FORT POLK, LA. -- Haji Bashid has seen it time and again, but every time, he still gets the satisfaction of knowing he is contributing toward the peace and to bringing American soldiers home alive.

As a cultural advisor and linguist at Engagement University, the Joint Readiness Training Center's school to teach commanders young and old how to perfect their skills at meeting with key government, tribal and military leaders in Afghanistan, he is very pleased with his work.

"Day by day, they get better, gaining knowledge of the culture and the people," he said.

During a January 2012 rotation at JRTC, Col. Mark L. Stock, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, said that training centers such as Fort Polk's JRTC provide a crucial service to units preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.

"Combat Training Centers are the only places that provide scenarios that can stress an entire brigade," said Stock, and that includes key leader engagements, or KLEs, which are foundational to building effective and enduring relationships with host nation leaders.

"Out here, what I do as a brigade commander directly impacts the relationships I build within the scenarios and backgrounds they provide," said Stock. "That's difficult to replicate back home at [Fort] Bragg."

According to Bashid, one of the most important lessons that anyone should know about the Afghan people is the emphasis they place on respect and dignity.

"That includes respect to them, to their women, to their families and also their religion," he said. "If you do that, they will be a very good friend to you and always welcome you."

Capt. Tim McDonald, a cavalry troop commander with 1/82 took part in KLEs almost daily as a young lieutenant during the 15 months he spent in Iraq with the 25th Infantry Division, but he was keen to glean what he could from the engagement center, he said.

"I'm used to working through an interpreter, giving myself time to think and having a recorder in the room," said McDonald, "but these guys were really good at teaching me specifically about the Afghan culture, and then afterwards, it was really beneficial for me to talk with them one-on-one to discuss Pashtunwali, and discuss that relationship between government, tribal leaders and Afghan security forces," he said.

Pashtunwali is an unwritten ethical code of the Pashtun people of Afghanistan.
For commanders such as Lt. Col. David S. Pierce who have already deployed to Afghanistan, the KLE training here provides opportunities to get outside feedback.

Pierce commands 1/82's 3rd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, and counts among his deployments 15 months in Afghanistan.

"You do these KLEs in country, but you don't ever get any criticism, so you don't really know what mistakes you are making," said Pierce. "Here you get an outside opinion. You get people looking for things to make you better. That's critical."

The artillery commander said he picked up finer points on certain expressions, body language, use of interpreters and use of certain words and phrases.

"For instance, maybe I want to say less 'I and me' and more 'we' because otherwise I may appear arrogant to the [Afghan National Army] commander," said Pierce. "Having been in Afghanistan, I know you have to be prepared for a variety of scenarios. You need to be prepared to make a decision and live with it, and if I offend that ANA commander, I would have to come back and fix it."

Bashid said that, while it is impossible to teach the Americans everything in one day or two days or even two weeks, at least it gives them a road to go forward.

"We cultural advisors try to do our best to teach something to our military so they are effective overseas and come back safe," he said.