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The Challenge of Culture and Cultural Differences – The Afghan Experience



In this article culture is defined as sets of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize separate groups of people or different organizations. The article tries to identify the environment of cultural diversity and misinterpretations of it into which people working in Afghanistan get submerged. The understanding of the variety of cultures both among the people of Afghanistan and the international organizations functioning within the country needs to be brought to the surface to make an opening of the Gordian knot of Afghanistan possible.

As complex as Afghanistan’s population with its different ethnicities may be perceived, it only tells half the truth about the environment on the ground. After thirty years of war and crisis a great part of the elite of the country has migrated to foreign nations where their children have adapted to the host cultures. Some of them are returning to help in the founding of the new Afghanistan where also the International Community (IC) with its different stakeholders is in action. This leads to an environment of uncertainty with respect to the culture with which one tries to interact. Add to this the confrontation between the urban culture of Kabul, those of the provinces and finally, the clashes between the organizational cultures of different stakeholders involved in developing an emerging Afghanistan.

The aim of this article is not only to identify the separate endemic cultures found in Afghanistan, but also to introduce the organizational cultures of the different stakeholders and to show why they often clash due to misunderstandings. The article tries to show areas where members of the IC easily make mistakes by assuming that they have an understanding of Afghan culture.


Endemic Cultures in Afghanistan

At first glance Afghanistan looks like an Islamic culture. Ninety nine percent ofits population is Muslim. Of these the majority (84%) is Sunni and the rest (15%) are Shiite. But religion is only part of the culture; much too often it is assumed that Afghan virtues are based on Islam and Sharia. However, Pashtunwali, the code of conduct of the Pashtuns –the major ethnic group of Afghanistan which is estimated to be close to half of the country’s population (42%) – has a very strong influence on the majority of the population, including most of the non‐Pashtun groups.2 The other ethnic groups are Tajik (27%)  Hazara (9%), Uzbek (9%), Aimak (4%), Turkmen (3%), Baloch (2%) and a variety of small groups. Even though the other ethnic groups are not bound by Pashtunwali, they have often adopted parts of it into their everyday life.

The ethnicities of Afghanistan can also be divided geographically, with the Pashtuns mainly located in the south and east of the country with several ethnic pockets spread throughout the country. There are also Pashtuns living in the north west of Pakistan. The original area inhabited by Pashtuns was split during the Great Game as the Durand Line was demarcated by the British in 1893.3 The Pashtuns have dominated Afghan politics since the foundation of the first modern Afghan state in 1747 under King Ahmad Shah Durrani. The majority of the Pashtuns are Sunni Muslims. An interesting aspect is that they follow both Sharia and Pastunwali. Where there is a contradiction between the norms or laws prescribed by the two codes, in most cases they tend to choose Pashtunwali.

The Afghan Tajiks mainly live in the north east of the country, as well as in and around Kabul. Even though history has forced the Tajiks to coexist with the Pashtuns, they are not to the same extent dominated by the Pashtun majority as the other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The Tajiks of the North‐East have in many cases opposed Pashtun dominance. The last example of this was during the war against the Soviet invasion and later against the Taliban rule when the Northern Alliance under Afghan Tajik Ahmed Shah Masoud kept up opposition against the Soviets who favored Pastun rulers, and later against the Taliban movement which was also led by Pashtuns.

Being Shia Muslims, the Hazaras – who are assumed to be the offspring of Mongols remaining in the area after Djinghis Khan’s invasion in the thirteenth century – also differ from the other ethnic groups of Afghanistan. Most of them inhabit the central highlands, mainly the province of Bamiyan. Another large concentration of Hazaras is located in Kabul, where close to a third of the population is Hazara. They have been discriminated against by most other ethnic groups through the history of modern Afghanistan, mainly due to their Shia Muslim faith. In recent years, they have been aligned with the Tajik led Northern Alliance.4 

The Afghan Uzbeks mainly live in the north of the country close to the border of Uzbekistan. They are Sunni Muslims, but have been greatly influenced through their connections to Uzbekistan – completely secularized during Soviet times – thus becoming relatively secular themselves. In the struggle against Taliban the Afghan Uzbeks were aligned with the Northern Alliance and have been involved in various alliances and struggles against the Tajiks5 in Northern Afghanistan.

The remaining ethnic groups can be seen as splinter groups without any true significance when it comes to stabilizing the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.


Influence of the Crisis Era on Afghan Culture

The crisis era as understood in this article covers the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the pre‐invasion communist period and the period of the Taliban regime. We can distinguish two separate major consequences for the population. One concerns the Afghan population residing in Afghanistan, and the other relates to those parts of Afghan society who fled from the crisis and ended up as refugees. The communist regime in Afghanistan wanted to implement communist ideals in the country, thus trying to establish a secular society. This goal, however, was only reached with respect to parts of the educated urban population of Kabul and other university cities, such as Herat. In the rural areas where the population lived according to traditional ways the attempt to establish a secular communist state failed, and actually contributed to an ever greater estrangement of the rural population from the central government in Kabul.

During the Soviet occupation the puppet regime set up by Soviets kept up the ideals of secularism. This actually helped the mujahedeen movement in recruiting Muslim fighters from the rural areas. So, instead of creating a secular multiethnic state the Soviet Union contributed to the creation of a strong extremist Muslim movement in Afghanistan. During the fight against the Soviet occupants Afghan ethnic rivalries were largely forgotten as focus was on the common enemy. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 the mujahedeen continued to fight the remnants of the communist government of Afghanistan, and after the final defeat of the communist regime in 1992 they set up an interim government consisting of a fifty member ruling council with Burhanuddin Ramaani as interim president. However, without a common enemy the mujahedeen splintered into their original subgroups, and different factions started to fight each other.6

During this period of internal struggle the Taliban first appear in 1994 as a puritan Islamic Pashtu force. In September 1996 they captured Kabul and proclaimed themselves the new government of the country, enforcing a very strict form of Sharia law on the population. At this time the Taliban controlled approximately two thirds of Afghanistan. The main resistance to the Pashtun led Taliban regime came from the Northern Alliance under Afghan Tajik Ahmed Shah Massoud. This alliance comprised several ethnic groups, the most important being Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. At the end of 2001 the Northern Alliance supported by the US was able to defeat the Taliban, and since then they have kept up a guerilla war against the incumbent government and the IC7.

Particularly during the Taliban period of the crisis era Afghan communities were destroyed, either as a result of the elimination of community leaders and elders, or by enforcing Taliban Pashtunwali and Sharia based law. This, in combination with the elimination of tribal leaders, affected social and cultural norms, especially concerning education and with regard to the female population; through the elders in their immediate family the women had so far retained the possibility to influence their community. The extended period of struggle also lowered the level of education of the Afghan population as such – as seen now from extremely low literacy rates among the young and middle aged population.

From the very beginning of the Afghan crisis period, i.e. the Soviet invasion in December 1979 and also the pre‐invasion communist period, a great part of the Afghan population fled the country. This was done in two distinct ways, depending on the social standing of the refugees. The elite typically left for nations that would offer them, their families and businesses a somewhat more stable living environment, whereas the lower echelons of society mostly fled to neighboring countries, mainly Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan, depending on their ethnic group, with Pakistan receiving the majority of the refugees.8 The migrants who had made it out of Afghanistan and were able to make a secure living for themselves in their new countries sent back money to relatives and communities, thus taking part in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. At present we also see returnees trying to help by taking on positions in central and regional government bodies and development agencies. The strong family‐ties typical of Afghan culture have facilitated this process as Afghans living in exile have received constant information through their relatives about developments in their home country during the years of crisis.

In most cases the elite migrated to countries with a completely different culture, chiefly in Europe and North America. Of course, the growing expatriate Afghan communities formed diasporas in their new host nations, but these diasporas were usually formed around nationality rather than ethnicity. The Afghan elite of the late sixties and the seventies were already westernized and lived a secular life at home, showing religious devotion, though, when in public.

Now more than thirty years have passed since the emigration of the Afghan elite, and they surely have adapted to their new host nations. Their offspring which make up a whole generation are very much estranged from the culture that exists in Afghanistan today. The positive side of living in exile for many years is that families have the economic resources to invest into their former homeland to ease the life of their relatives. A study commissioned by the German non‐governmental organization GTZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit), shows that first and second generation Afghans living in Germany are supporting their country of origin with significant contributions.9 The same study shows that members of the Afghan Diaspora in Germany have integrated well into their host society and that second generation Afghan immigrants in general are well educated and attain good positions in their new country.

A challenge brought on by the crisis era, however, is that young expatriate Afghans have an idealistic and romantic view of their ethnic and cultural background. Their views and interpretations of Afghan culture clash with those of their relatives who lived in Afghanistan during these years. The clash becomes evident in cases when expatriate Afghans return to aid in the reconstruction of the country; values and attitudes of returnee Afghans have been shaped by the years spent in exile, and similarly, values and attitudes of the Afghans who stayed in the country have been changed by the crisis. An example of this was experienced by the author of this article when two cultural advisors where interviewed on gender issues in Afghanistan. One cultural advisor had moved from Afghanistan to Europe as a youth at the end of the seventies, the other had lived through the crisis years in Afghanistan. Both of them were Pashtun from the Kabul region. The difference in their attitudes became apparent when they were asked about the role of women in present day Afghanistan and they brought forward their views as to what it is and how it should be improved. The two cultural advisors, who otherwise got along well, became aggravated at each other and switched from English into their native tongue in a heated argument. Consequently the interview had to be stopped.

Expatriate Afghans returning to Afghanistan work not only in international organizations and non‐governmental organizations, some also take on high positions as officials in the central and provincial government structure. The fact that these officials have attitudes and views differing from those of the local population will often lead to confrontations of values. In many cases returnees will leave their immediate family (spouse and children) behind in their adopted home countries. This is not only due to the greater safety of these countries, but also because they do not want to impose the Afghan woman’s role on their female family members. Thus a university professor, with whom the author is acquainted, returned to Afghanistan to take on a demanding official position in the southern part of Afghanistan with the aim of helping his country out of the crisis. However, he let his wife and his two daughters – both of whom were going through a university education – stay behind in their host nation. The reason for doing this, of course, was that he did not want to impose the Afghan woman’s role on his wife and daughters.

Culture evolves at all times. If individuals originating from the same culture live together, the evolvement of the culture encompasses all of them, but if they are separated into different environments, evolution process will diverge. The longer the groups are separated from each other and the greater the divergence in their surroundings, the greater the differences between these individuals will be. The influences of different host societies on separate diasporas in separate countries will also influence the international culture of the diasporas. This factor makes it difficult to make use of expatriates who have been separated from their original culture for a long time. Also the way in which they are perceived by the local population is affected by the degree to which their views and attitudes have changed.


Kabul versus the Rest of Afghanistan

Since the foundation of modern Afghanistan Kabul has been the capital of the country, and the changing leading factions have given it a symbolic status; whenever a faction had succeeded in occupying Kabul, they proclaimed their leadership of Afghanistan.

In most nations the views and attitudes of the urban population – as opposed to the rural – differ, and this difference is especially characteristic of capital city areas. In Afghanistan history has made this difference exceptionally striking. Even before the crisis era differences between Kabul and the rural areas of Afghanistan were considerable. In contrast to the rural areas, where the population followed a traditional lifestyle incorporating old cultural values and sustaining themselves on farming and animal husbandry, Kabul, a university town with modern views and ways, had become a meeting place for hippies and the European jet set.

The population of Kabul was in general well educated and had adopted western style dress and manners. The economic differences between Kabul and the rural areas were enormous. Also the country was governed from Kabul. This, in itself, was enough to have the rural inhabitants sneer at Kabul for abandoning the traditional lifestyle with all its virtues, as they saw it. It was difficult for young people from the rural areas to enroll in the university and other institutions of higher education located in Kabul since they had to compete with the youth of Kabul who had from the beginning had access to better schools.

Until the Taliban occupied Kabul and instigated their form of Sharia law on the city, Kabul stood out as a twentieth century city in a medieval country. The Taliban period transformed Kabul to a level of development similar to that of the rest of the country. The citizens of Kabul, which had been a true melting pot of different ethnic groups, now became more aware of their ethnic heritage instead of seeing themselves simply as Afghanis.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the IC started rebuilding Afghanistan, focusing mainly on Kabul and the new central government. This, once again, estranged Kabul from the rest of the country. Until very recently the main effort of stabilizing Afghanistan has been Kabul centered. The gap between the rural areas – which had become even further impoverished during the crisis – and Kabul has become even greater. With this in mind, it is fully understandable that mistrust of the government in Kabul is very strong in the rural areas.

The effort to reconstruct Afghanistan started for real in 2001 with the IC arriving in Kabul and the formation of the Afghan Interim Authority agreed upon by the Afghan opposition leaders in Bonn (Germany) in late 2001. This was the starting point of a development process leading to the present day Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. To establish the government many deals had to be brokered between former warlords and other dubious parties. Very few representatives of the originally elected government held any formal credentials for their positions and in some cases they where not able to leave their shady pasts behind. Consequently the credibility of the government among the population was quite low.

The shift of focus in the reconstruction of Afghanistan started gradually in 2004 and is still in progress at the time of writing of this article. The situation with a partly developed capital in stark contrast to the underdeveloped rural areas has driven in a wedge between the population of the rural areas and the capital. This gap will be hard to overcome and the corruption on the part of the government officials does nothing to improve the situation, even though nepotism and corruption to a certain degree are acceptable within Afghan culture.


The International Stakeholders, Their Tasks and Organizational Cultures

Culture is not only to be found in societies and ethnic groups but also in organizations. Shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that define separate groups also define different organizations.

The different international organizations (IO’s) and non‐governmental organizations (NGO’s) that are mandated, or otherwise take part in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, represent many different organizational cultures. In this section some of the more important ones are briefly described.

The main stakeholders in Afghanistan share a few common traits. Their leadership is centered in and around Kabul where they interact with their Afghan counterparts such as the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan at the operational level. If possible, they have sub‐commands or field offices in the provinces where they interact with the regional leadership and the rural population at the tactical level.

Among the international stakeholders the strongest organizational culture and the one easiest to define – is the military culture. At present there are two foreign forces acting officially in Afghanistan with the aim of stabilizing the country; US Forces Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). As a multinational force ISAF has a strong military culture although national traits may be found among the different contingents. The military throughout the world still have many values, goals and practices in common. Most dominant are the common practices formulated in the organizational hierarchy of the military, and the most easily observed of these practices are defined planning and decision making processes, as well as adherence to timelines.

The military components tend to have most resources to set up presence in the rural areas throughout Afghanistan. Once set up in an area where they are able to fulfill their primary task of establishing a safe and secure environment, they tend to take over tasks mandated to other stakeholders if these are not in place, such as Rule of Law, and mentoring and support of the provincial government. Reluctance to hand over these tasks to the mandated stakeholders when they finally establish their presence in the area often leads to discontent among the other stakeholders. The reason for this stems mainly from military training where a commander in charge of the situation at hand usually will not hand over a function until relieved by somebody with the full capacity to take over the task. The support given by the commander during the period when the mandated stakeholder tries to establish himself in the area is often – by the civilian stakeholders – seen as a direct refusal to cooperate.

Among the civilian IOs, the organization is not so evidently hierarchical as among the militaries. The separate stakeholders such as the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the European Union Police (EUPOL) are very different in their structure and functioning. However, they share the fact that they are both mandated to perform tasks within the overall framework of reconstructing Afghanistan. UNAMA is mainly involved in supporting the setting up of a governance structure, as well as supporting relief, recovery and reconstruction of the country.

The post crisis era has seen an immense amount of NGOs working in Afghanistan. Since NGOs are not ruled by any mandate, but tend to be a variety of organizations with different aims and ways of working this article will not go deeper into the NGO’s functioning in Afghanistan.


What Does the International Presence need to be Aware of?

As described in the previous sections, Afghanistan is a very complex environment to work in from a cultural point of view. Years of struggle, war and changing ruling parties have broken down the traditional cultural system. People who left the country to avoid the fighting remember the old culture, but have in the course of time been assimilated into their host countries. Distrust on the part of the endemic population towards the international presence makes Afghanistan a very hard environment to reconstruct and develop in a way acceptable to everyone involved.

The efforts of the IC in trying to further development in Afghanistan bring to mind T. E. Lawrence’s words of wisdom: “/…/ better let them come up with a solution of their own than giving them a perfect one.” Despite the difficulties that the members of the IC have in understanding the thinking of the people of Afghanistan, it is nonetheless necessary for them to work with those same people in reconstructing the country. Only solutions put forward by Afghans stand a chance of acceptance by a people suspicious of everything foreign. After all it is they who have to live with the system after the members of the IC have left for their own home countries.

Understanding Afghan culture has become more complicated for the IC since Afghanistan has evolved and devolved into the state it is now. It is impossible in the IC to find individuals with knowledge of all aspects of the various cultures existing throughout Afghanistan who can work as cultural advisors. To find suitable cultural advisors it is therefore advisable to find personnel who are culturally adept in general rather than to look for individuals who are experts on Afghan culture. These culturally adept advisors have an easier time understanding today’s culture in the region they are working in since they are without prejudice as to what the culture has been or should be.

The members of the differently led organizations represented throughout the country need to understand that what seems sensible in Kabul may not be perceived as sensible in the provinces. This makes it necessary for the headquarters of the different organizations to confer with their regional representations before giving orders to act.

An important aspect for the IC is to be aware of their different organizational cultures, and how they interfere with the cooperation between them. To avoid struggling over which organization has the lead on a specific mandated activity, the decision of handing over the responsibility needs to come from a superior level with a realistic view as well of the situation on the ground as of the capability of the actors on the ground at the time of decision. It is, however, beyond any doubt that the overall lead must come from the Afghan authorities themselves with the IC only in a supporting role.




2 www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook 13.7.09

3 www.britannica.com 14.7.09

4 www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,USCIS,,AFG,4562d8cf2,3f52085b4,0.html 15.07.2009

5 www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,MARP,,AFG,4562d8cf2,469f3a521d,0.html 15.07.2009

6 www.infoplease.com/ce6/world/A0856490.html 16.07.2009

7 www.infoplease.com/ce6/world/A0856490.html 16.07.2009

8 www.aisk.org/reports/diaspora.pdf 16.07.2009

9 www.gtz.de/de/dokumente/en‐diaspora‐communities‐germany‐2006.pdf 16.07.2009