Cultural Intelligence: Archiving Lessons from Afghanistan

By: Katherine Ellena & Rebecca Lorentz

The decade since the United States began its war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan has brought changes to how militaries operate. The insights gained during this time are being captured as part of the DoD-sponsored Counter-Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP), which preserves critical lessons applicable to future engagements.1 One of the key lessons to emerge from operations in Afghanistan is how important language and culture are when working with international partners to disrupt terrorist networks. As a result of a decade of irregular warfare, coalition building, and stability operations, military personnel have come to be seen not only as warfighters or protectors, but also as trainers, community builders, and cultural ambassadors. In executing these new missions, operators have learned—often the hard way—the importance of cultural and language skills.

While the value of cultural knowledge and language competence is clear, exactly what kind of training soldiers should have to achieve that competence is less so. Does simply exhibiting cultural respect matter more than understanding cultural nuances, for example, or does a deep understanding of culture and language allow for more meaningful and effective interactions with local forces and communities? This paper outlines CTAP's mission, presents contrasting lessons on language and culture from two CTAP interviews, and assesses the implications for future military training. In the United States, for example, the U.S. Army's "Regionally Aligned Brigades" initiative, designed to provide cultural training specific to the region where soldiers will deploy, is scheduled to begin in 2013. We conclude that, while language fluency should continue to be a priority for select operators and missions, "cultural intelligence" should be cultivated in operators at all levels.

The Importance of Capturing and Applying Lessons Learned in Afghanistan

The Counter-Terrorism Archive Project, sponsored under the DoD's Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program, aims to capture insights and lessons learned in the last decade's efforts to disrupt and eradicate terrorist networks. The storytellers in this archive are personnel, both military and civilian, who have taken part in the ongoing fight against terrorists and militant extremists. The lessons are many and varied: navigating new terrain and new methods; the agonies of asymmetric warfare; the value of institutional and international cooperation; and the pitfalls of "nation-building." These changes have transformed how our military operates, and must also inform how it develops for the future.

As part of CTAP, the authors interviewed counterterrorism operators from special operations communities in Norway and at NATO Headquarters in Belgium.2 One topic of discussion that emerged in both locations was the issue of language and cultural training. In particular, two interviews, one with a Norwegian officer involved in mentoring Afghan SOF, and the other with a U.S. officer deployed as part of the "AFPAK Hands" program (now called Afghan Hands due to deteriorating relations with Pakistan), provided contrasting perspectives on which elements of cultural training are most critical.

The Norwegian interviewee, reflecting on his own experience in Afghanistan, concluded that cultural respect is of primary importance, because it is respect, rather than an acquired understanding of language and cultural practices, that builds relationships of trust in an international theater. For him, respect meant being open to local methods of training and operating, as well as showing regard for different perspectives and practices, even when those practices were hard to understand. It also means being aware of how one's own cultural context or "lens" affects communication with—and perceptions of—others.

In contrast, the U.S. interviewee, recalling his time with the AFPAK Hands program, found that intensive language training and study of cultural practices and nuances were critical to building genuine relationships, as these skills support the clear dialogue necessary for governance and development to take root. Hence, he considered the understanding of specific cultural practices to be just as important, if not more so, than simply being open and adaptable.

Does Cultural Respect Matter More than Cultural Understanding…?

According to the Norwegian officer we interviewed, "It doesn't matter if you have three or four months of training if you come to Afghanistan and don't respect the culture, and you are trying to work with the people and they don't respect you." From his experience in Afghanistan, he observed that without a significant history in-country, international operators could never develop a full understanding of the complexities of a culture, even with intensive training. More pointedly, he surmised that cultural competence, without cultural respect, would be worthless. Therefore, he contended, the most critical training for any military is to establish a norm of cultural respect, which can then be applied globally by all deployed troops, not only by those who receive intense training specific to a given culture.

How then does cultural respect, as opposed to cultural understanding, manifest itself in-theater? For the Norwegian SOF unit that has been mentoring Afghan military units, the key was getting alongside their Afghan counterparts not as teachers but as role models—a subtle difference, but one that allows local partners to take ownership of new methods and strategies. "It is better to come into Afghanistan and be alongside the people you are working with. Show them that you respect their culture and show them that you want to work with them for their cause, not fighting your own battle."

The focus of his work was therefore not on telling, but on doing, in the hope that lessons would permeate in a more indirect, more lasting way. "We try to focus on team leaders … showing them things we think it is valuable for them to learn and giving them examples, but letting them make the choice on whether they want to focus on it… . We are leading as much as we need, but they are looking at our leadership and hopefully try to implement that in their way of doing things."

For military units trained to undertake operations in a particular way, and which have had success with particular methods and strategies, it can be difficult to impart skills and lessons in a more informal manner. Yet cultural respect rests very much in how information and assistance is provided, as opposed to exactly what is provided. It also requires an authenticity of intent, "showing them you are there for them, for them to develop, not for us to develop … it is better to let them do it their way … better than hoping that they will react, think, and do as we do in the Western part of the world." Hence, training for Norwegian officers involved in mentoring Afghan security forces focuses on instilling cultural respect and openness to indigenous ways of assimilating skills and information. "We are not focusing so much on learning their culture or learning their habits in our training … it doesn't mean we don't try and learn their culture, but there is a difference between learning culture and having cultural respect."

Our interviewee was less clear on exactly how cultural respect could be taught: "I'm not sure that we are aware of why we succeed. We [Norway] are not a threat to anyone … [and] we are not an aggressive unit … we are a unit that is curious about other people and how they live. I think the mentality is different. If we had units that were only there for fighting, it would be harder to get them into mentoring." He also observed that Norwegian culture has a certain "naiveté," and "the lucky result of that is that we can build up good rapport."

While it was difficult for our interviewee to define exactly how cultural respect could be taught pre-deployment, he was clear about how it must be implemented in the field. In particular, coalition forces need to better integrate theiractivities with the Afghan system, particularly when it comes to intelligence sharing and cooperation, rather than remaining separate. "We have problems sharing ISAF intelligence with the Afghans, so we are operating along two operational lines. We can't build up a system in Afghanistan before we start to rely on the Afghans, before we start to implement them in all procedures and follow their system… . The Afghan leaders are the reason why we can do [an operation], but the Afghans don't want to do it because they don't know anything about the intelligence behind it: Why should they put their soldiers at risk…?"

From his perspective, local forces must be seen as equal, not junior or less trusted partners. Building up this sense of trust and partnership takes time. "You need to be there, live with them in their way, spending months with them, to build up the rapport." It also means being open to learning from those local partners, rather than being solely focused on developing their capabilities. "If you are going to see the threats from Afghanistan, you have to see it from Afghan eyes… . I think we have to work closer with the security forces in the country … than we have done."

…Or Does a Deep Understanding of Culture and Language Allow for Deeper Cooperation?

"Winning the hearts and minds" of the Afghan population has been an underlying mantra of the American narrative of the war for a decade now, but the most effective method of doing that has remained elusive. In 2009, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen lent his support to a program aimed at cultural training, known as AFPAK Hands. Now called Afghan Hands, the program consists of a 3 to 4-year training and deployment commitment designed to train participants from all service branches to operate in sync with their foreign counterparts. A participant in the program spends five to six months learning either Pashto or Dari, and then several months intensively studying the culture of the specific area in Afghanistan where he or she will be working. The participant deploys for a one-year period, returns stateside to a domestic post focused on Afghanistan for one year, and then returns to Afghanistan for another year.

Our U.S. AFPAK Hands interviewee had completed his training, spent a year in a province of Afghanistan, and was now at a NATO post awaiting redeployment back to the same province. A former linguist who had served in that capacity in Operation Desert Storm, he focused on some of the ways that he has seen cultural training evolve. In the early part of his career, cultural training was mostly based on language, and "being a linguist meant just learning through headphones," whereas currently the language training a person receives pre-deployment is paired with cultural education. In addition to the more in-depth training, which includes cultural norms, customs, religion, and regional nuances, he explained that the operators' longer deployments to specific regions allow them to use their training to build relationships and consistency in a way that shorter deployments (normally six to nine months) cannot.

In contrast to our Norwegian interviewee, who had observed that the value of cultural respect for opening doors was equal to in-depth language training but with less investment of money and time, his U.S. counterpart spoke about the value of intensive language and cultural training as a means to build genuine, rather than superficial, connections and relationships. He analogized that if you went to conduct business in any foreign nation and could not speak the language in which the business was being conducted, your understanding of the transaction would be limited to the most basic terms, or you would have to rely on someone else to interpret.

It was the same with military operations and training overseas, he said. Knowing the language not only means that you can understand what those around you are saying, but it also allows you to convey clear messages and instruction, as well as exchange ideas. In an unstable environment where miscommunication can have devastating effects, language fluency is critical. Language skills also eliminate reliance on an interpreter, making communication quicker, more personal, and less susceptible to misrepresentation. In addition, he stated, "Afghan local police ... any group … is only as good as the leadership they have in place," and in his opinion language fluency makes identifying and mentoring local leaders possible.

According to our American interviewee, the critical aims in Afghanistan were governance, development, and security, and of those security is paramount, as "the other two cannot exist without established security… ." Without proper language and cultural training, he suggested, operators cannot communicate well enough within the community to develop the level of security needed to defend against insurgencies and enable effective governance and development.

Simply put, he explained, it is difficult to travel, gain access to needed supplies, and garner useful information if an operator does not understand the language or cannot use knowledge of cultural practices, nuances, and hierarchies to build and then leverage relationships. In a part of the world where information is critical to the fight, our interviewee considered the AFPAK Hands methodology—intense language and cultural training coupled with longer and repeated deployments—the best method for getting coalition operators into key mentorship positions. Being in these positions makes it easier to impart both skills and knowledge, but also to receive critical information, through "speaking the language and learning from the Afghans." This method, he emphasized, offers the allies their best chance of success in Afghanistan.

A U.S. Response to the Importance of Culture: Regionally Aligned Army Brigades

It was evident from both of our interviews that the lessons from Afghanistan on the importance of culture have left an impression on international military personnel. The question that remains, however, is how these lessons should be applied. Exactly how should militaries respond to issues of language and culture in a manner that best promotes success?

In March 2012, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno announced a new initiative to regionally align the army's brigades with each of the six U.S. Global Combatant Commands, observing that "We have learned many lessons over the last 10 years, but one of the most compelling is that—whether you are working among the citizens of a country, or working with their government or Armed Forces—nothing is as important to your long term success as understanding the prevailing culture and values."3 This new regional alignment would see Army units and leaders focus on a specific region within their normal training program, and receive cultural training and language familiarization relevant to that region while continuing to train in core combat skills and capabilities.4

The arguments behind the concept of regionally aligned brigades are instinctively compelling. Who wouldn't want soldiers more attuned to the operational theater in which they find themselves? In addition, the initiative is designed to have deterrence value, a point that was explicitly acknowledged by Odierno.5 Despite this, there are problems with the concept. Some of these are institutional: as Steve Griffin observed in the Small Wars Journal, the army lacks an adaptive personnel system to go along with this new process of regional alignment, which means a soldier may receive training in a specific language and culture, only to then rotate to a new unit aligned to a different region.6 Some are more procedural: regional alignment threatens to revive the tendency toward "unit favoritism" that existed prior to 9/11, while what Griffin calls a "distinct lack of training focus" may mean that brigades become good at a lot of things but great at none, requiring yet more specific training when it actually comes time to deploy.7

While criticisms can always be made about the implementation of new directives, this article is concerned less with the administrative nuances of the program than with the language and cultural assumptions that underpin it. It is hard to argue against the value of language and cultural skills, particularly under the requirements of foreign internal defense, combating terrorism, and counterinsurgency, when communication and cooperation with local security forces and populations can be critical. As Steve Griffin has noted, "Soldier proficiency in language and culture can be immense combat multipliers— some might argue that these skills have even more value than the latest weapon or vehicle platform."8

Lack of cultural understanding has also been highlighted as a security issue. The U.S. Center for Army Lessons Learned has been developing a handbook suggesting that coalition leaders would benefit from more in-depth cultural understanding of local security forces, and vice versa, to help guard against the interpersonal tensions that can lead to "green on blue" attacks.9 A former Afghan soldier named Mahmood, who carried out such an attack in May 2012 before "defecting" to the Taliban, suggested that simmering resentment between Afghans and their international counterparts can result in violence: "I have intimate friends in the army who have the same opinion [of Americans] as I do."10 This suggests that cultural training is not only a potential "combat multiplier" but also a conflict suppressor, a fundamental element of damage control: first—do no harm.

Given these assumptions, does the Regionally Aligned Brigades concept truly embrace the lessons learned over the last ten years with respect to the importance of language and culture, or does it simply pay lip service, assuming that any language and cultural training is better than none at all? Can it provide a model for other countries? The obvious and significant pitfall of the concept is its lack of specificity. With the breadth of languages and dialects across Africa and the Middle East, it is anyone's guess exactly what language(s) should be taught to the inaugural brigade aligned to AFRICOM beginning in 2014. Even once that is decided, the language training provided at the brigade level is likely to be basic, not the kind of fluency advocated by our AFPAK Hands interviewee as necessary to improve security or undermine insurgencies.

Likewise with culture: international operators in Iraq and Afghanistan have learned the hard way that cultural practices prevalent in one province may be foreign in another; hence, any regionally aligned brigade will face a herculean task trying to develop a useful modicum of cultural fluency for an entire region. As our Norwegian SOF interviewee observed, the cultural complexities of a society may not be fully comprehensible even with extensive training. Add to this the fact that the proclivities of individuals are the key to results. Cultural training that can be applied successfully in a host nation is as dependent on an individual's desire to internalize and manifest cultural awareness as it is on the content of the program itself. It is unlikely that even a majority of the three to four thousand members of a Regionally Aligned Brigade will share that aptitude.

The importance of the individual is also highlighted in a U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI) study, which found that, while cultural knowledge can be helpful when operating in a foreign environment, it is insufficient without the behavioral skills necessary to interpret and respond to dynamic cultural cues. The institute developed a concept of "cross-cultural competence," in which the three components of knowledge (cultural understanding of one's own and another culture); affect (attitudes toward foreign cultures and the motivation to learn about and engage with them); and skills (the ability to regulate one's own reactions in a cross-cultural setting, interpersonal skills, and the flexibility to assume the perspective of someone from a different culture) combine to provide the capabilities necessary to work well in a foreign culture.11 Crucially, in developing this concept, researchers found that skills and affect were more directly related to successful outcomes than knowledge: "[C]ultural knowledge may have limited utility if rigid interpersonal behavior or ethnocentric attitudes are not addressed."12

The ARI also noted in its research that language proficiency, while contributing to positive outcomes for individuals working in foreign environments, usually had less effect than expected: "Interpersonal skills tend to make stronger contributions than language proficiency or prior international experience."13 What is more, such programs are usually much less costly than comprehensive language and cultural training.

A Proposed Alternative Model: Cultural Intelligence and Strategic Language Fluency

Given this analysis, before sending personnel into language and cultural training, the command level should first determine when specific language and cultural capabilities are a must (and for whom), and when simple cultural respect is sufficient. Like any skill, language and cultural capabilities reveal their value in their application. To be the kind of "immense combat multiplier" suggested by Steve Griffin, intensive language training must be targeted to a specific theater of operations as well as a specific type of mission. Done effectively, it has the potential for a high return on investment.

Conversely, the development of cultural respect can boost the military's effectiveness across the board if instituted effectively, by teaching interpersonal skills that are transferable and therefore flexible across different missions. As the ARI observed,

Culture is best taught as a factor across full-spectrum operations, an enabler supporting other capabilities, rather than an "a la carte" supplement to conventional warfighter knowledge and skills. Future strategic challenges may include multiple engagements around the world with a greater reliance on partner relationships, and expanded cultural breadth and agility will be required if we are to meet those challenges.14

So what might this "enabler" approach to culture look like? It must focus on ability rather than knowledge, and programs must be designed to deliver behavioral, not simply informational, education (an "EQ" vs. IQ approach).15 This is an area where international militaries might benefit from the experience of intelligence agencies, for which the development of inter-cultural skills is fundamental. One model that has been reviewed positively by the Central Intelligence Agency16 is that of "cultural intelligence," defined as "a person's ability to adjust to new cultural contexts" based on behavioral, motivational, and cognitive elements and processes.17 The developers of this model, Christopher Earley and Soon Ang, assert that to function effectively in a new cultural context, an individual must be able to understand the new setting based on cultural cues, be committed to understanding the new culture and overcoming his or her limitations within it, and be able to apply specific actions demanded by specific cultural situations. In addition, psychologist Daniel Goleman points out that cultural intelligence allows for more logical, intelligent decision-making; he defines a quality of that intelligence as "a propensity to suspend judgment—to think before acting."18

Earley and Ang also point out that genuine cultural intelligence is not fixed and does not just come "naturally." Rather, it requires constant refinement and learning. Therefore, in applying the lessons learned over the past decade and more on the importance of culture, military leaders must look not only at new initiatives, but also consider a fundamental change in how the military teaches all its soldiers, from the ground up and in an ongoing manner, to develop and apply cultural intelligence. This requires that the highest levels of command acknowledge the fundamental value of cultural competence for warfighting, and muster the institutional will to adapt accordingly. As the ARI has observed, "[A]rmed forces cannot ‘surge' cultural expertise, nor can they expect complex interpersonal skills and cultural cognition to develop when placed in competition with fundamental military skill sets."19


We have much to learn from those who have experienced the hardest lessons firsthand in the last decade of conflict, including our interviewees from Norway and the United States, even when their conclusions disagree. It is often in those points of difference that we learn the best lessons, in this instance the value of language and cultural fluency when they are strategically taught and applied. Nor should we overlook the compounding value of cultural intelligence as a fundamental, flexible skill and "combat multiplier," and as a vital tool for sustaining peace. General (Ret.) David Petraeus observed, "We have spent the last fifty years remembering and forgetting the importance of cultural awareness … now it's coming to us full force."20 International military leaders and policymakers owe it to their operators not only to acknowledge the lessons learned, but to apply them effectively so that we might not spend the next fifty years forgetting what cost us so much to learn.

About the Author(s): Katherine Ellena is a research associate in the DA Department at NPS. Rebecca Lorentz is a research assistant in the DA Department at NPS.


1. For questions or comments, or to contribute to the Counter- Terrorism Archive Project, please contact the authors: Katherine Ellena ( and Rebecca Lorentz (rdlorent@nps. edu).

2. The interviews used in this article took place in Oslo, Norway, and Mons, Belgium, in September 2012. These interviews are based on the individuals' experiences and are not intended to represent the views of the Norwegian or United States governments.

3. Raymond Odierno, "Regionally Aligned Brigades: A New Model for Building Partnerships," ArmyLive Blog, March 22, 2012:; accessed November 10, 2012.

4. Ibid.

5. C. Todd Lopez, "Future Army Forces Must be Regionally Aligned, Odierno Says," Army News Service, October 24, 2012: aspx?id=118316; accessed November 4, 2012.

6. Steve Griffin, "Regionally-Aligned Brigades: There's More to This Plan than Meets the Eye," Small Wars Journal, September 19, 2012:; accessed November 15, 2012.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Matthew Rosenberg, "An Afghan Soldier's Journey from Ally to Enemy of America," The New York Times, January 3, 2012: html?pagewanted=all&_r=0; accessed January 3, 2013.

10. Ibid.

11. Allison Abbe and Stanley M. Halpin, "The Cultural Imperative for Professional Military Education and Leadership Development," Parameters (Winter 2009-10): 24–25.

12. Ibid., 24–25.

13. Ibid., 25.

14. Ibid., 30.

15. Coined by author Daniel Goleman in 1995, EQ is emotional and behavioral intelligence as opposed to IQ, the standard method of measuring more traditional cognitive intelligence.

16. Julia Riva, "Review: P. Christopher Earley and Soon Ang, Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures," CSI Studies (CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence), vol. 49, no. 2: intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/Vol49no2/Cultural_Intelligence_Book_Review_10.htm; accessed November 1, 2012.

17. P. Christopher Earley and Soon Ang, Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 59.

18. Daniel Goleman, as quoted in P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski, "Cultural Intelligence," Harvard Business Review (October, 2004):; accessed January 5, 2013.

19. Abbe and Halpin, "The Cultural Imperative," 26.

20. General David Petreaus, USA "Learning Counterinsurgency: Observations from Soldiering in Iraq," Military Review (January-February, 2006): 8.

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