Canadians are running into cultural issues in Kandahar.
The Pashtun people of southern Afghanistan have a saying: “He is not a Pathan who does not give a blow for a pinch.”
“Nang” and “badal” — honour and revenge, respectively — trump even the holy book of the Qur’an for many Pashtuns, and so it is with caution that Canada sends its troops to live among them as part of its widening counter-insurgency strategy in Kandahar province.
It’s widely understood that, as the proverb suggests, a Pashtun (or Pathan) man will respond aggressively to even the most minor slight, extracting revenge to defend the honour of himself and his family. Those considered friends and guests are protected and respected with the same zeal.
“Respect and honour is very important to them,” said Capt. Paul Stokes, a member of the Royal Canadian Regiment battle group currently in Kandahar.
Canadian soldiers bound for Afghanistan are taught about the different tribal and family affiliations that have affected the tides of war in the region for generations. They’re warned of the sometimes primitive living conditions and taught a few words of Pashto. Some even carry well-thumbed phrasebooks.
But nothing can entirely prepare them for the experience of living among the locals, Stokes said. “You can teach it in class, but you don’t appreciate it until you see the differences and experience it.”
Canadian soldiers currently live and work among Afghan police and soldiers and live in or near small villages, venturing out every day to try to forge trust within the local population.
They attend elaborate community meetings, known as shuras, where the pace is plodding and the casual drift of time can prove a challenge for military-minded westerners like Stokes.
“The western culture is a very fast-paced culture, with emails and TV. We want to get to a meetings and get right to the heart of the matter. That’s not the way it is (in Afghanistan),” he said.
“You go there, you have tea, you have coffee, you have food, you may have an entire meal and talk about your families and friends, and then — whether it be 15 minutes later or an hour later — you get to the heart of the discussion.”
Capt. Ashley Collette has travelled to Third World countries before, so the living conditions she and her platoon found in the village of Nakhonay were less of a shock to her than to some of her colleagues.
Life in the village in Panjwaii, southwest of Kandahar city, has more benefits than drawbacks, but it has not been without its challenges, she said.
“The experience itself of living right alongside the locals is one that I’d argue you can’t really prepare yourself for. It’s a unique experience in itself,” Collette said.
Being unable to speak the language is also a problem.
Of course being unable to speak the language is a problem, just as are poor translators. And true enough, little contributions to the population are a good thing. In Fallujah 2007 there was a problem with feral dogs (packs of dogs would literally attack Marine patrols as well as the population). In addition to what the Marines did to the population (e.g., heavy policing, kicking doors in, etc.), one thing they did for the population was to perform patrols with the sole purpose of getting the feral dog population under control. They accomplished this in short order. The people of Fallujah appreciated this.
But one thing that the Marines didn’t do was change their behavior. In spite of the Iraqi cultural revulsion at dogs, the Marines had theirs – both bomb sniffing and adopted dogs – the adopted dogs helping in locating and warning indications of feral dogs packs. The Marines projected forces regardless of cultural morays, and the tea-drinking came later when the population decided that the Marines would win.
The Marines are taking turnover of Sangin from the British, and there is mixed reaction.
… tribal elder Muhammad Khan says British troops were mindful of local culture, and treated people well.
”The former infidels [British] were better than these new ones [Americans],” said Mr Khan.
“Britons were respectful of our culture and traditions. They wouldn’t search someone on a motorcycle with his wife in the back seat.
”But American troops don’t care. They stop us and search both man and his woman. This is what we know of Americans.”
A number of residents have reservations about the arrival of US forces.
Gul Muhammad, from Sangin town, said: ”I liked the way British soldiers conducted operations.
“After they were attacked, they would go to the exact house and target the very attacker without harming others.”
Another resident expressed his concerns about civilian casualties.
”Americans behave differently,” said Aazar Gulalai. “They attack indiscriminately and target everybody in the vicinity after they are targeted by the Taliban, or suffer casualties in a mine explosion.
”All of them shoot at us. They all target us. We and the Taliban become the same for them after they are attacked.
”We are civilians. We don’t have any animosity with the Taliban, or government.”
Sangin is one of the most heavily populated districts in Helmand, with a population of around 150,000.
But a number of people left the town of Sangin in recent years as a result of fighting. One of them, Abdul Wali, hopes that he will be able to return home soon.
”We left Sangin because of continual attacks and fighting,” says Abdul Wali. “I hope Americans will bring security with them and schools will be opened.”
Over the past few months, Americans have already taken on security responsibility for many other districts in Helmand, including Nawa, Garmsir, Marjah, Khanshin and Nawzad.
A number of people in these districts claim that British forces failed to bring security there because they did not want to risk fighting the Taliban.
”Americans are serious,” says Muhabbat Khan, a resident of Nawa district. “Security is much better now here. The British were only concerned about their on security.
”British troops couldn’t handle casualties. They used to retreat all the time and this would further embolden the Taliban.”
A few residents of Sangin expressed hope that Americans would bring not only security to their district, but much needed development and jobs for the people.
Several observations are in order. First, the British can certainly take casualties, and their bravery is not in question. What the example of Musa Qala showed us is that the British approach to counterinsurgency is different because of their officer corps. Two years ago the British enacted their plans to deescalate the violence against the Taliban. The rest, they say, is history.
But more to the point, the counterinsurgency reactionary would study this report and decide that it’s time for cultural re-education. Send the Marines to more PowerPoint presentations, and make sure that they have all of their cultural I’s dotted and T’s crossed. To the Marines in Anbar this was irrelevant, and it should be irrelevant to the Marines in Helmand.
Returning to the first report about the high sounding Pashtun traditions of honor, it wouldn’t appear that their honor isn’t so great that they would forbid the Taliban from ruling them with a heavy hand and purvey death to the insurgents. Indeed, the population in Sangin wants it all too. They want security and then jobs, but they have no animosity towards anyone.
Regardless of their lack of animosity, they will be forced to choose sides, and they will contribute to their own security or they will have none, from either the Marines or the Taliban. They can drink tea later. There is work to do first for everyone involved.