The Challenge of Culture and Cultural Differences – The Afghan Experience

Rolf Helenius, Major, Chief of Research and Development, FINCENT1


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 of  its 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 groups2. 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  18933. 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 Alliance4.   

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 other6.   

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 refugees8. 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  contributions9. 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. 



1 Rolf Helenius has served at the operational command level of the military  components in the missions in Bosnia‐Herzegovina, Kosovo, the FYR of  Macedonia and Afghanistan where he acted as chief of the PRT Section and  deputy chief of the Regional Outreach Branch within the Stability division of  HQ ISAF until the end of February 2009. He has also been the representative of  Defence Forces at the Finnish intergovernmental working group on forming a  national action plan on UNSCR 1325 and is at present the Finnish military  member of the Multinational Experiment 6 research line on Cross Cultural  Awareness. 

2 13.7.09

3 14.7.09 

4,,USCIS,,AFG,4562d8cf2,3f52085b4,0.html  15.07.2009 

5,,MARP,,AFG,4562d8cf2,469f3a521d,0.html  15.07.2009 

6 16.07.2009 

7 16.07.2009

8 16.07.2009 

9‐diaspora‐communities‐germany‐2006.pdf  16.07.2009 



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