KABUL — A new Afghan army-issued guide explains to soldiers here that when their Western counterparts do something deeply insulting, it’s likely a product of cultural ignorance and not worthy of revenge.
Eleven years into the war in Afghanistan, NATO troops and Afghan soldiers are still beset by a dangerous lack of cultural understanding, officials say, contributing to a string of insider attacks that have threatened to undermine the military partnership. Fifty-one coalition troops have been killed this year by their Afghan counterparts.
To address a laundry list of cross-cultural pitfalls — and to avoid their potentially fatal consequences — the Afghan Ministry of Defense this month introduced a pamphlet called “Cultural Understanding — A Guide to Understanding Coalition Cultures."
The 18-page training guide, written in Dari, will soon be distributed to Afghan military leaders across the country. The booklet will be taught in three one-hour sessions to all soldiers as well as new recruits.
It is intended to “strengthen our understanding of our NATO counterpart," according to an English translation of the pamphlet that was provided to The Washington Post. But in doing so, it also reveals seemingly minor — and rarely acknowledged — cultural faux pas that have created palpable tension between the two forces.
“Please do not get offended if you see a NATO member blowing his/her nose in front of you," the guide instructs.
“When Coalition members get excited, they may show their excitement by patting one another on the back or the behind," it explains. “They may even do this to you if they are proud of the job you’ve done. Once again, they don’t mean to offend you."
And another tip: “When someone feels comfortable in your presence, they may even put their feet on their own desk while speaking with you. They are by no means trying to offend you. They simply don’t know or have forgotten the Afghan custom." Pointing the soles of one’s shoes at someone is considered a grievous insult in Afghanistan.
The guide also warns Afghan soldiers that Western troops might wink at them or inquire about their female relatives or expose their private parts while showering — all inappropriate actions by Afghan standards.