Troops, be punctual for Ramadan meal

This artwork by M. Ryder relates to the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
This artwork by M. Ryder relates to the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Posted Feb. 22, 2010, at 6:23 p.m.

Never be late for Ramadan dinner. It’s embarrassing. It is especially embarrassing if you are in a foreign country trying to win over the Muslim population’s confidence and trust.

In early October 2006, I was invited to Ramadan dinner with an Iraqi commander and his staff. I received the invitation after a hot, dusty helicopter ride to Numaniyah, Iraq, from our base in Tallil. A team of the Maine Army National Guard’s B Company 3/172nd soldiers were there training Iraqi officers and as their commanding officer, I made the trip to check on the team’s progress.

I got off the aircraft, visited with my guys, washed up and went to the commander’s office just after sunset when Ramadan dinner is served immediately, because Muslims fast the entire day. The meal is eagerly anticipated. We arrived to a closed door. It was politely explained to us that we were late and the meal had begun. We would have to wait until the commander was done with his meal and then he would reset the table for us to dine.

As U.S. and Afghan forces prepare for a major offensive against the Taliban, it is important to understand that the troop surge is only part of the effort needed to help Afghanistan’s infant democracy. The president called for a “civilian surge” during his first State of the Union address. He called for more experts in the rule of law, agriculture and civil governance to deploy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think a civilian surge must also include many different efforts not just those of the government. Academia, nonprofit organizations and others should provide advice, resources and expertise to our government and the Afghan people.

Recently, such a collaboration of interests came together at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Bangor. The Maine Army National Guard partnered with the Maine Leadership Institute and the Afghan Scholars Initiative (www.afghanscholars.org) to help soldiers understand the Afghan culture. Over the course of two days, the company’s leadership learned valuable cultural lessons from six Afghans (three men and three women).

On the first night, the group discussed religion, family relations and daily life. We shared an ethnic meal of lamb curry, rice and other dishes. As is traditional, the women ate separately and then role played some tough negotiations. Our female officers learned how rooted in tradition and the moment some Afghan women can be. As role playing family matriarchs, the Afghan women were concerned about their families’ current security and prosperity. We learned that many Afghan women are welded to their religion as a bulwark of constancy as invaders come and go and governments wax and wane. Convincing an Afghan woman to learn to fish for a life-time when her families’ bellies are empty now can be a hard argument to make.

The men ate with their Afghan peers and discussed religion, cultural norms and family expectations. We discussed our stereotypes of Afghan men abusing their wives and they discussed how all American men are rich and drive big cars. I learned why I should never point my feet toward the Quran and why the Quran is always elevated in an Afghan home. We learned from these bright and engaging men that our religions have common histories. When the meal ended, the groups came together to share the lessons learned from both conversations.

The next day members of the Maine Leadership Institute, who facilitate at the Seeds of Peace camp (www.seedsofpeace.org) in Otisfield, put the soldiers through a series of “neuroplays.” Neuroplays are closely facilitated complex role playing scenarios. Soldiers negotiated through an interpreter with an Afghan businessman and his warlord brother who had their gas station business ruined by U.S. operations in the area. To make matters worse, the Taliban kidnapped the gas station owner’s daughter and held her for ransom. The facilitators gave feedback on body language and communication techniques while our Afghan trainers explained the intricacies of Afghan cultural expectations.

The second neuroplay challenged the soldiers to mediate between their Afghan military counterpart and a civilian who was suspected of planting an explosive that had killed Afghan soldiers. Our soldier was interested in learning more about the network that paid and equipped the civilian while the Afghan commander wanted to administer street justice. A pushing and shoving match erupted as soldier, civilian, interpreter and Afghan commander’s opinions clashed. The Seeds of Peace facilitators expertly led the group through the nuances of their words, actions and more importantly, the reasons they said and did what they did.

Afghanistan’s problems are deeper than just security. Help is needed from all areas of expertise including economics, agriculture, law, academia and civics. Our military, the best in the world, can do only so much to bring an end to the conflict. It will take everyone working together, like the Maine Leadership Institute and the Afghan Scholars Initiative, in a true civilian surge to help bring Afghanistan peace and prosperity. Through such important civilian collaborations our soldiers never will be late for Ramadan dinner again.

Maj. Darryl W. Lyon is an assistant professor of military science at the University of Maine.

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