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THE HUMAN TERRAIN OF AFGHANISTAN |

July 27, 2009

THE HUMAN TERRAIN OF AFGHANISTAN
Name: Bouhammer, Old Blue, WOTN, Vampire 06
Posting date: 7/27/09
Milblog: Afghan Lessons Learned For Soldiers

Afghans are different, just like your weird Uncle Joe, except on a national level. They are stubborn and feel little compulsion to tell the truth, even if the truth is readily evident and better for the story.

They can be infuriating or they can be entertaining. It is your choice. If you decide it is your role in life to change them, you will be constantly frustrated. If you decide it is their role in life to provide you quirky entertainment, you'll find yourself constantly laughing.

Framed ALL Human Terrain 2 Don't ask them about their daughters, sisters, and wives. It's the equivalent of asking to see naked pictures of yours. Ask about their family. It shows that you care. Ask about their sons, brothers, and fathers.

They've been using mud bricks for millennia. Trying to get them to interlock the bricks can be an exercise in futility. But teach them to run electrical wire and they'll follow your explicit instructions.

They can find and chop wood on a mountain that seems to have not a blade of grass. They have fought the battle against nature and somehow survived. Their goats seem to live on rocks.

"Inshallah" is the ultimate cop-out but a phrase you'll hear often. It translates to "God willing," and is the answer you'll hear to questions ranging from whether the workers will be on time to why they won't aim their weapons. "Inshallah," they'll still be employed if they aren't on time.

Just like 90% of the world's population, including our own, 90% of Afghans are simply trying to survive and feed their family. Nothing more. Nothing less. The difference is that Americans are trying to survive two car payments and a mortgage. Afghans are trying to survive nature itself. They aren't trying to earn $40,000 a year. They're trying to grow enough food in the high desert to feed two wives and ten kids.

"You can rent an Afghan all day long, but you can never buy him."

They are fiercely loyal, but in a very specific manner. Their friendship is hard won, but once earned, it is enduring. Without that loyalty, they'll act in their own best interest, solely, and that includes providing the least amount of information for the greatest amount of money. And if that means giving information to both sides while getting money from both, they have loyalty to their family, not to either side.

Afghan loyalty is to the smallest family unit first. When two tribes fight, they're loyal to the tribe. If two sub-tribes fight, it is to their sub-tribe. If two villages fight, it is to their village. If two families fight, it is to their cousin. If a brother chances upon two cousins fighting, it is to their brother. But if that brother is taking from his woodpile, he'll shoot him in the gut.

I cannot tell you how to gain the loyal friendship of an Afghan and neither can they. I can tell you how to ensure you never gain that friendship and that is to attempt to change them. It is to demean them. It is to be rude to them. It is to try to game them.

They recognize insincerity like an animal recognizes fear.

Just because they're telling the entire White Mountain range that you just left the gates does not mean they're Taliban. They gossip like old women and herding goats all day can be boring. When you roll out of the gates, it's big news and every goatherder wants to be the first with the big news. It gives them something to talk about for hours, and the entire valley will know before you hit the first riverbed.

Drink some Chai and play some chess. If you were ever in doubt as to how smart they actually are, playing chess will remove it. An Afghan may not recognize his own name in print, but he will beat you in chess every day of the week. I only won once and that was because I distracted the mechanic with Jerry Springer. He was smart enough to concentrate on the board forever after.

Framed ALL Human Terrain 1 If you see a video camera capturing your movements, things are bad. It means you are about to get hit or they're figuring out the final details of how they will hit you. It's the final stages, at any rate.

It is always their enemy that is Taliban. They've learned this game.

At some point, you will end up at the bazaar, whether it comes to you or you go to it. They've learned that Americans will pay much more than what they consider fair value and they will charge as much as you are willing to pay. In fact, their initial asking price will be well above what they think you'll pay. They expect you to haggle them down, but if you don't, they'll gladly take your money. The rule of thumb is to start at about 60% of their asking price, but you can be successful starting lower.

"The early bird gets the worm." It's good luck to get the first sale of the day, for them. If you are the first customer, they're more motivated to get the sale. This gives you more leverage.

There are just a few rambling observations about our illiterate but highly intelligent, stubborn, and resilient friends. Ignorance is not stupidity.

Comments

The 'Lessons' blog is one of my favorites because I am frustrated by the general cultural ignorance of Americans. Thank you for your work in Afghanistan and for writing about what you have learned while there.

Those are very wise words. Hopefully you're not alone, especially in the higher echelons in recognizing those truths.

That was very interesting, and very well written. I don't read blogs, but I love Doonesbury, and found this blog. Thanks for a good read, and thank you for your service.

What a smart, thoughtful post. Thanks loads for writing it up. Stay smart, stay safe.

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I lived in the Middle East for many years, and sometimes the use of Inshallah could be frustrating.....I remember being at the birth of a friend's baby; the baby wasn't healthy and it was days before we all knew she would make it. Being an American teenager at the time, I didn't want to hear about God's Will, I wanted to heal that baby. Years later I learned, by being in situations where I had no control, that some things you have to hand over to fate, God, or whomever. Like you said, when you're fighting with nature daily you have to choose your battles more carefully than if you're just fighting for a parking spot at Safeway. Thanks for being not only a good soldier but an insightful American diplomat for us.

I found this post incredibly fascinating. To hear about the interactions and things you've learned about Afghans is enlightening. I can't imagine dealing with people whose culture and way of thinking are so incredibly different from ours. Sometimes it's hard to comprehend being raised any other way than we Americans have. I can imagine you probably do laugh or become very frustrated everyday at them.
Be safe over there!

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