An Afghan Conversation
“Sir, can you do without me today? My family is headed to the Panshir Valley today and I have to stay and watch the house.” While not the first time that Majeed (not his real name) begged off work, the reason was a new one.
Majeed had been my interpreter for six months. He was generally reliable, never blew me off (he always called if he could not make the 30 mile drive to the office), and had a great attitude. I liked him. Liked him enough to write a letter of recommendation on his behalf to both our State Department and Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and with my team’s Sergeant Major, helped him write his resume.
This post contains affiliate links. Your cost is the same, but I earn a commission when you shop through them. Your purchase helps support this site and the fun things I share. For more information, click here.
The Tribe, The Family, The U.S. Government
Majeed was what the Muslim world should have been, indeed what the Muslim world was during the Post-War Era through the 1970’s. Educated and possessing a Western orientation, if you met him and only him, you would have a very favorable view of the Islam. Medium build, good-looking, smartly dressed, thick well-groomed black hair and sporting aviator glasses, Majeed would have passed for a Saudi Prince in more expensive clothes.
Majeed drew the short straw that morning, and needed to stay home while his family would travel in a motorized caravan to meet with relatives and trade goods and services. Serious business, and while the small stipend Majeed earned from the U.S. Government for his language skills was welcome, there were upwards of 30 mouths to feed among his extended family requiring at least a half dozen lines of income.
Afghan Security – Family Style
Majeed’s requirement to mind the family compound and the lessons I learned that day bears explaining. For most of us living in the United States, leaving town for a day or even a week is a low-risk venture. Your neighbor will watch your house, pick up your mail, and even water your plants if needed. But leave the ordered world of Western Civilization however, and a whole new set of rules comes into effect. In a culture where hospitality to the Stranger is a mandate (sometimes), it is your neighbor about whom you need to worry. Leaving one’s home unattended is nearly unthinkable, but if it can’t be avoided, one would certainly not inform the neighbors. In the Central Asian republics, nothing says “help yourself to my stuff” like announcing one’s vacation plans.
Reflect for a moment, the sheer gulf between this posture and the Western mindset.
Now let’s segue from Microeconomics to Macroeconomics. Natural Gas. As Nigeria sits on an ocean of crude petroleum, the people of Central Asia sit on an ocean of natural gas surrounded by mountain ranges brimming with rare earths. The minerals are apparently already spoken for. The Chinese are buying up the leases for the rights to mine the dysprosium, lanthanum, and europium, after which they will be more than happy to sell them to us in our tablets, phones, and car batteries. This particular brand of toothpaste is already out of the tube.
Now with respect to the natural gas reserves, while there has been some good-faith effort to get at the enormous reserves, unlocking the potential to enrich the lives of every single Afghan goes largely neglected.
The reasons are at once easily understood and by our standards, worthy of the most despairing face-palm.
Wealth Generation – Western Style
Let’s say you live in a new development in a suburb of… I don’t know – Bismarck, ND. One year after moving in, two things happen. Your next-door neighbor strikes oil, and you loose your job. One month later your neighbor puts up an oil derrick, pays you a visit, and offers you a job paying $200K a year. This being Bismarck, ND, where the concept of property rights is taken with our mother’s milk, you gladly accept. Sure, your neighbor is netting $10M a year. Sure you’re a little envious. It would have been nice to have had purchased the property sitting on the lake of petroleum, but that’s the breaks. Overwhelming any feelings of envy is the fact that you are far better off today than you were yesterday.
Now let’s move this scenario to the other side of the globe where property rights aren’t necessarily carved in a marble slab in the town square.
Here in the high desert plains of Central Asia, all you can think of is that your neighbor is sitting on this natural resource. He is going to net a fortune, and you’re not. That’s just not fair. So off you go in the middle of the night, loading a stolen car full of nitrogen-based fertilizer, driving it underneath his oil derrick, and remotely detonating it. Now, no one gets to acquire vast wealth. Sure you don’t have a really good paying job assisting in the operation of an oil derrick. Sure you don’t have a living wage. But at least now we’re all equally miserable.
Sound ridiculous? That’s how a huge chunk of this world thinks.
Majeed. The Rest Of The Story.
I’m happy to report that things ended well for my interpreter. Two months before my departure he received his visa. He now resides in Canada with his wife. This was important to all of us over there. Our interpreters assumed substantial risk for what amounted to very little pay. The thought of leaving them behind did not sit easily with us.