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Winning the War with Hescos and Red Bulls

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Yesterday, I argued that people like gifts, and the people who give those gifts. I forgot one obvious counter: what if Afghan and Iraqi people do not like gifts? Perhaps only Americans/Europeans/Westerners like getting gifts. Perhaps it isn’t a universal human trait, but an American or Western cultural value.

(Eric C is afraid I may be creating a strawman here. As has happened before, the best example of this quote comes from comments from fellow soldiers in the field. Fortunately, Bing West also espouses this idea. From the Huffington Post: And most nation building involved U.S.-financed projects bestowed as gifts on Afghans who became accustomed to receiving something for nothing, and giving nothing in return.)

I’m not going to dive deep into my (lack of) knowledge of Pashtun-Wali culture. The best description of my experience in Afghanistan is as a glorified tourist. I interacted with my interpreters daily, with police chiefs every other day and the district governor at least every third day. But these were brief meetings and I did not become an expert in Afghan culture. I read the training pamphlets from the Combined Arms Center and articles in Infantry Magazine, but that does not make me an expert in Southeast Asian culture.

That said, on my first day with my new interpreters, I asked them a bunch of questions about Pashtun culture. I had read, and my interpreters verified, that it is polite in Pashtun-Wali culture to bring gifts to meetings, just as a host is required or obligated to serve tea--which I continually drank--it is expected to bring something as a visitor.

It isn’t that Pashtun Wali--the cultural and ethical system of Afghanistan’s Pashtun people--mandates that visitors bring gifts with them to other people’s houses. It’s a nice gesture, but not required--just like in America. Again, I am not expert in Afghanistan or southern Asia; I relied on the expertise and awareness of my interpreters, who said “bring something if you can”.

More importantly, hospitality--roughly the first of the nine principles of Pashtun-Wali, melmastia--extends from hosts to their guests.A great example of this comes from the Kite Runner, when a family feeds a visitor, even though they have little food to spare. In short, the Afghan people understand and appreciate the value of gifts.

At first, I didn’t do a good job giving or receiving gifts. I didn’t know what to bring. I know that you should bring a bottle of wine or a potted plant to an American social event. What do you bring to an Afghan meeting?

Eventually, I asked the various police check point commanders what they wanted. The first answer was ammunition. I couldn’t legally provide that. I did ask how the various policeman cleaned their weapons, though. They didn’t.

Now, the AK-47 is a durable weapon, but it works even better if it is clean. Fortunately, I could give the policemen cleaning fluid. I asked what else they needed. Well, the Afghan police had trouble staying awake all night. So did my men. We used energy drinks. After a few weeks, I started bringing energy drinks with me to meetings, same with extra energy bars I was getting from back home.

It turns out that Afghans (and Iraqis from what I understand) respond kindly to getting gifts. As far as I can tell, it seems like most cultures, if not everyone, around the world requires bringing or giving of gifts at social functions. Many holiday traditions around the world involve giving gifts to children (presumably because the kids like receiving gifts). Most wedding traditions involve giving the newlyweds gifts--again around the world.

In Afghanistan, my most trusted relationships involved an equal trade of gifts, beyond what our duty mandated. At our best, most reliable checkpoint in Serkani, I brought energy drinks and Hesco barriers. One check point had a mortar tube they would fire at random. By teaching them how to fire it, we also conveniently arranged so they wouldn’t fire it unless we gave them the okay. In exchange, they frequently gave me chai, oranges, and watermelon. These gifts weren’t needed in the course of our work, they just happened.

So here is a simple equation: People like gifts. Afghans are people. Ergo proctor hoc, Afghans like gifts.

As I said yesterday, Afghans hate being shot, seeing their family wrongly detained, and hate threats of violence by the Taliban. But those are different issues than the one I am talking about today. Same with an unequal giving of gifts, where one side showers the other with presents, like Bing West mentioned. But this doesn’t refute the idea that, as people, Afghans like gifts. Personal relationships in Afghanistan matter, including whether people like you. Bringing gifts won’t hurt in this regard.

One comment

One quick qualification. I’ll write an entire post about this, but most the complaints about gratitude/pop-centric COIN focus on lack of security. Which doesn’t actually refute “Gratitude Theory” which doesn’t exist. In short, the biggest problem in Afghanistan is the dispersed nature of the population and the lack of security for them (not the ability to hunt Taliban). Its complicated, and it confuses the issue.