The ancient dance

In the post The Places in Between I mentioned of “differences between groups” that are “deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome” to which I further said has parallelism in the Philippines.  I understand these may hold vague meaning to many.  The following examples, cited in the context of lessons learned from chai drinking tradition vis-a-vis the insurgency problem in Afghanistan, provide practical meaning to the phrase.

One of the key tenets of the Pushtunwali, the code of conduct of the Pashtuns, is hospitality. Hospitality is not just a Pashtun value, though. It is an Afghan value. It is shame to be considered inhospitable, and as O and I discussed over the weekend, we have both been offered chai by families whose khalats we were either searching or had just searched.

We have both had chai served to us by Taliban, as well. A Talib will not kill you while offering you hospitality. It just isn’t done. They may have been shooting at you an hour before, and they will be planning their next ambush even as you sit there with them, but they won’t kill you during chai or while you are leaving immediately afterwards. A mile up the road is a different story, but not during chai.

One of his had to do with getting into a TIC (Troops In Contact, or firefight) with a group of Taliban in the southern Tag Ab Valley who had shot at his group from a higher elevation and then fled in the direction of a village. He and his group of ANA reached the village some time later, intending to search for weapons and evidence of Taliban activity. They were immediately offered chai.

O is quite sure that some of the people serving him chai that day had been shooting at him shortly before.

One of my favorites is the day that I was sent on a mission into an area of the Tag Ab where I had not ventured before. I was the guy who was available to go. The reason was because we had reliable intelligence that Taliban had been in two houses and were possibly still there. They were there for discussions, and they were there to have chai.

This was my first experience going down the a particularly miserably narrow alley-like road between the main north-south road in the valley and literally into the riverbed. We parked in the riverbed and the team from the 82nd stayed there while I and my terp accompanied the ANP alone while we walked a couple of miles to the target houses.

We reached the first target house and it was the home of the village Malek, a senior elder position in the village. We asked him about the visitors he had had that day and the ANP searched his house.

They found sixty rounds of 7.62×39 ammunition. AK ammo. In AK magazines. Not good. We detained him and took him and the ammo with us. We then moved a mile or so to the next house and after a search and protestations of innocence from the homeowner, we proceeded back to the district center. Upon my arrival the Wuliswahl, or Sub-governor, of Tag Ab, a man since replaced and who we believed was no doubt “dirty,” requested the pleasure of my company. By name.


I entered his sitting room, carpeted with rugs and with pillows arranged around the periphery, to discover three other gentlemen seated whom I had never seen before. One vaguely resembled the man that I had only recently detained. The Wuliswahl ordered chai and bade me sit.

It turned out that two of the men were supposedly Maleks from neighboring villages and the third was the detained Malek’s brother. The whole point of this chai was to dissuade me from taking the Taliban-friendly, ammunition-hiding Malek in to the temporary detainee-handling facility we had established at the north end of the Tag Ab Valley.

There were still small talk and solicitations as to my health. I asked how their villages were doing. This was brief small talk. They had an agenda, and they really didn’t wish me good health anyway. If they had been able, they would each liked to have killed me; but this was chai. We were dancing an ancient dance.

We drank chai and they expressed themselves thoroughly; alternately asking for and demanding the release of the Malek, vouching for the detainee’s character, and asking that we let him go in their custody so that they could bring him in the morning. This part went on for quite some time.

I countered their points with discussion of the finding of prohibited ammunition, his need to set an example, and our belief that he had hosted Taliban for chai in his home. They refuted those claims, his brother offering to let me burn his house with his family in it if his brother had Taliban in his home; a dramatic portion of the dance.

They spoke of his honor, his honor in the eyes of his village, and of their honor-bound duty to seek his release.

Finally, I told them that I understood that it was their duty to come and seek his release, and that they had done their part to uphold their honor.

I told them that I am an askar, a soldier, and that my honor depends on me following my orders. They agreed; that is what askare are supposed to do. I asked them civilly, as I sipped the opposite side of my chai cup, if they were asking me to dishonor myself. The four men assured me vociferously that none of them would ever ask me to dishonor myself.

I thanked them, as I rose to leave, for understanding that my orders were to bring the man in, and I thanked them for not asking me to violate my orders and dishonor myself. I excused myself, bowing slightly with my hand over my heart in the Afghan way, and shook each of their hands mumbling, “Tashakur, khud hafez.”

They wondered how that had gone so awry, but the civility of chai provided a safe situation for us all to speak our peace and attempt to negotiate. I still get a chuckle out of the outcome of that discussion, though. Through all of that, voices were never raised. That’s chai.

One can glean from the above of deep differences in the Eastern and Western ways of working toward objectives, in war or in politics. The cases above presents real ethical and moral dilemmas.  For instance, should the soldiers blast the enemy right there and then because in war enemy is enemy chai or no chai?  Or should they play along with the rules of the game in order to maintain some semblance of peace for the rest in the community?

I remember my grandfather’s advise to us his grand kids: do not think twice when it comes to the enemy.  Kill if you must.  And be swift about it.  I remember that we laughed at this because what did he mean?  Enemy?  Kill?  We didn’t know no wars.  We were born in the time of Boeing 747s, Madonna and the birth of pop culture, game and watch, Japanese brands. But I came to understand that the advice or warning was given in the context of his own experiences in World War II, with Japanese who invaded their farm and their neighbors with many not so lucky, and a short stint in Saipan.  His words played in my mind again a year ago while watching the movie, Lone Survivor, on a bus ride going home.

The landscape of war and warfare as we see it staged in the Middle East and elsewhere has changed since my grandfather’s WWII experience. After WWII, the objective was to never again go to war or declare war hence the UN and treaties and conventions chief among them on human rights.  But despite the promise we did go to war although because now a new set of rules – of human rights – governs us the war went underground so to speak where a different set of rules confront us.

Add to this the palpable change in the socio-political fabric of societies in the Middle East, that of locals’ increasing departure from the steps of the ancient dance of their forbears, the unintended negative outcome of such is division within the community and members judged based on who sides with whom. Such splits the community further.

That said, I’m beginning to think the conflict’s not even about faith – Muslims versus Christians – because both share the same fundamental truths chief of these is love which in no way preaches or forgives killings of innocents, so what are both sides fighting each other for?

I’m now beginning to think that the conflict for the most part redounds to simply one of generational gap that has unnecessarily escalated into dramatic proportions and reactions (as is the tendency of couples to hurl suppressed recriminations against each other that are totally or vaguely unrelated to the initial cause of their argument, digging up in effect a bottomless grave to cast their verbal treasures into only to bury themselves in it afterward).  What are the rules of engagement and whose are these?

The gap between generations is marked by a tug of war for independence and individuality on one side and tradition and compliance to the established order on the other. With nations, for sovereignty and independence. The insurgents are supposedly wrestling these from the West which doesn’t make sense at all because they should be knocking on their own government’s doors whose primary responsibility is to dialogue with their citizens if it at all possible and restore order.

But who makes up government?  Who should the insurgents talk to?  And what is the form of government?  Their Constitution says it’s now a democratic State. Being one, what do the rulers say about the insurgency and it’s goals?  What do the people say?  Who do they say their representatives are?  But in keeping with tradition, that is, theirs as the less powerful voice, the people’s collective say on the matter is unimportant.


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