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Afghan troops taught US culture

– During the Vietnam War, American soldiers shipped out armed with government-issued guides to the distant land and the mysterious people.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has tried training sessions, embedded cultural advisers, recommended reading lists and even a video game designed to school the troops in local custom.

But 11 years into the war, NATO troops and Afghan soldiers are still beset by a dangerous lack of cultural awareness, officials say, contributing to a string of insider attacks that have threatened to undermine the military partnership.

So the Afghan army is trying something new: a guide to the strange ways of the American soldier. The goal is to convince Afghan troops that when their Western counterparts do something deeply insulting, it’s likely a product of cultural ignorance and not worthy of revenge.

The pamphlet is intended to “strengthen our understanding of our NATO counterpart,” according to an English translation of the pamphlet that was provided to The Washington Post. But in doing so, it also reveals seemingly minor – and rarely acknowledged – cultural faux pas that have created palpable tension between the two forces.

“Please do not get offended if you see a NATO member blowing his/her nose in front of you,” the guide instructs.

“When Coalition members get excited, they may show their excitement by patting one another on the back or the behind,” it explains. “They may even do this to you if they are proud of the job you’ve done. Once again, they don’t mean to offend you.”

And another tip: “When someone feels comfortable in your presence, they may even put their feet on their own desk while speaking with you. They are by no means trying to offend you. They simply don’t know or have forgotten the Afghan custom.” Pointing the soles of one’s shoes at someone is considered a grievous insult in Afghanistan.

The guide also warns Afghan soldiers that Western troops might wink at them or inquire about their female relatives or expose their private parts while showering – all inappropriate actions by Afghan standards.

While some of the tips may be amusing to an American audience, the intention is deadly serious.

Fifty-one coalition troops have been killed this year by their Afghan counterparts.

While some insider attacks have been attributed to Taliban infiltrators, military officials say the majority stem from personal disputes and misunderstandings.

Despite widespread misgivings among the Afghan public, in the guide the NATO coalition is depicted glowingly, often in florid language.

The United States is “a little like a lovely carpet. Different colored strands combine to make a beautiful whole.” NATO’s coalition is described as a “work of art.”

The task of laying out a set of commonly misinterpreted behaviors fell to Brig. Gen. Mohammad Amin Nasib, the bearish, affable head of religious and ideological affairs at the Defense Ministry, and his senior military adviser from the NATO side, Michael W. Gore, a mild-mannered Navy commander and chaplain.

“Some would argue that we’re too late, but any time is the right time to promote understanding of each other’s culture,” Gore said.

Nasib wasn’t as buoyant. “It should have been done early,” he said.

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