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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.
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.
"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."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.