Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones…


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For anyone who has driven anywhere in Afghanistan, you will appreciate the unnerving moment when a sudden, sharp *crack* indicates something hard has just impacted the side of your uparmored vehicle. This will often happen in or near villages. In a brief moment of panic, you look out the window to scan for the culprit and see…
…a bunch of boys, staring smugly back at you.
These sounds aren’t those of bullets or rockets, but of kids throwing rocks at the passing Americans. For those of us fortunate enough to be tucked inside the vehicle, it’s annoying more than anything, but the gunners–prime targets with their heads and torsos poking out the top of the trucks–are often less than amused. I can’t count how many times I heard them muttering curses and searching for something to throw back after a volley of incoming rounds. The more experienced ones usually got smart and had a small stockpile of their own rocks stashed away in the turrets. Sure, it may not have been very, ahem, “polite” to throw rocks at kids, but you can only get smacked in the head so many times before you lose your temper. Trouble was, the kids usually had better aim than the soldiers. In fact, their aim could be downright impressive, and every once in a while, amid the curses, I would hear a low whistle.
“Did you see the arm on that kid? I don’t even know how he hit me from that far away, especially since we’re a moving target.”
But often, the soldiers took it personally, and as a sign that people in the village were hostile–or at least not very welcoming–toward us. As the “culture expert,” I had an Army staff sergeant come up to me one day in frustration and ask,
“Doc, why do they do that? Do they really hate us that much?”
“Umm,” I replied, “not necessarily.”
“How do you figure?”
“Imagine being 12 again. You’re mischievous, you’re bored, you don’t have an X-Box to keep you occupied, and it’s a lucky week if your school is even open. Along come the Americans in their giant trucks: big targets, but tough to hit because they’re moving and a bit dangerous because you never know when a bunch of crazy Americans might come flying out after you. Now that’s a challenge. What would you do?”
He was about to make some kind of smart remark, but then stopped short. His eyes got wide for a moment as he realized something.
“You know,” he started slowly, “when I was a kid, about 12, a couple friends of mine and I were bored one day. For some reason, we thought it would be a good idea to go hide behind a berm next to the major road in our town and throw rocks at all the passing cars. No reason, we weren’t angry or anything. It was just a lot of fun, keeping score, watching people get mad…at least until we hit a cop car and had to run before he turned around and caught us.”
He stared at me for a long moment and then smiled while shaking his head. “It’s the same. I did exactly the same thing. I forgot all about it til just now.”
I smiled back.
It can be easy to forget sometimes, that even though you’re in a different culture, people are still people.
Especially when those people are ‘darn kids.’
P.S. Kids aren’t the only people who threw rocks for fun. When bored, Afghan men would set up objects in the dirt and try to knock them over by flinging rocks at them. And Americans, when bored, were known for throwing rocks at trucks, each other, and passers-by.



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It wasn’t always easy to earn people’s respect, though. Between being an American and being a woman, there were moments where just being me earned me a lot of vitriol. It’s not that I don’t understand where it comes from and not that I don’t think that some of it isn’t justified (triple negative anyone?)–for a lot of reasons, Afghans have every right to be angry at Americans. And while I don’t and never will condone dismissing someone based on their chromosomes, I get that the Afghan worldview, especially the rural Pashtun one, can be rather different than my own.

What took me aback, though, was how often it was the younger generation that was the most vicious. Sure, teenage males are always going to be hotheaded and combative and trying to prove their manhood, but in most places around the world, kids are the ones doing their darnedest to be hip and cool and use the internet and devour American pop culture and stuff. (Read about halfway down here–under 30’s love America. Caveat emptor.) But it turns out that kids can sometimes be far more conservative than their parents. Openly, anyway.

I was having a good time out in Paktika. I’d been in Afghanistan for a couple months and was slowly figuring out the tricks to interacting with people. On one trip out, we arrived in a village to find none of the men were around to talk, aside from one middle-aged guy watching his cows who told us that everyone was at a funeral. That was a pretty common excuse to get out of talking to us, but it was also just a pretty common occurrence, so it was always hard to judge.

Some other men eventually showed up, and while the Army guys talked to them, I hung out until some teenage boys came up to me. I asked them if they went to school (they did) and what they wanted to be when they grew up (engineers), and we just generally talked about life. They were a little stand-offish, so I let them take the conversational lead. Finally, one of the older ones who hadn’t spoken up previously, sneered at me and said they didn’t want us here. I asked if they meant us right now or the Americans in general.

“All Americans. Life was better under the Taliban.” Yowsers.

“Well,” I responded, “do you mean security was better or how was it better?”

“Everything. Everything was better.”

What struck me was the kid was at most 17. He’d probably been 8 or 9 when the Taliban was removed from power, so this kind of talk wasn’t coming from personal experience, but a whole host of other things that are even harder to combat.

Use questions, I thought to myself, they’re less of a challenge and more of an invitation that way.

“Everything? I don’t know. I heard there weren’t a lot of schools or clinics back then, right? And they might have been better at security, sure, but I thought they didn’t allow things like music or even flying kites?”

He stared at me for a long moment and then scowled. “What do you know? You’re just a woman.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that one. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Before I could think of what to say, my interpreter jumped in, asserted his age-rank authority, and began to yell at the kid for insulting my honor and speaking like that to his elders, etc. The boy shrugged him off and wandered away. The others looked a little less certain, and some looked downright embarrassed, but eventually most decided to shuffle away too. My interpreter turned to me, looking depressed and disappointed, and apologized.

I was a bit depressed and disappointed myself. But silver lining and all…as we had finished our chat with the boys, the soldiers shifted their security positions, and apparently one got a little too close to the cows.

The cows started snorting and mooing apprehensively. Glancing at me and undoubtedly seeing the bummed out look on my and my interpreter’s faces, he got a twinkle in his eye, and shouted at the soldiers:

“Hey! Why are you scaring my cows? They’re not Taliban!”

He looked over at me with a mischievous little grin and I couldn’t help but laugh. Seeing that, he smiled warmly at me and waved. I’m not entirely certain what it all meant, but it meant a lot.

…A Failure to Communicate


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My apologies, dear readers, for being out of the writing loop for a while. It’s no excuse, but communicating effectively can be tough sometimes.

Ha, now imagine trying to communicate with someone from another culture. Language difficulties aside (and there are plenty of those), there are all sorts of cultural subtleties and nuances, pecking orders and social statuses, communications styles, stereotypes, and plain ole personality quirks to consider. Sometimes you find yourself totally floundering in a conversation and have no idea why.

Exhibit A: Summer, Paktika Province

We were walking through the city’s main bazaar. Not the nice, shiny side that sold mobile phones and motorcycles out of shops with glass windows, but the dingier side that sold foodstuffs out of hastily erected wooden shacks. Flies buzzed everywhere, landing happily on meat hanging in the open and then on stacks of apples and zucchini. It was hot. I had only been in country a few weeks and so was not yet used to the altitude (almost 7000 feet) or walking miles on end while wearing body armor. I was, perhaps, maybe, just a touch grumpy.

I started talking to a shopowner who also seemed a bit grouchy. He started to grumble at me as to how all of this was America’s fault, that the American government was paying the Taliban to buy and make bombs and other such conspiracy theories. When you work in the Middle East, conspiracy theories become par for the course and I know how to play the game around them (that’s another conversation), but that day I was just too hot and tired to care. So I basically told him that what he was saying was nonsense, that it was Americans dying because of those bombs and as corrupt as any government might be, the US would never kill its own like that.

Wrong approach.

He started to rant and rave at me about how naive I was for a minute, then got utterly dismissive and walked off. End of conversation. He was mad, I was mad, it was a great success all around. :-/

(This scene actually happened around the same time as the one in this post. It may not look good, but I swear I really didn’t botch every attempt in the beginning!)

Exhibit B: Fall, Paktiya Province

A couple months later, I moved to a base up in the mountains (so closer to 10-12,000 feet). One morning, we went on a walking patrol to a nearby(ish) village. It wasn’t nearly so hot and I was a bit more used to the body armor, but the altitude change still smoked me. By the time we got to the village and located some elders to talk to, I was pretty hot and sweaty and worn out. And hungry. And therefore slightly grumpy. Again.

We eventually drew the attention of a whole slew of elders and before we knew it, we were sitting in the guest room of a house surrounded by a dozen or so old men. We talked about all sorts of things until one of them, not the main elder, but an important man, started to rant at me essentially saying how useless the Americans had been in Afghanistan.

“You’ve been here for ten years!” he railed as his finale. “How many factories have you built in ten years?!?!”

My temper got the best of me. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I snapped back, “How old are you??”

There was a moment of stunned silence as all eyes turned to us.

“…What?” he finally replied.

“How old are you?” I asked again.

He grew a little less certain of himself. “Umm, maybe 50.”

“Well,” I said dryly, “how many factories have you built in 50 years?”

You could have heard a pin drop. I had one of those forehead-slapping, “did I really just say that out loud?” moments. Mouth, meet Foot. Then, without warning, the main elder and all the others threw back their heads and cackled. I think some literally rolled on the floor laughing. The man I had been speaking to gave me a long, estimating stare that slowly, slowly turned into a small smile of acknowledgement. Then he, too, began to laugh and nodded at me. After that, those guys were willing to listen to anything I had to say.


1. Afghans be crazy? Eh, who isn’t?

2. Country folk are more easy-going than city folk? Well, that’s probably true everywhere.

3. Afghans don’t like uppity women? No, I earned the respect of that whole room of old guys.

4. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it? Ah, now we’re onto something. American culture places a lot of value on clear, direct, no-nonsense communication. Being polite is important, sure, but being “brutally honest” is something we hold pretty dear. We also value confrontation: “Speak up for yourself,” “never back down,” etc.

Afghans also respect confrontation, but only when done the right way. Being direct and straight-to-the-point is just gauche. A sign of lesser intellect. When I called the first guy out, I did so with no subtlety or grace. I came across as someone who was not worthy of debating. If I wasn’t clever enough to engage correctly, how could I possibly be smart enough to have worthwhile opinions? Might as well talk politics with a child.

But, though somewhat unintentionally, cleverness was exactly what I displayed in the second conversation. I also called him out, but not directly. He asked a question that merely implied Americans were useless. I responded by making a sharp turn that momentarily confused everyone, and then tossing his question back at him. I never denied his point about the Americans, but I also implied that Afghans haven’t done anything to help themselves either. I didn’t say it outright. I was subtle. I was clever. I proved that I was someone who could engage in witty repartee and so was a worthy and equal opponent. That meant I could be a trusted friend.

Here There Be Monsters


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All cultures have fairy tales and folklore, stories that teach morality or emphasize the importance of not going into dark or dangerous places all by yourself. Some are so effective that they leave our siblings too terrified to go swimming in the ocean as kids, and, to this day, if I hear noises coming from under my bed in the middle of the night I’m high-tailing it out of my room and not coming back without some silver bullets or a wooden stake or a priest/rabbi/shaman or something. (What? Jaws and The Exorcist were what passed for fairy tales in my house growing up. Thanks, Dad.)

Like us, Afghans have myths and stories, legends and monsters. Overall, though, they tend to be a bit more superstitious than your average American. Not many Americans (openly) believe in fairies, dragons or headless horsemen. Until it’s dark anyway. And a whole lot of us still knock on wood or toss spilled salt over our left shoulders or even just say “bless you” when someone sneezes. They may be reflexive, but we still often do them.

Many Afghans, though, are pretty certain that the monsters of yore are still stomping around the earth. While out on a patrol with some local policemen, we came across this grave marker:

It was about 20 meters (about 65 feet) long. One of the policemen pointed at it and said, “This was a famous giant. He was almost 20 meters tall, that is why his grave is so long.”

“A giant?” I asked, perhaps a touch skeptically.

“Yes!” chimed in a second one. “As recently as 80  years ago, there were giants all over in this area!”

“Ah, so maybe just really tall people, like 2.5 meters (8-9 feet). That happens sometimes,” I replied.

“No, no!” a third guy insisted. “Not just tall people, real giants. This man was a small one at only 20 meters. Some were as tall as 30 meters (almost 100 feet)!”

I continued to be somewhat cynical, thinking they were pulling my leg and trying to suggest that if the grave marker was any indication of his size, he had been 20 meters tall, but really, really, really skinny.

Not only did my sarcasm fall on deaf ears, it actually insulted the Afghans. Before I knew it, I had a whole squad of Afghan police who were pretty angry and yelling at me. My interpreter, who had a university education and had lived abroad, was no exception–he was vehemently supporting them. As I stood there somewhat flabbergasted, one of my colleagues stepped in with our stories about giants, such as David and Goliath, and came across as much more open-minded. That mollified the crowd somewhat, and they explained that people’s grandparents had seen the giants and had told their grandchildren about them, so it must be true. In the end, the Afghans knew that giants had roamed the earth within living memory and nothing some disbelieving (female) American could say was going to change the truth.

In my defense, my interpreter later admitted that Afghans do get a kick out of misleading people, especially Americans, about goofy things like this, and had they been doing so, I would have earned super cool points for calling them out. It just happened that the one time I thought they were joking, they weren’t.

In addition to giants, I knew of one mountain nearby that was inhabited by a dragon, who flew around with a giant diamond in its mouth and would eat anyone who went up the mountain alone at night.

Not too far from that mountain was another one where evil dwarves lived, who would kill you if you went up their mountain alone at night.

(Lesson: don’t go up mountains alone at night.)

Last but not least are the djinn (no, they don’t grant wishes). In Islam, they are beings of fire created before humans. There are good djinn and evil djinn, Muslim djinn, Christian djinn and heathen djinn. And a lot of mischievous djinn. We can’t see them, but they’re everywhere, living under your stairs or in your garden or even your kitchen sink if you have one. And, like Americans and ghosts, most Afghans aren’t too troubled by djinn by the light of day. A good recitation of the first line of the Qur’an will scare them away, but once it gets dark…well, best not to take any chances.

When Offering a Mint is Out of the Question


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The people of planet earth tend to disagree about a lot of things. From what to teach in schools to the best economic system to what we should have for dinner, we’re always fighting, arguing or just plain ole disagreeing. But if there’s one thing the overwhelming majority of us can readily agree on, it’s that politicians are slimy folk.

A while back, I wrote about one of the most corrupt men I have ever met–the Chief of Police of Diyala Province in Iraq. General Damouk. (See this post for more on him.) The short version was that he loved catch-and-release programs, where, as a strong political Shi’a Muslim, he would round up Sunni Muslims from his Province and throw them in jail until someone paid for their release. He was also fond of doing the same to Sunni politicians.

Some of the prisoners who got released, though, were actually in there for real crimes, just without enough evidence (or jail space) to keep them. In these cases, General Damouk would hold prisoner release hearings to let  these guys go. When he did, he had to have signatures from himself, an American representative, a village elder to vouch for the prisoner’s good behavior going forward, and a local politician. I got to sit through a couple of these with my boss, and they were always loads of fun (note the sarcasm).

One particularly memorable day came in the late summer, just when Iraq was at its hottest. Even with a/c, it was warm in the General’s office. I was parked on a couch, already uncomfortable, when the token local politician plopped down next to me. It quickly became apparent that he was far more interested in me than in the proceedings.

That was not entirely unheard, but a couple of things made this instance a little less pleasant than most.

  1. Most Iraqi admirers just gawked. This one wanted to talk.
  2. It was Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during daylight hours. When you fast, one of the unfortunate side effects is halitosis. 
  3. Iraqis can often be close talkers. As in, inches-from-your-face close talkers.
  4. Having a mint or gum during Ramadan counts as breaking your fast. As a cultural advisor, offering a mint was wildly inappropriate, no matter how badly I wanted to (and I did want to, very, very badly).

The conversation went something like this, in whispers, when shushing failed to work. WHILE the prisoners are being interviewed in front of us, no less:

“Are you married?”

“Shh.” <He stares at me for a long moment.> “Ugh, yes.”

“Where is your husband?”

“In America.”

“Ah, well you should forget him and stay here in Iraq. We could find a better husband for you and you would live like a queen, with a big house and servants, a beautiful car, many vacations, and you would never have to work.”

“I rather like my husband. We should be paying attention.”

“Eh, it is not that important. But you, you do not know what love is. Here in Iraq, we know what love means. We can show you. Like now. Are you hungry? We can go get you something to eat. Though I cannot eat, I know you are not Muslim and I will still buy you some food to show you how we will talk care of you. What love is.”

<I shake my head and point at the prisoner.>

“Ah, that is okay. To show you what love is, I will go get you food, right now, so you can eat. That is lo…”

Without warning, a third voice cut in oh-so-casually at that point.

“If you do not stop hitting on my girlfriend right now, I am going to throw you in jail.”

I looked up to find General Damouk looking straight at the politician next to me with a mild expression on his face (and also now ignoring the prisoner who was left to stare back and forth at us all). The politician laughed, then nodded to the general and slid away from me with a grin. A somewhat nervous, forced grin. General Damouk stared at him a moment longer without saying a word and turned back to the prisoner.

The corrupt police chief had just rescued me from the slimy politician.

The worrisome part was that, in his own mind at least, he hadn’t been joking about any of it. But, admittedly, I felt a bit safer.

Honestly Corrupt


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One final thought on corruption before I get off this topic for the time being. Afghans love to gripe about corruption. The moment they realize that an American is interested in talking politics instead of just asking where the Taliban are or where to build a new school, Afghans settle themselves into a comfortable squat (that doesn’t make sense to me either) and start laying out the reasons their politicians are terrible at their jobs. General inefficiency was one of the top conversations, but the winner was corruption.

To be fair, if you ask most Americans what they think of their politicians, they’re likely to tell you the same thing.

It was that thought that inspired me, one cold winter day, to tell the Afghan man I was talking to that Afghans weren’t the only ones in that boat. We were down in Spera in Khost, a district that didn’t exactly have a stellar reputation when it came to strong government leaders. As we hopped from foot to foot to keep warm, the man had complained about his government with the usual descriptions of excessive favoritism, nepotism, and extortion.

I replied by telling him about a recent case involving a corrupt judge in Pennsylvania that had affected my family directly. The judge had been conducting some shady business for years and had only just got caught. As I spoke, the Afghan man’s eyes got wide and his jaw fell open. That was not the image he had of American. He slowly started to chuckle.

“So you see,” I said, “America has corruption too. We’re just better at hiding it.”

At this, he threw back his head and laughed.

“Well,” he said as he calmed down, “it seems like Afghanistan is better than America because at least our politicians are honest about their corruption.”

Speaking of Pakistan…A Joke


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This is one of my favorite jokes I heard while in Afghanistan. It says a lot about Afghans and the rather grim humor they apply to life. I’ve also heard it with an airplane, but I like the boat one better. If it doesn’t make sense…see my previous post. 🙂

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

An American, a Frenchman, a Pakistani, and an Afghan are all on a boat together. All of a sudden, the boat’s captain gets on the intercom and says,”We’ve hit an iceberg and are starting to sink. We have too much weight, so start getting rid of the heavy cargo.”

So the four men begin rummaging around the boat and throwing the heaviest things they can find overboard. After they’ve finished, they captain comes back on.

“Gentlemen, we’re still going down, toss everything overboard.”

The four men quickly get to work and start clearing out the boat, throwing everything that isn’t nailed down overboard. When they’re finished, they breathe a deep sigh until they hear the captain come back on.

“Gentlemen, it’s not enough. We’re still sinking. If there’s anything else you can find, please throw it overboard.”

They look around, but there is nothing left. They don’t know what to do.

Slowly, the American steps up, nods sadly, and pulls a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. He says, “In my country, we have a lot of these.” And with some regret, he throws the cigarettes overboard.

The Frenchman is impressed by the American’s sacrifice and he steps up next and pulls a bottle of cologne out of his pocket. “In my country, we have a lot of these.” And with some regret, he throws the cologne overboard.

The Pakistani is also impressed by these sacrifices and he steps up next. But before he can speak, the Afghan grabs him and throws him overboard.





But I Didn’t Do It, Mom…It Was Pakistan!


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The people living in eastern Afghanistan have a peculiar sort of love-hate relationship with their neighbor Pakistan. The other country is right there on their doorstep. In Khost Province, there are areas where you can stand where, if you look north, south or east, you’re looking at mountains in Pakistan. Anyone from this area who spent time as a refugee from Afghanistan in the past 30 years probably was living in Pakistan. Millions still do. On both sides of the border, people share the same Pashtun ethnicity and language (ish). In fact, there are more Pashtuns living in Pakistan than Afghanistan, though because of country size, they make up only 15% of Pakistan’s population and around 40% of Afghanistan’s.

And according to the Afghans who live near the border, Pakistan is the root of all of Afghanistan’s problems.

In Paktika Province, high on the plateaus in the district of Khayr Kot, I was asking some villagers about their opinion on reconciliation and reintegration of Taliban fighters. One grumpy old spingeri (“whitebeard”) said, “If the government wants to stop the fighting, they have to close the borders with Pakistan. There are no Afghan Taliban fighters, they’re all foreigners…all Pakistani, working for their government, here to destabilize our country.”

I asked a similar question of villagers in mountainous Wazi Zadran district in Paktiya Province. One man, probably in his early 30s, replied, “There are no Taliban around here. The only bad people we have are foreigners, government-sponsored Pakistani fighters who move through the mountains at night. Pakistan wants Afghanistan to fail.”

Then in the fertile valleys of Mandozai district in Khost Province, I asked some villagers…

Well, you get the idea.

I finally wised up and changed my tactics. You see, in Afghan culture, especially Pashtun culture, lying is generally frowned upon, but using clever word play to lead people astray is an art form. Calling someone out using indirect and subtle language can earn respect and laughter.

So one day, I responded to one of these “blame the Pakistanis!” comments with, “Wait, wait, wait. There are a lot of Afghans who live in Pakistan now [including much of the Afghan Taliban, though I didn’t say that directly because it’s cleverer to be subtle and imply it]. Some who are in their 20s now were even born there. So when you say, ‘Pakistanis,’ do you mean real Pakistanis or Afghans who are just living in Pakistan?”

The crowd around the speaker burst into laughter, while he looked chagrined.  He mumbled in admission, “Well, they come out of Pakistan, anyway.” Point for me! “But,” he went on, “they’re all funded by the ISI, because Pakistan wants our country to be weak and unstable.” ISI. Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s formidable intelligence agency. That, I have to admit, was harder to argue with, as many western commentators say much the same thing. Me? I don’t know. I’ve never seen definitive proof one way or the other, though the ISI did support the Taliban back when they were in charge and they supported lots of mujahaddin groups against the Soviets (ahem).

Pakistan and the ISI. Every Afghan I met would assure me how evil they were and how they were intentionally and actively responsible for Afghanistan being a mess.

At the same time, there are some serious dependency issues going on here. The official currency in Afghanistan is called the afghani. (An Afghan is a person, afghani is the money.) But in many eastern parts of the country, the primary currency is actually the Pakistani rupee. Seriously, you go to the bazaars and people look at you funny if you try to pay with afghani. Part of this is because Afghanistan is an import economy. They do very little manufacturing of their own, or food processing, so just about everything people need to survive comes with a little metaphorical tag that says “Made in Pakistan.” Locals figure it’s easier to just do all business in rupees since everything comes from there anyway. (Well, except maybe this guy’s wallpaper, but then again, with outsourcing, who knows where Chips Ahoy wrappers are made:)

And down in places like Spera district that are right along the border, people sometimes consider themselves to be Pakistani (the borders aren’t exactly well marked). Even the ones who don’t might as well. I was asking a man who lived in a village near the border where his kids went to school, in an effort to see how well the Afghan government provides services in remote areas.

“Oh, they go to a government school in Pakistan.” I must have looked stunned, because he laughed and continued, “That’s where we go to the doctor too. And to go shopping for food and clothes and everything. It’s closer and easier to get to than anything here and no one there seems to mind.”

So Pakistan may be a big, evil, conniving bad guy, but, er, it turns out that for some Afghans, the Pakistani government takes better care of them than their own. (It’s a good thing no one really pays taxes in Afghanistan, or they might be mad about that.) And yet, Pakistan is bad. But Afghans economically rely on them. But…

Love-hate. Co-dependent. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not a particularly healthy relationship and should be…fun…in the years to come. Does NATO do relationship counseling?

Corruption! It’s How We Roll!


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So, yes, we get the idea that Afghanistan is kind of a corrupt place. But really, with the lawlessness and the massive rift between the political elite and everyone else, what else would we expect?

I was part of a meeting that took place in a small village in Paktiya Province. It had been pre-arranged, so all of the village elders came out in force, as did every other male in the village, from age 5 to 85. The village was at the top of a small hill that had a cliff that overlooked the nearby river valley. In fact, it may have looked an awful lot like the village in the banner picture of this blog. As we walked up the goat-trails (easier said than done while in full body armor), the men laid out a giant cloth on the ground and a bunch of padded cushions that were upholstered in red fabric that read, “Japan!”

After the official meeting, we broke into small groups to just chat. I started talking with a man in his early 30s who complained bitterly of politicians doing nothing but hoarding all sorts of money for themselves, playing favorites with projects, and giving public jobs to their family members. Since there was an election coming up, I asked him why he didn’t run for office and try to change things.

He gave me a grin that was somehow proud and sheepish at the same time.

“Because I’d be even worse.”

I had to laugh and he laughed along with me.

Corruption not only happens, it’s expected. But why? Because power corrupts?

Well, partially. People are people, after all, whatever culture we may have been raised in. But there are some particularities of Afghanistan that make what we would call corruption a good idea.

First is the expectation of violence. When you’ve lived through 30 years of war and then combine that with a couple thousand years’ worth of empires marauding through your territory, stability is not exactly the status quo. You expect chaos. You develop a mentality of preparing for it. So to protect yourself and your family, you gather all the resources you can and hold onto them (not unlike zombie apocalypse preparedness). In other words, you become a hoarder par excellence.

And if you happen to get into a lucrative position, you take advantage of that and get as much as you can, be it a well in your backyard built by the Americans or a new road to your village or a whole bunch of jobs for your family so you can collectively stockpile as much money as humanly possible before this government goes the way of all the ones before it.

There’s another element to this, though too. Across the Middle East and Central Asia, honor and shame play a major part in society. Sure, honor is important to us all, but in these areas, honor is much more tied up in the family than it is in the US or Europe.  If my brother or cousin or third cousin twice removed does something dishonorable, it doesn’t really reflect on me, but if I live in Afghanistan, my cousin’s shame is my shame. And shame isn’t just about being looked down on, but think Scarlet Letter levels of excommunication. If I am shamed, basic things like getting married, getting a job, etc. are jeopardized.

So to avoid situations like that, you work really hard to earn honor and prestige. Across the Mid East/Asia region there are various formal and informal honor codes that create systems for people to earn honor. Many are pretty similar across countries. Hospitality is a big element of them (to refuse it is to seriously insult your host). Another is protecting guests in your home as fiercely as if they were your family. A third is providing sanctuary, even to your worst enemy.

And charity is a big one (it’s actually a requirement in Islam). Charity is especially important if you are a powerful or wealthy person. If you have money (or tons of cropland or goats or whatever), you earn immense honor by sharing your wealth, most particularly with your extended family. It earns you loyalty, respect, prestige. It can make you into a Big Man/tribal leader/warlord/sheikh/chieftain/etc. It’s a pretty common pattern around the world. A leader is someone who shares his wealth.

It’s not so different in our culture, really. Every time I go to visit the undisputed matriarch of my family (my little Italian grandmother), she presses $20 into my hand. She has done so since before I can remember and it doesn’t matter that I’m now over 30 with an income that’s probably three times her retirement pay. I wouldn’t dream of refusing it. It’s what she does, a point of pride and, yes, honor. (Besides, if there’s any doubt as to where I get my stubbornness, let me assure you, it’s that side of the family.)

Where it becomes problematic in Afghanistan is when people who live by that ideal get into political power. Taking care of their extended family via what we would call favoritism and nepotism is, in their eyes, the right thing to do. You take care of your own. Period. It just happens that when you do that with public funds and positions, people tend to get a little persnickety about it. While admitting that they would do the exact same thing.

Don’t get me wrong, by no means does everyone do this. There are a lot of Afghans who believe the political system should be free of this kind of thing. They don’t play favorites, they don’t succumb to nepotism, they push hard for anti-corruption investigations and convictions. There just also happen to be a lot of people who have decided to do the best they can for themselves. And for those guys, when they help their people out, they consider it to be the smart, honorable, expected thing to do.

It only becomes “corruption” when you’re the one not getting a cut.

But Really, What IS Corruption?


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As a “culture instructor,” one of my favorite techniques to get students to learn is to make them teach classes. You really learn something when you have to stand at the front of a room and try to make someone else understand it. And, frankly, that’s four fewer hours of lecturing for me–all I have to do is sit in the back of the room and think up smart-sounding questions. (Incidentally, kudos to the students who found this blog and some of my other work and directly quoted me in class…I’m a sucker for academic flattery.)

One of the topics I give to students in my Afghanistan class is “corruption.” That’s all the direction they get, one word, but they do a pretty good job of running with it. Many talk about corruption around the drug trade (which is a blog post or three in and of itself), and many talk about the bribery and extortion Afghans have to live with in their daily lives and as they try to get promoted in the military or police.

What many don’t bring up–because it’s ridiculously complicated–are nepotism and favoritism. When you run a private business here in the US, it’s no real surprise if you bring in your family and friends to be part of the senior leadership (it might not be smart, but it’s not uncommon). However, it’s generally frowned on if you do the same thing when you work for the government. Oh, you’re inner staff might be people you know, but public positions should go to people who are qualified, not people you’re related to. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, it just makes us a bit uncomfortable. (Think the Kennedy and Bush families.)

In other countries, though, that’s par for the course. When Hamid Karzai became president of Afghanistan, his brothers, cousins and close friends suddenly found themselves in charge of pretty significant public posts. Some even got into high-profile private sector institutes like, oh, say the Kabul Bank (which recently made headlines by squandering $900 million on a get-rich-quick scheme that benefited only a couple of choice individuals).  And it’s not just the president, but it happens all the way down to local politics. Having family in politics a pretty good gig. In fact, when I was out around election time asking people if they knew who the candidates were (for the Parliament), very few did, and those that did were excited about it:

One man said, “I know Nadr Khan Katawazi and am going to vote for him! He’s my cousin!” He said it with a pretty eager gleam in his eye and with good reason–if his cousin managed to win, it would be nothing but luxurious government positions for the rest of the family (or at least a leg up into the system for starters).

And corruption of the getting-cool-jobs-for-your-buddies variety isn’t the only thing that permeates the system. There’s also favoritism. Oh boy, oh boy.

I was visiting Khayr Kot District in Paktika Province, where the district governor was a pretty good guy. He was liberal and genuinely wanted to see the government become strong and more effective. He was from a village in the district and so, unlike many of his counterparts who valued the job for its upward mobility potential and not really taking care of the population, this guy was really invested in helping out the people of his district. Everyone in the district benefited from his commitment and he was one of the best governors I met.

It just turned out that some people benefited a little more than others. As I traveled around the district talking to people, everyone was decently happy that they had projects and development that the governor had initiated. But there was always a “…but” after they told me how happy they were.

“We’ve had a couple of projects out here and its really nice. Maybe one or two a year in the district…but, the governor’s home village gets a lot more than everyone else’s put together.” As in, his village got maybe four projects, while the entire rest of the district got one or two. They acknowledged that one or two was better than what most other districts got…but…well. It’s still not fair.

But why such rampant corruption? Well, some of it is good, old-fashioned human greed, but there’s a deeper answer than that. What is it, you ask? That’s a lesson for another day.

So stay tuned next time for the exciting conclusion to “Corruption! It’s How We Roll!”