Maintaining Peace in a Country at War: How can Cultural Awareness Training help Soldiers on the Front Line?

Matthew MacLachlan

2 Aug 2010

The debate concerning the international involvement in Afghanistan is currently raging after the massive leak of reports on the internet site Wikileaks. According to these reports, the situation in Afghanistan is extremely difficult, mainly because of the lack of support from the Afghans who some consider to be quite hostile to the international task force.

There are around 100,000 multinational soldiers currently in Afghanistan carrying out duties ranging from fighting the Taliban to maintaining law and order to rebuilding projects.

In order to reduce the resentment of the local population toward the soldiers, many military commanders are starting to provide language training alongside intercultural training courses to their troops. This new approach is particularly interesting as it shows that military officers acknowledge the fact that interacting with the local population requires a specific set of cross cultural and linguistic knowledge and skills. Indeed, understanding the local population, unique customs and cultural values can help the soldiers to adapt to their new environment and interact more effectively with Afghans.

Knowing how to appropriately behave, especially with women or children, can greatly help soldiers in their daily roles. Cultural awareness training courses are important as they can also help soldiers understand essential do’s and don’ts to avoid critical incidents.

To take a simple example, while the “ok” sign formed by connecting your thumb to your index finger is perfectly acceptable for westerners, it is a particularly rude symbol in Afghanistan. In situations where there is a lot of noise or distance soldiers may signal to others with this sign. Afghans can take great offense to this and react violently.

Another example of cultural faux pas in Afghanistan that cultural awareness training can help soldiers avoid is that of the prayer rug. In many Afghan homes and even temporary accommodation like tents, Afghans will have a prayer rug. Without an understanding of the underlying cultural and religious values, many soldiers may mistake prayer rugs for normal rugs and walk over them with their shoes. This can be considered a great insult to their religion and therefore them as individuals. Having cultural awareness training before any post will help soldiers be aware of factors or actions that can cause great insult or offense damaging any relationship they are trying to build.

Cross cultural awareness training courses are even more effective if they are blended with language training courses as this combination will improve soldiers’ ability to socialise with the local populations. Being able to socialise with Afghans is extremely important as it prevents the creation of enemies, limits conflict and helps soldiers gather valuable intelligence about the situation on the ground. Most importantly, the knowledge gained in cultural awareness training blended with language training will help soldiers reduce the risk of dealing with the locals in Afghanistan and reduce the number of (sometimes deadly) critical incidents.