MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- "Salaam Alaikum!" called out the Afghan man to a crowd of Marines in his native language of Pashto, the national language of Afghanistan. He was greeting the Marines with a phrase that means, "peace be upon you," or "hello," to which the Marines returned with the traditional response, "Walaikum Salaam!"
Marines with the 1st Marine Logistics Group participated in a class aimed at increasing their cultural awareness while in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning gave the class July 28 and 29 at the base theater, to better prepare the Marines for when their units deploy to Afghanistan.
During the two-day class, Dr. Ub Shenwari, a native of the Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, instructed the Marines on various cultural topics such as the economy, healthcare, education, agriculture, language and how to interact with Afghan people.
Although no accurate census data has been collected for decades, he said, the Afghan population is estimated at around 28 million and is home to more than 40 distinct ethnic groups. About 50-60 percent of the population is Pashtun, Sunni Muslims who are divided into tribal groups. Shenwari noted that "ninety-nine percent" of the Taliban is comprised of Pashtuns, but "not all Pashtuns are Taliban." Shenwari revealed that he came to America in 2007 to "escape the Taliban" because he was the target of an attack due to his anti-extremist political views.
Shenwari, who is Pashtun, explained how the dynamic of the Afghan household is quite different from that of an American one. While polygamy in the United States is outlawed, and the U.S. Census shows the average number of children per family is around two, Afghan men in some tribes are allowed to have up to four wives, and many of them produce "small armies" of children, said Shenwari, who himself has nine brothers and three sisters. Also, many Afghan girls are married at what most Americans would consider to be a very young age, usually by 14 or 15, he added.
"By the time she's 20, she might have five children," said Shenwari, 44, who has one wife and three children.
But the family also has a strong support system, Shenwari explained. Because the families are so large, if a member of the family can't find work, other members of the family can provide them with monetary support, if needed. In addition, tribal and religious leaders play an important role in the social structure of a Pashtun tribe.
Being aware of these cultural differences and social positions within a tribe may help Marines better interact with the people of their host nation.
"There are quite a bit of differences: the language, first and foremost, the culture and the way their tribal system is set up, the families, and the importance of respect," said Sgt. Boris Barrera, lead defense travel administrator with Service Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 17, 1st Marine Logistics Group, who currently works at the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Defense Travel System Helpdesk.
"Not to say that we as Americans don't have that respect, but it's clearly more emphasized in Afghanistan," said Barrera, 25, from Fairfax, Va. "As Marines, when we do go there, I believe our personal responsibility will be to ensure we are being respectful to their culture."
Shenwari also explained the importance of "small actions" such as showing respect to the people of the village. It's as simple as smiling, raising one's hand and giving the traditional greeting of "Salaam Alaikum!" to send "a positive message to all the people that you have respect, that you are a friend, not an enemy," he said. "With this small action, you are defeating enemy propaganda."
Another simple act, shaking a child's hand, can help Americans build relationships with future generations of Afghans, he added.
This shows "we are there for their tranquility, stability and security," said Shenwari.
"It will help in our mission," Barrera agreed," because as we have learned in this training, the influence of the tribal leaders is very important. By befriending the locals, we'll be able to complete our mission better and have a better success rate. After completion of this class, I learned a lot more and have more of a respect for as to why they do certain things within their culture, and I understand it better."
Shenwari ended the class by thanking the Marines in Pashto: "Manana."