Smile Politely

You know what your problem is, Afghanistan?

I recently got back from serving in Afghanistan with the Army National Guard where my job was to help manage the reconstruction effort by allocating funds, proposing building contracts, and distributing humanitarian aid. Not an hour goes by that I don’t think about it in some capacity. I feel like an ingrate for not recognizing how beautiful our country is before now. I have a friend who practically wraps himself in the flag – he has always been grateful. All the while, I’ve spent most of my time inside my own head, worrying about the last conversation I had or losing weight. I used to wonder why and how my friend was so grateful and I had no clue. I think my problem was that I was only identifying problems, not solutions, which helps precisely nobody.

Shortly after returning from Kabul I was talking to my mom about how our country had changed since I’d been gone. We have a new president, a new governor – a year of our lives had past us in the blink of an eye. We were discussing the current state of our state and the financial problems that seem only to be getting worse when she said, “Well, I don’t like the way they’re cutting education”.

Fair enough; she’s been a teacher for 30 years. I can see her concern for education; it’s woefully undervalued in our society. Then she continued “and the parks, and the roads, and the prisons”. As the conversation progressed, I started thinking about all of the other things I’ve heard people complain about the government cutting. State assisted daycare, care for the elderly, conservation, after school programs, I know the National Guard never has enough money. Pretty much everything the government pays for… what do people expect to be cut?

What has occurred to me is that there is a difference between what Americans expect from their government and what Afghans expect from their government. We expect the government to take care of the roads but we don’t want to pay for them despite complaining that they suck. The worst road in Illinois is similar to the best road in Afghanistan. Most of the roads I drove on in that country were in such poor condition we couldn’t drive faster than 45 mph, and even that was rare.

(Footage of the streets of Kabul, as shot by Cheryl earlier this year)

I’m not even talking about the possibility of IEDs, just simply the condition of the roads, which are narrow and absolutely riddled with potholes – not to mention the complete absence of any traffic control devices or total disregard for any traffic laws. I would say they drive on the sidewalks but they don’t have any sidewalks, which means that hordes of people are always in the streets. From what I gather from American engineers, the designs for these roads are inadequate at best. Which of course leads to the roads lasting about a quarter of the amount of time they should. The government has no way to go out and fix the potholes because they don’t have a Department of Transportation and so in no time, major streets fall into a state of disrepair that no one can or will do anything about it. The roads are just one very specific example — albeit it a crucial one — of the challenges we face in Afghanistan.

This of course makes me think twice about what I expect from my government, versus what I’m very thankful for. We want disability, social security, money back on our taxes for our mortgage, a deduction for having children, cheaper gas, and money for our schools. Yet we don’t want to pay for it. The last time I checked, the federal government didn’t produce a product from which it could derive a profit.

No one in the U.S. believes that when they get old, if they haven’t saved for retirement that they will end up on the street. We have safety nets for that. Nobody in Afghanistan could ever dream of such a system. First of all, most Afghans don’t make it to Alzheimer’s age. Those who do become ill in their old age generally rely on their family for care, unless they don’t have a family, in which case they end up on the street. Though likely not for long, because I doubt an elderly person with dementia could look forward to a very long, fruitful life on the streets of Kabul. Bottom line is, they certainly do NOT trust their government to take care of them. They expect their government to rip them off.

Not your average breed of corruption

This isn’t Blagojevich/Ryan-style corruption that I’m talking about. Those scandals clearly will have a lasting impact on the citizens of Illinois, but I don’t believe they have a serious daily impact on the way we live our lives. Corruption in Afghanistan means we give the Afghan police two trucks full of humanitarian supplies like shoes, clothing, and food so they can show the Afghan citizens that they can and will help them. So they’re supposed to unload the trucks and personally hand out the humanitarian aid, but what actually happens is, the Police form a daisy chain and unload our trucks straight into their own while the people they’re supposed to be helping look on. This creates a very dangerous situation to say the least. Does it happen every time? No. Does it happen sometimes? Its a true story and stories like this one are a dime a dozen.

Stories like these are why most Afghans don’t trust their government. Sure, our public officials get bribes, but I have to believe that’s rare, which is why our Governorship is such a hot topic. I don’t know anyone who believes they can commit any crime and simply bribe the police to get away with it. Especially in Illinois, we hear about pay-to-play scandals, but at least we frown upon corruption and make laws in order to prevent it. In Afghanistan it’s simply seen as just the way it is. Bribes and shakedowns are just a part of business. It doesn’t even seem like an ethical issue to them, which is not a value judgment — we’re not better or worse than they are. We’re all just trying to get by.

The fact of the matter is that we do trust our government. I never thought I would be the person advocating for our system but leaving Illinois for Afghanistan was kind of like going over to my friend’s house as a kid. My mom nagging me about cleaning my room didn’t seem so bad after I saw my best friend’s drunk dad throwing things. Afghanistan is my friend’s drunk dad. People live a life that has nearly scarred me as a casual observer, yet it’s their life. So the corruption in our country seems like less of a transgression now. We provide humanitarian aid to people who are affected by major disasters, but they need humanitarian aid for their daily lives.

So I run through Westside Park everyday and I think “I’m willing to pay for this,” or I get inconvenienced by a stop light and I’m just happy people are obeying traffic laws. The government of Afghanistan is poor and riddled with corruption, which makes it weak. No wonder they can’t govern themselves — they’re just trying to get by day to day. The last time I checked, our own government had the same issues at its conception. It was weak because they had no power to tax, so even though our system needs fixing, it’s only that: fixing. We don’t need a whole new government because we’re not in a constant state of chaos.

Our government does take care of us and it is working. Our only real problem is apathy. We complain about corruption but don’t do anything to change the world. We vote or pontificate over beers about problems without discussing any solutions. So like I said from the start, maybe I don’t have the answers, but personally I’m going to quit complaining about paying taxes because I like the way I live. Maybe I’ll just have to settle for complaining about the way our tax dollars are being spent.

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