You are here: Home » Management » Kit
Business Standard

The Afghanistan syndrome


Anand Kurian  |  New Delhi 

Even in a global village, each time you cross a boundary, remember you are entering a new world.

If this story is apocryphal and turns out to be untrue, I’ll buy a and shoot myself.when the Americans began their advance into Afghanistan, which was set in motion in the year 2001, and continued evermore, they had a very difficult time on their hands; contrary to what mega-movies like Independence Day portray, the Americans are not really comfortable in any place without Cola kiosks, Mac arches and 24-hour game shows on TV.

In Afghanistan, things were rough. The rugged mountains and the bare landscape did look a lot like the movies, but most of the villagers were sullen-faced, which was bad enough, but they were tough and hardy men of war as well, which wasn’t fair at all.

What the Americans needed, and badly, was information on They went about it first in Wild West fashion, that is, they put up posters of O B Laden, saying, in bold type, “Wanted Dead or Alive”. That didn’t work too well; these were poor villagers, but they were smart enough to know that if they had to capture good old OBL, whether dead, alive or in between, there wouldn’t be much left of themselves. “I would be blown into bloody smithereens,” they must have muttered to themselves, in guttural Afghani.

So tactics were changed. This is now part of the American way, the grand strategy is always left untouched — which, to put it quite simply, is world domination forever — but tactics are changed endlessly to match every situation.

So posters were put up saying, we don’t want you to catch him dead or alive, we just need you to give us information about him, his henchmen, his whereabouts, and little things like that.

This evoked some interest. Afghanistan, like many a society that has no established communications infrastructure, has developed its own elaborate network to acquire and pass information. Obviously, the Americans knew that nothing in the world gets done for free, so they now started using the local networks to say that information would be bought and paid for. They said they would even pay for information about information. Then they drew their breath and said they would part with up to a million American dollars for it.

The Americans waited with bated breath — even the individuals who had made the offer themselves drooled inadvertently — then they couldn’t hold their breath any longer, because no information was forthcoming.

They had been hit by what I call

Now, to the individual Americans who made the offer, one million dollars signified everything the world could ever offer on a golden platter. To the Afghan villager, who had to provide the information, it signified nothing. They had not shopped in an American mall, had not ever used a credit card, had never lived the American Way.

They were rough, simple men who worked in and around their homes and knew little else. They knew their village, their mountains, their flock of sheep, their places of worship. They were prepared to take some risk to leak a bit of information — but for what? The million dollars didn’t make any sense to them at all.

But the Americans learnt quickly enough — they changed tactics yet again — and this time they promised… a flock of sheep.

And the information started trickling in.

In this story, you can see what I call illustrated perfectly.

The Afghan didn’t understand the significance of a million dollars. But what is interesting is that, as I narrate this, I see that a flock of sheep has no significance to you either.

There are two factors at work here — you don’t see the economic significance of it, which is fairly understandable. But equally significant, it creates no emotional resonance within you. I am sure you can’t see yourself shepherding a herd down where you work. Or down the streets of Connaught Place, if that is where you do your nine to five.

Now, when I mention it, you will probably bestir yourself, show some interest and say, “Okay, let’s work this out, I guess a sheep in Afghanistan costs about X and if you multiply it by a herd…,” but that is besides the point — what is relevant is that the sheep had no emotional resonance within you at all — just as the million dollars had none at all with the Afghan villagers. (Incidentally, a flock of sheep in Afghanistan is worth about $500.)

You will see at work everywhere. Let’s put you, a fine, young man with an MBA, at the heart of our story. You are recruited on campus by Gable & Clark, one of our large multinationals. Gable & Clark makes baby food, but it so happens, they don’t send you to pretty Switzerland for training, but decide to send you to Sehrampore. Let’s imagine that Sehrampore is a village in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, you are there to learn all you can about new, emerging rural markets.

You spend a year there and you learn a great deal. What you also learn there is that though you are a graduate from one of the world’s best business schools, there’s someone who has the upper hand over you in Sehrampore.

It’s a guy who’s your age, probably not as sharp or as articulate as you are; he sat for the civil services exam in India…. In your year there, you are the Gable & Clark man, he’s the Indian Administrative Services probationer, and you will see the Afghanistan syndrome at work.

Every potential father-in-law in Sehrampore will seek him out. Even a Harvard MBA would pale before the magic letters “IAS” in Sehrampore; the aura of working for the government would be something you couldn’t match there.

Shall we now call it the Sehrampore syndrome? But, actually, you could equally call it the Kansas syndrome. A hotshot New York investment banker would be of little account in small-town middle America — in Kansas, he might even be looked down upon as someone who does the Devil’s work (and, of course, going by the collapse of the sub-prime market, that might just well be true!).

Again, a fancy Sushi or French dinner, much valued among New York’s swish set, would lose out to a common steak in Kansas. And a huge truck towing a powerboat would be a big hit in most of America — but old money from the East Coast would still prefer the simple wooden sailboat….

Today, as products, marketing plans, and just plain ol’ ideas traverse boundaries in search of new horizons, it’s easy to assume that in a global village, the “obvious” things must apply everywhere — a million dollars is a million dollars. But even in a global village, each time that you cross a boundary, take a pause to remember that you enter a new world every time.

You could call it the Kansas syndrome or the Sehrampore syndrome just as well; but I would much rather call it the Afghanistan syndrome, wherever it applies. And that happens to be just about everywhere….

is a writer and marketing communications professional; the article is adapted from lectures at the Indian Institutes of Management, the Film & Television Institute of India and the National Institute of Design.

First Published: Tue, September 23 2008. 00:00 IST