UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Center for Army Lesson Learned Logo

Afghan Culture

Newsletter 10-64
September 2010

CALL Newsletter 10-64: Afghan Culture

Chapter 5. Afghan Culture and Language Training

Section I: Predeployment Training

Section II: Deployed Training

Section III: Conclusion

"This training on culture, politics and economics is not only critical; it is the most critical. . . .It's all about relationships."

-Lieutenant General H. Steven Blum
Former Chief, National Guard Bureau
Former Commanding General MND-N, SFOR

"An Army of strangers in the midst of strangers."

-Lieutenant General David Petraeus
Commander, Multinational Security Transition Command

Both Lieutenant Generals Blum and Petraeus recognized the two elements of the environment in which U.S. Soldiers were operating: relationships and strangers. They targeted training as the means to prepare Soldiers to understand and know how to employ culture in relationship building to eliminate the stranger stigma.

U.S. Soldiers, especially those with "boots on the ground," if they hope to achieve success in their areas of operations, must know and understand the culture of the local population and have some basic skills in using the language of the local Afghans. Thus, before their boots hit the ground, they must receive cultural and language training.

Understanding the culture and language of the population within their operational environment is vital for several reasons as Soldiers prepare for and conduct operations:

  • Building rapport.
  • Enabling force protection.
  • Establishing networks of relationships.
  • Conducting key leader engagements and meetings with the local population.
  • Ensuring appropriate conversation.
  • Reducing potential for miscommunication.
  • Accepting and returning hospitality.
  • Learning acceptable dining etiquette.
  • Relating to local children.
  • Giving gifts.
  • Detaining individuals.
  • Searching individuals and property.
  • Entering and searching mosques.

U.S. Soldiers are aware of their own culture as it relates to each of the above items. Unfortunately, what is acceptable to U.S. Soldiers may not be acceptable to the culture of the local population. Thus these Soldier's intentions, while being good, may be counterproductive.

To ensure Soldiers know and understand the culture of the people in the area they are preparing to enter, Soldiers and their commanders need to participate in cultural training specific to that area. This can be accomplished in a classroom environment, via the Internet, and through practical exercises. However it is done, it must be done. And while they are at it, Soldiers and their commanders must not neglect learning key words and phrases of the language within the area they will operate.

Section I: Predeployment Training

The best time to receive cultural and language training is during pre-deployment preparations. But, as necessary, it should continue throughout the deployment as Soldiers grow in their knowledge of local customs and cultural norms.

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) established the TRADOC Culture Center to provide the U.S. Army with mission-focused culture education and training. The TRADOC Culture Center is located at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, Fort Huachuca, AZ. The TRADOC Culture Center's mission includes training all units and Soldiers preparing to deploy, and enabling all institutional organizations to effectively educate and train culture. The TRADOC Culture Center:

  • Develops culture education and training support packages.
  • Conducts culture education and training as part of professional military education.
  • Conducts culture training via transition teams and embedded training teams.

In January 2010, TRADOC issued the second edition of its Afghan Smart Book. The purpose of the smart book is to ensure U.S. Army personnel have a relevant, comprehensive guide to use in capacity building and counterinsurgency operations while deployed in Afghanistan. The smart book is an excellent resource for other military and civilian personnel deploying to Afghanistan.

The TRADOC Culture Center's website is "https://icon.army.mil/apps/tccv2/" (requires Army Knowledge Online [AKO] logon). The website provides a list of contacts, culture education and training, culture center documents and pictures, and culture center links.

The U.S. Marine Corps has established the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL) to provide regional, operational culture, and language knowledge through training and education, to plan and operate in the joint expeditionary environment. In May 2009, CAOCL issued its guide Afghanistan Operational Culture for Deploying Personnel. This guide provides basic Afghan cultural training. CAOCL's website is "http://www.tecom.usmc.mil/caocl/".

There are two other excellent sources of Afghan culture and language training:

  • Naval Postgraduate School's Leader Development and Education for Sustained Peace Program (LDESP).
  • The U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) message on the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) website, FORSCOM Training Guidance for Follow-on Forces Deploying to ISO (in support of) Southwest Asia (SWA). Go to "http://call.army.mil" 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.

* * *

Cultural Awareness and WOT

Dr. Dorothy Guy Bonvillain

Reprinted with permission from Field Artillery. This article was originally published in the March-April 2007 issue of Field Artillery.

Note: Although this article addresses Iraq, its lessons apply to Afghanistan.

A tense encounter with a frenzied crowd in Najaf during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) I began spiraling out of control with no apparent way out of direct conflict. The U.S. Army battalion commander then ordered his troops to "Take a knee, point your rifles at the ground and smile." Next, he ordered them to "Stand, turn your backs on the crowd and walk away."

His informed directives saved lives. In the Arab culture, a blank face indicates hostility while a smiling face conveys friendship. The Soldiers' turning their backs on the crowd showed trust. Because of their commander's knowledge of Arab culture, the Soldiers were able to defuse this dangerous situation.

CNN caught this now famous incident on tape and aired it, hailing these Soldiers as "heroes of war" who saved American and Iraqi lives by demonstrating their valor and restraint. The commander of that unit, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry (2-327 IN), 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), then Lieutenant Colonel Christopher P. Hughes, clearly made his command decision based on cultural intelligence.1

Military commanders increasingly are becoming aware of the critical link between cultural intelligence and success in the contemporary operating environment (COE). For Field Artillerymen (FA) serving in FA, maneuver, or other nontraditional units in the War on Terrorism (WOT), cultural awareness enhances their ability to conduct operations with Arabs or other foreigners. This is especially true not only for commanders at all levels, but also for those who serve on fire support teams (FISTs), as fire support officers (FSOs), and effects coordinators (ECOORDs), coordinating and conducting nonlethal effects, such as information operations (IO), and civil-military operations (CMO).

Even so, we at the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Culture Center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, still hear the argument that training for the unit mission allows little or no time for cultural awareness training. Another argument is that "War is war! We are in WOT to keep terrorists off U.S. turf!"

This article discusses the importance of cultural awareness training for WOT, the needs and priorities of the Iraqi people in comparison with Americans', and techniques to demonstrate cultural awareness and most effectively execute the mission. Some of these basic techniques include identifying leaders, respecting elders, and socializing with Arab contacts.

If we listened to our military transition teams (MiTTs), border transition teams (BTTs), and special police transition teams (SPTTs) returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, we clearly would hear the message that cultural awareness training is important. They say that cultural training would have better informed them and facilitated their missions-but training was either nonexistent or deficient before they deployed.

For example, see the article "So, You're Going to be on a MiTT. What Do You Need to Know?" by Captain Jared R. Kite, et al, in the November-December 2006 edition of Field Artillery magazine. This article discusses the team's lessons learned in Mosul and the relevance of "soft cultural skills" to their mission.

TRADOC's Operations Order (OPORD) 05-123A for Professional Military Education (PME), October 2005, identifies cultural awareness training as one of TRADOC's top three training initiatives. In response, the Culture Center developed training about Iraqi and Afghan values, beliefs, behaviors, norms, ancient history, culture, and religion. The ultimate goal is for this training to make Soldiers more aware of cultural differences and treat the Iraqis and Afghans with dignity and respect, making the Soldiers more effective in WOT deployments.

The fact is that cultural awareness enhances Soldiers' understanding of Arab insurgents and noncombatant population, and facilitates situational awareness in both lethal and nonlethal operations. Situational awareness translates into more informed decision making, ultimately saving Soldiers' lives. Some of the benefits of cultural awareness training are outlined in Figure 1.

Benefits of Cultural Awareness:

  • Protects and saves lives-American and host national.
  • Enables Soldiers and leaders to accomplish their tasks and missions more effectively.
  • Produces long-term relationships versus short-term gains.
  • Improves diplomatic relations by decreasing social blunders.
  • Enables a more seamless unit replacement process (relief-in-place) in country.
  • Reduces operational costs and the loss of equipment.
  • Increases overall situational awareness and effective decision making.

Figure 1. Benefits of Cultural Awareness

Culture within Context and by Comparison. While visiting the TRADOC Culture Center in the fall of 2006, now Colonel Hughes emphasized that, for any area of the world, identity is culture. Within any culture, knowing the people is the "center of gravity" for influencing the people-the goal of any counterinsurgency.

Colonel Hughes discussed "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs"2 and revised the hierarchy to compare the Iraqi and U.S. cultures, as shown in Figure 2. The hierarchy on the left for Iraq is the more traditional hierarchy. Iraq is a nation with a recently deposed dictator and an infant democracy, so the figure shows a natural progression of the people's concerns and time spent to secure first their physical needs (food, shelter, water, and clothing) and then to feel safe. People must satisfy these basic needs before they can move on to socializing and establish enough confidence and status, or esteem, to self-actualize-become creative, independent self-starters who can maximize their human potential.

Graphic showing diagram of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs revised between Iraqi and U.S. cultures
Figure 2. Revised hierarchy of needs between Iraqi and U.S. cultures.

In comparison, the hierarchy for the United States is on the right in Figure 2. Although this hierarchy shows the same progression of people working their way up through securing their physical needs to the ultimate of self-actualization, the classic "pyramid" shape of the hierarch is inverted. This shows the diminished amount of time, concern and effort necessary for Americans to attain their basic needs before progressing through the hierarchy to self-actualization. The difference is that the U.S. has an abundance of wealth and infrastructure and a mature system of rights established by our Constitution and laws that are established and enforced by our federal, state and local governments. Also, the U.S. does not have tribal or religious leaders or foreign insurgents fighting each other on American soil for control of our country. Without understanding the different needs of the Iraqi people, Americans easily can misunderstand Iraqi priorities.

Graphic showing diagram of Iraqi hierachy of needs compared with Coalition with the military objectives in Iraq based on Iraqi priorities
Figure 3. Iraqi hierachy of needs compared with Coalition objectives.

Figure 3 takes the same Iraqi hierarchy of needs and lists the Coalition Force's progression of military objectives beside those needs, leading to the goal of a free and independent Iraq. Note that the Iraqis' need for securing food, water, shelter and safety call for the most Coalition Force support (time, energy, and dollars) and make the Iraqis most vulnerable to coercion by insurgents-most vulnerable to insurgent acts of violence. Only when the Iraqis' (or any people's) needs are met at the lower levels will they be able to move up the pyramid.

Understanding the Iraqi culture within the context of the people's priorities and vulnerabilities allows Soldiers and their leaders to understand situations in Iraq more accurately.

Identifying Leaders. Soldiers can use some practical techniques to demonstrate their cultural understanding, allowing them to more effectively accomplish the mission. A colleague of mine, Bassam Almesfer, a native of the Gulf Region, served as a language and cultural interpreter for the U.S. Marines in Iraq during OIF II. Bassam shared the following scenario relating the relevance of cultural awareness to operations in theater.3 To paraphrase what Bassam said:

We were on a routine trip to Najaf with three vehicles and nine Soldiers when we encountered an Iraqi vehicle carrying 12 personnel armed with AK-47s. The situation quickly intensified when we surrounded the vehicle and requested all to step out of and away from the vehicle. The gunmen refused and pointed their weapons at us. Our Soldiers proceeded to the "ready" position as well.
As the situation escalated, I spotted a gentleman stepping out of the back of the truck wearing a headpiece that denoted him as a cleric-the person of influence in the truck. Ignoring the increasingly tense situation, I requested permission to speak with him as a sign of respect. I approached the cleric with the utmost respect and explained that we had no intentions of harming anyone; however, we wanted to remove their weapons and have the local authorities check them out.
I respectfully asked him to help us stabilize the situation and, in turn, stated that we would provide security for his journey to his destination. Surprised by the offer, he then ordered his men to put down their weapons. We escorted him and his personnel to their destination.
The story spread like wildfire, and we became known as the good people who had ensured the cleric's safety.

This incident laid the foundation for establishing a relationship with the cleric, and we were able to secure his cooperation on many other matters in the area for months to come. As a result, we conducted visits to the area with ease and communicated with many people in and around Najaf.

The key points are that we identified the leader and treated him with respect: called him "Sir," asked him for permission to speak to him, were profusely apologetic about the difficult situation, and escorted him to his destination safely. This culturally informed approach allowed us to build a long-term relationship that proved beneficial to our mission.

Showing Elders Respect. Bassam Almesfer also described visits to neighboring villages where he took extra care to stop and extend greetings to elders in the area. He taught Soldiers within his sphere of influence to take extra care when they saw elders and always to treat them with respect as a demonstration that the Soldiers recognized the dignity of the elders in the tribal system and honored them. As a result, Americans gained the villagers' trust and were able to consult with the elders frequently. The elders used their power and prestige to help the Soldiers conduct more effective missions.

Iraqi elders are the "hidden jewels" of the operational area. In their villages and tribes, they have the final word and can influence many by their status and power.

Taking Time to Socialize. Arabs are firmly entrenched within a system of allegiances. They follow a code of honor and are loyal to family, tribe and (or) clan with Islam permeating their everyday lives-on every level from personal to political. Their primary concerns move in concentric circles from within their home, family, elders and family/tribal honor and pride.

To build trust and relationships that can facilitate change and the success of their operations, Soldiers and leaders must get to know their Arab contacts within the context of these strong influences. Therefore, it is worthwhile to invest time just sitting in coffee shops with locals and talking about the village, the tribe, the weather, or whatever they choose to discuss.

When the locals know Soldiers and leaders are coming to the market to drink tea instead of always "conducting operations," then the atmosphere is more relaxed and people get to know the Soldiers and become more responsive and helpful. Unhurried time spent with Arabs establishes a highly valued bond and a level of trust that only can be earned.

It is critical that Soldiers and leaders have trusted local sources of information to help them ferret out insurgents in a neighborhood or be forewarned of ambushes on "the only paved road in town." By respecting leaders and elders and taking the time to get to know the people, Soldiers and leaders build trust and create loyalty in the Iraqi people, their leaders, and interpreters.

On the other hand, using fear as a tactical tool to get information does not establish trust or create loyalty. Sometimes in WOT, Soldiers must use fear to interrogate known terrorists or Iraqis caught attacking Coalition Forces or innocent Iraqi citizens. But as a rule, trust and loyalty that go both ways is critical for Iraqis to feel safe and help units accomplish their missions.

Even though the political climate is changing, people in the Middle East have chosen to remain the same for hundreds of years. Their cultural values, beliefs, norms, and behaviors continue to play a fundamental role in real-life situations throughout the region. By being culturally aware and investing time in the locals, Bassam Almesfer's Soldiers fostered friendly relations with locals and had no life-threatening incidents in their area of operations (AO) on either side for more than a year and one-half.

Other Tactical Techniques. At the tactical level, there are many things Soldiers and leaders can do to build relationships and influence the people in counterinsurgency operations. Here are a few of them.

  • Know the customs, mores, religion and culture of the people in your AO.
  • Always show respect when approaching locals and smile-especially for the most valued members of their culture: elders and leaders. Do this regardless of whether they are clean or dirty, barefoot, or well dressed. With this approach, locals will be more willing for you to search them without offense and (or) provide information.
  • Learn key Arabic phrases and use them to open communications with the Arab people. Understanding how to use language within the framework of cultural application is critical.
    • For example, before asking a question or making a request, say "Min Fathalk,. . ." or "Lau Samaht,. . .." These mean "If you please" or "If I may ask." They are signs of respect and widen the pipeline of communications.
    • Arabs favor using religious expressions because Muslims integrate religion into their everyday lives and language. Phrases such as "In-sha'Allah," meaning "if God is willing"; "Al Hamdu Lillah," meaning "thank God"; and "Mashaa Allah," meaning "with God's blessing" will help Soldiers to connect with Arabs.
  • Understand that Arabs have a different sense of time than Americans, which often causes Americans to see them as "undependable." When an Arab says, "In-sha'Allah," something may or may not get done-only "If Allah wills it."
  • Never tell locals what you want them to do without first asking what they need.
  • Learn to identify key personnel based on their culture; political, tribal, or religious affiliations; and their economic and financial status.
  • Learn to evaluate the political effectiveness of Arab leaders in your AO, both formal and informal.
  • Know persuasion techniques and how to conduct the negotiation process.
  • Know the basic differences between Sunnis and Shiites and which sect influences which part of your AO.
  • When training Iraqi soldiers or policemen, Sunnis and Shiites should be together in squad-sized elements and forced to rely on one another. Genghis Khan did this to make rival tribes he conquered integrate and assimilate into one people-and it worked.
  • When training host nation soldiers or police, use cross-cultural skills to guide and mentor them.

Ignoring a people's culture leaves Soldiers and leaders ignorant of the broader negative consequences their actions can have and of the broader positive effects their cultural awareness could have on accomplishing the mission. The mission is to move the Iraqi people up the Maslow's hierarchy toward security and total independence.


1. Colonel Christopher P. Hughes, former commander of 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) I, shared some of his experiences in Iraq with the staff, students and Soldiers at the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Culture Center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on 30 October 2006.

2. Abraham Maslow discussed his hierarchy of needs in "A Theory of Human Motivation," Psychological Review (Volume 50, Number 4, 1943), 370-396.

3. Author's interview with Bassam Almesfer, currently a Training Developer and Instructor in the TRADOC Culture Center, December 2006.

------- End of article -------

"You need to teach Pashtu to units going to Pashtun areas."

-First Lieutenant, police mentor team S-3/S-4

The TRADOC Culture Center supports home station, combat training center, and mobilization training centers culture training as follows:

  • Home station training:
    • Commander planned and resourced:
      • Institutional Army provides: doctrine; training and evaluation outlines; training support packages; and training aids, devices, simulators, and simulations.
      • Functional courses with embedded culture training.
    • Commander planned and externally resourced:
      • Mission rehearsal exercise (MRE) and mobilization readiness exercise (MRX) training with embedded culture training.
      • Mobile training teams; basic and advanced culture training.
      • Executive program for operational and strategic leaders.
    • Afghan Culture Training Centers:
      • Formal and informal Afghan culture familiarization training.
      • Simulated Afghan environment with actual Afghans.
  • Combat Training Centers (CTC)/Mobilization Training Centers (MTC) site training:
    • Commander planned and externally resourced:
      • CTCs-Battle Command Training Program, Joint Readiness Training Center, Joint Multinational Readiness Center, and the National Training Center with embedded culture training.
      • MTCs with embedded culture training-First Army training support brigades, training support battalions, and the Army School System battalions.
      • Non-CTC MRE/MRX with embedded culture training.

One major deficiency being addressed is the lack of Afghan females to serve as trainers for Afghan female cultural training. Another deficiency identified by leaders and Soldiers is that cultural training is too generic and not focused on duty requirements.

Civilian-Provided Training Opportunities

Numerous U.S. colleges and universities are partnering with equivalent schools in Afghanistan and/or are involved with U.S. Army training centers and schools as a means to facilitate Afghan culture and language training. One such program is hosted by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and is designed to immerse Soldiers in Afghan culture.1 The university's Center for Afghanistan Studies hosts the program, which consists of three weeks of Afghan language, cultural, and historical immersion. The program consists of a series of seminars focusing on Afghan language, culture, history, geography, natural resources, and current issues. The Center's Afghan instructor staff includes President Hamid Karzai's former scheduler, an Afghan-American who graduated from the United States Military Academy and a former instructor at Kabul University who fled the country in 1987 during the former Soviet Union's occupation. He now serves as the center's assistant director.


1. Kevin Abourezk, University of Nebraska at Omaha Program Immerses Soldiers in Afghan Culture, Lincoln Star Journal website, 10 April 2010.

Section II: Deployed Training

Since training never stops for professionals, Soldiers should continue to receive cultural and language training while deployed.

The TRADOC Culture Center provides training for deployed Soldiers.

  • TRADOC deployed training:
    • Commander planned and CENTCOM resourced/provided:
      • Human terrain teams.
      • Relief in place/transfer of authority and right-seat-ride culture training.
      • Reach back to the TRADOC Culture Center.

Counterinsurgency Training Center-Afghanistan

Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) established the Counterinsurgency Training Center-Afghanistan, located at Camp Julian, Kabul, to ensure U.S. Soldiers on arrival in Afghanistan receive a standard Afghan culture training program. Additionally, per the commander of the Counterinsurgency Training Center-Afghanistan, the course is designed to ensure personnel understand that counterinsurgency is a mindset that encompasses prevention of civilian casualties, fosters public trust in the government, and establishes conditions for economic growth, and is necessary to win the war.

Section III: Conclusion

Training is a leader's responsibility to provide and the responsibility of the follower to complete. Afghan cultural awareness training is available individually and collectively to U.S. Soldiers prior to and following deployment. COIN academies and training centers inside and outside of Afghanistan are employing Afghans and creating training venues that replicate Afghanistan to add realism and creditability to their Afghan culture training programs. Predeployment Afghan cultural training sets the stage for success. Afghan culture training during deployment enhances success.

In the unconventional warfare environment of Afghan COIN operations, U.S. Soldiers are almost constantly in contact with the Afghans living in their area of operations (AOs). Providing these Soldiers with culture and language training specific to their particular AO in Afghanistan is a significant key to enhancing their mission success.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list