When someone lacks something, they tend to appreciate it more once they have it – like money. A single mother raising three children understands and appreciates the value of one dollar much more than a millionaire. One of my “dollars” in life is diversity.
I grew to value and appreciate diversity not by swimming in a pool full of it, but by floundering in the lack of it. I grew up in North Idaho, where 94.4 percent of the population in 1990 was white – just like me (Grieco, 2001). On top of that, is what some quoted by Petersen (2017) describe as “cultural homogeneity.” They say “it’s just like American from the 1950s.” It was the land of Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations, and Ruby Ridge – an 11-day siege over firearms charges … which happened about an hour away from my home when I was 13.
By the time I entered the United States Air Force, I could count the number of people I knew with different racial and cultural backgrounds on one hand. I was fortunate to be blessed with decent parents though. While many around me were raised to hate and disparage, life in my home was different. I simply do not remember race, culture or ethnicity as a topic of discussion during my childhood. I consciously acknowledged it existed, but I simply had nothing to base any type of opinion on by the time I entered basic training. I was absolutely and totally ignorant at that point in my life – a blank canvas waiting for a paint brush.
Then I met Dante, my very first African American friend during basic training – very ineloquently I might add. I kept asking very stupid questions about why fellow trainees did this and that. Most of them labeled me a racist until Dante realized I was just ignorant. He took me under his wing and explained the world to me. Dante taught me the power of diversity while sitting next to me on the bunks of basic training – and pigmentation is only skin deep. Who we are inside is what is important. Valuing and appreciating our past experiences, perspectives, skills and any other attributes of the human domain is where diversity is truly empowered.
My “valuation journey” of culture and diversity started in basic, and continued through my marriage with my beautiful wife from the Philippines. I, now, surround myself with as much diversity as I possibly can. Respect and appreciation of the true depths of another human being and all they represent is at the core of broadening our own understandings of the human experience and the ability to make rational, balanced decisions.
This is the man who deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. And, by the time I finished my tour in 2010, I knew our entire approach to rebuilding that country was wrong and guilty of one of the most blatant cases of systematic ethnocentrism the world has ever seen. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to value and prioritize your own ethnic, racial, or cultural groups ahead of others (Northouse, 2016, p. 429). This is very much the case in regard to our approach to Afghanistan. The United States determined the best way forward for Afghanistan, and its people, is through a centralized, democratic form of government. USAID (2006) proclaimed as much:
- “USAID’s Democracy and Governance program supports the establishment of a functioning, democratic system of government, helping create a broadly accepted national government that can promote national unity, reduce the propensity for inter-group conflict and curtail the role of extremists” (p. 1).
Northouse (2016) took note of this specific flavor of ethnocentrism, saying “some Americans think that the democratic principles of the United States are superior to the political beliefs of other cultures; they often fail to understand the complexities of other cultures” (p. 429). Now, human rights are obviously undebatable, and they are under attack in Afghanistan across many fronts (Human Rights Watch, 2014), but how societies organize themselves to improve human rights, need to be left to the citizens of that region.
Gant (2009) understood these complexities well, after serving in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army Special Forces. In his report, he states:
- “Afghan tribes always have and always will resist any type of foreign intervention in their affairs. This includes a central government located in Kabul, which to them is a million miles away from their problems, a million miles away from their security” (p. 8).
A centralized government in Afghanistan is destined to fail in any length of time defined as responsible by the American public. In short, it will take generations for a centralized government to take hold, if ever. The very short description of Gant’s approach is we must value and appreciate the culture of the Afghan people and support the governing institution they are already accustomed too – tribes.
The problem, as I see it, is this solution doesn’t fit nicely into the entire world’s understanding of government institutions. For example, we “countries” understand centralized governments. We “countries” understand trade relations, presidents, legislatures, international diplomacy, and borders. The tribes in Afghanistan do not see the world the same way – and that is ok.
When I was operating with the Lithuanians in PRT Chaghcharan in Western Afghanistan, they told me how they had recently conducted a three-day mission into the vast mountain ranges there. When they finally made it to a village, the Afghans naturally assumed they were Russian, because they hadn’t had a visitor since the Russian invasion. They were not concerned or affected by any of the international events that happened in the past 20 years – their only concerns revolved around their tribe. They had most likely never seen the border of Iran, or much cared about the international politics between their countries. The Lithuanians told me they didn’t even describe themselves as Afghans, but by their tribe. This was a theme across the country. I am not sure I ran across anyone there who defined themselves by being an Afghan first and a member of a tribe second – and that is ok.
As global leaders, the United States needs not just understand these cultural differences, but treat them as equals – this is actually one of five cross-cultural competencies listed by Northouse (2016), citing Adler and Bartholomew (p. 427). We need to support the tribes within Afghanistan and value their unique perspectives. As they learn to better support themselves, the country will rebuild from the ground up, and perhaps in later generations the tribes within Afghanistan will want to build a centralized government to interact with the rest of the world. For now, the more we impose our own culture on them, the more they will resist and hate us.
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