Understanding Afghan Culture

This past November, members of the Canadian Forces (CF)participated in a two-day cultural course on southern Afghan culture, organized by the Centre for Intercultural Learning (CIL). The group included members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM) and the Canadian Forces Peace Support Training Centre (PSTC). The PSTC's role is to conduct training and provide related learning materials for Canadian Forces personnel who are deploying on any peace support operation. CEFCOM brings all branches of the Canadian Forces under one operational command to conduct humanitarian, peace support or combat operations internationally.

"There certainly has been a marked increase in the demand for pre-deployment and general cultural awareness training on Afghanistan, “remarked Brigitte Lapierre, the CIL learning specialist responsible for the training. "CF personnel have an incredibly difficult and dangerous job to do; we want to help them do it better and more safely, if possible, and assist Canadians in building trusting relationships with Afghans."

All participants were eager to learn as much as possible about Afghan culture, given the complexity and importance of their tasks. "This type of training is obviously important. It would just take one small wrong move to jeopardize our mission in the area," said Captain Steven France of theistic, adding, "First impressions are lasting impressions."

The course blended experiential learning with theory and practical information including presentations from Afghan subject matter experts such as Dr. Ahmed Toorayiai. "It's very important for Canadians to understand the people they are trying to help. They will be able to better communicate and show respect for the local culture." According to Dr. Toorayiai, the Pashtun, who make up the majority of the population in the Kandahar region, regard honour very highly. "I would say that the worst thing you could do is dishonour a Pashtun. This would be very detrimental to the long-term relationship and can also be very dangerous."

Topics explored during the course included tribal structure, tribal codes (Pashtunwali), the Jirga system, Afghanistan's opium trade, gender issues in Pashtun society and an analysis of current events. For Major David Marshall of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, it offered an opportunity to step out of the day-to-day activities of the job and take the time to learn, analyze and discuss important issues. "I especially enjoyed the first morning of the first day. Before we got into the specifics of Afghan culture, we explored what we mean by culture and intercultural effectiveness. I thought that was fascinating."

Major Marshall had one piece of advice: "I think we should have had this type of training in the very beginning. As soon as Canada considers a major deployment such as the one in Afghanistan, I think the very first thing to do is organize this type of training; it's critical. And I think all levels of our leadership would benefit from participating in this type of cultural training."