- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

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 reality?

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 not.

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 nongovernmental agencies.

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 capacity.

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 security aims.

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.


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