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The Light of a Secure Peace

When President Obama noted last week that America  “will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government,” I felt a rising excitement. Having spent the last three years in Afghanistan, they were words that made me finally see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Finally, an incentive for the Afghan people to develop their own country, in their own manner, away from international actors.

Nothing has ever been easy in the Af-Pak theatre. Since the time of Alexander the Great, the region has been known as “the graveyard of empires.” The Macedonians, Saffiyids, Tartars, Barburs, Moghuls, Russians, British, Soviets, or Coalition Forces; Afghanistan has eviscerated them all.

The fundamental challenges and obstacles that existed 130 years ago, when it was known as Paktunistan, still remain. Pakhtunistan is the territory inhabited by the Pakhtun tribes, both north and south of the 1,610-mile long Durand Line (named after Henry Durand, the British Foreign Secretary in 1893) which today fixes the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Many commentators have concluded that the indigenous people in the region have no notion of civic or national identity. The tribals, they say, influenced by feudal family ties, have been geographically, politically and economically isolated for too long, making pluralistic and democratic government difficult – and making Afghanistan’s development even harder.

For the last three years I’ve managed international donor-funded programs and projects on both sides of the Durand Line. I’ve trusted the tribals with the lives of both my wife and eldest daughter, each of who have been welcome guests of tribal elders and have even stayed in tribal family homes. One such home in 2009 was that of Jamal Afridi, local chief of the Afridi Tribe.  The Afridis once destroyed an entire Mughal army. In January 1842 these same Afridis massacred General Elphinstone’s retreating force of 16,500 in the passes between Kabul and Jalalabad leaving only one man, Dr. William Brydon, alive to tell the tale of which is still remembered today as Britain’s greatest military defeat ever.

Despite this history, my personal and professional experiences have revealed to me that the majority of Pakhtun families and tribal business people share common feelings with us foreigners regarding access to healthcare, education, justice, political representation, peace and prosperity for themselves and their children.

That’s why President Obama’s message resonated with me.

As we suffer today from financial market defaults, credit crunches, sovereign debt downgrades, crashes in housing values, and high unemployment, it’s time to recognize that Western resources to support Afghanistan in fulfilling its potential is limited. Fortunately, Afghan potential is not.

In November 2007, Afghanistan signed a 30-year lease with China Metallurgical Group for copper mining. At a $3 billion price tag with the potential to earn the Afghan government up to $1.2 billion, it is the largest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history. The mine will not only create much-needed jobs, it will provide incentives to create a power station, schools, hospitals and mosques. It’s the type of intervention Afghanistan wants and needs. Jobs are key.

This is why PDT in Afghanistan has developed and maintains an online business directory of over 7,500 Afghan companies. It is a directory that is searchable by sector and location. On average, 50 Afghan-owned businesses per week collect tenders issued by international buyers from PDT’s Kabul office, while the Tender Directory receives over 10,000 hits per week.  Over 1,700 Afghan businesspeople from over 1,400 different Afghan businesses have completed procurement training with PDT, utilizing specific training modules developed by PDT for U.S. Military, NATO, and UN procurement practices. PDT supported the U.S. Military through the entire process of sole sourcing ANSF uniform contracts worth $55 million to three Afghan woman-owned businesses with a ceiling of $365 million over a five-year period.  PDT has coordinated more than 40 outreach events, connecting Afghan suppliers with international buyers. These facts exemplify today’s reality of Afghan capacity and only hint at what is to my mind an almost limitless potential for economic growth in Afghanistan.

President Obama’s decision now clears the way for Afghans to invest in their future and for the Afghan people to hold their own leaders to account. “Even as there will be dark days ahead,” Obama noted in his talk, “in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end.” I agree.

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