At least 20 people have been killed, including two American soldiers, amid rage over the apparently accidental burning of Korans at a U.S.-run military installation north of Kabul. In response to the violence, military officials have promised to train all forces in Afghanistan on how to handle religious texts.
What do U.S. Marines usually learn about the Koran and about Afghan culture? To find out, The Times turned to Lt. Col. George Robinson, an operations officer at the Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning in Quantico, Va.
The center trains Marines to understand different cultures and communicate in foreign languages. It opened in 2006 in reaction to the challenges the U.S. was facing with Iraqi insurgents.
How widespread is this training? Do all Marines get it?
We have the capacity to train all Marines before they deploy. In Afghanistan specifically, we train the vast majority of Marines who are deployed to Afghanistan. They're typically gone for seven months to a year. Even if they go for a shorter duration, we make an attempt to have them exposed to our training.
Certain locales we tend to do a lot more training than others. We're very good at taking time to prepare Marines for Latin America and Africa; we probably do slightly less training for Asia and the Pacific, not because it's less important but because we haven't been able to do as good a job with getting things ready for Marines deploying in those parts of the world.
What's the training like?
We don’t necessarily give the exact same training to every Marine headed to Afghanistan, because we do our best to tailor it to the mission the Marines are going to go to. If you have a Marine going to the Kabul area, we'll give them a training that’s very different than a Marine going to Helmand province.
Our standard package is about two full days, a little bit more than two days. It consists of generally five lessons.
We talk about five broad categories: How the population interacts with their physical environment, what the population's belief system is -- and their religion is a component of that but so is folklore and legends, things like that -- we talk about the political system and how that affects the individual and how they interact with that system. We talk about the economy and the social structure. We try to help them understand that any one of those five is not something that can be taken in isolation, and as we effect change or we cause a reaction in one of those facets, there's a cascading effect across all five of those elements.
The vast majority of Marines in Afghanistan today are deploying into the southwest of Afghanistan, most to Helmand province. So we usually are exposing them to the Pashtun population, not exclusively, but they're the majority of people they're working in and around. We talk about the values held by Pashtun people in general, what social activities are appropriate and accepted by the Pashtun people.
We expose them to a cultural code of behavior called Pashtunwali that helps us understand what the Pashtun people value, how they conduct their personal relations with other people, what their concept of honor is and what that means to Marines who are living and working with them as partners every day.
Not only are we teaching about those five dimensions of operational culture, but we give them a little bit of tactical language. Most Marines get Pashto, in some cases we give them Dari. We do a little lesson on culture stress, a phenomenon experienced by a lot of people immersed in another culture. We also give them some training on how to interact with the population, using an interpreter, and nonverbal communications.
Most of that training upfront takes place in the classroom. We may ask them to do some drawing on their experience, some role playing Marine-on-Marine. After the training, they also have multiple opportunities to use the skills that we’ve imparted to them in the classroom in practical applications -– in field environments, simulator environments, and it culminates fairly close to Marines' actual deployment date with an evaluation exercise where they spent about a month preparing and being assessed with role players, who are in many cases native Afghans. They play shopkeepers, families, village officials.... The Marines are pretty much immersed in that environment and they're able to practice and hone the skills we’ve imparted to them back in the classroom.
What do they learn specifically about the Koran and the handling of the Koran?
First and foremost, the most important thing we try to impart to Marines about the Koran is that it is a highly revered text. Most of our Marines are not Muslim, but we make a great effort for them to understand the role of the Koran in light of their own religious beliefs, so they have an appreciation of how the Muslims revere this text. We make it a point to let them know that it is viewed as the word of God, as opposed to stories about God.
We tell them that, if it can be avoided, Marines and non-Muslims really should try not to handle the Koran at all. If circumstances dictate that Marines are in a position in which they have to handle the Koran, we tell them to handle it with the utmost respect. We tell them to handle it with your right hand, we tell them to avoid actually touching the text, and we tell them to carry it in front of your midriff rather than letting it dangle down at your side. We also tell them to avoid placing it on the ground.
With economic pressure, has this training been scaled back?
The budget hasn’t affected us, at least not yet. Particularly where Afghanistan is concerned, we want to provide at least the same degree of training for Marines in the future as we have to this point.
How are these skills different from what Marines might have traditionally learned?
Is it a new way of looking at things? Yes and no. If you look back 20 years previously, we had learned all these lessons in Vietnam. We had conducted training in culture. We stopped our Vietnam experience and perhaps some of those lessons were forgotten. We'd like to think this is the last time we’re going to relearn that lesson.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: In this 2001 file photo, members of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit stationed at Camp Rhino in Afghanistan perform a weapons test before heading out on patrol for the evening. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times