and the Afghan economy -
Published March 23, 2006
By Don Ritter/Mahmood Karzai/Jack Kemp
Americans may be surprised, in contrast to conventional wisdom,
to learn of the comparative peacefulness of Afghan cities compared
to other big cities around the world.
The coverage on cable news of blood and guts resulting from an explosion
or a shooting in Afghanistan is likely to be equivalent to that
of network news or front pages across the country. Most often, commentators
or pundits are responding to what others have reported. The same
is true of government or academe. Violence in places like Afghanistan
is magnified by a giant echo chamber.
Given all that is happening, Afghanistan is completely unsafe, right?
No, wrong. Not to sound like Pollyannas, but the American people
need more perspective on all this, and the 24-7 TV-driven media
is not helpful. If we are getting a distorted view, what is the
The World Bank recently published a survey in which some 400 business
community members in five major Afghan cities were asked what were
their greatest problems.
Electricity, access to land and capital, decent roads, lack of legal
structures, corruption, taxes, capable labor force were among those
cited. "Security" did not appear on their list until No.
14. Even then it was combined with conventional crime. These people
have employees and their employees have families. Surely if personal
safety were threatened, these folks would feel it.
The business community fears arbitrary actions against their property
by powerful ministries, stalling and corruption and government incompetence
more than they do a bullet or a bomb from the Taliban or al Qaeda.
So where is the disconnect, the difference between the perception
and the reality?
The answer is this: The men and women of the U.S. armed forces along
with coalition troops and their fellow Afghans military and police
are responsible for security. They routed the Taliban and al Qaeda
after September 11, 2001. And now, except in certain well-known
areas, the enemy is confined and on the run. Sure, they can be lethal
and we are taking casualties from increased attacks. But the vast
majority of Afghans -- let's guess 95 percent -- are not exposed.
Afghans have long ago discounted such risks as small compared with
violence they experienced over the last 25 years.
Americans need to know the Afghan people are concerned mainly with
the same things we are. They would like a decent job; to feed, clothe
and house their families; to get ahead in this world. They fear
sickness, hunger, lack of a decent education for their kids. It
may come as a surprise but the Taliban and al Qaeda are low on their
priority list. Economic progress in their own lives, however, is
If the reality on the ground is something other than what we get
in the media, and if Afghans going about their daily lives are less
affected by the threat of violence than are we, and if progress
in the long-term struggle depends so on improving the lives of the
Afghan people, the American people have a right to ask, "How
are we doing on the economic, job creating, prosperity-promoting
front? How are the billions of taxpayer dollars spent in rebuilding
the country affecting the social and economic progress of the people?"
The answer: We are doing well considering the circumstances but
not nearly well enough. Way too much taxpayer-funded assistance
doesn't go to Afghans or end up in Afghanistan. It goes to expensive,
overhead-laden, money-repatriating, ultra-security-conscious U.S.
and foreign contractors, foreign and U.N. agencies and high-cost
These entities siphon off the vast percentage of aid funds to pay
expenses for personnel and programs that positively dwarf what Afghans
get. In Kabul, the price of housing, driven up by foreigners, rivals
the prices of Washington, D.C. The foreigners sop up the best employees,
paying salaries unaffordable to Afghan companies or Afghan agencies.
The U.S., by far the biggest contractor for goods and services,
must lead in upgrading the capacity of Afghan companies and their
employees to do the job from construction to logistics to products
and services of all kinds. If the Afghan companies and their workers
aren't able to do so, then we need to teach, train, mentor and invest
in them to upgrade their performance. The current system, with exceptions,
is not doing that.
One exception that could serve as a model is the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers program requiring that all its contractors have mentoring
and training to get more Afghans in on the U.S. assistance dollar.
They also have a pool of smaller contracts that go only to Afghan
companies. Chinese, Turkish, Indian and Pakistani companies may
get a job done, but their money and skills leave when they are finished.
Taxes are not paid and there is no participation in the new democracy.
An even better idea would be to extend credit to Afghan businesses
via trust, revolving, "enterprise" or Marshall Plan-type
funds and build the market economy from the bottom up for a change.
Use aid to provide writing, reporting and accounting to boost borrowing
By assisting Afghans directly, this venue has the benefit of sidestepping
many security issues. Indeed, regional economic engagement by the
U.S. via a 21st-century Marshall Plan from South Asia to Iraq would
hugely benefit the region and U.S. business, foreign policy and
Investing U.S. tax dollars destined for Afghanistan more in Afghans
and their country, and less in foreign companies and aid providers,
is the way to go. And rest assured, they will work long and hard
despite al Qaeda, the Taliban and a media that prefers bursting
bombs to building bridges.
Don Ritter, a former member of the U.S.
House of Representatives, and Mahmood Karzai are active in the Afghan
International Chamber of Commerce, the primary private-sector voice
for Afghanistan. They are also investors in many ongoing and developing
businesses there. Jack Kemp is founder and chairman of Kemp Partners
and a syndicated columnist.