Greg’s War Story: Culture shock
Anthropologist Greg Cabrera spent 17 months in Afghanistan as an embedded academic with the military, supporting social science research and analysis as part of the Human Terrain System. In his third story here, he encounters a challenge to his own moral standards.
One of the first places I visited in Afghanistan was a security checkpoint along a major route in northern Kandahar. The security was contracted to a private group of Afghans, mainly from the south and east, to provide route security and protect military and civilian supply routes. Their job was to protect the route against insurgents who wanted to disrupt the convoy and see oil tankers burn.
A few days before insurgents did exactly this. They stopped a convoy carrying military supplied with an improvised explosive device, hitting the first truck and killing the driver. Then they attacked the last truck and shot a rocket-propelled grenade which effectively exploded and hit the side of a fuel truck. Civilians fled, the insurgents attacked the checkpoint, and it was utter chaos. These security guards returned fire and called the local police for reinforcements. All that was left at the end were a few burned trucks, dead bodies, and some burned firearms.
Upon arrival, I could see where these men were being shot at, how they fought back, and where they stored their weapons. They worked on this mountain and lived here too. There were approximately 15 to 20 men living in this bunker. All they carried were machine guns, assault rifles, ammunition, and blankets. Of course, they also had food, chai, cooking supplies and utensils. As I inspected their site and positions, they told me about the event and shared their war trophies, burned AK-47s captured from insurgents. It was unusual to observe so many men living in such a tight area together, away from their village and home. This was security, Afghan style, and it felt like a group of armed nomads living under the radar. They were living and working together in a confined space in the middle of what felt like nowhere in particular. I would later find out that these men often worked for 2-3 months at a time before going home for a short period.
When we all sat down for chai, I noticed some of the people who were working at this checkpoint did not look old enough to be here. I thought to myself “Shouldn’t these kids be riding their bikes or playing in the village?” The individual serving chai and placing candies out for our consumption did not have facial hair and had henna painted finger and toe nails. I looked over at my interpreter and asked him on the side what these kids were doing here hanging out with security guards. My interpreter, looking down, smiled, and turned to me saying, “They have fun with them at night.”
The sergeant who I worked with was sitting across from me. When he heard this, his face turned blank. I could tell this made him uneasy. I always wondered what the expression on my face looked like. As the young boy finished serving everyone chai, he moved near an older male who was resting comfortably on a pillow on his side. That’s weird I thought to myself. I had just arrived in country, at this field site, surrounded by strange men who do strange things. I grabbed my cup of chai and drank it down.
Despite the weirdness of the situation, I carried on. I asked lots of questions, took lots of notes, and attempted to be as respectful of their culture as possible even though it bothered me and made me uncomfortable. Who was I to judge? I wondered to myself, what business did we as a nation have in this country? How can its people allow human exploitation to exist like this? I learned later on that Kandahar was a different place than most of Afghanistan. It retained practices unlike the rest of the country. Although this specific instance of culture shock made me uneasy to say the least, I learned to see past it. This was an unconventional war in a strange, neglected land and I was not there to change their culture, only study it.