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Understanding Afghan Culture

Newsletter 12-18
September 2012

CALL Newsletter 12-18: Understanding Afghan Culture

Combat Advisor 101

By CPT Matthew Swain

This article was originally published in the January-March 2011 issue of Infantry magazine,

Mentoring and advising a foreign officer that is at least one rank higher than your own and has been fighting since he was a teenager can seem like a daunting task. In addition, a combat advisor (CA) may attend several weeks of training to be an advisor and still may not have a clear vision of what he will actually be doing once he is in theater. This article will attempt to give simple and direct advice on what a CA can expect in the relationship with his counterpart based on actual CA experiences, with a focus on key leader engagements (KLEs) in Afghanistan.

Relationships Will Make You or Break You

The most important measure of success as a CA is your professional relationship with your Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) counterpart and with your coalition counterpart.Your relationship with your Afghan counterpart will be the determining factor on how much progress you will make during your deployment; however, do not take for granted your relationship with other coalition leaders. You will certainly have your own U.S. chain of command for reporting, but you may have a dual reporting requirement to another coalition military. Your CA team may be responsible for an Afghan brigade commander, but the division-level CA team may be from a coalition nation. For example, the CA organization in western Afghanistan in 2009 included U.S. Army battalion-level CAs and an Italian Army brigade-level CA team. Those responsible for Afghan National Army (ANA) battalion commanders and staff had a dual reporting chain. They reported to their U.S. chain of command as well as to the Italian CAs at the Afghan brigade. If a coalition CA team is responsible for a higher or adjacent Afghan unit, you must make sure your chain of command understands the goals and operations of that coalition team.

Build Rapport to Get the Best Results

To teach, coach, and mentor your counterpart, you must be able to influence his decision-making process. The best way to do this is to build a solid rapport with him. There will be vast cultural differences between you and your counterpart. You may have nothing in common with him, but you must first build rapport to start developing your professional relationship.

Get to know your counterpart personally. He will definitely invite you to lunch, so have lunch with him and do it often. Talk with him about subjects not related to work. Don't be afraid to socialize.

Another great and often overlooked technique used to get to know your counterpart better is to debrief your interpreter after each KLE. Your interpreter will tell you if your counterpart liked what you said, got upset, what he said to his staff during the KLE, or even what kind of Dari accent he has.

Once you get to know your counterpart on a personal level, the process of building a professional relationship becomes much easier. When you have a good professional relationship, advising will be much more effective. It all starts with building rapport.

There Will Be No Short Meetings with Your Counterpart

There are rarely "quick meetings" or engagements, either at home station or while deployed. As Army leaders, we are all experienced in attending meetings. The KLE is the crux of what a combat advisor does, and your KLEs with your Afghan counterparts may take twice as long as a meeting with your American peers. The reason for this is obvious and simple - the language barrier. All of the discussion in a KLE is literally said twice - sometimes several times. Everything you want to say to your Afghan counterpart must first be understood then translated by your interpreter. Your counterpart's response must also be understood and translated by your interpreter. Some words simply don't translate from English into Dari (or whatever language your counterpart speaks) and vice versa.

Besides single words not translating, oftentimes entire phrases, the nuances of different languages, and the complex intent behind what we want to say to our counterpart don't translate well. Just trying to convey one idea to your counterpart can bring the KLE to a standstill. Another example of the cumbersome translation process is trying to get a simple piece of information from your counterpart and having to ask multiple times to get a simple answer.

Another reason a KLE will take longer than originally anticipated is that your counterpart will agree on a topic of discussion but have an ulterior motive and will direct the conversation in an entirely different direction. For example, you may go into a routine KLE with the agreement that the topic will be mundane details about a weapons and personnel inventory, and your counterpart will talk about his fuel needs for most of the meeting.

He may talk for extended periods of time while you sit patiently and quietly and listen. This is simply a cultural difference - your counterpart is not intentionally being rude. Afghan officers can, and will, go into an extended monologue during a KLE, talking about not only the issue that prompted the KLE, but every other issue he may have at the time. Usual topics of discussion include: ammunition, food, transportation, and the Afghan resupply system. He may not expect you to provide realistic solutions for him on the spot, but he is usually venting his frustration about his challenges.

Don't Assume Your Counterpart Knows or Cares What You're Talking About

What is important to you isn't necessarily important to your counterpart. American staff officers spend countless hours building and refining ingenious slide presentations and various other correspondence. Conversely, Afghan officers can request aviation support with a three-sentence, hand-written memorandum on a plain white piece of scrap paper with no letterhead. The ANA and the Afghan National Police (ANP) do not use the same staff processes and products as U.S. Soldiers. The lesson here is when you tell your counterpart in a KLE that one of you has to prepare slides for an upcoming briefing or operation, he will not necessarily know or care about what a professionally built presentation looks like.

Another example of the cultural difference in priorities is the importance of formal sensitive items accountability. In the U.S. military, accounting for weapons and sensitive items is a no-fail, command-directed activity. If a sensitive item isn't accounted for, everything stops and it's a unified effort to search for the item until it is found. The ANA and ANP don't necessarily have the same systems and emphasis on this.

This doesn't imply that they negligently lose weapons and equipment, but they are satisfied if their soldiers and police have enough weapons and equipment on hand to accomplish the mission. This will affect your KLE in how much command emphasis your counterpart should place on the inventories that he must conduct, and the timeliness and accuracy of the inventory.

Don't Hold Your Counterparts to a U.S. Standard

Some combat advisors try to make their counterparts and their Afghan units perform at the same level as an American unit. No matter how hard you try, this will not happen. The cultural and social differences and priorities are enormous, and Afghan units simply will not conduct operations the way we do. An example of this is the staff process. For U.S. Army units, an operation order (OPORD) for a battalion mission can be a major document to include multiple annexes. An OPORD for an Afghan infantry battalion (kandak) can be a two-page hand written document with no annexes, if the kandak staff produces an order at all. For example, the embedded training team (ETT) in Farah Province, Afghanistan, has mentored the kandak on the military decision-making process (MDMP) and OPORD production several times over the years. For security operations during the 2009 presidential election in Afghanistan, the kandak staff produced a two-page, hand-written OPORD. The kandak would not have produced one at all if the ETT had not coached them to do so.

In addition to the differences in staff processes, general soldier and military conduct is vastly different from the American military. A striking example of this is the general appearance and cleanliness of Afghan unit areas and buildings. To put it simply - there is trash everywhere. There is trash inside the offices, conference rooms, outside the buildings, and in the parking areas. A unit in the U.S. Army would never have an area like this. However, this is commonplace in Afghanistan. As a CA, you may want to address this with your counterpart, but don't be disappointed if no progress is made. Afghans simply do not place the same emphasis as we do on area beautification and cleanliness. It is yet another example of different priorities in their culture.

Don't Try to Be Your Counterpart's Boss

As a CA, you give advice and mentor your Afghan counterpart. You are not in a supervisory position in relation to your counterpart. A potential pitfall in the CA relationship with a counterpart is attempting to dictate tasks. Your counterpart does not work for you. You are there simply to advise, relay information, mentor, coordinate, support, and whatever else may be needed. If your counterpart does not prioritize a mission or tasking that you as a CA need him to, then you will certainly think you are not accomplishing your mission. In this case, you may want to "order" him to do the mission or else! This absolutely will not work. A CA may try to emphasize the importance of a task to his counterpart, but the counterpart simply does not plan to accomplish the task in the time frame or manner the CA wants or expects.

A great example of this is the ANP weapons and personnel inventory. This is a routine and recurring tasking that the ANP must complete and have completed for the past several years. The CAs report the results through their chain of command to measure ANP development.

In the spring of 2009, there was a KLE between the Heart Regional Police Mentor Team and the ANP commander for western Afghanistan. The topic of discussion was the upcoming weapons and personnel inventory. The ANP commander was not in the mood to discuss the inventory and was making excuses about why it would not be completed. The discussion went back and forth for a few minutes between the senior CA and the Afghan commander with no agreement. Finally, the CA gave the Afghan commander an absolutely brilliant response just because of its honesty and simplicity. He said, "General, this is not my inventory; this is your inventory. I really don't care if you do it or not. I can only report that you didn't to my chain of command which will report to the Ministry of the Interior. That's all I can do."

The CA remained calm and professional throughout the entire meeting even though his counterpart was not agreeing to their terms. The CA told his counterpart his role as a CA and why it's important for the inventory to be completed. This method will work much more effectively than attempting to bully or coerce your counterpart. The response should be one of the guiding principles for a CA: "This is your mission, your unit, your country. Not mine. I'm just here to help."

Don't Assume Your Counterpart Needs Your Advice for Anything

As a CA, you'll most certainly be providing advice and mentoring to a counterpart that outranks you and possibly has been fighting since he was a teenager. The Afghans are not naïve, they realize that they outrank you and probably have at least as much combat experience as you, if not more. However, they will always be polite, friendly, and gracious. They will listen to everything you have to say. Whether or not they take that advice is up to them, but they will at least listen.

Afghan leaders are not necessarily incompetent. They have their own methods and visions on how they lead their companies, battalions, brigades, and corps. The advice your Afghan counterpart wants to hear from you during combat is where you are placing your crew-served weapons and that close air support (CAS) and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) are available. During garrison operations, your Afghan counterpart will almost certainly want you to help with his supply and logistics problems, primarily by personally delivering the supplies and equipment he wants and needs. This is rarely, if ever, possible, but you can facilitate the process for him. More often than not, this will be perfectly acceptable.

You Can't Solve All Your Counterpart's Problems, but You Can Facilitate

A common negotiation pitfall among salesmen and customer service representatives in the civilian world is telling a client that "it's not possible" or "that's against policy" or simply, "I can't do that." An effective technique to use when dealing with a difficult client in this situation is "don't tell people what you can't do; tell them what you can do." This will apply to you as a CA more often than you think and will make your life much easier.

Your counterpart will almost certainly tell you that he needs ammunition, building materials, fuel, computers, printers, or any number of items or equipment. He will expect you to deliver these items because his supply system isn't working well, and more importantly, that you are an American.

"As a CA, you are an advisor and facilitator. Your job is to make your counterpart's system work for him, not to do the work yourself."

Do not tell your counterpart that you will make sure he gets his supplies and equipment as soon as possible. He will expect you to personally deliver everything he requested to his headquarters within the week, which almost certainly will not happen. When you fail to deliver on an obvious promise to your counterpart, you will lose credibility and your working relationship will suffer.

A good method to use in this situation is to honestly tell your counterpart what you can do, not what you can't do. You can't deliver his requested supplies within a week, but what you can do for him is to facilitate the process. You can report to your CA chain of command that your counterpart has ordered supplies and to have your higher level CAs check into the supply request with their counterparts. You can arrange a meeting with your counterpart's logistics officer and the next higher level logistics officer. You can deliver the supply request forms to the next higher level logistics officer, or his CA, and make sure he understands the order and what he must do to fulfill it. As a CA, you are an advisor and a facilitator. Your job is to make your counterpart's system work for him, not to do the work yourself.

Check, Recheck, and Double Check Everything with Your Counterpart

As previously mentioned, cultural differences between you and your counterpart can be vast. They can and will have different priorities than you and your CA team. For example, you and your counterpart's focus for the week is planning for the security of an upcoming event. Your focus may be on creating a slide show for a briefing, and you desperately need input from your counterpart on how his unit will accomplish the mission. Your counterpart may be focused on the troops to task for the plan and making sure his soldiers have food and water while they are on the mission; he could care less about your PowerPoint slides. No amount of badgering from you will convey to your counterpart the importance of a slide show, even though to you it is critically important. To appease you, your counterpart may eventually give you a simplified concept of the operation, a troops to task analysis and anything else you may need, but you must make him understand that the information he provided will be briefed to your boss, his boss, and up several levels of the chain of command. You must absolutely verify that the information and the plan he provided is what his unit will actually do for the operation because that is what will be presented.

Don't Assume Your Counterpart Doesn't Speak English

As a CA in Afghanistan, you may be pleasantly surprised by how many ANP and ANA officers speak English. Some Afghan officers speak fluent English. Other Afghan officers, even enlisted, will have a working knowledge of English but will not speak it to you. It is very important to know this because you will need to be aware of what you and your team members say while among your counterparts and their soldiers. The language barrier won't mean that you can have a private conversation with your team members during a KLE. Make absolutely sure that you, or anybody else with you, don't say something in English to insult your counterparts during the meeting; it's highly likely they will know what was said. Also make sure you don't have semi-private sidebar discussions with your team members during a KLE. What you say will probably be heard and understood by your counterparts.

Don't Think That a CA Assignment is a Non-combat Job

Although your primary mission as a CA is to teach, coach, and mentor your counterpart, this is not necessarily a combat or lethal mission in all cases. A lot of your time will indeed be spent creating slides, gathering information for higher headquarters, conducting various inventories, planning training, and other administrative functions. However, it is highly likely that you will eventually be in a combat situation with your counterpart or his subordinate units. As previously mentioned, the enablers (CAS, MEDEVAC, crew-served weapons, etc.) you bring to the fight are highly valued by your counterparts. Don't underestimate how much value your counterpart will place on your enablers - they can and will be a determining factor in your counterpart's mission accomplishment. For example, an entire Afghan kandak will postpone or cancel a mission if the American CA team can't join them. In many instances, your counterpart will insist that your CA team accompany them on missions. If your counterpart's unit conducts a mission without you, chances are high that your counterpart will contact you during the mission requesting quick reaction force (QRF) support from you. You may be answering e-mail in the morning and providing support by fire by lunch.


Being a combat advisor is certainly one of the most challenging, frustrating, and rewarding assignments an Army leader can have. As a CA, you are the face of the American military and the American people and part of the long-term exit strategy. You are responsible for teaching, coaching, and mentoring a foreign military. The rapport you build with your counterpart will pay big dividends in building relations between the two militaries and in defeating the insurgency.

Table of Contents | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12

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