My primary job was advisor to an Afghan general in Kabul. Sometime in September 2009, I think it was, my interpreter, Nik, grabbed me on camp and said, "the general called, and we have to get over to the Ministry of Defense compound now." We were still under an edict at that time to wear body armor, so while I was getting my gear, I asked him to clarify what was going on. As we walked from our camp over to the MoD compound, he explained that all the generals were being provided new up-armored SUVs; but the mentors/advisors had to sign for them.
When we arrived, we were greeted by several members of the general's staff; and to my surprise, there were literally dozens, if not a hundred, Afghan officers milling around the area. There was a "gangs of New York" feel to the situation; and knowing that tempers could run high, I was on the watch for tensions between the different generals' staff members.
There were 27 brand new up-armored vehicles waiting to be issued. Nik informed me that the general's staff members were saying that the general required a white vehicle, with the spare tire mounted underneath the vehicle, not on the back. I surveyed the situation, and realized there were 22 black vehicles, and only 5 white ones.
I found the Logistics person in charge of the issuing of the vehicles, and was told that the white ones were going to the highest ranking generals; there was no way my general was going to get a white one.
I found a black one with the spare tire mounted underneath, and I sat on that vehicle until it was finally our turn to sign the required paperwork. By phone, the staff members let me know that the general had wanted me to fight harder to get a white one; I told them to relay to the general that he could take it up with the 4-star generals that the white vehicles went to. I didn't hear any more about it.
I had asked the staff members several times, but they never responded, or my interpreter never passed on their answers. I wanted to know, why were the white ones so special; and what was up with the specificity about the location of the spare tire?
A few days later, in one of my sessions with the general, I finally got the answers: the tire location was because the general would be taking the vehicle home; and if the spare tire was mounted on the back, his garage door wouldn't close properly. I just had to shake my head. Of course we knew they treated their "government" vehicles like their personal vehicles; that was the way their system worked.
The answer about the colors gave me pause, though. Black is a color usually associated with those that have died for their country or cause (martydom); no one wanted to be identified with that color. White was considered a "pure" color, or the color of someone in power.
In our arrogance, we never considered the cultural associations with colors; we just bought vehicles with an attitude of "be grateful for what we're giving you." Yet another example of why we weren't making the progress the world wanted us to: We kept doing things "to" the Afghans, and "for" the Afghans, instead of "with" the Afghans.
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