Monday, May 4, 2009
I've learned here in Afghanistan that the concept of status is certainly not confined to Western nations or cultures. I suppose that should be no surprise, but for some reason I thought before that a nation so precariously balanced on the edge of poverty would not concern itself with something like status, and instead would be more focused on things more "real".
For example, the Afghan battalion commander has a 12 man security detail. 12 men are nearly as many soldiers as we have at some of the remote outposts. Manpower is always an issue and we can always use more soldiers out fighting, but there we are wasting twelve perfectly good soldiers as bodyguards. Given that the battalion commander lives on a military base with us, he really does not need bodyguards at all...but he has them. Why? Status. He can get away with having them, so he has them in order to show off his power and relative importance.
It's not uncommon to go to an extremely poor village and see the village elder using a cell phone. Granted, a cell phone does have some utility (it certainly makes it easier for the village elder to report on our movements to whomever he may be reporting to...), but it's hard to imagine it being a necessity...and in a village where the people live on the poverty line it seems gratuitous. Chalk it up to status. Hard to imagine what else those fancy rims on the car would be for.
I personally have been used as a status symbol by my different Afghan commanders that I work with. It's not hard to gather from a conversation and body language that a particular Afghan commander is proud to have me as his right-hand man when we're conversing with local people. Of course, it's not so much me that he's proud to have at his beck and call but what I represent, i.e. the US government and military and most of all, money.
The desire for status can help us. A security badge given to an Afghan by a US base is often considered a status symbol. This gives us an easy way to put the badge-holder into our databases - by taking their picture for the badge we're usually getting fingerprints, irises, and other identifying data on the subject at the same time, which may become useful in the future if his fingerprints show us somewhere they are not supposed to be.