A group of six Afghan men dressed in traditional long flowing garments play cards and listen to music from a small boom-box while they await their orders for the planned Engagement Training or SLE. Role Player Qudus Khan who plays the village Elder lays out the basic reason for the training.
”When you know how to talk to an and elder, that’s where relationships start, said Qudus”
The Army is keenly interested in relationships. 1st Brigade Commander, Colonel J.P. McGee says soldiers, now with longer time between deployments, are focusing more on culture and language training.
“If you have the skills required to work with your partners, you’re going to be more effective,” said McGee
Today is when soldiers, many of them for the first time, learn some of these skills.
Captain Mark Searles has been deployed to Afghanistan before, but this is his first SLE training. He’s huddled in a circle with his team prepping them with intelligence before meeting with the Afghan role-players.
The scenario is an ongoing blood feud between two tribes within the village with one facilitating insurgent activity. The soldiers are now on the scene after a bout of I-E-D explosions that has left two children dead.
Captain Searles, another soldier and his interpreter enter a gate, walk past two goats in the front yard of a make shift shelter and meet the village elder, the mayor and the village police chief.
Qudus, the elder, reaches out to greet Captain Searles with two hands, and the captain reciprocates with only one which is his first mistake, he then makes his second mistake without even a word. He failed to ask permission to enter the tent with his boots on. But he recovers well by introducing his partner and interpreter. They exchange niceties with the Afghans but five minutes into the conversation.
“You’ve asked here to talk about some issues,” said Searles.
Captain Searles makes another mistake. He cuts to the chase when the elder still wants to continue small talk.
The exercise continues for around an hour and Captain Searles makes a few more minor mistakes when telling the Elder he could help him with a project. But, Searles thinks he performed well.
“Overall not too bad there are always those cultural differences,” said Searles.
His interpreter, Hamid agrees, but he gives Searles a tough suggestion. “Try to take charge, but be patient.”
“I’ve yet to crack the code on that one,” said Searles. Searles continued “It’s sort of like talking out of both sides of your mouth, but both parties had engaged in small talk. So is that enough? If not, we kept talking…”
Searles describes his mission in sort of a check-list style where Hamid’s tip to a successful engagement and a path to building rapport is much more humanistic.
“You have to get in the heart of these people, and be generous to help gain trust from these people,” said Hamid. He continued “You have to show these people that you care.”
That’s a simple idea, but a challenging practice for these young soldiers. They’re tasked with very complex objectives ranging from calling in an artillery strike to protecting themselves to having tea with an elder to gain intelligence. And as Colonel J.P. McGee says these objectives won’t change. Relationship building for these men is now and remains a top priority. However challenging that’s what they’re there for.