By Kirk White
Recently I blogged about the first lesson learned in Afghanistan during my recent deployment. Here is part two of three with another point that I think is important for any organization: Second, it is vital to understand the culture and languages of your area of operations. Many Americans do not understand their own culture, which is essential before appreciating another. In May, 2005, quite a firestorm erupted in Afghanistan following a Newsweek story describing the desecration of the Qur’an at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. The story was later retracted as untrue, but it played right into the hands of the insurgents’ claims. Cultural lesson: Afghanistan is an Islamic state; Muslims believe the Qur’an provides divine guidance and direction; in a country with a 30% literacy rate, the spoken words of the local Mullah carry great weight in public opinion. I was alerted that a local Mullah in our area of operations had called for demonstrations and even Jihad against the U.S. as a response to the desecration rumors. This could have resulted in needless civilian and military casualties. Knowing that military leaders also carry great influence in Afghanistan, I worked with the State Department political advisor in our area who arranged for the Afghan battalion commander that I was mentoring to meet with the Mullah and town elders.
The Afghan commander stood at the Shura (meeting) and passionately explained that he had worked with Americans for the past three years and we were constantly respectful of his religious practices and he could not believe the rumors to be true.
The meeting ended with the group deciding that further demonstrations or worse were not needed. Success depends on cultural understanding, no
matter where you are operating. I am pleased to report that the Departments of Defense and State are taking advantage of our vast Central Asian culture and language resources at Indiana University to train personnel headed for Afghanistan.