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Respect in Afghanistan

As an officer in Afghanistan, your age is inversely proportional to how many meetings (shuras in Pashtun) you will conduct in Afghanistan. My captain conducted many, but my fellow lieutenants and I conducted shuras with locals everyday. Our Brigade and Battalion Commanders conducted province level meetings but weekly at most. We deploy our Platoon Leaders to a country with a culture that emphasizes age and wisdom, and we expect them to succeed.
An anecdote will explain. After a routine patrol in the south of our district, my platoon stopped in a refugee camp. A small village tucked in a draw next to the mountains. Coalition Forces had never stopped there before and on a whim, I decided I wanted to meet the people.

When we parked the trucks, I got out and became a rock star. The village could not believe we had stopped--this was a refugee camp with vague legal status. When he elders saw me, they knew what to do and quickly brought us to a UNICEF tent in the middle of the mud structures, the only outdoor shade in the whole village.

I was greeted enthusiastically—again typical Pashtun courtesy. With me was an ANA sergeant who was only in his late twenties. He only grudgingly sat down to meet with the elders; he looked anxious and uncomfortable. As I sat down, I faced a dozen or so elders, none of whom looked younger than sixty (which means they were probably in their forties). Around us, all the young adults (the same age as me) watched eagerly, silently learning the customs of their elders.

They had nothing to give but still offered me Chai. They described the typical ails of an Afghan community-- only exacerbated by severe unemployment. As we sat, people congregated around the outside of the meeting. There were upwards of sixty people, but I only spoke with two of the locals, clearly the two most respected elders. We talked for about half an hour and then I left.

This meeting was not unique. When the U.S. Army interacts with Central Asian cultures it runs into the same problem: their culture values age while we send representatives who are in their mid-twenties. I, a twenty-four year old college graduate, conducted daily meetings with the elders always more than twice my age, usually more.

Why did these elders listen to me?

A combination of the carrot and the stick (An aside: I recently learned that apparently Iranians and Afghans don’t like this analogy because it implies they are donkeys. Eric made a good point: how would Americans like to be told they either get the dog biscuit or the rolled up newspaper?) compelled them to ignore their cultural values and accept a young Lieutenant. In my districts, I had the stick. Simply, I led a mounted platoon armed with missiles, machine guns and automatic grenade launchers not to mention the ability to call for artillery or air support. We could bring security to an area or we could decide to stay on our FOB. In heads up fighting, nothing the Taliban had could hold the field for more than a handful of minutes.

In the long run, the carrot was why I was invited back. The locals were not afraid of me, they wanted what I could provide. I could provide local improvement projects to improve the quality of life, and I did. I could improve the strength of the local government, and I did. I could bring medical supplies or food, and I did. These meetings taught me a valuable lesson: while I didn't have wisdom, I had resources. And, the most important of these resources was the aid I could bring.

two comments

This is something I had neever considered. I suppose there just isn’t enough wisdom to go around. Excellent post.

Keep posting!