It’s Just Good Business


, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As America has recently been focused (as it so loves to do) on the shame and social dismemberment of Generals Petraeus and Allen, it kind of got overlooked that another 4-star, General William “Kip” Ward was demoted a rank due to allegations of misuse of government funds (Kip, incidentally,  is another member of the Penn State tribe–got his Masters there).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines corruption as the “perversion or destruction of integrity in the discharge of public duties by bribery or favour.” There’s a case to be made that embezzlement involves private duties being misused, but for most of us, corruption is about abuse of power by public officials. By officials we trust to be honest and straightforward. (-ish. Everyone’s a cynic when it comes to public officials).

Here’s another interesting set of facts for you. Transparency International did studies to measure how corrupt people perceive their officials to be, and while you may think Americans are cynical, the most corrupt countries in the line-up are:

  1. Somalia and North Korea (tie!)
  2. Afghanistan and Myanmar (aka Burma)
  3. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Sudan
  4. Iraq and Haiti
  5. Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea, and Burundi

(New Zealand, incidentally, is winning for being the least corrupt. The US rings in at 24th from the top.)

So as bad as we think we have it, it’s really not so bad. Sure, we might be a culture of “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” but we have nothing on Afghanistan.

In one of the districts in Khost Province, I met a man working for the Afghan National Police. While these police can be moved around the country, he was from the local area, as were many of his men. It turns out that people are often more inclined to protect their own and are less likely to steal from them, but on the flip side, having police from the local area also means that their families are susceptible to intimidation. So how effective police are can be hit or miss, and that’s assuming that they’re good guys.

This particular fellow, let’s call him Kareem, was a real go-getter. He’d been chasing and single-handedly slaying insurgents (according to himself) for years. To his credit, he was much more pro-active than many of his counterparts. He was about 5’10”, wiry, with black hair, dark tanned skin, a substantial mustache, and usually several days of scruff. It was hard to guess his age–he had the energy of a young man, but lines around his eyes that said he was in his late 30s at least. The fact that he was married with four kids is not a huge indicator.

Kareem worked hard. He happily worked with his American counterparts, but even more happily went out and took care of business on his own without US support, which was kind of a rarity. He was high-intensity, but perpetually angry. He had been listening in on an interview I was conducting while out on patrol one day, and after the villager finished by saying the local elders were all great and had walked away, Kareem scowled.

“The elders are all thieves. They take money that’s supposed to be for everyone. They’re corrupt.”

Curious, I asked, “Is it just elders who are thieves?”

He shook his head sharply. “Everyone. The police are the worst. Even when they don’t extort money from the population, they are corrupt toward each other. You have to pay just to get promoted. It doesn’t matter how good you are. Or how bad. You only get promoted if you have the money. That’s why I’m still a Lieutenant. I refuse to pay. I’d rather give my money to my family and my village.”

Sadly, that wasn’t just the ranting of a disgruntled employee. It’s pretty widely known that in many sectors of the Afghan military and police force, the only way to get promoted is to pay your way up. Not all, but many. And as for extortion, the UN’s Office and Drugs and Crime has research that shows at least 25% of all general Afghans have paid a bribe to a police member in the past year.  Police have the worst record, but other offices, including the courts, teachers and even doctors, are not far behind.

So I asked Kareem what needed to be done to fix it. He replied, “It’s all the old guard. They are scared and corrupt. We need young, brave, and well-educated people who believe in this country, who are willing to risk everything to make it a better place.” People like him.

But then he sighed. “But those people are exactly the ones who leave as soon as they get the chance, so they can make a real living for themselves in another country.”

He shook his head and stared at the ground.

Brain drain. He was right. “But you’re here fighting, even though you won’t get promoted and your family could be targeted” I said.

He smiled fiercely. “I am. And my family will never be harmed as long as I’m alive. I can protect them and everyone else.”


Power Outages


, , , , , ,

I know, dear readers, it’s been a while. I’ve been on vacation and hither, thither and yon. And now I am facing, as the TV tells me, a hurricane the likes of which the East Coast has never seen. Doesn’t bother me too much aside from the possibility of losing power, because I’ve regrown accustomed to warm showers instead of baby wipe baths. But it all reminds me of a joke I heard in Syria once, that just gets more cynically funny as things stretch out there. So before I lose connectivity…

(Oh, and I should preface this by saying that one way to call someone stupid in Syria is to call them Chinese. I didn’t make it up, nor do I condone it, it just happens that wildly inaccurate stereotypes exist in every culture.)

An international team of researchers were conducting a poll on people’s opinions of power outages.

Fist they went to an American and asked him, “What is your opinion on power outages?”

He replied, “What does ‘power outages’ mean?”

Next they went to a Chinese man and asked him, “What is your opinion on power outages?”

He replied, “What does ‘power’ mean?”

Finally, they went to a Syrian and asked, “What is your opinion on power outages?”

The Syrian replied, “What does ‘my opinion’ mean?”

PKZ…Warlords in the House!


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

So last time, I promised a story about Pacha Khan Zadran, the (in)famous man from the Zadran tribe of Paktiya Province. Here goes…

I first met Pacha Khan on a sunny day in October 2010. He had been invited onto the Afghan Army base where I worked to be congratulated by the Afghan Brigade Commander for winning the recent Parliamentary elections. With a bandolier strung jauntily over his shoulder and a turban gracefully adorning his brow, he nodded sagely at the Commander and staff, accepting their gracious and humble aplomb after his hard-fought battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate.

Welll, that may have been what he was envisioning, but it wasn’t quite the truth. He was, in fact, visiting the base to throw a man-sized temper tantrum. He did have the bandolier, though.


Pacha Khan Zadran’s deep history is a little murky, but he claims to have fought the Soviets as a mujahaddin, side by side with the likes of Jalaluddin Haqqani (founder of one of the more problematic sets of insurgents in southeast Afghanistan). But they’re not so close now, as he and Haqqani reportedly had a bit of a falling out after the Haqqanis tried to assassinate his son.

Prior to 2001, he was hiding out in Pakistan, where he was recruited by American forces after we arrived to help control the local population. With some American money and guns and some men, he basically set himself up as a local warlord in service of the Americans in the provinces of Paktiya, Paktika and Khost, helping us hunt down al-Qaeda members (okay, so maybe some of the targets were actually his political opponents he wanted the Americans to take out for him, but that’s reasonable, right? The Mafia would be proud).

The local population didn’t like him much and he did tend to lob rockets at them and put up “taxed checkpoints” (i.e. roadblocks demanding bribes) up and down the major highway, but he declared himself governor and the newly-minted President Karzai sort of acknowledged it, almost out of sheer amazement. He attended the Bonn Conference and the Loya Jirga in 2002 to help decide the fate of Afghanistan (where he declared support for the former king Zahir Shah rather than Karzai, who he never seemed to really like).

After a time, Karzai changed his mind and accused PKZ of murder, so Pacha Khan was ousted as governor and embraced his new outlaw status, generally making a nuisance of himself for everyone. He eventually fled to Pakistan again, was arrested there in 2003, and returned to Afghanistan in 2004. His punishment? He was allowed to run for Parliament in 2005 and won, going from warlord to governor to outlaw to member of parliament in less than four years. Though how he won in the same province where he launched rockets at the population is beyond me. And then, for some icing on the cake, his son was appointed as (and still is) a District Governor in that same province. Another son is a contractor and conveniently wins a lot of bids for work in that area…

*fast forward*

In the fall of 2010, Afghanistan held its second set of elections for Parliament and Pacha Khan was trying to keep his seat. Lo and behold, he did not win. He was shocked. (The people of Paktiya Province, incidentally, were less than surprised.) Everyone loved him. (They didn’t.) Surely the only way he could have lost was if the ballots were rigged–it must have been fraud! (Okay, the elections were far from perfect near as I could tell, but he insisted over a million votes needed to be reincluded and if he lost by that many…)

So what did he do after being cheated out of his seat? He went to an old standby, got some men (hey, enough money and guns will buy a little loyalty), and threw up a roadblock to protest.

Civil society in action, right? That’s great! Except the roadblock was on a major highway that the American and Afghan Armies use daily. And that was why he had been “invited” to the Commander’s office, where he waxed from cool to quite vehement in declaring that he refused to end the roadblock until there was a recount and he was declared the winner. He was firm and unyielding and had the upper hand when it came to rhetoric. The American XO and I watched in amazement and amusement as he stormed across the room.

Until a relatively low-ranking, generally light-hearted and unassuming Afghan Battalion Commander leaned forward and said in a low voice, “Either you take that roadblock down, or I will.”

Pacha Khan stopped his pacing and stared at the Commander. There was a long, uncomfortable pause as the men stared at each other. Then PKZ grinned widely, saying that, of course, Army forces could go through anytime, it was only closed to civilian traffic to protest, but he would also let through anyone who needed to go to the hospital or anything like that. The Commander leaned back slowly, nodding, and suddenly everyone was all smiles. But we all knew who won.

After a little while, the barricades came down. There was no recount. PKZ lost his seat and little was seen of him afterward. For now.

A Tribe with No Chiefs?! That’s Crazy!


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

So I was talking with another Afghan coworker of mine the other day and discovered that he’s a member of the Zadran tribe. I had a terrible flashback moment because the Zadrans were the biggest tribe in the area where I worked in Afghanistan. One of my worst projects was when the Commander told me to “go study the Zadran Tribe.”

What does that even mean? Study what about the tribe? How they wear their hair? What their favorite cuisine is? How they like to vote in elections? And by the way, the Zadrans are the predominant people in 12 different districts across three provinces, so it’s not like I could just pop into a village and have a couple cups of tea to”figure them out.” I never did get any more clarification than that, so I just made up my own job for a while.

Anyway, so Zadrans are a tribe. That means they have a chief or grand poobah or someone who can tell them what to do, right? Or at least a council of elders or something? Leaders who solve problems, declare war, tell you who to vote for, etc? Not so much, as it turns out. See, even if you’re from the same “tribe” as the next village over, when there’s a mountain between you and that village, you don’t see a whole lot of each other, so you really do your own thing. In fact, you may even have a feud with the next guys over, even though you have the same last name (well, names aren’t quite that simple in Afghanistan, but you get the idea). Oh, there might be a couple famous people from your tribe that everyone knows (when I bring up Pacha Khan Zadran, who deserves a post in his own right, all my Afghan colleagues start grinning), but they don’t have any real authority to tell people what to do.

Alright, so if they’re not an organized political or social unit, do they have anything in common? From what I’ve seen, and my coworker agrees, they’re stubborn, hard (mountain folk everywhere are hard), and seriously, seriously proud to be a Zadran. But if you ask them what it means to be a Zadran, they shrug and say, “It’s just a name.” But a name they’re intensely proud of. Right. Even if they don’t like each other.

And they get especially proud and loud about their name if there’s another tribe involved that they don’t get along with–then it’s Zadran vs. Other Tribe all the way (though that doesn’t mean other Zadrans will come help fight, just that they’ll cheer from the sidelines). And that’s not even adding the confusion of sub-tribes and higher level tribal confederations.

My best analogy is college alumni, which is particularly relevant as we move into football season. I am a Penn State grad, as is a significant portion of my family, my father in particular. I am intensely proud of that fact, as are most of my fellow alumni, even with everything that has happened. In fact, like the Zadrans, there are some individuals within my Penn State tribe that I would happily declare a blood feud on. Well, it probably wouldn’t be much of a feud since I don’t think said individuals would have many allies. More like old-school tribal justice.

But before all this, as a youngster, I internalized my father’s tribal identity and grew up hating other tribes like Notre Dame and Pitt, though I couldn’t even tell you why aside from the fact that that’s what Penn Staters do. And we don’t really have a chief. Sure, people will say it was JoePa, but while I’d definitely have stopped to listen if he was giving a speech, if he’d told me to pick up my pitchfork and go to battle or vote for the Tories, I’d have rolled my eyes and disregarded it (and reminded him that I’m not British). He had prestige not authority (ditto, Pacha Khan Zadran). The same would be true if I met a grad running for political office–I wouldn’t vote for him just because we’re from the same tribe. Well, I might consider it, but if he’s a Tory, he’s right out regardless.

And we most definitely have our tribal confederations. I once wore a Penn State t-shirt to an Ohio State/Toledo game. The looks I got were all sorts of angry until I said, “At least it’s Big Ten,” at which point the crowd nodded and took to defending me themselves. But that degree of solidarity will only last until the next Penn State/Ohio State game and then it’s on.

The SEC, you ask? They’re a different species.

So tribes. It might not really mean anything, but it means something.

Maktoub: It is Written


, , , , , , , , , ,

A few weeks ago at work (before Ramadan), an Afghan colleague of mine spilled an entire glass of water on his personal computer. He’s a young guy and can get quite heated at times, so I prepared for an onslaught of cursing. That’s what I would have been doing, at top volume. He just shook his head in an almost humorously bewildered, but also resigned sort of way–the kind of look you’d give a small kid who just got caught eating soap and looks really guilty about it, because, well, how do you punish THAT? My colleague carefully picked up his computer and turned it upside down, then strolled over and got some paper towels. All very nonchalant. Seriously, if that was me, the whole computer probably would have gone out the window, plus the offending glass that failed to hold the water effectively.

But Muslims, and Afghans in particular, can be peculiarly fatalistic at times. It is best captured by the idea of maktoub, which is an Arabic word that translates to “It is (or was) written.” Everything. It is the idea of predestination, that God/Allah/Horus/Zeus/Whomever already knows everything that ever was and ever will be. It is all part of a plan. It also helps give rise to the infamous Muslim phrase insha’Allah, which basically means in a very literal sense, “God willing.” Some Muslim theologists argue that the concept of maktoub doesn’t rule out free will, but the whole Schrodinger’s cat/observable universe/all-seeing, all-knowing Being/can-free-will-actually-exist-in-that-framework debate is a can of worms I won’t open here.

The epitome of fatalism that I’ve ever seen, though, was while I was on a mission in Afghanistan and my interpreter–who had become my adoptive brother–got a call from his family saying his father had died. I frantically started looking for ways to get him home (in Islam, you must bury the deceased within 24 hours), pausing only to stop by to console him. I mean, if my father died, I’d be beyond a mess. I had a dream once where he’d died and for several days afterward, I was not quite right. Not so my interpreter, who gave me a gentle smile to calm me down.

“Kat, it’s okay. I will stay here and help you finish your mission. My father lived a good life and he was sick. It is Allah’s plan, so it is okay. My family will be okay without me, so we will finish here.”

And he meant that. He was fine. No tears, no rage. He was as cheerful that day and the next as he had been before. And it’s not that he didn’t love his father–he’d talked about him often and the two were obviously very close. It’s just that there was no reason to lament or challenge the will of Allah. I didn’t know whether to admire that or feel sad for him.

That’s not to say that that this kind of attitude rules all the time or that Afghans (and Muslims elsewhere) don’t fly off the handle. Clearly they do get angry and violent about things. What makes me call it peculiar is that you never quite know whether they will take something calmly or if they will explode. It always seems to be the reaction you least expect.

Come to think of it, that’s kind of like my mom. When we were kids, sometimes she’d flip out over the littlest things, but when we’d done something we were sure was going to make her go absolutely bananas, she would turn into the coolest, chillest person you’ve ever met. (Love you, Mom!) It kept us on our toes. Ditto with Afghans, I suppose.

P.S. I sent my interpreter home as soon as I could anyway, to be with his family, which he did appreciate.

P.P.S. As far as I know, the computer never recovered.

P.P.P.S. My brother actually used to eat soap when he was a kid, so that wasn’t an entirely random scenario.

PTSD ADHD? Acronyms Love Blueberries!


, , , , ,

Quite by chance, I recently met up with a friend of mine (you can read her blog at who did the same job as me in Afghanistan in a different area. She told me as we chatted over sweet potato fries and watched teenagers line dance on the patio of the restaurant (which is about as far removed as it could have been from the last time I met her, when we sat on an Afghan base, eating pizza from an Italian restaurant–as in, Italians from Italy, not New York) that she had just been diagnosed with ADHD.

I spent a while thinking about ADHD later that night. Leaving my over-use of parenthetical asides aside, it’s not a condition I’ve ever had a problem with. I mean, sure, I can be distracted by shiny things as easily as the next person, but I managed to write my entire PhD dissertation in less than a year, which is a sure sign of focus (and/or a stubborn desire to prove everyone wrong when they said it couldn’t be done. Whichever).

But, just as I thought that, I realized it wasn’t quite true. I used to be fine, but now I actually have trouble sitting through an hour-long TV show (even the recording with no commercials at 42 minutes is pushing it). Movies are tough. I used to be able to read avidly for hours at a time, but now I’m lucky if I make it through half a chapter before I’m fidgeting and distracted by any and everything. I check out of conversations halfway through because my brain’s moved onto other things. Sometimes that’s even true when I’m the one doing the talking. I think I’ve actually looked out my window seven times just writing this paragraph.

What happened? I deployed. I can’t think of anything else. Everyone’s experience is different, but I spent almost two years living in a world where I worked 12-15 hour days, if I watched TV it was no more than 20 minutes of a show I had on my hard drive at a time, and I had almost no time to read. All my writing was due five minutes ago and had to be distilled into five bullet points or less. Sitting down for a meal was a sure sign that the base was going to get rocketed and I’d have to make a mad dash for a bunker. High intensity, fast-paced, with almost no consistent routine.

Yeah, I suppose that makes sense.

And it probably doesn’t hurt that I was with the Army who, as one rather observant Major told me is “a safe haven for Type-A personalities with ADHD.”

I was already Type-A. Maybe I went a little too native in accepting Army culture and now I can’t shake it?

Or maybe it’s just a really weird form of PTSD?

Out of curiosity and as informal research, has anyone else had the same or a similar experience? Of finding themselves with some ADHD-like symptoms while or after being deployed? (I’d appreciate any reposts to get a broader picture.)

I’ll try to do some analysis, but I can’t promise too much depth, because, well, I have blueberries in my fridge. (Thanks for the inspiration, Stubbs!)

Like a Mother Eating Her Children


, , , , , , , , , ,

As I watch the news and see the continuing violence in Iraq, I can’t help but noticing that a lot of the stories focus on the province where I lived and worked. Baquba is the capitol city of Diyala Province and it features in at least half of the now-regular reports of bombings and deaths. Thing is, while we were there, it wasn’t really all that bad. It had been previously–with a healthy dose of Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, it was a good spot for insurgents to try and take advantage of ethnic and religious divisions–but the American units had done a pretty good job of restoring a bit of order and security.

And the Iraqi Army wasn’t half bad–they had an old guard who had been in the military for a long time and they tended to be pretty devoted to the idea of a strong government (most of the coups in Iraq had a strong military angle. Sure, some of it was people wanting power, but some of it was because they believed in a thing called Iraq, which is kind of a big deal in the Middle East or Afghanistan where belief in religion or ethnicity or family often trumps nationalism). The Diyala Operations Commander, General Tariq, was particularly fantastic. He was old school and gruff. Religion and ethnic ties meant so little to him that I was never entirely certain if he was Sunni or Shia (or both). Why? Because it didn’t matter. What he wanted was a strong, stable Iraq.

While there, I got to attend a bunch of ceremonies where the Americans turned over bases or official security to the Iraqis. Everyone was always a little nervous about the aftermath, but there was still a lot of pride in Iraqis taking back control of their own places. In one, they even had a giant wooden key (a couple of feet long) that the American Commander handed over to his counterpart. General Tariq did his best to instantly take charge, even if that might sidelining the Americans who were still there to help him. To be fair, he did so in a very friendly sort of way, as he was the kind of person who was quick to laugh. (Probably still is.)

But obviously, even if we weren’t in charge any longer, the American presence helped maintain a bit of security. In Iraq, I guess it’s a trade-off between security and sovereignty, which is fine. Because when you got out and talked to everyday people, even when you asked them about their concerns about security, it turned out that’s not what they were worried about.

Me: “So how safe are you here? Do you feel more or less safe than before? What do you think will happen in the future?”

Iraqi Villager: “Security is fine, we aren’t worried about that. That is all in Allah’s hands. What scares us is the government. They are big and corrupt and take everything but give us nothing when they’re supposed to take care of us. They arrest us for money. It’s like a mother eating her own children.”

Like a mother eating her own children.

I was floored, and sadly, it was not the last time I heard similar phrases. They didn’t fear violence. They feared their own government.

I wonder, though, what those same people would say now?


Out of the Mouths of Babes (Or REALLY Old Guys)


, , , , , , , , ,

It’s funny how one person can give you a lesson in both women’s lib and racism in the course of one conversation. Afghanistan is obviously notorious for its tendency to keep women closeted, but given that it has a pretty broad range of ethnic groups, you’d think diversity would be kind of the norm. I mean, sure, people from different ethnic groups don’t exactly get along in Afghanistan and some even speak different languages, but they should at least be used to people from different cultures living in the same country.

Well, except the Hazaras—they’ve been on the bottom of the totem pole ever since their ancestors lost control of the area. Which ancestors? They are supposedly descended from the Mongol Hordes that invaded in the 13th century (apparently there are genetic tests that confirm this). So maybe there’s not a lot of love, but at least they should have some acceptance of difference…

Anyway, so one day, I was sitting in a District Center in Khost Province with a Company Commander (who happened to be African American), having a chat with some local officials. One of the men we were talking to was a wizened old guy with wispy, white hair and a heavily wrinkled face. He was 80 if he was a day. I don’t think he’d been tall to begin with and the years had left him so stooped that he barely made it to my shoulder. His glasses were a good quarter of an inch thick, but for all that, his eyes were a clear and startling blue. He was intelligent and well-educated, having been a lawyer and a scholar for decades. He had a quiet voice and said little, but possessed a gravity that hushed the room when he spoke.He didn’t talk much during the meeting, though, being content to just listen. I did much the same. At the end, rather out of the blue, he turned to me and spoke up. All other conversation stopped as the room deferred to him.

“I am proud of you, young lady. You are here, so far from your home and your family. It is hard for men, but as a woman it is even harder. I hope that someday the women of Afghanistan can be like you, that they can serve their country and be brave and follow their dreams. I am proud of you.”

It was, perhaps, the most powerful compliment I have ever received, especially as it came from someone who could so easily have bought into the traditional system of keeping females hidden. In the ensuing stunned silence, he slowly stood and made his way toward the door, signaling that the meeting was over. We all rose without saying a word.

As he passed me, he looked at me and said, “And I really hope the Taliban never get a hold of you.”

I was taken aback for a second, but then patted the Company Commander on the shoulder and said that this guy and all those like him would take good care of me.

The lawyer squinted up at the Commander for a long second, staring intently at him until the Commander began to squirm a bit under the scrutiny. What the man said next took us all by surprise.

“But how can you even be from the same country when you look so different?!”

That again left everyone in silence, though this time because we were unsure what to say. Then the old man glanced back at me and I saw a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that reminded me of my grandfather. I grinned in spite of myself and when he saw that I got it, he started to cackle wildly, thumped the Commander on the chest, and turned and hobbled out of the room, still giggling to himself.

Thing was, it was funny because it was exactly what other Afghans would have thought and believed but been too polite to say. It made him laugh because he had shocked us, but also because he was mocking the racism and prejudices of his own people. In one conversation he had challenged his entire culture’s view of race and gender in a way that only an old, educated and slightly playful man could get away with.

It was simultaneously one of the most depressing and encouraging conversations I had.

Shake, Shake, Shaykh!


, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Aka: There are some bits of a lamb you should never eat.

Alright boys and girls, let’s start by listing some Iraq buzzwords. Sunni. Shi’a. Kurd. Saddam. Terrorists. Occupation. WMD. Tribes.

Okay, now let’s take that last one and do some word association. Tribes. Native Americans. Africa. Chieftain. Clans. Arabs. Afghanistan.

Obviously I’m moving towards Iraqi tribes here, but tribalism is a pretty broad concept. We might talk about Cherokee tribes and African tribes and they don’t look a whole lot alike. Ditto for Arab or Afghan ones. And then you throw in ideas like clan that evoke the Scottish Highlands and it all gets even more muddled.

So why tribes, who cares, and why list all the other Iraq buzzwords? And where does the lamb fit into all this?

One, in Iraq, some tribal groups were pretty important in helping fight the insurgents. The Anbar Awakening really helped turn things around and it was based partially on tribal leadership. Two, when you’re interacting with tribes, it helps to know that there’s one guy on top—the shaykh (also spelled sheikh)—who has the power to encourage or command the rest of his tribe to do things. That can involve starting an uprising, voting a certain way in an election, or just making life for visiting Americans more or less complicated. Three, while tribes are an ancient and established institution, it turns out that nothing is as easy as one and two sound. Turns out tribes are no less immune to politics than anything else.

Shaykh Mazan was a well-respected tribal leader in Diyala Province and had a lot of influence. He was a Sunni. He also happened to throw great parties—he would invite loads of local bigwigs to his lavish estate (and probably had some picked up in one of his many cars). Even the Governor would make an appearance. His yard was full of date palms and manicured grass, the guest hall was enormous and well-cooled, and the table was loaded down with the best food money could buy. And he had a lot of that. Rather than the small bits of kebab’d meat that you’d get at most parties, when we visited for a meal, there were dozens of chickens and entire lambs on the table. To include the most delectable part of the lamb.

You know how some sheep have that rear end fat that waggles when they walk? Well, that’s a bit of a delicacy in Iraq. They eat it raw.

Yes, raw butt fat. My rule of thumb while in foreign countries (and some U.S. states) is to only eat things that have a rind or have been thoroughly cooked, so I intended to leave that well alone. But in the heat of the sweltering summer day, my Brigade Commander grinned at me and told me that if I wanted to earn my stripes, I had to try it. I told him I would if he would, which I thought would get me out of trouble. Should have known better. Without a moment’s hesitation, he scooped up two handfuls of the blue-veined fat, molded them into a little rice, handed one to me, and popped the other in his mouth. I had no choice. It was, predictably, one of the grossest things I have ever eaten.

But it was a sign of wealth. Rich tribal leaders. That makes sense–powerful guys get money. (One of his fellow shaykhs had a private menagerie in his compound.) Or is that rich guys get power? Saddam Hussein, British overlords, and numerous other rulers before them were big fans of using the whole tribal concept to their advantage. The tribes could be a source of opposition to the rulers, so when the guys on top were feeling challenged, they basically disbanded the tribes. When it became convenient to have a “traditional” support base again, they’d be put back together. But having the “shaykh” be a guy in your pocket was a good thing, so they’d give a man who might not be the traditional leader a whole bunch of money. In a tight economy, money can be a better source of popularity than prestige, so new-money, sell-out (practical?) shaykhs and old traditional leaders competed for the loyalty of their tribes. “Tribalism” got a little confused after years of that, making it more of a modern creation than some primordial identity. (Wait, does that mean any cultural tidbit can be considered primordial? Maaaaybe not…)

Of course, all this tribal monkeying is a limited tool because it really only works with certain groups of Iraqis. Shi’a tend not to buy into tribal hierarchy, so their shaykhs are really more honorary positions when they exist at all (religious hierarchy is where its at for those guys). Kurds tend not to be hugely tribal either, as they’re much more politically oriented. And even among Sunnis, it tends to only be ruralites who really act tribally, as urban cats tend to think the whole thing is just backwards and antiquated.

So tribes. It seems like such an easy thing. Find the chieftain, get him on your side, and suddenly you have a whole group of unquestioning devoted supporters. Except the reality is a whole lot less clear-cut.

Oh, and for the record, avoid the butt fat unless you have some pretty strong antibiotics. I was sick for four days afterwards.

Movin Right Along


, , , , , , , , , , ,

Following on from the last post, there are some people in Afghanistan who do wind up moving even though they’re aren’t nomads. Well, aside from politicians moving to Kabul when they get elected, but they’re rather fond of that so they don’t count. The Afghan Police.

Unlike in the U.S., most of the Afghan Police forces are not local units, but are national and so can get moved around a lot. For an 18 year old Afghan who’s most likely illiterate or barely so–and frankly, I’m pretty sure some of those kids were younger than 18–moving away from the protected and certain environment of his village is a big deal.

We think nothing of moving out once we’re 18. For Afghans, it’s an unexpected way of life and after the initial excitement wears off, largely unappealing. They’re only allowed to go home once every few months. Families don’t move along to the place of assignment, so the older ones with wives and kids of their own are out of luck. The job is already dangerous and not being able to see your loved ones for long periods of time makes it even harder. Ask any deployed American, though at least we get the luxury of not being deployed full-time for 11 years. (I know, “it’s their country.” “But who started the war?” “But who let bin Laden in?” “But who let the Taliban come to power?” But, but, but. The whys are less important than the reality people have to live through.)

Being a policeman or soldier is at least a relatively steady paycheck, though. And sometimes police do get assigned to their home district. But there are a load of complications that can come up in either situation, making it very difficult to tell if its a good idea to keep these guys local or to move them away.

1) Not-local: Language issues. There are two major languages in Afghanistan, Dari and Pashto. While working in some rural areas of Paktika where everyone speaks Pashto, our partner police unit had only Dari speakers. The police could not talk to the people they were supposed to be policing unless they used one of our interpreters.

2) Local: Investment. When you’re from an area and you know all the people who live there, you care about it. You will work harder to keep people safe because they’re your people. Plus, when you’re from an area, you know when someone new shows up and starts making trouble because everyone knows everyone.

3) Local: Danger. When you’re from an area and you’re committed to working hard to keep it safe, one way to discourage you from being over-eager is to threaten your family. Killing bystanders is something insurgents do sometimes. How effective will you be at stamping out violence if doing so means risking the lives of your loved ones?

4) Local: Corruption. If the people you’re policing are your own people, you may be inclined to turn a blind eye when they do something wrong, especially since your (Afghan) culture values family over individual responsibility. Or you may abuse your position to get rid of family rivals (or, as happened in Paktia Province a few years ago, convince the dumb Americans that your rivals are insurgents and so have us capture them for you).

5) Not Local: CorruptionBut then again, if you’re local, you’re not likely to extort the local population or abuse them, as was a common complaint in Yahya Khel District. If you’re not from an area and it’s not your grandfather you’re extorting, who cares if you make a little money or take out some aggression on the locals? Who’re they going to tell?

6) Not Local: Voting. During the 2010 elections, I spoke to some police (and Afghan soldiers) stationed away from home about how they vote. They told me they couldn’t because they were away from home. Funny thing about Afghanistan. No postal service. Hard to do a mail-in vote without one. At best, they got someone in their families to do it for them.

So, yes, a lot of complications about whether to keep Afghan Police local or not. In my mind, it’s always worth it to keep them local because that investment piece outweighs the others, but then as I once had a friend who worked with police in post-apartheid South Africa, in America we have a mythos about police. They’re our lawmen, the source of justice and security stemming from our wild west days. Other countries don’t have that to quite the same degree.

Most just revel in the paycheck. But some believe and do their job well. I met one youngish police officer who (in his own words) was famous for stopping violence and insurgents. And he did do a better job than most, but he and most of his guys were local. I asked if he wasn’t worried about his family coming under threat. He nodded.

“It is always a worry, my wife, my children. But as I long as I am alive, I promise, no one will ever be able to harm them.”

He stopped for a second, then shrugged fatalistically. “But if I die, they will probably be in trouble.”