LACKA-LACKA

“LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKA” was the sound we made when we imitated Afghans engaged in full-tilt verbal combat.  In conversation and meetings, our counterparts were vociferous and passionate.  All males twenty-and-above asserted themselves loudly and confidently and could respond without flinching to the most brutal counter-argument:

“LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKA.”

“LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKA.”

“LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKA.”

After two or three or four or five back-and-forth exchanges at 90+ rapid-fire decibels, the junior Afghan would either have made his point or assuaged his pride.  He could then defer to his elder’s command or desire and the interchange would simmer down.

Similarly, we braced for at least one thunderous tirade per meeting by the senior Afghan present.  All may have been well and orderly—or maybe not—but as if protocol depended on it, an outburst would emanate at some point from even the most gentle and friendly of our counterparts:

“LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKA.”

Phone calls were conducted at the same pitch and register.   A conversation in the subdued American style with one of our counterparts would be interrupted by the ringing of a cell phone.  One of the Afghans would flip open his phone and immediately commence a mighty outpouring of LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKAs.  Often, we could also hear the voice on the other end, LACKA-LACKing in response.  When the phone call ended, our Afghan counterpart’s voice would return to a softer key.

Despite this difference in rhetorical styles, the Afghan habit of mind and gamut of emotions usually did not feel very foreign, even though they were inflected by Islam, pashtunwali, and other non-Western codes.  In fact, it was quite easy to spend time with them.  The sense of camaraderie was never forced nor were the conversations tedious. It helped that Afghans are curious and friendly and love to laugh.  Their sense of humor was definitely not exotic.  Their jokes, insults, pithy sayings, and humorous asides were as funny to me as they were to them. 

Other Afghan behaviors and attitudes also betrayed expectations.  Americans like to complain that Afghans talk endlessly without resolving anything.  That all they do is sit around and drink tea.   But I saw many cases where Afghans confronted problems, discussed possible solutions, came to resolutions, and put decisions into action far more quickly than Americans ever would. 

But this rush to judgment could be an issue, too.  At its worst, it was married to a tendency to form consensus opinions before all the facts were in.  And once this group mind-meld hardened, it was very hard to undo.

In June 2009, while up in the KG Pass, we received a report that an American rocket or bomb had exploded in an Afghan village, killing two children and wounding two others.  The bad situation grew worse when relatives brought the two wounded children to our camp.  We treated them as best we could, but were unable to get American helicopters to evacuate them to one of our big hospitals.  I had the unpleasant task of telling the relatives that they had to drive their children to an Afghan hospital in Khowst or Gardez.

The claim that that American ordnance had caused the injuries just wasn’t true.  There had been no shooting that day, and as the facts evolved, too late to do us any good, we learned that the children had been playing with an old Russian hand grenade that had exploded in their midst. But in the near-term aftermath of the horrible incident the Afghan villagers were livid.  They were absolutely sure that American artillery had hurt their children.

The ANA leader I was with that day was little help.  In fact, he contributed to the hysterical overreaction, gesticulating wildly and LACKA-LACKing at everyone in sight.  He might have helped resolve a tense situation, but instead inflamed the outrage toward the Americans.  Granted it was a tough job to mediate between us and the villagers, but he was nominally on our side and might well have served as a voice of reason.

The American unit that was operating in the KG Pass met the villagers many times to discuss the incident.  The families of the children demanded reparations for their losses.  It wasn’t my call, but the American unit refused to recompense them, because they believed that doing so was tantamount to admitting guilt.   Hard to blame them, though I saw reparations work in other, similar situations.  But that was strange, too.  It’s difficult to believe that righteous anger might be blunted by cash payments.  But so it seems to have been the case.  

The incident made things hard for the American unit the rest of their year in Afghanistan.  They had to overcome the ill-will generated by the false belief that they had first bombed the village and then refused to admit it.    

LACKA-LACKA-LACKA-LACKA.

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