Cultural Misunderstanding

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Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers patrol with American troops in in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on September 5, 2012

Bobby Ghosh, TIME’s Baghdad correspondent for much of the Iraq War, once told me a story. Early in the war he embedded with a company of soldiers from the Arkansas National Guard. They had been given the task of patrolling a mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood, a tall order for even the most seasoned soldiers.

For much of his time with the unit, Bobby and his photographer were bombarded with questions about Islam, Middle Eastern history and Iraqi politics and customs. While they were eager to learn, the guardsman had precious little experience with different cultures. Bobby asked the commander, out of curiosity, if he had ever visited a foreign country. The captain told him that before coming to Iraq he had never left Arkansas. In fact, he had only been away from his small hometown to go to Little Rock three times, and he never spent the night.

The Arkansas Guardsmen are an extreme example, but it is true that for the past twelve years American troops have fought complicated wars in two very complex nations, about which they knew little a decade ago. Over time, this has improved; every unit I served in or have covered received cultural sensitivity training.

And as brutal as repeat deployments have been on the military writ large, it has instilled some institutional knowledge among the troops. I once listened to a group of sergeants with about a dozen combat deployments between them discuss neighborhoods in Tikrit, Iraq. They seemed to know more about the nuances of that far-flung spot of the world than they did about their hometowns.

Yet as the war in Afghanistan enters its twelfth year it seems there are still large cultural gaps hurting the mission. The Afghan Ministry of Defense released a pamphlet designed to do for the Afghan troops what we’ve been trying to do with our own: explain how one is supposed to behave among allies of a different culture. The Washington Post got ahold of an English translation of “Cultural Understanding — A Guide to Understanding Coalition Cultures.” The topics covered don’t exactly inspire much confidence. “Please do not get offended if you see a NATO member blowing his/her nose in front of you,” the Post quotes from the guide. It goes on to explain that if a NATO soldier gets excited, he may pat one of his fellow troops on the back and that is not meant to be offensive.

While I never experienced that problem with the Iraqi or Afghan troops I’ve spent time with, I’m sure there was a problem somewhere along the way. And the guide even indicates that NATO troops have trouble with the basics: “When someone feels comfortable in your presence, they may even put their feet on their own desk while speaking with you,” the Post quotes the guide. “They are by no means trying to offend you. They simply don’t know or have forgotten the Afghan custom.”

Preparing Afghan allies for such missteps is important, but simply distributing a pamphlet isn’t going to get the job done. American advisors have been struggling with illiteracy among Afghan Army troops. Despite literacy programs, the latest report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said the literacy rate among Afghan National Security Forces as a whole is 11%.

The Washington Post explains that the new guide will be taught to all soldiers and new recruits. While NATO troops are headed for the exits, they will remain on the ground working on the transition for two more years. I hope that while they’re still there, the cultural understanding guide will help NATO troops better understand their counterparts, not simply the other way around.