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This quote is associated with the Taliban in reference to the US occupation of Afghanistan.

I understand the metaphorical meaning of the quote — i.e. the point that it makes.

But I am intrigued by the literal meaning. In particular, I can't work out what it means to "have the watch", nor what the "watch" refers to metaphorically.

Anybody know?

For the record, I've done some searches, but have only turned up explanations of the metaphoric meaning, nothing about analysis of the literal meaning.

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    Probably referring to the fact that history has often seen a better-equipped, high-tec armed force defeated in the long term by a force employing guerilla warfare and prepared to play the long game. – Edwin Ashworth May 2 at 13:50
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    I get Yes, you are bejeweled, but we will best you. – Yosef Baskin May 2 at 14:04
  • @EdwinAshworth, so in the metaphoric meaning, the "watch" is technology in general? And in the literal meaning, the watch allows you to monitor the time closely, but ultimately, you will lose interest in doing so or lose focus, at which time the enemy, lying in wait, will pounce? – Karl May 2 at 15:43
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    How can you understand the metaphorical meaning of the quote, like you say you do, when you don't understand what "watch" refers to metaphorically, like you say you don't? – Benjamin Harman May 2 at 16:12
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    I haven't given an 'answer' because I'm not sure which sense of 'watch' (timepiece or sentry duty) was originally intended. – Edwin Ashworth May 2 at 18:58
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Several sources I've checked attribute this quote to an Afghan proverb.

The meaning of the second part is clear: time is on our side. But what does the "watches" in the first part refer to?

Benjamin Harman's answer argues that the saying is a double entendre between "watch" as in "wristwatch" and "watch" as in "stand watch".
However, given that "watch" ("timepiece") and "watch" ("lookout") / "watch" ("keep guard") seem to be completely different words in both of the main Afghan languages: Dari and Pastho, it is not possible that the original Afghan saying (which I've been unable to find -- see comment) used the same word for all of those.

The most reasonable explanation is that "watches" here refers to the instruments, the hardware, the material means of winning a battle; while "time" refers to the passing of time and the immaterial means of winning: political changes, losing local support, difficulty of economically sustaining a war in the long time, etc.

EDIT: It turns out there's another widespread rendering of the saying which uses "clocks" instead of "watches". This reinforces the meaning of "watches" as actual timepieces.

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    I completely agree with you that the two meanings of "watch" is unlikely to play a role. It's disappointing that I have not seen anywhere any reference to an original Pashto (or other) translation. I've only ever heard or seen it in English. Pending that breakthrough, your answer seems pretty spot on. – Karl May 5 at 5:36
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    @Karl I've spent the last couple hours reading more than 500 Afghan proverbs from different sources (basically every online resource listed in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghan_proverbs#References) and I couldn't find yours. Maybe it is not that "old" of a proverb to appear in books from half a century ago. Maybe it is not an Afghan proverb at all. Anyways, chasing the original Pashto phrase goes way beyond the scope of ELU, so I think I will stop now. – walen May 5 at 16:05
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    Thanks, @walen . I actually spoke on the phone yesterday with an ex student of mine, an Afghan refugee living in Indonesia. He did not recognise it, but he is looking into it. If I hear anything from him, I will update! – Karl May 6 at 17:30
  • @Karl That would be great, thanks! I have to admit that not finding the quote yesterday has piqued my curiosity :-D – walen May 7 at 6:06
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"You have the watches, but we have the time."

The above is a double-entendre, meaning it has two meanings, a superficial meaning and a deeper meaning.

At first blush, or superficially, it looks like by "watches," it's referring to wristwatches, wristwatches almost always being simply called "watches."

When one doesn't have a watch but wants to know what time it is and sees someone who does have a watch, a common way of asking that person what time it is without being presumptuous is to ask, "Do you have the time?"

Based on this, people with watches (i.e., wristwatches) have the time (i.e., have on their wrist what time it is).

Therefore, since people with watches have the time, it's funny to say, "You have the watches, but we have the time." That funniness, that oddity, is how we get cued to this being a double-entendre, clued into the notion that the superficial meaning we would surmise at first blush isn't the deeper meaning that's actually intended. But what is that deeper meaning?

When you know the context, that it's being said by the Taliban in reference to the US military presence in Afghanistan, the other meaning becomes clear:

In the military, armies maintain control and keep an enforced peace by having soldiers keep watch in order to immediately respond to any uprising or disturbance of the peace. A single patrol or incidence of this is called a "watch" (e.g., There's a watch at Kabul's South Gate. Corporal Riley starts his watch at Kabul's at 0600.). In Afghanistan, thousands of soldiers are keeping watches all over the country to maintain the peace and keep the Taliban at bay.

However, the Taliban expects the US can't stay in Afghanistan forever, won't keep all its watches forever. Sun Tzu in the Art of War touches on this, essentially saying that the strategy for a domestic force to take against an invading force that has it outmanned and outgunned shouldn't be to win but should be to simply not lose, thus never giving up and turning it into a waiting game. For the domestic forces, it's their homeland, so they've got nowhere else to go or be, no real reason to give up, but that's not true for invading forces. Those soldiers want to eventually go home. The reasons for invading eventually dry up as the invaders' needs, wants, politics back home, leadership, etc. shift and change over time. So by never giving up and making whatever trouble can be made whenever and wherever possible, even if just a bit to let the invading forces know that they're ready to take the country back the minute their enforced peace through watches lets up, the invasion forces will eventually tire, will eventually reach a point where the cost of staying outweighs the benefits of staying, and while not beaten, will withdraw just from no longer wanting to be there.

With all that in mind, what "You have the watches, but we have the time" actually means is:

The US has the watches (i.e., soldiers keeping watch in thousands of watches all over the country to presently keep the Taliban at bay and without control of Afghanistan), but the Taliban has the time (i.e., the time to wait until the US gets tired of being in Afghanistan and goes home, at which point the Taliban is suggesting here that it will then be unopposed in Afghanistan and immediately seize back control of Afghanistan).

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    How do you know that the watches are as in 'soldiers keeping watch in thousands of watches'? The reason I didn't give an answer here was that I wasn't sure which sense of watch was intended. Have you any evidence? – Edwin Ashworth May 2 at 18:56
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    Have I any evidence? Do you mean, did the Taliban come out with a literary guide to explain what it meant by that? No. But it didn't need to. It's obvious. The Taliban was being obvious, not cryptic, because it said it to poke the bear. If you are unclear and so make it impossible for whom you're trying to taunt to know you're taunting them, that's not a taunt. That's the opposite. That's making a mockery of yourself by being ineffectual. With this, the Taliban went out of their way to be clear and pointedly pithy. Do some people fail to apprehend the obvious? Yes, there will always be those. – Benjamin Harman May 2 at 21:57
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    Watch as in "keeping watch" seems to be pushing it. The Americans mostly go on patrols, right? I'm not sure the idiom "go on watch" would have spread. "Watches" meaning "shiny metal tech gizmos" seems good enough – Owen Reynolds May 2 at 23:49
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    All the sources I've found say this quote is actually an "old" Afghan proverb. There's no way an Afghan proverb would use "watch" with the double meaning of "wristwatch" and "lookout", because those are different unrelated words in Afghan languages. – walen May 3 at 8:39
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    -1 , the connection to military patrol "watches" is nonsense without anything to back it up. – eps May 3 at 13:50
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The earliest match I've been able to find for any close variant of "You have the watches, but we have the time" is in testimony by Ambassador William Taylor, identified as "coordinator for Afghanistan, U.S. Department of State," in Hearing Before the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives: Afghanistan Drugs and Terrorism and U.S. Security Policy (February 12, 2004):

Mr. TAYLOR. If I could just do one last comment on the Taliban. I have told this story once or twice before, but the Taliban, exactly as you have said Mr. Engel, have a saying that the Americans have the watches but we have the time. We need to prove them wrong. We need to be sure that they know that we are in this for the long term. Thy are not going to wait us out. We are going to be there, we are going to succeed. We are going to get this country, this government, this state on its feet so it can provide the services to its people and defend itself against the threat. Thank you.

Close observers of the U.S. political scene will recognize Mr. Taylor as one of the more impressive witnesses in the House inquiry into the Ukraine quid pro quo scandal that preceded the first impeachment of Donald Trump.

In any event, this earliest mention of the expression does not assert that it is an old Pashtun saying or an Afghan proverb, but rather that it is specific to the Taliban in relation to the war with the United States. A few later allusions to the expression attribute it to (different) particular individuals. For example, in a review of Seth Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan in Choice: Publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries (2009) [combined snippets]:

At the end, he [Jones] quotes a Taliban detainee who told his US captors that "You may have the watches, but we have the time."

From Dominic Streatfeild, A History of the World Since 9/11 (2011):

As Mullah Omar famously stated: 'The Americans may have the clocks. But we have the time.'

And from William Remsen & Laura Tedesco, "US Cultural Diplomacy, Cultural Heritage Preservation and Development at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul in Afghanistan," in Museums, Heritage and International Development (2015):

You may have the clocks, but we have the time. —Taliban spokesman

But more often, writers attribute the expression to "Taliban commanders," "a Taliban axiom," "a Taliban saying," or (more fancifully) "a Pashtun proverb," etc.

It seems clear from these various references that the "watches" alluded to in the expression are timepieces—with the metaphorical implication of superior technological hardware and scientific advantage (as walen's answer points out). The expression probably reached English from Afghanistan within the past twenty years, and it may well have arisen in Afghanistan within the same time frame.

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  • Thanks, Sven. Some great references. And you certainly back up the interpretation made by others here that the "watches" are metaphorically a stand in for "superior technology". I must admit, there is still a semantic step missing for me somewhere, though I agree with this conclusion from you and the others. Perhaps this is the closest we're going to get. – Karl May 6 at 17:33
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I suggest that both meaning of 'you have the watches' are valid and intended.

  1. You have the high-technology wristwatches (as an ironic or even dismissive Synecdoche of 'watches' for the entire panoply of hardware), we can still outwait you.

  2. You are standing watches, but we can stand here forever.

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  • "High-tech" and "fancy" were the two words that came to mind when I heard "watches". As in: you have fancy toys and high-tech gear, but we have forever. – JounceCracklePop May 3 at 15:34
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    There's almost a second part to (1) If you acquire a watch, you have no assurance that the displayed time is correct. So having a watch still needs to be set correctly at least once to be confident it. In cycling this point can be said as "All the gear, no idea" – Criggie May 4 at 4:17
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I think everyone has missed the most obvious interpretation:

You have the accurate means of measuring and quantifying time, while we have the actual time on our hands to do whatever it takes to succeed. You know it is 5 o'clock, yet to us it doesn't matter what time it is. You have schedules. We have the time to fight. Therefore, we have the time to win.

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  • This is still missing the gap between the metaphorical and the literal meaning though, I think. Because the military forces sent over by the US are not literally standing around with watches aggressively telling the time. The US Department of Defense presumably didn't spend billions of dollars on hi-tech timepieces for the soldiers to wear on the frontline. – Karl May 29 at 10:01

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