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Afghan Culture

Newsletter 10-64
September 2010

CALL Newsletter 10-64: Afghan Culture

Chapter 4. Afghan Cultural Influences

Section I: Ethnicity

Section II: Economics

Section III: Government

Section IV: Conclusion

"The Afghans are such impressive, devout, generous, and energetic people. They have an acute sense of humor in the face of relentless misery and adversity. They are superb, courageous soldiers and energetic, creative businessmen. They have deep respect for learning and teachers-and a thirst and gratitude for education and knowledge even at the most elemental level. They are intensely focused as students at any age and quick to learn and adapt."

-General Barry R. McCaffrey, U.S. Army (Retired)
After Action Report, Visit to Kuwait and Afghanistan,
10-18 November 2009

Culture defines a society, and even the sub-elements within a society. It is also a means to compare and evaluate societies and sub-societies, to determine how and why they act as they do. Such information can enable reasonably accurate predictions as to how people might react or affect situations over which they may or may not have control or influence. As in all such societies, culture is influenced by many different variables such as language, religion, tribe, geography, economics, gender, government, and education. For this newsletter, the Afghan culture variables are addressed in the following three broad categories:

  • Ethnicity
  • Economics
  • Government

Within Afghanistan there are as many cultures and variations of cultures as there are valleys and villages. Given the number and geographical distribution of the tribes and sub-tribes, it is virtually impossible to identify each and every one. Therefore, the training of military and civilian personnel deploying to Afghanistan should focus on what is common throughout the country. Some of the commonalities include:

  • Tribal and Islamic cultures are traditional and conservative.
  • Tribal codes (honor, revenge, and hospitality) are social controls.
  • Tribal identity and loyalty are communal and public and take precedence over individual identity and private loyalty.
  • Self-interest and personal gain outweigh the fear of retribution or legal/punitive action and hypocrisy or loss of respect.
  • Jirgah is a tribal assembly of elders that makes decisions by consensus. This is most common among Pashtun tribes.
  • Shura is Dari for an assembly, an organized body of participants, or administrative body usually called upon for a specific decision making process.
  • The most important duty of an Afghan man is to defend and control his assets: women, gold, and land.
  • Hospitality is an essential aspect of Afghan culture.

One area the tribal elders have maintained is their resistance to change. Over the centuries very little has changed, to include modernization, which is directly related to economics and isolation.

Section I: Ethnicity

An ethnic group is a large group of people with a common racial, national, tribal, linguistic, religious, or cultural origin or background. This section addresses the following ethnic areas:

  • Language
  • Tribes
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Education

Afghanistan consists of a multitude of ethnic groups and sub-groups. It could be compared to a 1000-piece, multicolored, jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has its own unique shape and place within the larger picture. Some are related by their color or color patterns, which may or may not indicate their place in the picture. When any piece is out of place, conflict may result. The same can and often does occur with Afghan ethnic groups.

The following map (Figure 4-1) shows the major Afghan ethno-linguistic groups and their general locations, and how those ethnic groups are not limited to the political boundaries of Afghanistan. Within the geographic areas of the major ethnic groups are enclaves of almost every other ethnic group. Notice how much of the country is Pashtun and how that ethnicity encompasses areas of western Pakistan.

Note: The Durand Line, named after Sir Mortimer Durand-the British government's Indian Foreign Secretary who convinced the Amir of Afghanistan to agree to this line-marks the border between Afghanistan and northwest India, which is now Pakistan. It was established by the British in 1893 to ensure the Khyber Pass, Khojak Pass, and important cities of Peshawar and Quetta were on the Indian side of the border between Afghanistan and India. This border divided the Pashtun people, who are Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group and the world's largest remaining tribal-based society.1

Graphic showing diagram of map of major Afghan ethnic groups
Figure 4-1.

Major Afghan Ethnic Groups2

Afghanistan's major ethnic groups are defined by language and origin, whereas the sub-ethnic groups may be defined by religion, geography, history, politics, and/or tribes. For example, there are 10 identified ethno-linguistic groups, with the largest being the Pashtun, closely followed by the Tajik and Hazara. These 10 groups are often referred to as tribes. However, within each of these groups are subgroups. The Pashtun ethnic group, for example, consists of five major unique subgroups, each with its own separate identity. They are as follows:

  • The Durrani, or Abdali, or Western Pashtun confederation centered in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces of southwestern Afghanistan.
  • The Ghilzai, or Ghalji confederation dominating Oruzgan, Zabol, Ghazni and Dai Kundi Provinces and the Katawaz region of south-central Afghanistan.
  • The Ghurghusht tribes, which primarily share Baluchistan Province with the Baluch people of northern Pakistan.
  • The Karlanri, or "hill tribes" of southern Afghanistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan, and the ill-defined borderland between them.
  • The Sarbani, or Eastern Pashtun, who live in southeastern Afghanistan, Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, and the states of Dir, Chitral, and Swat in Pakistan.

These sub-Pashtun tribes rarely communicate with each other unless in a common struggle or jihad. Several sub-tribes of these tribes have forged alliances; for example, the Kakar tribe of the Ghurghusht tribes and the Hotaki tribe of the Ghilzai confederation, which produced Mullah Omar and several top Taliban leaders. The Durrani, which has dominated much of the political life of Afghanistan for the last 300 years, and the Ghilzai, which is the largest of the Pashtun tribes and rarely has national political power, have been at odds with each other for centuries, thus making it almost impossible to unite the country.3 This is called ethnocentricity, where one tribe believes it is culturally superior to the other tribes and correspondingly acts that way often to its own detriment.

"Afghanistan is a tribal culture that believes in blood for blood-just like the Hatfields and the McCoys."

-SGT Ali Altimeemy, U.S. Army
Camp Atterbury COIN Academy


Dari (often called Farsi) and Pashtu are the official languages spoken in Afghanistan per article 16 of the 2004 Afghan Constitution. Afghans who speak one of these languages have a familiarity with the other. However, due to the Afghanistan geography, differences have evolved within each of the two official languages. For example, Dari spoken in Herat may be somewhat different than the Dari spoken in Kabul, at least by less-educated Afghans.

Pashtuns consider themselves true Afghans, and it is their areas of Afghanistan that are the most unsecure and in which most U.S. forces in Afghanistan are currently working. Having a translator who speaks Pashtu is beneficial when dealing with the local population.

An excellent source for learning important Dari and Pashtu words and phrases is on the CALL website, and is maintained by the Defense Language Institute. Go to "" website and click the "Log In" button (left side at the top). Log in will require an Army Knowledge Online/Defense Knowledge Online account. After you have logged in, select the "CALL's FORSCOM Message" link (right side in the middle). Click "view the full FORSCOM message" option and then go to "LANGUAGE" in the alphabetical section of Key Topics from "Training Guidance for SWA." Scroll down to 2.P.1.F, then scroll down to OEF. There you will find material on both Dari and Pashtu. You can view the Dari and Pashtu words that correspond to the English words and by clicking on the play button you can hear the words spoken. Keep in mind there are some commonalities in Dari and Pashtu.

Additionally, to assist Soldiers in learning key Dari and Pashto phrases, attached to this newsletter is a Defense Language Institute Afghanistan/Pakistan language DVD.

Having a translator who speaks the local language is important when Dari and Pashtu are not the local languages. For example, in Laghman Province, Pashtu, Pashai, Dari and at least one other language are the spoken languages. In some remote villages, the Afghans do not speak Dari or Pashtu. If you do not have, for instance, a Pashai interpreter, you will not be able to communicate with the locals in a village where Pashai is the only language spoken. There are very few Pashai interpreters available.

(Note: For your information, English is the official language established by the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to be the common language for those working to assist the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA). Fortunately, many leaders in the Afghan government speak English or their offices are staffed with Afghan expatriates who speak English. Some Afghans, who do not speak English, do understand the English numbering system.)


Afghanistan, as a multi-tribal society, consists of sub-tribes, clans, and sects that represent specific communities or villages. While tribes are important, communities and villages reflect the dynamics of the Afghan culture. They are self-contained, most often due to geography, which has enabled them, over the centuries, to maintain their own culture with minimal outside influence.

While clans and sub-tribes, and alliances of clans and sub-tribes, have fought each other for centuries, these same clans and sub-tribes have banded together to successfully resist and/or oust foreign intervention, even that of Afghan central governments if they believed their honor was being violated. They will fight to the death to defend their honor.

In his article One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan, Major Jim Gant, who spent his tour in Afghanistan living and working with an Afghan tribe, stated:

First , tribes understand people. Being illiterate does not mean unintelligent. Tribesmen are extremely adept at understanding one another and others. As I have preached and preached to the Special Forces officers headed to Afghanistan that I have trained in the unconventional warfare (UW) portion of their training, "You damn well better know yourself, because they know you." The Afghan people have a knack for looking straight through deception and incompetence. Trust me when I tell you, not only are they as smart as you are, they know they are.
Second, tribes understand protection. Tribes are organized and run to ensure the security of the tribe. Not only physical security, but revenue and land protection. But most important of all is preservation of the tribal name and reputation. Honor is everything in a tribal society. Tribes will fight and die over honor. ...When honor is at stake, tribal members stop at nothing to preserve their tribe's integrity and "face."
Third, tribes understand power. How many guns do we have? How many warriors can I put in the field? Can I protect my tribe? Can I attack others who threaten my tribe? Can I back my words or decisions up with the ability to come down the valley and kill you? Can I keep you from killing me?
Lastly, tribes understand projection. Tribes have no "strategic goals" in the Western sense. Their diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME) priorities are almost without exception in reference to other tribes.
Can I project my power across the valley? Does the tribe across the river know not to come over here and meddle in my affairs? Do the Taliban know that they are not welcome here? Can I influence decisions, either by force or otherwise, outside of my tribe?

As foreigners in Afghanistan, you must always keep in mind that the peace between clans and villages and their willingness to work together may be fragile. Their agenda is not always your agenda. You each see it as a way to gain advantage over your enemies and potential enemies. Remember the Afghan saying, "brother against brother, brothers against cousins, and all against their common enemy." Once the common enemy is defeated and/or eliminated, the conflicts between brothers may resume-now or later.

Tribal Organization

The following diagram shows the typical subdivisions of a Pashtun tribe. Below the confederation level, such as "Karlanri" in this diagram, will be many tribes, or Qawms. Each tribe will contain many Khels, or clans, such as the Kabuli Khel shown here. (Some Khels, like the Suleiman Khel of the Ghilzai in the Katawaz region, have grown so big that each Khel has still another layer of Khels beneath it!) Beneath each of these will be extended family groups, called Kahols, which in turn are comprised of varying numbers of individual families, or Koranay, the basic building blocks of Pashtun society. When two Pashtun strangers first meet, they will typically work their way up the genealogical ladder until they find their first common ancestor before beginning a conversation-as you would if meeting a distant cousin, for example, at a family reunion.4

Graphic showing diagram of Pashtun tribal organization
Figure 4-2.

The GIRoA, with assistance and guidance from the U.S. and NATO, established and is creating the Afghan National Army (ANA). The focus is "national." The intent is for the ANA to be a "melting pot" of all Afghan ethnic groups and tribes that, hopefully, will work to bring the diverse tribal/ethnic cultures to understand and accept their cultural differences and work toward a national Afghanistan.

Tribal Democracy

Tribes in Afghanistan are democracies. Tribal councils (shuras [informal] and jirgas [formal]) give every man the opportunity to be heard as the councils conduct tribal business. Women do not participate in the council meetings, but likely are heard as a result of discussions with their husbands.

However, while every Afghan male is an equal within the tribe and no one has the authority to command or compel the actions of the other males, there is a hierarchal structure that is not always obvious to those who lack knowledge of Afghan tribes. For example, the first born son of the first wife has higher social and political standing than the sons of his father's other wives. This is the result of elaborate genealogies that describe the relative position of a man to his ancestors.

It is important that U.S. forces know, understand, and leverage this process in their key leader engagements to assist tribal councils in supporting efforts to identify the insurgents and defeat that enemy. U.S. forces must first identify through local government resources the important elders in the formal councils (jirgas) and ask to meet with them. However, caution is required to ensure the tribe's enemy fits the definition of enemies of the GIRoA and not a feud between tribes that has nothing to do with the reason the U.S. is assisting the GIRoA.

Tribal Code of Conduct

Afghan tribes have codes of conduct that reflect their social values and behavioral patterns. The Pashtun's tribal code of conduct (Pashtunwali) is not written and is not easily put into words, but does tie Pashtuns together.

Pashtunwali includes honor, bravery, revenge, zeal, courage, sanctuary, truce, elders, hospitality, and protection. Of these, honor is the lynchpin of Pashtun tribal society.

Most Pashtuns-especially those who have lived in the predominately rural Pashtun areas-see honor as the obligation to protect the three things most important to their lives: women, property, and home. This is the pivot on which Pashtun males' actions revolve. Failure to maintain their honor means being dishonored, for which revenge is required, no matter how long it takes. A violation of a man's honor could be as simple as accidently bumping into another man, or as complex as a property boundary dispute. And revenge could be within the same generation, or a later generation.

Because such conflicts, if left unchecked, could result in the destruction of a family, village, or maybe even a clan, the honor code does have an "out." When the weaker of two feuding individuals or tribes desires to resolve the conflict through means other than fighting, it does so by requesting a truce, at which time the giver becomes obligated to provide protection, food, water, and shelter to the requestor. If the giver chooses to withdraw the truce, hospitality, and protection from the individual or tribe he has agreed to protect and provide for, he has dishonored himself. Once a Pashtun male has lost his honor, he loses his status within his family and tribe.

It is important to note that the concept of Pashtunwali is oftentimes foreign to Pashtuns who grew up in urban areas of Afghanistan or in refugee camps in Pakistan. It is also foreign to those not from Afghanistan. Pashtunwali states that the Pashtuns will provide protection and the accompanying hospitality to those seeking refuge, in this case the sanctuary offered to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda cohort by the Pashtun-dominated government of Taliban Afghanistan. Because of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan following September 11, Pashtuns fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan are fighting a Pashtun tribal insurgency, and not a global jihad against the West.

Interestingly, the five major Pashtun tribes and their sub-tribes have enough differences that they rarely come together unless it is for a common cause. Pashtun blood was spilled by the Americans and the Pashtuns have come together for revenge.


A distinguishing feature of Afghan culture is gender-specific cultural imperatives. Basically males and females are segregated from each other except within their immediate families. Other than urban areas such as Kabul, males and females rarely interact with each other. In Kabul, where numerous women work in governmental and commercial offices, you will find varying degrees of male and female interaction. It is best for U.S. personnel to respect this aspect of Afghan culture and limit contacts to male-to-male and female-to-female.

Afghan Men

Outward appearances give the impression Afghanistan is a male-only society, as men outnumber women in the outside-the-home environment. Afghanistan is male dominated. The men are responsible for maintaining the honor of their family, which gives them the right to make decisions. This includes controlling female behavior and selecting who their daughters will marry.

The men are the income earners as only an extremely low percentage of women work outside their homes. Men work in all areas of Afghan society, to include clerical positions the Western world normally considers as being filled by women. Most jobs in Afghanistan are menial labor with minimal income making it hard for men to provide adequately under their standards for their families. They also, as do the female Afghans, believe Inshallah-God willing-when they describe their situation, be it economic, health, or other aspects of their lives or environment. Essentially they accept things as they are and do not expect much beyond what they have.

It is not uncommon to see Afghan men holding hands. While that does not in and of itself identify them as homosexuals, male homosexual activity, to varying degrees by tribe, is a fact of life among Afghans. Most U.S. Soldiers will not see these practices during their deployment. If they do, it is imperative that they are trained on how to handle themselves.

  • A training scenario available on the CALL website addresses homosexual relationships: "Homosexuality is present and accepted as a norm, but not recognized as an exclusive lifestyle choice. Some males of sexual age engage in sexual activities with each other, but still marry and father children. Physical advances and postures that might be considered affectionate in Western cultures, such as hugging very tightly, holding hands, cuddling, flirting looks, are still considered as such in this culture and are signs of coupling activities. There exist hand and arm signals that advertise and invite homosexual encounters. Music and dancing in male groups almost always leads to coupling and sometimes group sex."

Afghan Women

Afghan women and girls are not free like American women and girls. In Afghanistan, women cannot drive cars, ride bicycles and horses, participate in sports and other social activities, and travel and shop without being accompanied by a male family member. While some Afghan women and girls may work outside their homes, attend school, and have greater freedom of dress and contacts with men other than family members, based on their tribal group's beliefs and/or practices, you will not see them enjoying the freedoms and doing other things American women and girls routinely do.

Life for most Afghan women is extremely hard. Their life expectancy is 44.39 years as compared to Afghans males, which is 44.04 years. Their freedom of movement is severely restricted. While some may be seen in public during the day, it is extremely rare to see them in public at night, even with a male family member. In many cases, men even shop for personal items for their wives so that women need not risk their modesty by leaving home. Medical care for women is inadequate if available at all. Conditions in most homes are primitive compared to Western standards. They lack running water and indoor plumbing. The availability of electricity, if they have it at all, is inconsistent. And, they only have modest privacy in their homes as they typically share the same small room with other women and children. The wife of the eldest male is the dominant female. If he has more than one wife, the dominant female would be the first wife.

An Afghan woman is considered to be the property of her husband, or father, or in their absence another male member of her family. Under some tribal laws, an Afghan woman cannot own property or receive an inheritance, whereas in other tribes she can. Marriages may be arranged, often to settle a debt or to secure an alliance. When they do marry, it is usually within their extended family, sometimes to first cousins. Rarely do they marry outside their tribe or sub-tribe.

Afghan men are expected to protect their women's honor, the same as they protect their home and property. Failure to do so makes them men without honor, which is socially unacceptable.

Within the family household, multiple generations and their families, cousins, widowed and unmarried females, possibly additional wives, and elderly grandparents can often be found living together in a single compound. Interestingly, if the grandfather is still active, he typically controls all expenditures even if he is no longer the wage earner.

An Afghan man may encounter or see a woman outside his extended family in public if there is no conflict or potential for conflict between families living in the same area. If there is such conflict, Afghan women are kept within their home's walled compound. Consequently, Afghan women are not active participants in the insurgency unless used as shields to protect insurgents.

Because of their very restricted role in tribal society and the prohibition on contact with men outside their immediate family, Afghan women will have very limited to no opportunities for contact with male U.S. Soldiers. However, female members of the U.S. military can meet with Afghan women. The best advice for male U.S. Soldiers is to have nothing to do with Afghan women-pretend they do not exist.

As with every rule, there are exceptions. That is true with Afghan women, especially in Kabul and other urban areas where expatriate women have returned from the United States, Germany, Pakistan, and other countries. While away from Afghanistan, these women experienced freedoms and opportunities for education, careers, and personal growth. Many are in leadership roles in commercial enterprises, government and politics, are entrepreneurs, are working in professions such as women's medicine, or actively working for women's freedom and opportunities that come with such freedom.


You will see many Afghan women in rural areas, and less in urban areas, wearing the burqa. The burqa is a loose-fitting garment; it is normally light blue, but could be other colors depending on the cloth available. It usually covers the entire body with a mesh panel that allows the eyes to see. It is a symbol of oppression, expression of beliefs, or protection. It has been worn voluntarily for centuries by Afghan women who wished to conform to Islamic standards of modesty. However, it is not required by the Muslim faith, only by some extremist Muslim groups such as the Taliban, in which case it is used as a tool to oppress women. Some husbands may require the women in their family to wear the burqa in public to preserve their beauty for his eyes only.

Occasionally, Afghan women wear the burqa because it provides protection from dust to keep clothing clean. For example, they wear it to and from work. The burqa also gives them privacy, allowing them to hide their identity. Unfortunately, it may also be worn by males who wish to hide their gender identity, and occasionally by women, with the intent of attacking coalition forces with hidden weapons or explosives.


Afghanistan is an Islamic country-virtually 100 percent of Afghans are devout Muslims. Islam permeates their beliefs and daily lives. However, like the Protestant faith, Islam has specific faith groups-Sunnis, Shia, Sufi, and multiple derivatives of each-and religious conflicts due to their differences.

"Islam is so all pervading an element that there is little religiosity, little fervor, and no regard for externals. Do not think from their conduct that they are careless. Their conviction of the truth of their faith, and its share in every act and thought and principle of their daily life is as intimate and intense as to be unconscious, unless roused by opposition. Their religion is as much a part of nature to them as is sleep or food."

-T. E. Lawrence
Lawrence of Arabia

Islamic spiritual leaders in Afghanistan are very effective in influencing opinions but are not necessarily local leaders. Those who serve as imams (scholars), teachers, and clerics have varying levels of education and knowledge of Islam. Most U.S. military personnel will not come into contact with these individuals. They could come into contact with a village mullah, the local religious leader. Mullahs, while generally uneducated, do have the ability to influence local opinions, and for this reason can play a critical role in counterinsurgency operations.

There are five pillars to Islam which you will see observed in varying degrees. They are:

  • Testimony of faith - Allah is the one true god and Muhammad is his prophet.
  • Prayer - five times per day facing Mecca.
  • Fasting during the month of Ramadan - a form of self-purification.
  • Charity - caring for the poor.
  • Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) - once in a Muslim's lifetime.

The Islamic mosque is the center for public worship. It may be very ornate and impressive in its outward appearance, such as the Eid Gah Mosque in Kabul, or it may be a simple sun-baked mud hut in a remote village. In any case, there are several basic rules to follow in regards to a mosque:

  • Never enter unless invited.
  • Remove your shoes before entering.
  • Never enter with a weapon of any type.

(Note: U.S. Soldiers are prohibited from entering mosques.)

Muslims have two sources of Islam. One is the Quran and the other is the Hadith. The Quran is the holy book of the Islamic faith. Muslims believe it to be the actual words of God given directly to the Prophet Mohammed. They further believe it must not be mishandled as Christians would the Bible. To do so, especially if the action or perceived action appears to disrespect the Quran, may result in a violent response by the Muslims.

The Hadith is a narrative record of the sayings or customs of the Prophet Mohammad or his companions. The Hadith, originally passed orally from generation to generation, was collected and written beginning in the mid-700s AD. Interestingly the different Islamic faiths recognize their own specific interpretation and not the others. This too can lead to conflict between the Islamic faiths.

The following guidelines will assist you in respecting the practices of Islam:5

  • Never attempt to interrupt prayers.
  • If you must pass a man praying, pass at a respectful distance.
  • Do not walk between a man praying and Mecca-always walk behind him.
  • Never spit or urinate towards the West in the presence of Afghans-that is the direction of Mecca from Afghanistan and doing so is hugely disrespectful.
  • If you are sleeping in a bivouac with Afghan soldiers, sleep with your head pointed towards Mecca-never your feet.
  • Be considerate during Ramadan-if you are in the presence of Afghans, do not eat or drink in public or offer them food or water. They cannot take it. Take your meal or drink privately.
  • Do not touch Qurans or prayer rugs. If giving these as gifts to local Mosques, let Afghan government personnel handle them.
  • There are many recommendations regarding what to do with the dead, including the Taliban. The best recommendation is to leave them, including the Taliban, and let the closest village know where they are located. The Afghans will take the initiative and properly handle the remains.

Afghans are very interested in our religion. Do not be afraid to talk about your religion to Afghans, but do not initiate the conversation. They recognize the Old Testament, Moses, and Abraham as do Christians.


In Afghanistan, as in most societies, vast differences exist between geography, cultures, generations, and financial abilities. In most areas of Afghanistan, girls do not go to school and in many rural areas boys do not go to school. In the more modern urban areas such as Kabul, many children, boys and girls, do attend school. Boys usually wear Western-style pants and shirts or the Afghan male pants with long over-shirt. Afghan girls wear black, ankle-length dresses with white head scarves. Interestingly, the Afghan Ministry of Finance even has a daycare for preschool age children.

Some Afghan boys go to boarding schools called madrasas where they learn to read and write, and to recite the Quran. Science and math may also be taught.

Colleges, universities, vocational/technical schools, and English schools are available for those who can afford to attend, as are higher education opportunities in other countries. In numerous cases, Afghan colleges and universities are partnering with Western schools that offer the same courses of study and research as a means of furthering their educational offerings. At least one Afghan university is working with a U.S. agribusiness development team to train its interns in agribusiness skills.

Younger, more-educated Afghans are much more open not only to change, but in assisting in creating change. It is interesting to see areas where there are significant changes in the attitude and capabilities of specific groups. This has been observed in Kabul among young educated Afghans working in the ministries and in the rural areas of eastern Afghanistan by agribusiness development team members. Young Afghans in Kabul are interested in raising their families in a peaceful and secure environment, with opportunities for education, careers, travel, and modern medical care.


1. Stephen Tanner, "Indomitable Afghanistan," Military History Magazine, August/September 2009.

2. Image obtained from the Hope for Afghanistan website.

3. Afghanistan Operational Culture for Deploying Personnel, U.S. Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning, May 2009.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

Section II: Economics

Afghanistan is economically a very poor country that has been further devastated by more than three decades of war. It is landlocked and very much dependent on foreign aid and imports. It lacks industry for the manufacture of exportable goods. Afghanistan lacks housing, electricity, clean water, irrigation systems, medical care, transportation systems, jobs, and security. Massive numbers of returning refugees, regardless of tribal affiliation, have flooded urban areas seeking the basics for survival-food, clothing, and shelter. Tourism is basically non-existent. Many Afghans maintain a hand-to-mouth existence.

Agriculture is a large portion of the economy, but farmers in many cases have been reduced to basically subsistence farming. Irrigation systems and orchards have been destroyed. Storage and transportation of any surplus products are unreliable. Fertile fields that once produced food for consumption and export now produce record crops of poppies making Afghanistan the world's largest exporter of opium. Indications are that the Taliban is supporting and enforcing the production of poppies to fund its insurgency.

While Afghanistan is rich in natural resources, it lacks the capacity to mine and process them. Consequently, the GIRoA is selling mining and processing rights to foreign investors. Much of its once vast forests have been illegally harvested without reforestation, resulting in almost irreversible changes to the ecological system and weather patterns.

* * *

The Quiet Success of National Guard Agribusiness Development Teams in Afghanistan

COL Martin A. Leppert, Army National Guard

Reprinted with permission from Army magazine. This article was originally published in the June 2010 issue of Army magazine.

I have looked across the epic desolation of the Afghan landscape many times, pondering the country's future and how the collective power of the United States and its allies can be brought to bear to bring this ancient land back from the abyss of feudalism and chaos. Recent global conflicts continue to spark changes in military doctrine and training methodologies. Forward-thinking in their approach, these new concepts are deeply rooted in lessons learned from periods of conflict and reconstruction throughout history. Thus a look back at our proud military heritage reaps valuable knowledge applicable today in the fight for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

In 2002, I took part in a joint combined military exercise conducted on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Despite cold, gray days and lightly falling snow, I could not help but notice the striking similarities between the Japanese rural landscape and the southern Wisconsin farm region where I grew up. Familiar Midwestern-style farms with ceramic silos, barns, and dairy cows all reminded me of the toils of my American youth.

Noting the commonalities, I asked a Japanese officer if he knew of Hokkaido's early development; his response was a revelation. In the late 19th century and during post-World War II occupation, development advisors from the U.S. Army, academia, and the private sector poured into Japan. Journeymen from America's heartland particularly reshaped the agribusiness sector of Hokkaido. Together these outsiders partnered to profoundly influence every facet of a nation's rebirth. I shelved that bit of information regarding Japan until fate-and the Army-ordered me to southern Afghanistan in 2006 as an embedded training brigade commander and senior advisor to an Afghan army brigade.

Throughout my tour, I experienced firsthand how decades of civil war and conflict with the Soviet Union devastated the once prosperous fields, farms, herds, and remotest villages of the inner valleys and rural plains. In the late 1970s, Afghanistan had a sustainable agriculture economy that provided for its population and competed in international markets. Soviet occupation strategy targeted mujahedin support among this very infrastructure. Scorch-and-burn tactics decimated the land and effectively incapacitated formerly profitable agrarian livelihoods. The Soviets incinerated and poisoned orchards and destroyed ancient canal systems and wells critical to irrigation.

Combined with the natural effects of drought, these led even the toughest Afghans to flee centuries-old hereditary homesteads for Soviet-controlled urban areas. Refugees also migrated to neighboring countries and the United States, creating a drain of generational knowledge still affecting Afghanistan. Inevitably, Soviet strategy failed, their troops withdrew, and the resultant systemic void left the door wide open for the emergence of corrupt warlords, the extremist Taliban and, ultimately, an influx of drug traders with their seed of choice-the poppy. Afghans struggling to survive and subsist quickly succumbed to the easy, low-knowhow, high-profit crop. The poppy invaded Afghanistan, supplanting traditional and indigenous staple harvests, and became the illicit cash crop of insurgency.

Engaging an unconventional enemy requires unconventional solutions. Upon my return from Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Clyde Vaughn, then director of the Army National Guard, approached me with a novel idea for establishing teams of National Guard members uniquely equipped with civilian expertise in agribusiness. Our National Guard personnel represent a diverse and unique pool of military and civilian skill sets.

Like generations of citizen-soldiers and airmen before them, members of today's Guard are mature, responsible, versatile, competitive, and entrepreneurial. Many who muster in hail from jobs associated with agribusiness. The practical expertise of the production farmer, the agriculture education instructor, and the agronomy researcher simultaneously serving in uniform is a very positive force-multiplier for the current mission in Afghanistan.

These "agrarian warriors" were raised in and have worked in a sector that requires developing technical knowledge and building supplier and marketer partnerships to stay competitive in a global economy. With time and patience, they can-and are-transferring those skills to Afghan farmers.

Lieutenant General Vaughn understood that regenerating agribusiness is critical to neutralizing extremist influence and enabling a self-sustaining Afghanistan. Bottom line: Agriculture determines whether Afghanistan flourishes or fails, and National Guard agribusiness development teams (ADTs) would ensure that success.

"Agriculture," Afghan Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) Mohammad Asif Rahimi has averred, "is the dominant factor in the Afghan economy, in food security, in livelihoods, sustainable resources, and national security."

The versatile citizen-soldier and airman could deploy, establish good relationships with farmers and villagers, and begin to revitalize the agricultural sector of Afghanistan. The reliance on ADTs is critical in initial phase development. For agile team members are not only agriculture experts, but are also military professionals able to secure hostile areas of operation; this is a full spectrum capability not yet actualized in civilian counterparts.

In a November interview, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates articulated the unique capabilities that only the Guard brings to this stability mission: "It seems to me [it is] often the situation where the Guard and the expertise in the Guard can provide the initial response in areas in Afghanistan until the security situation is stabilized enough for the civilians to come in." This joint operation hinges on precision warriors who ensure full access and the ability to reach out and make a difference deep in the wild and remote river valleys of the country.

Use of military personnel for ADT missions is part of the overarching counterinsurgency strategy designed to protect locals, improve their lives, and unfetter them from extremist influence. This strategy is based on a pragmatic assessment of the global security interests of the United States and our belief that representative national governance and a sustainable economy in Afghanistan are essential to success in the region. A centralized, effective government lessens support for insurgents and reduces the pool of unemployed men from which extremist groups recruit. It further undergirds governmental authority and the capacity to provide basic services. To this end, rebuilding the farm sector is imperative.

In the 21st-century security environment, the whole-of-government approach is the way to effectively prevent and deter conflict around the globe. ADTs implement this interagency strategy through partnerships with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. land grant colleges and universities, the Afghan national and provincial governments, Afghan farmers and businesses, and nongovernmental organizations. This collective endeavor provides training, rebuilds Afghanistan's agribusiness sector and MAIL capacity, and enables a viable economy capable of providing for Afghans.

Seeing Afghanistan's natural condition as a perpetual state of war and conflict is understandable, but it is not correct. It is just as easy, and just as wrong, to think Americans lack common bonds with the Afghan people. Our National Guard ADTs clearly lock into a shared agrarian connection, working hard with Afghans to grow not just crops but also trust and hope in remote regions. Theater requirements for the mission initiated from Headquarters, Combined Joint Task Force-Afghanistan. The National Guard Bureau (NGB), in a collaborative effort with the Army, structured teams of approximately 58 Soldiers and Airmen to provide training and advice to Afghan universities, provincial MAIL employees, Afghan agriculture extension agents and, most importantly, local farmers. Together they formulate a five-year agricultural development plan. ADTs use their developed educational farms to conduct training programs to introduce sustainable-agriculture practices.

All National Guard ADT projects are planned and executed in a combined effort with the provincial directors of agriculture, irrigation and livestock [DAIL] using local labor. These efforts produce not just an achievable, legal subsistence but also long-term relationships, building capability and professionalism at all levels of Afghan agribusiness. Additional partnerships with Afghan universities will further bridge ties with U.S. land-grant universities, similar to [the] historical cooperative efforts in Japan.

After more than two years working in some of the harshest, most volatile areas of Afghanistan, the progress of both the ADTs and Afghan farmers is evident. NGB has supported 18 ADTs on 11-month rotations, with 1,080 National Guard members deployed. To date, teams have collectively trained more than 2,115 farmers and 435 Afghan agriculture extension agents in various agriculture best practices and have provided practical learning experiences to 1,600 Afghan agriculture students.

Simultaneous with the education focus of the ADT mission, Guard members work to improve basic agriculture infrastructure. Teams have supervised construction of 282 check dams to reduce erosion, control release of mountain snowmelt, and improve quality and quantity of water in irrigation canal systems.

They have overseen construction of multiple cool-storage facilities to better stock fresh produce and help multiple slaughter facilities preserve more wholesome, sanitary meat products. The ADTs have also worked with Afghan farmers to plant more than 1,000 jeribs of grape plants, properly trellised, and irrigated with trickle irrigation systems. (Note: 2 jeribs = 1 acre).

While the increase of 30,000 American troops attracts media attention, a surge of civilian agriculture expertise in Afghanistan is also occurring. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry told Congress in December that he is marching in lockstep with military commanders to put a civilian strategy in place: "We aim to increase employment and provide essential services in areas of greatest insecurity, and to improve critical ministries and the economy at the national level. . . . Our overarching goal is to encourage good governance . . . so Afghans see the benefits of supporting the legitimate government and the insurgency loses support."

In all likelihood, current ADT structure will make the transition from military to more civilian-centric, with a core of civilian and military agriculture advisors in support of the greater effort. This whole-of-government approach focuses on improving key ministries. This is achieved by increasing the number of technical advisors and providing more direct development assistance so that the ministries, in turn, can stand up and take over.

Efforts will be bolstered by in situ rule of law, including law-enforcement institutions fighting corruption, organized crime and drug trafficking.

More than 370 years ago, the call to duty beckoned the first American citizen-soldiers away from farms and families. Leaving plows in fields, they picked up muskets and forged a new nation. The fruit of their labor is now a global superpower possessing the world's most technically advanced agricultural economy. Today the modern citizen-soldier and -airman have been asked yet again to step forward, away from farmsteads; take up arms; and volunteer to facilitate the rebirth of a nation-this time, Afghanistan.

As always, America's citizen-soldiers and airmen, men and women from 54 states and territories, stand ready to serve and support one of the most unique and successful missions in Central Asia: American farmers reaching out to Afghan farmers through a common bond to harvest freedom from a once fallow land. Soldier in war, citizen in peace, this is America's National Guard at its best.

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Another facet of the Afghan economy is the donated money and other forms of aid from numerous countries to assist Afghanistan in revitalizing its economy. Vast amounts of money have flowed into the country in the last eight years and new construction is readily evident in Kabul and other more stable urban areas. Unfortunately, much of this aid is unregulated and has come into the possession of a small portion of the population.

The net result of the vast sums of money from opium and foreign investment is a country with a vast gap between those who have and those who have not, and an economy impacted through graft, corruption, and cronyism. Unfortunately, it is no different than other countries and other peoples regardless of where they live.

Graft, Corruption, and Cronyism

"There have to be significant steps taken on the part of President Karzai and other leaders in Afghanistan to eliminate corruption."

-Admiral Mike Mullen
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

"Afghan is the second-most corrupt nation in the world, with public sector corruption worsening for the second consecutive year. . . Examples of corruption range from public posts for sale and justice for a price to daily bribing for basic services," according to Transparency International, the global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption in Afghanistan.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-Afghanistan report titled Assessment of Corruption in Afghanistan, for the period 15 January 2009-1 March 2009 stated:

Corruption has become a system, through networks of corrupt practices and people that reaches across the whole of government to subvert governance. Particularly perniciously, these networks ensure that the guilty are not brought to justice; often the officials and agencies that are supposed to be part of the solution to corruption are instead a critical part of the corruption syndrome.

Before we further address corruption, what you just read is based on non-Afghan cultural beliefs and social acceptance of corruption. Western culture and Afghan culture are not the same. Western culture is a blend of many cultures, especially in the United States, which is referred to as a "melting pot" of people from all over the world. The Afghan culture is unique. It is made up of a multitude of centuries old, diverse cultures, mostly separated by mountains, and only blended in the larger urban areas.

Since the beginning of time, people living in what we know today as Afghanistan have bartered for the things they needed or wanted. Afghans today continue to barter, with or without money. Afghans know you cannot get something for nothing, unless you steal it. As you read the following information on corruption, it may be actual corruption, it may be corruption to Western cultural standards, and it may be bartering to Afghan cultural standards. Any way you look at it, bartering and corruption are an established part of Afghan culture.

Causes and Effects of Corruption

Corruption, graft, and cronyism are a way of life in Afghanistan. Afghans see no way out of corruption as it is deeply embedded in their culture. Even statements and promises by President Karzai to fight corruption within the Afghan government are looked on with skepticism.

Abdul Jabar Sabit, a former attorney general, in his efforts to clean up corruption, found it included members of parliament, provincial governors, and cabinet ministers. He requested permission from the Afghan parliament, as required by the country's constitution, for approval to investigate charges against 22 of its members. He says, "Despite all my letters, the issue never made it onto the agenda of either house."

USAID, in its report Assessment of Corruption in Afghanistan, stated that "corruption, defined as 'the abuse of public position for private gain' is a significant and growing problem across Afghanistan that undermines security, development, and state and democracy-building objectives." The report further states the following:

  • Pervasive, entrenched, and systemic corruption is now at an unprecedented scope in the country's history.
  • Thirty years of conflict has weakened underdeveloped state institutions and the country's social fabric.
  • Afghanistan's dominant role in worldwide opium and heroin production, and the tremendous size and diversity of international security, humanitarian, and development assistance all increase Afghanistan's vulnerability to corruption.

U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry recently stated that:

Ordinary Afghans must be convinced that the powerful can no longer exploit their positions to make themselves wealthy while the less fortunate in this country struggle to find work and to feed their families. The appearance of luxurious mansions around Kabul, with many expensive cars parked outside, surrounded by private armed guards, is a very worrisome sign that some Afghans are cheating their people while claiming to be in their service.

According to U.S. Coast Guard Captain Steve Anderson, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) chief of anti-corruption:

Every society has some level of corruption. In Afghanistan, there is plenty of corruption-it's been determined through surveys, cases, and trials. There are not too many cases where our senior leaders talk about Afghanistan without mentioning some form of corruption. Corruption is a big term. There is no lack of consensus on the fact that corruption needs to be addressed. From what I can tell, it's one of the highest priorities of the coalition and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.1

Corruption, according to a captain with recent experience working with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP), is evident in the ANA and ANP per the following examples:

  • Trucks given to the ANA were missing the spare tires and jacks.
  • New fuel pumps were taken off of the trucks and sold in downtown Kabul. Old fuel pumps were brought back and put on the trucks.
  • Issued property was not recorded on property lists and found at the homes of relatives.
  • Tools were taken from the maintenance shops and sold.
  • Kickbacks were given to the local officials in return for projects.
  • Fuel trucks arrived with half of what fuel was bought.
  • Afghan soldiers were selling their issued equipment for money.
  • Local government officials were pocketing all or part of ANA and ANP soldier pay.
  • The ANP consistently shake down or extort the local people for money.
  • Citizens paying bribes to government officials for visas to travel abroad.
  • All project bids may come from the same person under numerous front companies via relatives. Once a project is started, Afghan contractors may not show up to do the work. If they do, their workers will not have the tools they need and will expect the Americans to supply the tools just so they can have the workers steal them. Poor-performing workers will not be fired and there will definitely be hidden costs and work slowdowns.

Another example of corruption U.S. Soldiers may encounter is the "flipping of contracts." In this case, each subcontractor "skims" off his share until there is almost no money left for its original intended purpose. Consequently, projects are delayed and the workmanship is less than satisfactory.

An example of the U.S. contributing to corruption is the following from a captain who recently served in Afghanistan:

  • A young lieutenant paid $20,000 for a mud hut to function as a shower for the ANA. The contract was far too much for the work. The contractor put up some rock walls and plumbing, then left with the money. Intelligence later confirmed the money was given to Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin anti-GIRoA forces that the contractor was working with. The lieutenant was under immense pressure from his battalion commander to spend money, whether the projects worked or not. In this same sector, there were two lieutenants with degrees in engineering and one with extensive civilian experience. Neither one of those two was allowed to work with the Commander's Emergency Response Program officer even when requested.

Overcoming Corruption

In 2008, the GIRoA created the High Office of Oversight for Anti-corruption to combat corruption. It has:

  • Launched a provocative, yet well-received, countrywide TV and radio anti-corruption campaign.
  • Created an interactive website that gives Afghan citizens a place to lodge complaints against corrupt activities and government officials.
  • Established a corruption complaints office which receives and manages hundreds of written and verbal complaints each week.2

Other actions in place to reduce and/or prevent corruption include:

  • The NTM-A approach focuses on building capacity, training, and accountable systems to deter and prevent people from doing corrupt things.
  • The NTM-A has a staff of lawyers who mentor the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior on anti-corruption measures.
  • Payment of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) electronically via their cell phones to prevent their superior officers from skimming off their salaries.
  • Use of blue fuel by the ANSF to identify siphoned government purchased fuel from being sold to non-government purchasers.
  • The Afghan Ministry of Defense has a lottery system for selecting students for the National Military Academy to eliminate "who they know or what they paid" students.3

U.S. Soldiers should be:

  • Briefed on how to handle projects using their authorized funds.
  • Provided with more knowledge on running projects.
  • Provided with individual training on plumbing, electrical work, power generation, concrete work, and general construction to better understand what is required to complete projects.

It has taken centuries for corruption to evolve in Afghanistan. It will take a concentrated effort by the people of Afghanistan; the Afghan national, regional, and local leaders; and the nations and institutions involved with assisting Afghanistan to reduce the practices of corruption and punish those who use corruption. This will take much time and may not be possible based on Pashtunwali.

However, U.S. Soldiers should not be contributors to the corruption through their own corrupt practices and/or failure to properly provide oversight of the administrative and funding actions to accompany contracting and procurement. Many countries contributing personnel to the coalition forces have established and require the use of internal controls and the requirement for reporting of violations and weaknesses of the internal controls. The use of these controls must be enforced.


1. Fighting Corruption in Afghanistan will take time, Staff Sergeant Rachel Martinez, NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan, U.S. Central Command website.

2. "The Afghanistan High Office of Oversight for Anti-Corruption-A Glimmer of Hope," The Asia Foundation, 9 September 2009.

3. "Fighting Corruption in Afghanistan Will Take Time," Staff Sergeant Rachel Martinez, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, U.S. Central Command website.

Section III: Government

The Afghan national government consists of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches with the first two elected by the Afghans and the judicial branch appointed by the executive branch with approval of the legislative branch. The Afghan government has varying degrees of presence/influence in the provinces and districts, depending on acceptance by tribal elders and warlords and/or the presence of the Taliban.

In regard to the central government, historically, per the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center-Dari Cultural Orientation, rural Afghans, whatever their ethnicity, generally viewed the state as a potential source of interference in their daily lives, rather than as a source of important resources over which they needed to gain control. Within the cities, a sort of balance evolved among the various groups; in general, Pashtuns made up the armed forces while Dari speakers performed administrative tasks.


Afghanistan is a landlocked country with a rugged physical environment that isolates communities and tribes. It has roads, from the most primitive to fairly modern, but the latter are limited in the number of miles available. Mountain passes and tunnels are subject to winter storms and avalanches. Unfortunately ongoing warfare sometimes renders these roads unusable, as do dust storms and floods. There are currently no railroads, but one is under construction from Uzbekistan's border to Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan and is projected to be completed by the end of 2010. Iran is funding a railroad from Herat to the Iran border, but it has met several delays.

Afghan culture is significantly affected by the geography. The geography isolates villages, further subdivides tribes and clans, and makes it even harder for U.S. and coalition forces to learn and understand the cultural differences, win the support of the Afghan people, promote the GIRoA, and defeat the Taliban. Additionally, the geography makes it harder for the Afghan central government to direct provincial and local governments.

Highlanders and Lowlanders

This cultural division is driven by geography and associated environmental conditions. Afghan lowlanders live on the cultivated, irrigated plains on the external edges of the mountains. Afghan highlanders live on the interior sides of the mountains, at various altitudes, on the more marginal lands. Pashtuns living in these environments have a folk saying: "Honor ate up the mountains and taxes ate up the plains."

The mountainous terrain has proven an effective barrier to most attempts by invaders and the central government to control and influence the people who live there. Highlanders are fiercely proud of their independence and their ability to resist change. This forms a central part of their cultural identity. Unfortunately, this isolation has contributed to the endless cycle of feuds and honor killings.

Lowlanders on the other hand, while having to pay the much hated taxes and abide by external governance, have benefited from better farmlands, agribusiness opportunities, influences and contacts with the outside world, and the changes that accessibility has brought to them. Their cultural identities are impacted by their location as is evident through centuries of association with invading cultures and the efforts by the GIRoA to create a national army and a national police force.

In its counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan, U.S. forces, as shown in the following article, work to gain the local Afghan population's support of the GIRoA.

* * *

Remote Areas of Afghanistan: "Getting a Foot in the Door"

CPT Tim Kelly, U.S. Army

Reprinted with permission from Armor magazine. This article was originally published in the March-April 2009 issue of Armor magazine.

The tasks to be done require logistical support in the form of funds, equipment, and qualified personnel. These should be made readily available and given with a minimum of red tape. Moreover, the manipulation of this logistical support is a political act and it must be allocated with a priority in favor of villages or districts where the population is most active on the side of the counterinsurgent.1

The preceding quote from David Galula's book, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, summarizes what appears to be an obvious method of distributing support; creates the idea that resources should be given only to local nationals who support the efforts of multinational forces and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRoA); and establishes that support should obviously be withheld from villages or people who would simply turn over the supplies to insurgents. Under most circumstances, this approach would be effective; however, what approach would be effective when a unit deploys to an isolated area not knowing what side its local citizens support or if they support any side at all?

There still exist citizens in remote areas of Afghanistan who have not experienced firsthand the effects of unlawful insurgency, and the few who have do not connect these operations with a larger framework. Most of these places are located across from the Tribal Areas in Pakistan, which is convenient for anti-coalition militia (ACM) fighters, who use these villages as way stations and safe havens. The villagers, who identify with these fighters based on tribal alliances or shared Muslim faith, provide aid to the fighters without realizing they are supporting any cause.

Withholding logistics support from such places as a way to "punish" villagers for aiding the insurgency will have absolutely no effect. These people have lived for generations without aid from the IRoA, so denying them aid now will not impact their daily lives in the least. Supplying a neighboring area with support as an example of benefits associated with cooperating with the government does not always seem to work in these outer-lying areas either.

Many villages are geographically located in close proximity, but have nothing to do with each other socially; even two villages composed of the same tribesmen might have severed relationships due to a feud that happened 250 years ago. Choosing one village to serve as an example of "benefits for government cooperation" and neglecting its neighbors will likely cause jealousy in the "have-not" village and push its citizens into the enemy's camp. As far as the have-not villagers are concerned, they did not do anything against the government and are unfairly being discriminated against (Afghanistan's people can think of many things that mark their clan as distinct from every other), so they are forced to join the opposition to that government.

Bringing gifts and distributing them widely, without attached strings, seems to work best when entering a new area in a remote location. In February 2008, in support of Operation Winter Stand V, Anvil Troop traveled to the area around Nakumkheyl Village in the Torah Wrey Valley. Task Force Eagle's intent for Winter Stand was to conduct air assault missions into traditional AMC safe havens when these insurgents were wintering in Pakistan, which would demonstrate to the residents the benefits of supporting the government.

Anvil Troop was met with a hostile reception; shura elders refused Anvil Troop pashtunwali (hospitality) and informed them they were not welcome. For 2 days, Anvil leaders attempted to explain to the elders that they would bring civil affairs projects, new clothes, and food for their people, but the shura members insisted that coalition presence would only bring trouble. It was obvious that two of the elders were influencing the rest, but removing these two influential elders was not an attractive option. Our chances of being accepted by the elders was further damaged by the same two elders when they told the elders that coalition forces were just in the area to arrest innocent individuals who the government unjustly did not like. So, for 2 days Anvil leaders tried in vain to isolate these two elders in an attempt to reason with the rest of the elders, who served as representatives from five different villages in the area.

During the afternoon on the second day, after repeated unsuccessful meetings with shura elders, Anvil Troop and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) decided to call some curious boys over to the mission support site and give them some shoes. They instructed the boys to tell their parents that the IRoA had sent more supplies, but they must come to the pickup area to get the supplies. The next day, as an element traveled to an area outside the immediate influence of the hostile shura members, the Afghan National Army (ANA) gave out humanitarian civil assistance (HCA) to everyone who wanted it, telling them that more would be distributed at a shura the next day. The villagers were also told that neighboring villages would be invited to the same shura.

If the villagers from the Nakumkheyl Shura did not want their free supplies, then their neighbors were welcome to the unclaimed goods.

There were a large number of attendees at the shura the following day. ANSF and Anvil leaders simply explained that the IRoA had sent HCA and coalition forces as its duty to the people to ensure they survived the winter. There were no accusations of ACM activity and no one was asked to swear any oaths of allegiance. The two truckloads of HCA were then distributed evenly to everyone in attendance, which supported the position that the government in Kabul was real and its job was to serve the people. Suddenly, the shura elders who had spread negative stories about the coalition did not seem so credible.

Many of the villagers began to view the troublemakers as a hindrance to their rights, depriving them of necessities. Another shura was held by the sub-governor of Bermel a few days later and attendance was doubled. When the troublemakers tried to impede the process, the sub-governor had them arrested for not agreeing to attend the Bermel Shura at least once a month. The villagers did not protest the arrest because it now appeared justified; it was a government official removing individuals who were irrationally interfering with events that would benefit the average person.

By simply giving away supplies at the beginning of the week, Anvil Troop showed the villagers that they were being denied something they did not even know they wanted or needed. Also, by distributing HCA with no initial strings attached, Anvil Troop created the impression that goods distribution was normal in a country run by the IRoA.

The villagers saw the goods as items they wanted, needed, and later deserved, and accepted them without realizing what HCA represents in a political context. The IRoA's free distribution of the HCA, as opposed to using the goods as a bribe to compel villagers to support the government, made the villagers de facto supporters of the government. It created a situation where villagers began to rely on simple gifts that made their lives better, and realize that these benefits were provided by the IRoA. The ACM, however, viewed the acceptance of anything from the IRoA as a political act, but could not do anything about it without negatively affecting its information management campaign.

As seen in many villages in Afghanistan, the ACM's only counter-tactic to free distribution of HCA is to force villagers to destroy the goods given to them. In the eyes of the villagers, they were asked to destroy mosque rugs, cooking oils, children's clothing, and food rightfully belonging to them-for a cause with which they never agreed. This forced the ACM into an outsider role, attempting to dictate the villagers' behavior, and as a result, coalition forces became the agents of maintaining the status quo.

The system currently in place by Task Force Eagle serves as an effective method to enable company commanders to use the valuable tool of HCA. Basically, a company can stockpile as much HCA as it needs to have goods available when visiting a village. Commanders should ensure they have plenty of HCA on hand at all times in the event a local leader engagement develops during a mission. During revisits to villages the company should redistribute HCA, which will remind villagers that such visits are beneficial and will reduce the probability of the coalition being attacked on its way to the villages. If the ACM does attack the coalition, the villagers will resent these attacks and the ACM because it is preventing the delivery of goods.

The free distribution of HCA is just the first step; it simply allows the company a "foot in the door." To have a lasting effect, the coalition must quickly escalate civil affairs involvement to begin building projects, which will develop the area by providing infrastructure, employment, and closer ties to the government in Kabul. If a company limits itself to distributing HCA as a nonlethal offensive, it will simply be creating a welfare economy in an area, which will not bring the population into the IRoA's orbit.

Villagers will continue to accept HCA, which means they are passively supporting the government, but will never be forced to actively support it. If the coalition places caveats on HCA distribution, the Afghans will then resent the government and become suspicious of coalition efforts. However, if there is evidence of a village actively supporting the ACM, the HCA will be withheld as punishment, but the villagers understand the concrete cause and effect. Afghans do not like to be manipulated and to arbitrarily change the rules of the game results in their distrust of coalition motives, causing them to refuse contact with the coalition and return to the way of life they have lived for thousands of years. On the other hand, withholding HCA without a concrete reason will create a vacuum that the ACM can quickly fill. If a village disassociates from the coalition and refuses to accept HCA, the ACM can simply move in and provide the same items, or cash, to the villagers so they can continue to enjoy the benefits to which they have become accustomed.

Although HCA distribution introduces villagers to a better way of living, it does not intertwine their well-being with the success of the IRoA. Infrastructure development projects, on the other hand, can do just that if they are awarded judiciously. These projects also have the benefit of offering a means of long-term quality of life improvements that the ACM does not have the resources to replicate.

Infrastructure development projects are powerful weapons in a counterinsurgency environment. For example, building a school in a village demonstrates that the government is working for the people and it has the capability to accomplish big projects. Once the project is completed, however, it does nothing more to bring the villagers into the sphere of the IRoA. In effect, the project becomes just an elaborate HCA distribution: the village gets something it did not have and is grateful, but once the project is complete the villagers can choose to ignore the IRoA and coalition. Of course, the government does not have the option of taking back the new school. If the ACM does something foolish, such as destroy the school, the villagers might turn against them; on the other hand, it may plant the idea that the government cannot protect the village.

If local leaders are involved from the beginning of the project, they are obligated to support the government. By having elders nominate projects and recommend contractors, they are publicly viewed as working for the government. The elders can ensure their villagers are hired to work on the project, giving them a vested interest.

At this point, if the ACM destroys the project, the villagers will see it as a direct attack on their village and not on the government. Eventually, however, the ACM will destroy the projects because the building of infrastructure means the government is acting as a legitimate entity, which makes the ACM illegitimate. Another added benefit for the government is the elders will become targets for the ACM, based on their involvement with a project, requiring them to get even closer to the IRoA for protection.

Initially, this scenario was difficult to create in Afghanistan because the system was not set up for a company to move into an area and employ locals to build projects. Typically, the company would move into an area and request projects, which the battalion civil affairs team would oversee, but they could not select the contractor. The contracting office, interested in ensuring the government's money was spent on quality work, chose contractors with whom they were familiar. These contractors were not from the company's operational area, which caused some problems with the locals, and diminished the positive effects of using local contractors to complete the work.

As stated before, a civil affairs project built without the input and participation of local elders is nothing more than an expensive HCA distribution. All contracts require contractors to hire local workers; however, the village shura realizes the real money is made by the contractor so they may not allow their villagers to work for outside contractors. The Afghans feel they do not need to prove themselves to get contracts; if they get a contract and fail to complete it correctly, then outsiders can be brought in without hard feelings, but the villagers feel they should be given the first chance when building anything on their lands. The villagers in our operational area did not accept the new projects built by outsiders as an improvement to their lives; they viewed it as the government giving their money to someone else. They would reluctantly accept the project, but the practice of higher headquarters letting contracts did not maximize the effects civil affairs projects would have. To facilitate maximum effects, Task Force Eagle's civil affairs team participated in creating a new policy that opened up contract bidding to local villagers.

Only time will tell if the villagers can actually do a good job with the projects, but the new policy had an immediate positive effect on how local villagers participated with the government process. The villagers began visiting the shuras to ask about upcoming projects and suggesting their own projects to increase their chances of getting contracts.

Once local villagers realize the benefits associated with working with coalition forces, stipulations can be placed on the aid they are provided. For example, the company can negotiate in areas such as forcing two sub-tribes to cooperate on planning and executing projects; tying the number of awarded projects to a decrease in improvised explosive device (IED) activity; or asking the villagers to prove their support by providing soldiers and police to the government.

The first step, however, is to ensure they are given a free taste of HCA benefits at first contact so they know what they have been missing.


1. David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, Praeger Security International, 30 August 2006.

Section IV: Conclusion

Culture influences the shaping of operations, both yours and the Afghan's. It is critical that you have knowledge and an understanding of the Afghan culture. It is diverse, it is complex, and it varies from village to village. Recently, two Task Force Currahee company commanders addressed this topic.

  • "Know the culture of the area you are responsible for, and understand that it may be completely different from that of your brother commanders."
  • "The population is the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency. And "those who do not see the Afghans as humans were generally a hindrance. Develop relationships with the idea that they are going to be life-long."1

U.S. Soldiers have many opportunities to work with and get to know Afghans, possibly even building lasting friendships. Remember, although you will only be in Afghanistan for a short period of time, you were sent there to assist the GIRoA and the people of Afghanistan. The insurgent threat and the counterinsurgent response is people against people, and culture against culture. Your success hinges on knowing, understanding, and applying culture of the Afghans to your actions.


1. Company Commanders' Forum, Army Magazine, Association of the U.S. Army, December 2010.

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