Wednesday, March 4, 2009 helps

As I’ve mentioned before, we live and work with Afghans, but they don’t work for us. The Afghan commander will often have ideas about what we ought to do in a given week that are quite different from my ideas. His weekly schedule will often have more time devoted to training than a schedule made according to my whims would have; events like religious and grammar classes will start replacing patrols if I’m not able to ‘manage’ my commander. (Who would have thought locution was such a vital skill for an Afghan soldier?) Dealing with the different commanders can be difficult…we’ll sit down and talk for hours about a plan, only to have him try to back out of it the following day at the meeting with the other units in the area.

Plenty of methods exist to get what we want from the commander, ranging from threats and bribery to psychological manipulation and rapport building. For larger scale operations, threatening to tell our commander’s boss about his wanting to back out will usually convince our commander to do the plan we’d already agreed on, but threats won’t work on day-to-day simple stuff and would most certainly backfire if used with regularity. Bribing the Afghans with whatever little niceties we have at our disposal might get you somewhere temporarily, but in the end only leads to more entreaties for stuff they don’t need and that I don’t really have anyway.

When it comes to manipulation, it’s not so much what you say but how you say it. If I demand that my commander change a particular aspect of a plan, either he won’t do it just to spite me, or if he does acquiesce he will hold a grudge against me and be less likely to behave as I might want in the future. If, on the other hand, I make a small suggestion, perhaps as an aside to a discussion about some other topic, then I’m not only more likely to get what I want but also more likely to maintain good terms with my commander, as I’ve shown respect for his position, ego, and judgment.

The offhand suggestions are a good technique, and straightforward criticism is ok as well so long as it is used with humility, but lately I’m resorting more and more to relying on my personal relationship with my commander to get what I want from him - the goal being to get to the point that he’ll do what I want him to do so as not to disappoint me since he trusts and respects me. I make sure to develop a good relationship with my commander the same way I would with anyone else, mainly by spending time with him, asking questions, and always conveying sincerity and attentiveness with my body language and eye contact. (The eye contact always seems a little weird as you sit there nodding your head not understanding a word while he’s talking, awaiting translation.) Patience (something I’ve never been noted for) is requisite as well, as cultural differences and linguistic difficulties can sometimes make things maddeningly difficult to understand. I spent 15 minutes the other day trying to understand why the spring water (of dubious cleanliness) we go out and collect with our used ammo cans is acceptable for washing dishes and cooking food, but the rainwater we amass using plastic sheeting is not. If I’d been thinking, I wouldn’t have had the discussion at all: if rainwater is not good enough for whatever reason, then it’s not good enough, and I’m not going to understand or change his mind by appealing to logic and rationality. Along this vein, the flexibility to accept a decision made by the commander that might not make sense to me is valuable in keeping a good relationship…and in keeping my own frustration level low. Flattery can be a good tool as well – we’ll often spend the first 10 minutes of any conversation telling each other how great we are and how much we like working with each other.

If all of this talk of personal relationships and rapport building sounds like common sense and the same as how one would approach any business, professional, or even casual relationship, well, it probably is common sense, but let’s just say I have not always been much of a “people person”, salesman, or bull-shit artist. However, many of my best friends are professionals in these arcane arts, and watching them over the years has given me, if not the ability, certainly the appreciation for being able to interact with others in a manner that tilts the playing field towards one’s own wishes . My time working with foreign forces has certainly given me the opportunity to “field-test” the techniques outlined above.

For all my efforts, my first commander was much too seasoned (he fought against the Russians as a young man) for me to manipulate him to get him to do something he did not want to do. We got along well, but he didn’t need or care much for my approval. I’d make discreet suggestions and he would heed them or discard them based probably mostly on how he was feeling in that moment. This is not to say that my first commander did not respect me or the knowledge I have. He, as well as all the Afghan officers I’ve worked with, was more than willing to put his ego aside and admit when he didn’t know much about a particular topic. In this, the Afghans are much different than the Iraqis I worked with. The Iraqis liked to pretend they knew things they didn’t know. The Afghans at least are willing to make an honest self-assessment, and show a great willingness to learn, although their work ethic is less than you might hope for.

My second commander was much younger and impressionable, and it was with him that my rapport building techniques paid off. He would occasionally ignore my suggestions just to prove his own autonomy, but if he knew something was important to me, he’d make sure it got done how I wanted, whether it was making unscheduled patrols, doing more night operations, or picking up the garbage inside the base. (I wouldn’t allow us to pick up all those empty plastic bottles scattered around our perimeter even if someone actually wanted to do it, since even a cat can’t cross all that garbage without making noise…a low-tech, cheap, and reliable, if environmentally unsound and aesthetically displeasing, means of force protection.)

With my third commander, I realized a couple of weeks in that maybe I was the one getting manipulated a bit. The commander came in and was very personable, likeable, and concerned for his soldiers’ welfare. His men were actually soldiers rather than just warriors…the chief difference between a soldier and a warrior being a soldier’s discipline…in this case the discipline to clean up the base, do small building projects to improve things, exercise fire control, and keep their supplies organized. I therefore went a little further out of my way to do things for him from the outset, including things I’d never volunteered to do before like using myself and my guys to stand post. It hasn’t taken long to realize however, that although our new commander’s men are better than what we’ve seen before as far as what goes on around the base during the day, the commander’s attitude towards operations is pretty much the same as what we’ve seen before, meaning that he’ll do whatever, but he won’t do a lot. If it takes a lot of sustained effort, like for instance saturating an area with security patrols, then he’s probably not interested. So while the rapport he’s built with me has gotten me to do things for him that I wouldn’t normally do, I can’t really say I’m getting him to do anything for me beyond what he normally does, though overall I’m still very happy with him and consider him a friend.

As for rapport building with the local people, I most earnestly wish I had something to more to say on the matter other than that we try. Unfortunately, neither I nor my Afghans have much success in our efforts. Where we operate the people are very insular and closed-off, not just from the world or the rest of Afghanistan, but even from peoples in nearby valleys. Getting them to open up to us about much of anything at all has proven to be beyond our powers of persuasion to this point.

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