This week, Mustafa Yasa, director of foreign relations for the Municipality of Kabul, has joined me in writing this column. We plan to share with readers our observations on how Afghanistan and the U.S. can work more efficiently and effectively to transform the country from a post-conflict society to an economically independent nation and formidable competitor in the world market.
"Afghanistan must stand on its own feet, and the only foundation that will support this emerging nation is the ground we stand on. Fortunately the ground under our feet is mineral rich," Sadat Mansoor Naderi, chairman of the Afghan Gold and Minerals Company told participants last week at the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) 8th Annual U.S.-Afghanistan Business Matchmaking Conference (BMC) held in Washington, D.C.
At the present time, Afghanistan remains a donor economy reliant on international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for financial support. While the mineral industry may be Afghanistan's most promising asset, there are currently no long-term plans in place to facilitate the kind of stable and sustainable infrastructure needed to ensure Afghanistan's future as an independent, sovereign economy.
In 2014, the U.S. plans to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 101,000 in June 2012 to 10,000 U.S. soldiers withdrawing by the end of this year. Since 2001, the U.S. has invested $1.2 trillion tax dollars in the war in Afghanistan, over 17,644 U.S. soldiers stationed in Afghanistan been injured, and more than 2,000 U.S. Soldiers have been killed. Yet despite the high transaction costs of war, total withdrawal of U.S. troops seems highly unlikely where the Pentagon and the U.S. Geological Survey estimate that Afghanistan, and consequently our U.S. troops, may be sitting on as much as $1 trillion of unmined rare minerals, making it one of the richest mining areas on Earth.
Afghanistan's current "donor economy" status means that post-2014, the local government will sustain itself with the assistance of the other countries and private foreign investors. With the U.S. presence minimized, other investors in Afghanistan's economy will more prominently feature those of other countries currently also invested in the region, such as Iran, Pakistan, China, Japan, the UK, India, Turkey, etc. With this in mind, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has released reports that support Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's "New Silk Road" vision for Afghanistan's future. All sides are asking: How Afghanistan can attract new sources of foreign private-sector investment and connect to markets abroad, while generating new resources, markets, and investment opportunities for the entire region?
Recommendation #1: Facilitate, Encourage The Meaningful Participation Of Women In Education, Business Ventures
Fresh in everyone's mind is the fact that this week, senior Afghan government official Nadia Sediqqi, acting head of the women's affairs department in Laghman province was shot dead on her way to work. Clearly, if Afghanistan wants to attract foreign business partners, Afghanistan's government will need to do more to ensure all women are safe and capable of doing business within its borders.
We must ensure Afghan women are educated, qualified, and willing to fill business and leadership positions. Recently, USAID announced millions in funding to promote the role of women in Afghanistan's economy. Rather than disseminate the funds to one or two mega-contractors with little oversight, this money should be given to Afghan programs which operate within the Afghan educational system. Due to recent attacks on Afghan schools targeting female students, security at participating schools will need to be increased. To be successful, families whose mothers and daughters attend job training and education programs should be paid for their participation. Since mothers are the heads of household whose influence is critical to the family's willingness to access education for their daughters, an effort should be made to recruit potential non-traditional age student mothers. "Success" of the program should be measured in terms of high school graduation rates, not the woman's ability to sign a contract for a microloan that she cannot read. The long term success of any microloan initiatives should also be more carefully monitored.
While it did not go unnoticed that the Western corporations at the AACC conference sent mainly men as their representatives, the world still looks at Afghanistan in terms of the fact that 50 percent of the population is made up of female workers who are effectively unwelcome to participate in Afghan government and business matters. One way to elevate the status of women in Afghanistan may be to increase the presence of women in the Afghan media. When we effectively publicly showcase the contributions and accomplishments Afghan women make, we demonstrate their value to society, and hopefully this will result in fewer presidential appointees being shot dead on the job.
Recommendation #2: Train And Encourage Afghan Workers To Take Initiative, Share Insights
Another way to encourage Afghan autonomy is by promoting Afghan workers who speak their mind and show initiative by making independent decisions, says Gregg Willhauck, director of congressional and government relations for the Center for International and Private Enterprise. The fragile and dependent nature of the Afghan economy has meant that some Afghan workers are afraid to make decisions independently or contribute valuable feedback that might offend foreign donors. Only when we do more to protect the lives and jobs of whistleblowers who come forward to report inefficiencies and mismanagement of funds can we avert corruption, such as recent scandals involving USAID and Kabul Bank fraud.
Recommendation #3: Hold Media Accountable, Question What You Read About Afghanistan
H.E. Noorullah Delawari, governor of Central Bank of Afghanistan also reiterated at the AACC conference the need for the press to report more responsibly on Afghanistan, citing the example of a recent spike in Afghan inflation rates due to inaccurate and inflamatory media reports.
Recommendation #4: Increase Oversight, Accountability Of Security Contractors In Afghanistan
Recently when speaking on the issue of Afghanistan's national security, Afghan President Hamid Karzai upset international sponsors when he expressed his concerns that "part of the [regional] insecurity is coming to us from the structures that NATO and America created in Afghanistan." We agree that when it comes to ensuring the safety and well-being of all people currently situated within Afghan borders, there is a better, safer, more ethical and efficient manner in which U.S. tax dollars can be used.
We share President Karzai's concerns about recent fraud scandals and human rights abuses perpetrated by foreign military security contractors in Afghanistan. It is no secret that it is the nature of a corporation to seek the most profit using the least amount of invested resources. While most foreign businesses in Afghanistan behave responsibly, there are some less ethical security corporations which appear to create deadly messes for the express purpose of getting paid to profitably clean them up. With threats of a "fiscal cliff" looming in Congress, we remain extremely concerned over what, if any impact it may have on security contractor's conduct.
"The best security is indicated by the smallest fences that show all players in the community are invested together in maintaining the land with pride," said James L. Bullion, director for the U.S. Department of Defense Task Force for Business and Stability Operations.
Afghan families and the Taliban are not the only people in Afghanistan. U.S. soldiers, tourists, international business people, refugees also remain in Afghanistan, all of whom have families who love them and worry about the enormous risks and sacrifices they face every day.
Therefore, it is very important to make sure that U.S. dollars are invested in companies that are not just competent, but also transparent and accountable for the services they provide. That the corporate security firms are not only rewarded when they do a good job protecting our families, but that they be held accountable for taking risks that kill our families and undermine the progress we continue to make in Afghanistan with the support of the vast majority of the international community.
Recommendation #5: Remember The People, Families From All Over The World Currently In Afghanistan
While Mr. Naderi is correct in that the mines under Afghani feet pose enormous potential in terms of the wealth and prosperity that their precious minerals may bring to the region, the question remains as to what Afghanistan as a country will have left when they are gone. The mines themselves are not an accomplishment of the Afghan people who are vulnerable to the types of brutal exploitation and atrocities witnessed in other impoverished mining countries in Central Africa. Independent journalist Keith Harmon Snow has created a compelling documentary film and book project about the politics of genocide in a case study on Central Africa. We should take care that Afghanistan should not suffer the same fate.
We look forward to sitting down together with the international community to create new policies that demonstrate more effectively our commitment to accountability for the security and prosperity of the region.