I went to a workshop Friday in which anthropological involvement with the German military in Afghanistan was described. The German army is participating in the NATO operation in northern Afghanistan, which is in one of the more peaceful areas of that country. An ethnologist, Dr. Monika Lanik reported on the difficulties in developing inter-cultural competence in the context of deployments. Ethnographic competence is considered important because the German military is taking on a new international character as a result of peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia. Dr. Lanik pointed out that this is as much a diplomatic function as a military one. As a result, this new type of military operation requires diplomatic skills which in turn implies ethnography.
In the case of Afghanistan, German military have provincial reconstruction teams. This context requires soldiers to be aware of patronage relationship, the context of the drug trade, and modern versus traditional values. Dr. Lanik noted that awareness of such “deep play” goes well beyond the simpler tasks involving the recognition of ethnic symbols, or actions likely to accidentally give offense. Rather it reflects a need to focus on the deeper context that culture provides for not only a peacekeeping, but economic development.
The ethnographic training of German military personnel asks them to recognize the context that their own culture provides in what they are trying to accomplish. As in any military, both military and national culture is inter-twined and taken for granted by the soldiers. In such a context, a job for the ethnographer is to ask soldiers what part of their world view is a consequence of their military training, what part is a result of German culture, what emerges out of their personal biography, and finally what is brought by the local culture? As in any culture, there are naïve assumptions that home culture is universal, and can be imputed to the people with whom they will negotiate. The job of the ethnologist is much the same as it is with any institution—train and teach for inter-cultural competence.
There is controversy associated with the German mission in Afghanistan. The German mission in Afghanistan is itself politically controversial in a country which sees its military as strictly for domestic defensive purposes. How long the German forces should stay in Afghanistan is an on-going political question raised frequently in the German Parliament.
Some German anthropologists also raise the issue of whether anthropologists should be involved with the military at all, even though the German military is focused strictly on defensive purposes. As in the United States, it is framed as a question of professional ethics—and the question is asked whether providing ethnographic advice is appropriate at all.