Monday, January 5, 2009


Sometimes as Americans we think we’re the only ones that have to deal with ethnic and racial differences. While we have our problems, we’ve also advanced a long way and are well on our way to being the world’s first truly multi-cultural society – I’ll place no value judgment on that eventuality, but the end state is unavoidable. Most of the rest of the world, on the other hand, is only just now dealing with some of these issues brought on by a smaller world or have ancient ethnic differences that they are nowhere near resolving. In fact, when put into context with the rest of the human race here on earth, Americans as a whole are quite accepting of each other and get along well. The Latin Americans of European descent have historically exploited the indigenous peoples of those regions and avoid inter-mingling with them, much like the situation in Australia; African tribes routinely slaughter each other over ethnic differences, never mind what they’re systematically doing to the whites that remain on the continent; as a people the Chinese and Japanese, despite their best attempts to hide their contempt for outsiders, are among the world’s worst bigots…a phenomenon that can’t be explained by religious intolerance or ignorance but probably only by their own inferiority complex. Whether open borders and economic unity in Europe will lead to improved relations is open to debate.

While the Islamic world reserves most of its loathing for non-Muslims, their mutual disdain for dissimilar ethnic groups is alive and well. Here in Afghanistan, the problems go far beyond mere hatred amongst the various ethnicities that inhabit these lands. 30 years of war have left this place a disaster zone. The poverty and lack of education here is probably as bad as any place on earth save sub-Saharan Africa. The Afghan National Army is certainly not immune to the problems that plague the nation as a whole. Lack of supplies, corruption brought on my extreme poverty, shattered or non-existent infrastructure – all of these make our job tougher.

Given that the US military has done more for racial equality and understanding than any US institution, I’m hopeful that someday the Afghan Army can perform the same function for the people here. I say someday because today racial, ethnic, and linguistic differences are a big hurdle we have to clear every day. The Pashtun platoon commander doesn’t distribute winter supplies to the Uzbeks. The Uzbek sergeant is openly defiant to the Tajik company executive officer, who in turn, doesn’t distribute supplies to the Pashtuns, and the Pashtuns, therefore, won’t cooperate with him. The Uzbeks and Tajiks that only speak Dari can’t communicate with Pashtuns here that make up the majority, and so they avoid each other. And the Hazara company commander is detested by all (talk about a ‘traditionally oppressed’ minority). We’re in the Pashtun speaking part of the country, but even the Pashtuns can’t always communicate with the locals, many of whom speak their own dialect, incomprehensible to speakers of the other major languages in the region, which we can’t even find an interpreter for.

I don’t write this to make our job sound impossible, because it’s not…we usually work things out somehow, but I often have to play the mediator between two leaders, more often than not of different ethnicities, who will avoid talking directly to each other and attempt to use me as a go-between for their discussions (I wonder if is this what parenthood is like…?), 90% of which involve logistics in some form or another. I often have to put my arm around each one of them and physically guide them in front of each other so they’ll (hopefully) talk to each other and not me. After all, it’s their country and their problem to solve, not mine, though I’m certainly affected by the ‘results’ of their discussion. At first I wondered if they were putting on some sort of game…produce enough gridlock between them that I would finally step in and provide an easy answer using my resources and money, which are more limited than they seem to believe. But since I don’t give in easily and am traditionally tight with money (even when it’s not mine) I’ve learned it’s not a game to play on my patience or sympathy - they really don’t like each other. Fortunately, this is the Muslim world, and here the enemy of my enemy is my friend…since they all share a very real and bitter hatred of the Taliban, once they are out operating on patrol they’ve given me no reason to doubt their ability to work together for our mutual gain.

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