It was summertime in Afghanistan — fighting season.
As a part of a civil affairs unit, I was tasked with trying to stimulate the local economy and minimize the Taliban’s potential recruits during the hot months.
However, instead of helping to create jobs for Afghans, I found myself office-ridden and shuffling paperwork to account for $40 million dollars’ worth of stuff scattered around the country.
What’s more, the small room where I spent my working hours was in need of cleaning.
The Dirty Office
Located at the far end of a building left over from the Soviets, my office was not particularly messy. However, there was something about this room that gave me pause.
Perhaps it was the fact that my office was once the personal toilet of a Soviet general.
A concrete slab now covered the hole in the ground. Every time my chair accidentally rolled off the edge of it, I could almost hear the Soviet anthem — accompanied by laughter.
It was also hard to miss the remains of a toilet paper dispenser located next to my desk.
On this particular day, the vanilla air freshener in my office was fading — and the desire to clean was growing.
Peace and Cleanliness
Fortunately, I recently discovered how I could get my office cleaned and promote peace by creating local jobs. My team had contracted a group of local Afghans from the neighboring village to tidy things up. In return, they would get a day’s pay and a large lunch for a few hours of work.
The group was due to arrive at any minute.
“Lieutenant Mitchell?” Came a voice from beyond the old water closet door. I looked up to see my supply sergeant with an eyebrow raised.
“Yes, sergeant. What’s happening?” I replied.
“The Afghans have arrived. Shall I give them instructions?” He asked.
I put my computer to sleep, stood up, and straightened my uniform. Despite being in the middle of Afghanistan, I had not met many Afghans yet.
I wanted to make a good impression.
I stepped out of my special little office and into the hallway.
The seven Afghan men had already set to work following the sergeant’s instructions. Their white turbans and long beards swayed with the motions of their brooms and mops.
I greeted them with a smile and, according to local custom, covered my heart with my right hand before saying, “hello.”
However, the pistol on my hip and my status as their employer undoubtedly made the men nervous. They kept their heads down and continued working.
Perplexed, I scratched my head trying to figure out how to connect with the Afghans.
Diplomacy in a Box
Just then, my answer walked down the hall. The Command Sergeant Major was carrying a cardboard box.
“A care package has arrived, Sir.” He extended the box with an unfamiliar return address.
“The good people back home have put together packages for us,” he said. “It probably contains baked goods.”
“Thank you, Sergeant Major,” I said taking the box.
Placing the package on my desk, I cut through the tape and folded the flaps back to reveal Christmas chocolates, a bag of Starbuck’s Coffee, pencils, and a can of Pringles.
Removing each item, I had the distinct feeling of being watched.
Slowly, I turned to discover the Afghans wide-eyed and watching my every move.
Suddenly I had an idea of how I must have looked. With two flat-screen computer monitors, a coffee machine with a hot pot of fresh java, smooth jazz gently playing from an iPod speaker, a hint of vanilla wafting into the hallway, and now a box of treats spilling out onto my desk, I must have been perceived to be quite wealthy and important.
I couldn’t afford not to be generous at this vulnerable moment.
I looked at the chocolates, contemplated my waistline, and decided to share the package.
Chocolates and Charm
“Would you like a chocolate?” I asked the Afghan man closest to my office door.
A broad smile swept across his face. He stepped forward and happily took the chocolate.
He quickly opened the chocolate’s Christmas-themed wrapper, poured its contents into his mouth, smiled in appreciation, and returned to work.
I turned to the next man and offered another chocolate. He grinned and swiftly commandeered the gift.
The trend continued through six of the seven Afghans. The chocolate was offered, taken, and smiles were rendered.
However, the seventh man was different.
“Chocolate?” I asked him. The older man looked at me with suspicion, then frowned, grunted, and shook his head in disagreement. Shocked, I looked at him for a moment to see if he has kidding.
His long white beard stretched well below his chin. The lines in his face had been carved by nearly three decades of war. His sharp, narrow eyes had seen many things and sparkled with wisdom.
The man crossed his arms. He was not going to be having any American chocolate today.
“Hmmm…” I said, considering the man. “Tough customer.”
I turned back to the care package and saw the red tube of Pringles. I looked at the man, made a calculation, and then picked up the can of chips.
“Would you like some of these?” I asked producing the tube of Pringles.
The old man’s eyes boggled. His mouth gradually widened into a full, toothy smile.
I reached out and delivered the salty potato chips into his grasp.
Satisfied with my diplomatic efforts, I nodded and prepared to head back to my swivel chair atop the Soviet kaibo.
However, I heard a ruckus and spun around. The old man had the Pringles can turned upside-down and was vigorously shaking it. The thin plastic seal was hanging on for dear life.
The Pop Top
Horrified, I lunged forward.
“Here,” I said, carefully taking the red tube out of his hands.
I gently removed the plastic lid and took hold of the foil cover. With a flick of my wrist, the foil flew off the tube and released a gush of salty, fried air.
The man recoiled with a look of joy and amazement.
I handed the can back to him. Without skipping a beat, he immediately began stacking chips in his mouth.
Chuckling, he turned and seemed to skip his way back down the hallway.
He even started to hum a jingle. It may have been titled, “Down with America” for all I know. But at that moment in time, America had done alright in his book.
The lesson I’ve learned from this experience is that suspicion can be overcome. All it takes is a big smile, a friendly demeanor, persistence — and maybe a can of Pringles.