Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Working With Afghans Is A Trip

We've had a bit of experience working with Afghans now, and it's hard to describe all the stuff that I've observed while working with them. I'm going to try to relate a little bit, though.

First of all, Afghans aren't like Americans in a number of respects. They not only have a different culture, religion, and history, but they also have a vastly different perception of the world around them. It's hard to try to figure out what's going through their minds when they are dealing with you... you'd probably be wrong, anyway.

I've dealt with Afghans now from the level of Provincial officials to the level of the lowest foot soldier, and sometimes these guys are just a trip. Afghans are all about the greeting. They are very cordial, and when you get around them handshakes all around are in order. When you meet them, they are invariably cordial and friendly. When you just see them out and about, their reactions vary. They are incredibly friendly if there is a possibility that you might buy something from them.

Americans could learn about customer service from Afghans.

Sometimes, they are funnier than you would think. While they have great senses of humor for the most part, some things that they do from time to time are just funny. Sometimes it's just a matter of their upbringing and what they live every day.

Afghans squat. They rarely sit directly on the ground, and if you tell them to take a seat or relax in the absence of furniture, they will squat on their heels, feet flat on the ground. It's not at all unusual to see circles of Afghan men squatting, talking over whatever it is that they discuss. This squat is a maneuver that I cannot perform. My ankles simply won't allow my knees to go forward enough to keep my balance. I squat on the balls of my feet... which gets tiring quickly. Afghans squat for long periods of time as naturally as if they were sitting in a chair. They can take an entire bath in a pitcher of water in this position, lifting first one foot and then the other as they wash themselves. This maneuver would leave me dirtier than when I started because I would fall down numerous times.

While Afghans can squat very well and perform complex activities like bathing all from this position, they cannot do jumping jacks. The Army calls jumping jacks the side straddle hop. Afghans doing jumping jacks look like a bunch of drunken Jerry Lewis impersonators. I don't know how they can exhibit such grace and can't get the simple motion of a side straddle hop.

Teaching them unarmed combat techniques brings about a similar show. Afghans seem to be very comfortable with slapping motions, but a punch seems foreign. Blocks devolve into slapping motions as well. They do seem to enjoy themselves, though. Takedown holds are executed with enthusiasm if not precision. Kicks are not their bag, either.

Marksmanship training with the AK-47 brings about challenges. The Afghan way seems to be "spray and pray." The Afghans were famed for their marksmanship back in the day of the British occupation... there were two in the 1800's. One resulted in 10,000 British leaving the Kabul plain... only one made it back through the Khyber Pass into what is now Pakistan. Now, however, the "spray and pray" technique is difficult to overcome. The Kalashnikov, being fully automatic, gives a satisfying volume of fire with all of the accompanying noise. It's not, however, the most accurate weapon in the world. Add the fact that it has a strong tendency to rise to the right when fired on automatic, and you have an inaccurate weapon that is almost impossible to control.

Some of the Afghans are pretty decent marksmen, but teaching good shooting techniques through an interpreter is a challenge. They are very competitive, though, so rewarding good performance makes them want to achieve that reward. Still, you will tell them, "Take a breath, let it about half way out, hold it, and squeeeeeeze the trigger so that the weapon surprises you when it goes off." They will grin and nod and the very next shot will be yanked by their wildly flailing trigger finger. The shot group will be scattered from the neck to the waist of the target by their errant breathing, and they will proudly show you how they hit a man-sized silhouette at 50 meters. You just have to smile at them and make the same suggestion. Finally you put up a tight shot group to show them what it looks like, and they realize that just hitting the target isn't all there is to it. Then they do it again.

It requires patience. Lots and lots of patience.

We taught them techniques to break contact if they are ambushed or they make contact with a superior force. They argued that they shouldn't "run away." They argued that they should stay and fight "the Dushman." "Dushman" is Dari for "enemy."

Did I mention that they are prideful and have a peculiar sense of honor?

Pretty peculiar, especially knowing that they have problems hitting what they shoot at when the range is over 50 meters and that they can't fight by hand to save their lives.

Some of them have spirit, though. It has been said that Afghans are the hardest working people in the world... until you put a uniform on them. I think that most of them are just ill-led. The leadership is top-heavy and a lot of them are just drawing a paycheck. Then you run into the ones that really care and are motivated. That makes it all worthwhile... except the job is to work with the poor ones and get them to be better. It's a tough job. Did I mention that it requires patience?

Patience... that most American of all values... not. We are an impatient lot. We want what we want when we want it. Soldiers are no different. American soldiers are ferocious. Many of them are itching for a fight... and being sorely disappointed. This is not that kind of war. The dushman only fight you when they think that they can surprise you in small enough numbers that they can survive the encounter... or they pot shot at you real quick and run.

The Afghans are not generally stupid, but they do things that Americans wouldn't find acceptable. One place we went recently, they had a latrine facility that had never had water hooked up to it. They had filled it up anyway. Yuck. Then they took to just finding a place outside and taking care of their business. There was a partial basement to the building, and some of them had taken to converting that into a latrine.

There were bunk beds in the hallway, and there was usually someone occupying the one nearest the door... but not always the same guy. Two of them slept on top of a conex outside.

That brings us to Afghans and electricity. Afghans do things with electricity that would kill normal people. They will strip a wire and shove it into an outlet. They will splice into a line quicker than you can say, "Don't do that." It's part of the famous Afghan ingenuity, the mother of "Afghan Engineering." It's the same spirit that causes them to weld a family conveyance to a motorcycle. But electricity has a special fascination for Afghans... they just don't go about it the same way that an American would. They will cut into a cable with an axe if they have to. The building mentioned above had a 12 volt battery wired to stuff throughout the building, with wires hanging everywhere. They just do stuff that we wouldn't think of doing... mostly because we don't have to.

The other day, I watched an Afghan man pouring gasoline into a running engine with a pitcher. There was fuel all over the top of the engine, but that was not the day for him to do his Richard Pryor imitation. He got away with it, just like he does every day... until the day that it goes wrong. Perhaps it never will. If I did that, there would be a bright flash and a mushroom cloud.

The funny thing is that there is a brand new modern diesel generator sitting in the building that the old gasoline generator runs next to. There are a network of cobbled-together wires running away from the old generator to the various buildings in the complex, laying on the ground. That is not a UL-listed hookup, trust me. The new generator has never been run. I still don't know why. It's been there for months.

Afghan Generals are a hoot. One of our terps got frustrated and hung up on a General one day. We laughed and asked him why he had hung up on the General. He said, "turn over any rock in Afghanistan... look there are three Generals!" There are some reforms underway to fix that.

These thoughts may seem a bit disjointed, because they are. I will have more thoughts to add to the subject sometime soon. We have been very busy lately and it's not something I can write about now. Later, however, there will be lots to write about what is transpiring. I will write about that when I can.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, that great holy thing I just don't be able to get my brain around or my hands on it--Patience! lol.

    You sound very patience, but then again, what other choice is there?

    I hope the children are doing well, and I pray for your children, O, Maniac and you everyday.

    Hey you guys, what else do you want? What kind of candy would you like, O? Maniac (besides Tootsie Rolls)? :)


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