Friday, April 23, 2010

Clash of the Titan

Different cultures have different customs. We have different understandings of how close to stand when talking, how frequently to make eye contact, how long to pause for a response before continuing to speak.... And culture clash is inevitable in war zones, where solutions are expected from people with very different backgrounds, objectives and expectations.

So it should be no surprise that U.S. efforts to supply power in Kandahar are being undermined by cultural differences--not between Americans and Afghanis, but between the U.S. military and U.S. diplomats.

The difference boils down to cultural understandings of solutions and timetables. The U.S. military wants action now, before troop withdrawal begins in July 2011. Providing electricity is not only a useful service for the people of Kandahar, it will generate goodwill for the U.S. agents who help to bring it about. So $200 million for generators and fuel will demonstrate that the United States is capable of rapid solutions to real problems. Take that, Taliban!

On the other side of the fence are U.S. diplomats, who will remain in Afghanistan long after the troops have left. They see the project as unsustainable--just one more development program the U.S. sets up and abandons without in-country infrastructure to support it.

Surely there's a middle ground. Perhaps a smaller-scale community project could be attempted for immediate impact, while plans are made to implement regular, sustainable updates in the near future?

Such an effort would require collaboration between the military, the diplomats and the people of Kandahar. Just one more example of the need for coordination in U.S. public diplomacy. If we can't resolve the cultural differences within our own PD bodies, how can we expect to negotiate the treacherous terrain with foreign populations?

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