Oh, And We Have The Watches Too

by Joel Hafvenstein on 10/6/2010 · 6 comments

I’m curious: has anyone out there ever personally heard an insurgent (or any Afghan, for that matter) use the proverb, “You have the watches, but we have the time”?

I’ve heard it quoted grimly by a lot of NATO military personnel, and of course it’s been repeated ad nauseam by the media.  But it sounded strange and inauthentic to me from the first time I heard it in 2003.   I never saw it attributed to an actual Afghan; many early reports openly called it apocryphal, before it took on a life of its own.  In my admittedly limited experience, I’ve never heard it used by an Afghan.  But it’s a familiar phrase in other parts of South Asia and Africa, where it’s used very differently: to contrast the soulless Western rat race with the local good life.

In the Afghan war context, it seems oddly condescending and inapt to me.  The Taliban may have had a stormy relationship with modern communication technologies, but there was never a point at which they banned the wristwatch.  Today the insurgency is well-stocked with cell phones and sat phones and laptops — all complete with digital timekeepers.  Do the insurgents really love to taunt us with their lack of watches?  Or do we just really like to imagine them saying it?

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CostOfWarBlog October 6, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I have personally never heard of this used by an afghan or an insurgent. I cannot think of an equivalent proverb in Pashto or Dari.

I really agree with the last paragraph: the Taliban are grown tremendously tech-savvy. They use the avilable technology very well in their media and propaganda campaign. I was reporting from Kabul this summer and as soon an explosion or incident would happen, we would receive a text message from the Taliban spokesman, claiming responsibility and confirming the incident with more detail than our reporters could ever have. Their media campaign is just very lively, but that’s a separate discussion.
Joel, I have an entry on the elections that might interest you:

Toryalay Shirzay October 6, 2010 at 5:15 pm

The Taliban themselves are not that tech savvy ,it is their handlers the ultra crafty Pakis who help the islamic fascist thugs to use technology to perpetuate this war .The Pakis have never given up controlling Afghanistan and the US/NATO seem helpless to stop them witness the destruction of US/NATO supplies to their troops ongoing right now.What a shame,damn shame!!!

Christian October 6, 2010 at 8:31 pm

As for mentions in the West… I just checked Google Scholar and everything is withing the last five years, one attributing the comment to Mullah Omar. Another article said it was a traditional African proverb: “Western people have watches, we have time.” But Google scholar is not that great, maybe factiva or lexis might have something…

I’m trying, but as Abraham Lincoln famously said: “Citation or GTFO.”

Joshua Foust October 7, 2010 at 11:45 am

I surveyed my twitter peeps, and no one could say. Not even the Afghans.

I suspect the phrase is apocryphal.

Steve Maghribi October 8, 2010 at 1:35 pm

I think Joel has hit on something here…

This phrase is the phrase for this war..

Just like..”we had to burn the village to save it”
was for Vietnam…

Not a very inspiring phrase, but the conflict neither inspires
nor relates to any grand cause anymore. The impetus to
throw off the watches and head out the door is stronger
than the need to put Rolexes on anymore of the Gucci
wearing Afghans and cellphone toting Servants of God…

Pretty dismal reflection on America’s longest war, but perhaps
apropo for the very same reason.

I can still hear “Mission Accomplished” past from Bush…and am ready for a “Mission Accomplished” Future from Obama during some election speech in 2012. It is ringing in my ears, along with
“Yes We Can.”

Reality can wait for some other time and place in a Galaxy Far Away.

Baba Tim October 16, 2010 at 11:43 am

I have never heard that proverb used by Afghans during my time in Afghanistan despite frequently telling my local national employees “you have time I have a watch”. I think that is funny as hell to say but am probably only amusing myself. It is clear from both media reports and conversations I have had with pilots that the various insurgent groups have watches. They seem to know down to the minute when to break contact and go to ground to avoid punishment from air delivered ordnance.

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