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Cultural Gaps Cause Problems in U.S.-Afghan Military Ops

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District
Fielder says perfecting communication isn't simply about technological systems.

Lt. Col. James Fielder was in Afghanistan from October 2013 to December 2014. A senior intelligence officer and air intelligence advisor for the 438 Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, part of his job was to apply political science to real-life scenarios. 

"I used a political communication model. Understanding noise inside of communication is very important if you want to successfully transmit a message to a sender to a receiver and back. And part of noise can be cultural, language differences, time differences."

So, when advising Afghan airforce personnel, he not only taught them about American communication, but learned the styles and quirks of Afghan communication, so he could help them use their own methods to succeed.

"There's noise everywhere. You're learning about a new culture, you're learning about slight divisions in religious denominations, you're learning about different ethnic groups. What you're really trying to do is you're trying to resist thinking like yourself. If I think like myself, as a Westerner, then I'm going to impose my own biases and thus my own noise into the process."

He says learning about Afghan communication and coming to the discussion table on their terms reduces a lot of the initial friction and gains trust.

Fielder says even little things, like casual conversation or learning some of their language, can make a big difference in relations.

"We'd work with them at least 3-4 hours a day. And, sometimes, by work, I mean actually teaching tradecraft, like map reading, land navigation, visual recognition, to just sitting with them and watching Bollywood movies and drinking tea. To them, that was very important. To me, it gave me a greater appreciation of Bollywood movies."

In this River to River interview, host Ben Kieffer talks with Lt. Col. Fielder about his time in Afghanistan.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River