A Virgin Market

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But not innocent

Car bomb 01 May 2006 in Tarin Kot, Afghanistan

May 2, 2006

I’ve never posted a rebuttal to a news story. Today is an exception. Last week I participated on a panel at the Marine Command General Staff College in Quantico, Virginia. The dais was stacked with distinguished journalists — I was the baby in the room — who addressed a large group of military officers. I traveled from Afghanistan just to speak there after a scheduling conflict with their first choice, Joe Galloway, resulted in his recommendation that I fill his seat. When Joe Galloway talks, people listen. I was honored by his recommendation and privileged to join the panel in a vigorous debate of the symposium theme: “Selling the Truth: Media Portrayal of Insurgents, the Government, and the Military.”

As the day opened, a Marine officer was asked to pick a story about current events and comment on it. He held a copy of the Wall Street Journal, a paper I first started reading as a teenager. The WSJ is a reliable source, and so I’ve stuck with it through the years. The Marine was holding a WSJ in front of this distinguished group of military officers that also included DEA and FBI officials, not to mention the representatives of CBS, CNN, Al Jazeera and others. As the Marine opened the paper, I said something like, “That’s yesterday’s Wall Street Journal? That’s easy. Turn to page A16 and there is a commentary about Afghanistan. It’s pure bullshit.” There was a microphone in front of me, but luckily, the crowd was mostly military and they laughed off the language.

When I’d first read that item on page A16 about doing business in Afghanistan, I was so put off that I actually remembered the page number. The piece entitled “A Virgin Market,” described a business climate in Afghanistan in such glowing terms that it crossed the line from upbeat to being wishful.

“A Virgin Market,” begins thusly:

KABUL — The recent Yale graduate I was chatting with at a party here spoke Chinese and had lived in China, the seeming epicenter of all things capitalist. “Why did you decide to come to Afghanistan?” I asked. He stared at me. “This is the largest rebuilding and development effort in the history of the world. Who wouldn’t want to be here?”

Stop. Interview at a party? I just spent two weeks on the ground talking with business people who seldom get time to go to cocktail parties in Kabul. I met people with millions of dollars in contracts in Afghanistan who were too busy trying to navigate the grime and crime to stop long enough to clink glasses together. I also talked with officials from several governments, many Afghans, and military personnel from various countries.

The writer goes on:

Writers of a certain ideological stripe whine that because Afghanistan isn’t Switzerland, it’s yet another sign that the U.S. can’t get anything right. But fortunes are being made here by those who think for themselves. And there are few countries where Americans are as welcome. A recent BBC poll reports that 72% of Afghans see American influence as positive, as opposed to just 25% of the French and 21% of Germans.

“Writers of a certain ideological stripe whine…” Stop. Did the writer get out of the cocktail party scene? I started a business in Poland when I was in my twenties, after traveling all over Eastern Europe looking for opportunities. I talked with bankers, economists, military people, and journalists and on and on. I read the WSJ a lot, too. I finally decided on Poland and I started a business there. I was present at a Warsaw palace the night Pepsi announced that it would invest $500 million into Poland. These were heady times for the former communist state sputtering into market based democracy. Business was difficult in Poland, but physical security was never an issue. Navigating cultural, language and commerce competency gaps were a daily challenge, but nobody had to worry about RPGs or IEDs or getting overrun and beheaded.

The commentator in the WSJ goes on to posit:

The security situation is far better than the media and the $500-a-day security companies would have you believe. British-educated Minister of Communications Amirzai Sangin notes that Americans are losing opportunities due to fears about security: “There is potential for five mobile companies here.

The fact that Investcom paid $40 million for their license — and that another company is in negotiations with us now — should give you the assurance that there is security here. We have 3,700 employees in every one of the 34 provinces and to date no person has been killed or kidnapped.”

Now it’s time to say in writing what I said to those government officials, military officers and journalists down at Quantico: Bullshit. While I was there, one driver under contract for a friend — who has been doing business in Afghanistan since 1997 — was murdered. They shot his truck with RPGs and small arms fire and killed him. There were attacks every day. Even some of the bases might be in danger of being overrun.

Just after I departed Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported on April 24:

…Elsewhere in the south, a group of heavily armed Taliban militants attacked an Afghan construction company working for coalition forces before dawn Sunday, killing one security guard and wounding two others before remaining security personnel fled.

The two-hour battle raged at the headquarters of the Thavazoo company in Shah Wali Kot district, about 25 miles north of the city of Kandahar, said Haji Mohammed Youssef, the company’s director.

The Taliban fighters entered the compound after security forces fled, burning 14 trucks and bulldozers and stealing equipment before escaping, said Youssef, whose company won a contract from the coalition forces to build a 25-mile stretch of road.

“Coalition forces are giving us money to help rebuild our country, but the enemies of Afghanistan don’t want us to succeed,” he said.

These cocktail party interviews have no place in the Wall Street Journal, and should not count as informed reporting. I very much hope that Iraq and Afghanistan become self-sufficient, prosperous countries, but misleading people who might invest money, energy and blood into these areas is no way to make that happen. I’ll still pick the WSJ out of any 10 papers, but I should hope the editors exercise more circumspection when printing commentary.

In fact, the media is not up-playing the danger in Afghanistan but seems to be grossly missing it. Unfortunately, I predict NATO and other forces will lose increasing numbers of soldiers in Afghanistan. The place is bad. Really bad. And it’s getting worse. Yesterday an Indian engineer was murdered. They cut off his head. Also, yesterday, the car bomb in the photo above exploded close by some employees of a friend. I was close by two bombings in just six days in Lashkar Gah, a place they used to call “safe.”

It is easy to start a business in Afghanistan, and some people are truly making a lot of money. But Afghanistan is no place for rookies.

Related Articles
CorpWatch Afghan Report
Ann Marlowe Article - Wall Street Journal
Easy Way Out - Washington Post
Taliban Threat… - New York Times
Political Animal - Washington Monthly
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