-- 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
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
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.