"You have to understand the culture you're getting involved in. We never do a good job of culture intelligence, of understanding what makes people tick, what their structure is, where authority lies. Culture bias limits our ability to understand what is going on around us."
-General (Retired) Anthony Zinni, U.S. Marine Corps,
former U.S. Central Command Commander
Understanding and applying knowledge about the Afghan tribal culture is critical to the success of agribusiness development team (ADT) operations.
What is culture?
Culture can be defined as the normative way people behave and the belief system they develop to justify and explain behaviors; it is influenced and shaped by geography, history, economics, politics, art, religion, and so forth.
Why focus on culture?
Throughout history there are many examples where failure to know and understand the culture of others often had disastrous results. For example, dietary restrictions by some cultures can lead to major problems if the forbidden food is included in humanitarian relief supplies. Focusing on the culture will enable the local population and ADT to do the following:
- Earn each other's trust.
- Effectively communicate the needs of the farmers and possible ADT support.
- Influence each other toward mutually agreed upon solutions.
- Grow the agribusiness sectors of the economy and affect the other sectors.
- Build confidence in the Afghan and provincial governments.
- Promote and develop economic and physical security.
Tribal culture is unique, as not all tribes are of the same culture. Within tribes, especially those with geographically dispersed sub-tribes, cultural differences exist. As the ADT develops its assessment of the Afghans it will assist, cultural differences will surface. The challenge is applying the Afghan culture to the framework of the support the ADT works to apply and ensuring the cultural differences do not hinder that support.
Standards found throughout the overall Afghan culture include the following:
- Tribal and Islamic culture is traditional/conservative.
- Tribal codes are social controls (honor, revenge, and hospitality).
- Feudal customs result in collective action (patronage).
- Afghan identity and loyalty is communal and public and takes precedence over individual and private.
- Personal decisions and actions are based on the following:
- Moral rectitude.
- Witness availability.
- Disclosure impact.
- Subsidence-level existence (self interest and personal gain outweigh the fear of retribution or legal/punitive action and hypocrisy or loss of respect).
- Most problem solving is communal and indirect and is accomplished by the following:
- Consensus/committee. (Jirgah is a tribal assembly of elders that makes decisions by consensus. This is most common among Pashtun tribes.)
- Backdoor approach.
- Waseta/Sifarish (connections) and baksheesh (tip/gift).
- Honor defines the reputation and worth of an individual as well as those they are associated with:
- Most important duty of Afghan man is to defend and control (women, gold, and land).
- Maintaining honor or reputation of family and lineage is the paramount concern.
- In tribal and warrior cultures, codes of honor serve as the glue that holds together the fabric of society.
- Usually past and process oriented, risk adverse, and formal.
- Family and clan honor is predominant.
- Personal honor is secondary and tied to gender.
"Honorable behavior is that which strengthens the group. . .while shameful is that which tends to disrupt, endanger, impair or weaken. . . ."
-Mansour Khalid, former Sudanese foreign minister
- The burqa is a symbol of oppression, expression, or protection:2
- Worn voluntarily for centuries by Afghan women who wished to conform to Islamic standards of modesty.
- Not required by the Muslim faith, only by some extremist Muslim groups.
- Used as a tool to oppress women; required by the Taliban and still by some male family members.
- Provides protection from dust to keep clothing clean.
- Gives a sense of security; women feel safe wearing a burqa.
- Allows privacy because women can hide embarrassing or shameful activities such as begging.
- Hospitality is an essential aspect of Afghan culture:
- Guests must be honored and treated with absolute respect and selflessness.
- Most Afghans (especially in rural areas) have little to offer except tea and hospitality.
- Poorer families and villages may undergo financial strain to provide for guests.
- Prisoners and fugitives are extended protection.
". . .Individuals gain respect, maintain status, and enhance their social standing in the community through polite behavior. . . .Much of etiquette therefore is designed to preserve zat [honor]. As a consequence, Afghan society places much emphasis on correct behavior."
-Nancy Dupree, anthropologist and author
- Etiquette and protocol are important in the following situations:
- Social interaction:
- Business and decision making are conducted with the senior male.
- If a local woman engages a Western male in conversation, the male should maintain a friendly but serious demeanor.
- Men typically take the lead in mixed-gender conversations.
- Do not shake hands with the opposite gender unless in a professional situation.
- Once a relationship is established, expect same-gender hug or even three kisses.
- Arrive on time but expect to wait.
- Greet everyone in the room; seniors (tribal elders) are greeted first.
- Rise if a senior (tribal elder) enters or exits the room.
- Handshakes (same gender only) may be soft and limp and convey formality or humbleness, not insincerity or indifference.
- A group farewell wave is inappropriate.
- Accept or give (if hosting) tea and finger food.
- Expect small talk, smiles, stares, and interruptions.
- Expect deference or silence when a topic is difficult or confrontational.
- Home visitation:
- If you must decline an invitation, do so gracefully (allow host to save face).
- Remove shoes (conveys both respect and comfort). Wait to be shown where to sit.
- Take a gift if first visit (i.e., something for host's children or a U.S. souvenir/memento).
- Food and eating:
- Do not expect a quick dinner or mixed-gender dining.
- Praise the cook often and early.
- Food is served and often eaten from common plates.
- Host will force second and third helpings (refuse politely three times).
- Forks and spoons provided if available; otherwise, use right hand to eat (both hands to tear bread or drink from cup or bowl is fine).
- Do not pull out your own food (even to share) or offer to pay.
- Verbal communication:
- Loudness conveys anger or domination.
- Remember to pause for translation.
- Do not try to cover an entire agenda in one meeting.
- Do not expect immediate answers or decisions.
- Passive silence may be a sign of contemplation or conflict avoidance.
- Responses often may be noncommittal or vague.
- Nonverbal communication:
- Eye contact is averted with superiors and the opposite sex.
- Physical gestures:
- Palm on heart is a sign of respect and sincerity or appreciation.
- Touching (same gender only unless there is a wide age difference).
- Touching and kissing on top of the head conveys blessing.
- Touching and kissing the hands conveys supplication.
- Holding hands and hugging conveys friendship and kinship.
- Public protocol:
- Taboos: Using left hand to eat; showing soles of feet; wearing shoes in the mosque and at home; open affection or contact with the opposite sex (exception: mahram-an unmarriageable relative with whom sexual intercourse would be considered incestuous, a punishable taboo).
- Conservative dress: no shorts or low-rise, low-cut, or skin-tight clothing.
- No restriction on foreign wear of the native dress.
- Western women are not expected to wear the hijab (head cover for woman) but is appreciated if they do.
- Transportation (walking, bicycling, taxi, and bus) is fast, furious, and without yields (car, truck, and bus horns are constantly in use in cities).
- Personal hygiene considers all body fluids and discharges unclean (heavy tissue paper use).
- Religious customs:
- Working mosques (masjids) are closed to non-Muslims unless invited or escorted.
- Always remove shoes (socks or bare feet are acceptable) if in a mosque.
- Head is covered at all times while inside a mosque (men and women).
- Men and women pray in separate areas.
- Avoid crossing qibla (direction of prayer).
- It is polite to refer to the Prophet Muhammad.
- Many allowances are made because you are a Westerner/foreigner.
- Accommodation often leads to greater hospitality and cooperation.
- Be authentic, sincere, respectful, and informed (and maybe a little humble).
- A female U.S. Soldier should be present when meeting with Afghan females.
Ramadan is a special time for Muslims, and ADT operations will be affected. It is important to continue work on projects, but the operational tempo will need to be adjusted (i.e., changing times for key leader engagements, local labor construction at project sites, etc.) to balance mission requirements and respect this holy Muslim holiday (see Figure 6-2).
Figure 6-2. Sample Ramadan Soldier smart card
1. Afghanistan: Cultural Awareness Briefing, source unknown, 22 September 2001.
2. Salima Ghafori, "The Burqa: Prison or Protection," Institute for Warand Peace Reporting, 20 May 2005.