response

by: William from: Aragon
September 18, 2012 23:51
But Dan, they haven't lost the war. ISAF will be retreating out of this country by the close of 2014, and although the White House and Pentagon will gibber about "withdrawal with honor" the rest of the world can see it for what it is, even if American citizens cannot.

This piece of military adventurism will end with much the same result as Iraq i.e. 10 years of the non-achievement of policy objectives, an unacceptable number of dead, and with global adversaries enjoying a decade of strengthening their positions and influence while the US position has steadily weakened. Do you think that the US is now stronger than it was a decade ago? You have an election coming up shortly - ponder my comments well.

by: Mike from: Virginia
September 26, 2012 18:25
Um, if the problem is "cultural misunderstandings," why is NATO stepping up the vetting process to keep the Taliban out?

The ANA guys are always asking to see pics of girlfriends and wives (been there, done that) and if they are asked to return the favor, the only thing you'll see is a burqa anyway.

Most Popular

Editor's Picks