A third world lesson in thuggery
As I looked at that cow, I realized I must’ve looked like a dog does when it’s confused and tilts its head to one side. I tried to continue to listen to the story of that cow’s hard life but I just couldn’t wrap my head around why it was so skinny. The newly promoted Gunny continued with the explanation.
He was briefing his new company commander, me, about why there was a sickly-looking cow wandering around Forward Operating Base Talibjan, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. This was my new newest assignment. I had just taken command of a Marine infantry company that lost its company commander and logistics chief (the company gunny). They were both severely injured by an improvised explosive device a week earlier. It was a bit solemn, as to be expected, for a change of command in the middle of a deployment. I surveyed the grounds and said hello to the Marines and it was clear to me that this day was like any other day, business as usual.
The Marines bought that cow a month earlier for a great price. It turns out that the former owner of said cow was expecting to make his real money on the back end. He planned to extort the US Government for cow feed for as long as he could. I started to laugh. It was just a suppressed chuckle at first, then a full-on, palm on face uncontrollable release of emotion. Everyone quickly realized the absurdness of the situation. This was my third new assignment in Afghanistan, and I was this infantry company’s 4th commander in less than a year. To say we were all a little emotionally stretched, is an understatement.
As we all breathed a sigh of relief through the brief laughter, I turned to the small entourage and said “Good god fellas, have you never bought ink cartridges before? It’s not rocket science.” We all needed that moment. When you’re in the weeds, in the middle of nowhere, little moments help bring you back to reality, even if only for a few minutes. The Gunny looked at the group, then back at me, and through a break in continued laughter said, “I guess this is as a good of time as any, to tell you that goat over there (pointing), licks the piss tubes and eats cigarette butts. That’s why he’s still alive.”
I talked face to face with members of the Taliban on a regular basis. What the media would never be able to explain is that the “Taliban” is a fluid term in Afghanistan. It actually means “student”. It’s catchy in the American media but to the locals it basically means “thug”.
There are a lot of thugs in Afghanistan. There are bad thugs, dangerous thugs, drug thugs, police thugs, but mostly there’s an overwhelming number of harmless thugs. As in life, everyone falls on the thuggery scale. On the lower end you have the farmers just trying to make money to support their families and on the higher end you’ve got some “real hombre mother******s”.
The reason local farmers are even on the thuggery scale is because the only cash crop in Afghanistan is poppy, which is where we get heroin from. In the middle of the scale, you’ve got your local hustlers. The hustlers are still relatively harmless. Hustlers basically equate to the local kids that steal your Amazon packages and smoke weed in the vacant lot behind Walmart. On the higher end though, you’ve got your gangsters… These are the dudes you need to look out for. These leather-faced archetypes are the stuff of BBC Documentaries and history books. Believe it or not, these dudes don’t actually blend in very well. They are second and third generation, real deal, first world haters. They put prices on your head and kill locals to send a message. We referred to them as the “big T Taliban.
In Afghanistan we would refer to the Taliban in terms of big T and little t.
The “legit” big T Taliban would roll into town with large groups, overnight usually. Hopefully, big T Taliban wouldn’t catch you off guard somewhere. In our area of operations, we would get intelligence reports that the locals would be talking about the prices on our heads, “the American commanders”. Full disclosure, I never really moved the needle. Some of my cohorts did though. It was rumored that one of my fellow commanders had a price of $10,000 on his head, which is a metric ton of cash to the locals in Afghanistan. That’s like serious, retire and move to “The Villages” in Florida type money. Money like that change’s lives, especially for people that have known nothing but poverty and conflict. I heard the price on my head was a “generic commander price” of around $1000.
When I say I dealt with the Taliban fairly regularly, what I mean is that everyone is basically Taliban in Helmand Province. Even if a local would adamantly deny being Taliban, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have at least 3 close relatives that “go to meetings and have the bumper sticker”. I remember the police chief telling us one time, “How do I know? I know because I used to be Taliban and that’s what I would do.”
One of our Lieutenants would come to our weekly meetings wringing his hands. “Uh, gentlemen, I haven’t paid the rock guy in like 2 weeks.” This was a regular problem as we weren’t real hi on the National Defense Budget and would rarely have any money. It turns out the local “rock guy”, who was on our base all the time, was definitely Taliban. It wasn’t like he was secretive about it. He had Taliban tattoos on both hands and arms. He was a nice enough dude, but when we weren’t able to pay him, it was a little like waiting for the power to be turned off in your apartment but with bigger consequences. I have to admit, it was a little nerve racking when he would disappear for a few weeks at a time. Turns out, he was retired “big T” and now relaxing as “little t” Taliban. It helped that “big T” Taliban wasn’t paying very well at the time.
As we’ve all experienced Hewlett Packard with their damn ink cartridges and Gillette with their extortionate priced razor blades, it turns out that thuggery is not just a third world problem. Once you’ve experienced raw thuggery of local Afghans, first world thuggery doesn’t seem so nefarious. Change world locations, social classes, and the fact that you’re not living in fear of basic survival, and you realize it’s all the same game.
Afghans are extremely shrewd at business and can create value out of thin air. I once saw a local ice cream shop with a refrigerator compressor being powered by a long belt. Said belt, was attached to an ancient carcass of a vehicle. I know you won’t believe me, until I produce a picture, but I saw it with my own eyes. This local businessman had created a full-blown monopoly on ice cream in the area because he was the only one crazy enough to figure out how to make it. To use a business term, the barrier to entry of this venture, was the fact that it’s 120 degrees 9 months out of the year in this part of the world and there’s no real distinction of being outside or inside a building.
Our modern economy is driven by capital cash flows and forecasted growth. The best way for corporations to show real value is to stabilize and grow their cash flows. Just like the Afghan farmer seeing an opportunity to bleed us dumb Americans for cow feed, our corporations are trying to stabilize their future cash flows through subscriptions, both physical and digital.
It is all thuggery, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I’m bit perplexed when folks bash our large corporations for trying to do exactly what they were designed to do, make money. My point is, there is nothing ethically wrong with trying to make money. So why is capitalism such a bad word in our modern discourse. Just because I swear at my computer every time, I see a low ink warning on my desktop, that doesn’t mean I don’t immediately laugh afterwards as I think of that Afghan farmer. That dude sold us not only a “cash cow” but also a cigarette butt eating mountain goat that has a penchant for urine.