War in Afghanistan Turns 11: Americans Lack Cultural Understanding Needed to Succeed

BySvati Pazhyanur

After 11 years in Afghanistan, it is disappointing to learn that Americans are still painfully unaware of how to act without being offensive in Eastern cultures. Throughout the war, American troops have been responsible for working together, not only with people from their own country, but with other NATO troops and the Afghan army. Certainly, there were bound to be some hiccups while assimilating to a completely alien culture with more important things to worry about than dinner table manners. Yet, when there have been 51 American casualties as a result of misunderstandings with fellow Afghan troops, it becomes evident that this is more than a simple culture barrier.

The United States is always being made fun of for its cultural ignorance. American tourists are notorious for sticking out with inappropriate clothes, poor manners, and a general sense of cluelessness about the country they’re in. One would hope that with the resources of the federal government and military, basic cultural information would not be so difficult to obtain before being shipped halfway across the world to intervene in a conflict deeply rooted in religious and ethnic tensions. Apparently, that is not the case. Despite military-issued reading and advisers, tensions and violence between Americans and their Afghan allies remain high.

To top it off, after the ineffective efforts on the American side, the Afghan army is now trying a much simpler approach to the problem: a pamphlet listing off social blunders Americans might commit (such as putting their feet up in public), and a plea to Afghans not to get offended. The fact that 18 pages of reading might be more effective at bridging the gap between cultures than thousands of dollars spent by the American government is a strong criticism of America’s global education, foreign policy and worldview. An embedded lack of understanding of the society of Afghanistan and more broadly, of all Asian countries, certainly contributes to an incomplete understanding of the conflicts the United States is so good at intervening in. Knowledge is power, and if America truly wants to protect its interests in the region, it has no power to do so until a more thorough education of the regions is achieved.