The Honorable Don Ritter, Sc. D.

Building New Market Economy in Afghanistan - Seattle Post-Intelligencer February 25, 2004


Don Ritter is a former seven-term Republican congressman from Pennsylvania with 25 years experience in Afghanistan.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Information is power and, boy, do we Americans have power. Except we so take it for granted we don't even know it. If you were told by the director of international flights of an airline that your plane was to leave at 4 p.m., you probably would accept that as fact and act accordingly. Likewise with information taken from a brochure or off the Internet.

But if this simple information was wrong and the flight left way earlier and all your plans for the following week collapsed like dominoes, you would appreciate the power of information, firsthand.

Welcome to Afghanistan! Not exactly the information capital of the world, Kabul is more like a Wild West equivalent here in Central and South Asia. A stew of ethnicities, nationalities, dreams, changes and
challenges, it attracts the adventurous like ants to a picnic. Mix in a little danger from those who wish you ill and comfort from those who are here to protect you (plus guns and more guns) -- stir into this boiling pot the billions of dollars of foreign assistance money flowing into the country, some $2.6 billion from the United States alone -- and that's Kabul, 2004.

Kabul, in comparison with most of Afghanistan, is booming with economic activity. Merchants ply their wares everywhere; the main bazaar is bursting with the energy of shopkeepers hawking everything
from tin kitchenware to colorful silks to Colgate toothpaste. Inexpensive products from China are everywhere ... sound familiar?

There is a bottom line to all this. Afghans are traders, merchants, bargainers and entrepreneurs. Silk Road days are coming back to Afghanistan; given a free and open market, this place will thrive.
Business and economic education, almost non-existent, will service the economic opportunity that sprouts and vice versa.

President Hamid Karzai and key policy-makers in his government no longer refer to Afghanistan as land-locked but land-bridging, connecting all of the Central and South Asian economies and collecting the revenues in the process. That's why the United States and its USAID arm are bent on building roads and infrastructure that will connect the country not only with itself but with its neighbors and its neighbors with one another and beyond. Afghanistan's prospects are even greater with India and Pakistan coming together and with the potential for Iran to come to its political senses. But all that just might be the easy part of building a new market economy.

The heavy lifting will be more of a cultural and political challenge. Old ways of doing business will have to change. Economic power and decision-making, so long concentrated at the top with favoritism, lack of transparency, corruption and a patronizing attitude that "government knows best," need to be replaced by the workings of a free market with tax, trade and regulatory policies encouraging the private sector, not dominating it. An uncoordinated, complicated tax, tariff and regulatory system that allows various political power centers to gin up their own taxes and tariffs at will is in dire need of change and the first signs of that happening are visible and audible.

The business community is organizing itself, independent of government patrons, and significant meetings have been held with hundreds of their ilk and government ministers present, criticizing
certain government actions they feel to be egregious and discussing and proposing solutions. The Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce has come together with the Afghan Traders and Industrialists Center, the Freight Forwarders and Transporters and the Afghan Builders Association to form the Afghan International Chamber of Commerce in Kabul; it's projected to extend to the provinces and internationally
as well.

A strong voice for the private sector, advocating free market policies to the government, donor nations, international lending institutions and most of all among and within the people of Afghanistan, is an essential feature on the road to a free market.

Afghanistan needs just about everything and money is to be made. Afghan-American businessmen offer their own companies and joint venture opportunities as well. Afghans are hard working and loyal
employees eager to be a part of a new economy where one's labor and skill are more important than connections.

The greatest potential for improving the life of the people of Afghanistan lies in the creation and growth of employment and production opportunities in the private sector. Would Seattle and its people like to be a part of the action? Tired of watching other people's movies? Looking for the next frontier in your life? If so,