OHANLON: Keep DOD’s business task force in business

Rebuilding war-torn economies a key part of success

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Throughout much of the past decade, a special Pentagon unit known as the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, headed by Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul A. Brinkley, has impressively sought to promote private-sector investment in war-torn lands where U.S. troops are engaged in combat - and where their safety as well as our national exit strategy depend on, among other things, economic recovery.

That office, largely because of a strange internal Pentagon ruling by the general counsel, is considered beyond the core competency of the Department of Defense and, as such, is slated to shut down in a month. That would be a major shame for the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, would harm the national security and, quite possibly, prolong the stay of U.S. troops in at least one of those places. It is a mistake that Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates should lead the charge to reverse before he leaves office.

To be sure, Mr. Brinkley’s shop is unusual. Perhaps the Departments of State and Commerce, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. or even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would be more natural organizations to promote and spearhead foreign investment in such places. What business, one might ask, does the Pentagon have trying to promote business abroad?

More recently, a New York Times article casually directed criticism at the Brinkley office in a glancing way that provided no real evidence, yet left a negative impression of the group’s activities. It was portrayed, among other things, as somehow holed up in the Green Zone of Iraq during much of the past decade. That is simply untrue.

More broadly, critics who suggest that Mr. Brinkley’s shop is somehow unwarranted or unneeded are wrong, and the Pentagon’s general counsel should have known better. Iraq and Afghanistan are war zones. Normal commercial activities do not begin in the normal ways in such places. Other branches of government are poorly equipped to handle the charge.

Mr. Brinkley’s shop is sophisticated, too. Unlike, for example, some of the naive free-market thinking that characterized aspects of the Transitional Authority in Iraq in 2003-04 when recent American college graduates were tasked to do things like design an Iraqi stock market and help shut down its state-owned industries, Mr. Brinkley’s task force is very well acquainted with the two key countries in question, strongly supported by American commanders and ambassadors and aware of the need to work within local legal frameworks and mores.

Think of Mr. Brinkley’s shop as a combination of liaison between the war zones and Iraqi and Afghan governments on the one hand and with Western businesses on the other. The latter may have a patriotic and even a commercial reason to invest in these lands but often do not have the foggiest idea of how to do so safely and legally. They also may have difficulty finding indigenous partners for their work and finding information about where commercial opportunities are greatest - and how to navigate the practical challenges of working within these societies. Mr. Brinkley’s office helps on all fronts and does other things, too, including help Iraqi and Afghan businesses.

Consider a few examples from Iraq. The task force helped Iraqi banks set up electronic funds transfer capabilities at 233 private banks. About 100,000 jobs were restored in Iraq after the invasion as the direct result of task force interventions. At least $2 billion in investment licenses were issued for new business development by an Iraqi government agency that the task force helped set up. Dozens of international companies, including Boeing, GE, Case New Holland, Google and Microsoft, have begun work in Iraq as a result.

As we try to draw down military forces in Afghanistan over the next three years, U.S. business activities will assume an even greater share of the national effort to help that country stabilize itself. Private-sector investment is crucial for such purposes.

Or look at it a different way. Do we really want to concede the foreign role in developing mineral interests in Afghanistan, estimated at more than $1 trillion in value, to Chinese companies because American firms don’t have access to compete themselves? Is that good for the United States? For Afghanistan? Yet U.S. firms need help to figure out how to operate in that faraway and dangerous country.

Shutting down the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations is a major mistake that we have one last chance to reverse in the coming weeks. There is still time, but not much, to do so.

Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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