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Howard Buffett

Howard Buffett

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How Politics Is Threatening Real Progress in Afghanistan

Posted: 04/ 5/11 09:01 AM ET

Sitting in Washington Dulles airport awaiting to board a flight to Dubai and then on to Afghanistan, I picked up the Washington Post and began reading about the very people I was on my way to visit: the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations led by Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul Brinkley. The Task Force, responsible for providing economic normalcy where conflict has eroded people's ability to lead productive and peaceful lives, is hosting me on my second trip to Afghanistan. I am returning, primarily because I was so impressed with Brinkley's operation the first time that our foundation invested in several agricultural projects. Without the Task Force, I would have never made the original trip, and our charitable foundation would not be helping thousands of poor farmers in Afghanistan today.

The Washington Post reports of the dismantling of Brinkley's Task Force, which is clearly an example of politics, turf and jealousy. The Task Force has found an effective approach, producing results, and those in Washington who are threatened by its progress must find a way to defend themselves. In this case, their territorial self-defense is the tearing down of the Task Force, and the undoing of a style that has led to success. The biggest difference I notice when in Afghanistan is the willingness of the Task Force to just do what it takes. While many agency staff will not even venture out of their heavily protected compounds, the Task Force is on the front lines interacting with Afghans every day.

The Task Force is driven by an amazing spirit of people with business backgrounds and the understanding that it requires entrepreneurialism and capitalism to rebuild a country. While humanitarian aid is required at times, true economic development happens on the ground, where individuals are self-empowered to lift themselves from poverty. While it may be tagged as "war zone capitalism", that is exactly what it takes to move a country like Afghanistan forward.

Along similar lines, our foundation's activity has been driven by the belief that people in conflict zones comprise the most disenfranchised populations in the world. In almost all circumstances, these are people who have suffered the loss of life, destroyed homes, and ruined livelihoods at no fault of their own. The disruption in these individuals' lives can last years, and the emotional trauma leaves scars forever. After conflict resolves, entire populations suffer from food insecurity, poor access to water, reduced sanitation, and limited access to education and basic health facilities. I have seen this firsthand because of our foundation's involvement in conflict and post-conflict areas across the globe.

My experiences have taught me that when individuals far removed from an activity believe they understand the situation better than those who live with the consequences, it often leads to failure. Conflict is a nasty business under any circumstance, but it is the flexibility, independence and spontaneity demonstrated by this Task Force that allows it to respond to the constant changes in conditions on the ground. It is this behavior that drives bureaucrats crazy, and it is this risk that career personnel will not take.

It is not surprising that Defense Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus have all supported Brinkley. These are the individuals who are deeply committed to and responsible for rebuilding Afghanistan and bringing our troops home. They understand that markets are built by economies, not soldiers; that success must come from investments, not bullets.

Brinkley's team is unconventional, but that is what today's world -- and the toughest conflicts -- demand. Leave it to politics to interrupt a success story and dismantle it before the job is completed. Billions of dollars have been spent in Afghanistan. The budget line item for Brinkley's work is minimal but could have the greatest return of all, based on what I have witnessed.

Our soldiers and our taxpayers deserve every chance to get this right, to know that the lives lost and the money spent resulted in freedoms for the Afghan people that reflect our basic democratic principles. Building businesses, increasing agricultural productivity and supporting a growing economy are the weapons needed to keep peace. It is my hope that in Afghanistan, peace does not surrender to conflict because of politicians who are comfortable and safe back home -- politicians who are unwilling to take the risk required to act with the innovation and ingenuity required to rebuild a nation and bring prosperity to one of the most challenging environments in the world.

Howard Buffett is president of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. The foundation works in numerous conflict and post conflict areas including; Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Ivory Coast, Iraq, Liberia, Sierra Leon, Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Buffett's son serves on the Task Force.