Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Thieves and Morons

As everyone knows, Afghanistan has gone through a tough few decades. From a moderately low starting point in the 1970s, this country has had:
  • military coup by an allegedly democratic usurper
  • a counter-coup by the communists
  • a counter-revolution by monarchists and tribesmen
  • an invasion by the Red Army to support the government
  • a nasty civil war
  • the collapse and defeat of both the communist government
  • the ignominious retreat of the Red Army
  • another nasty civil war
  • the rise of the Taliban
  • a third civil war, just for fun
  • a lightning invasion by foreigners
  • a prolonged occupation by said foreigners
  • and, just to top it all off, a nasty (and worsening) insurgency against the new government and their international backers

No wonder this country is accurately described as the 12th century.....with cellphones.

Anyone who survived all that (much less prospered during it) is probably a consumate chameleon, adjusting their personal politics and preferences to match whomever happens to be running the show at the moment. You don't adjust, somebody with a Kalashnikov comes after you. This ability to shift allegiances and loyalties as fast as you or I would change our socks in the single most frustrating thing for NATO/ISAF forces to deal with, raised as they were in a culture of unbending devotion to the state and the army.

But all that is not the point of this post. The point is actually that this history of violence, collaboration and survival has created two types of Afghans that thrive in the upper levels of government and society: thieves and morons.

The corruption and thievery in this country is well-documented. By Western standards, it is shockingly bold and completely pervasive.*

*And this is coming from a guy who has years of experience dealing with the Cook County Recorder's Office, the penultimate expression of Chicago-style greed and bribery. More than once I have enclosed $20 in an application for a tax-sale register, just to speed the process. Twenty bucks will buy you a bodyguard for a day here, but it doesn't even register on the scale of typical government corruption.

These thieves permeate all levels of society here. They range from the 8-year old kid who will swipe your mobile phone faster than you can blink, to the cabinet minister who expects a villa in Abu Dhabi in exchange for a government contract. In between are all of the petty police officials or crooked construction workers, not to mention the minor bureaucrats and village chiefs who will sell their loyalty to the last bidder.*

*Note that it's the "last" bidder, which is not the same thing as the "highest" bidder. To a typical Afghan, $100 today is much more persuasive than $200 tomorrow. Whomever shows up with cash in hand is the winner, regardless of what promises or commitments are made for the future.

Certainly, thievery and corruption are endemic here, for a variety of reasons, but an equally large number of people have survived through sheer incompetence. These we call the morons. Now this fact is slightly counterintuitive, so let me explain. In a high-risk atmosphere like Afghanistan, competence can actually be a negative. Think of it this way: if you're a highly-effective district administrator (and loyal to the monarchy) when the communists come to power, they'll see you as a threat. You're out, and maybe buried in a ditch somewhere. If, on the other hand, you're a barely competent adminstrator, knowing just enough to keep your head out of the line of fire, you probably keep your job, regardless of prior loyalties. Now imagine that the Soviets withdraw and the mujaheddin come to power. Anyone of any skill in the previous government is immediately associated with reactionary elements and targeted for dismissal.*

*"Dismissal" in the Afghan sense usually means a bullet to the back of the head and an unmarked grave out on the Shomali plain. No severance packages here. If you're lucky, they let your extended family flee to a refugee camp in Pakistan.

Conversely, the morons simply keep on doing what they've been doing, which is largely nothing, attracting no attention and making no enemies. As a result of this process, over four or five iterations of Afghan society since the 1970s, the morons and their progeny have come to dominate the ranks of government, the military and business. As they say, the cream rises to the top. Except that in Afghanistan, the cream is then rounded up and taken out and shot, leaving whatever is left (milk? butter?)* to run the show.

*What exactly is left after the cream rises to the top? The top of what? Some sort of barrel I guess, but I'm a little unclear on the primitive agricultural basis for the analogy.

Unfortunately, these two classes are not mutually exclusive. Many of the thieves are surprisingly moronic (hence the "$100 is better today than $200 tomorrow" mentality), and a high percentage of the morons are on the take. Nevertheless, it is rare to find any Afghan in a senior position who does not exhibit some of the characteristics of one or both of these groups.

Or maybe I'm just bitter and judgmental. Nah.

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