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The US military is fighting to build... Afghan business culture?

By Staff writer / January 14, 2011



22:10 ET

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(I wrote the below two days ago before the blog went live earlier today).

That's apparently the case, according to this Businessweek profile of Deputy Undersecretary for Defense Paul Brinkley:

"Building a culture of business is the only way Brinkley and General David Petraeus, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, believe they can counteract the legendary forces of destruction hereā€”from decades of war and deprivation to the brutal rule of the Taliban and a reliance on opium as a chief export. 'It's an infusion of optimism in what can seem like a hopeless situation,' Brinkley says. 'The Afghans say, 'People actually want to do business with us? Maybe there is something at the end of the rainbow.' "

Add that to the list of unconventional Pentagon tasks in Afghanistan at the moment -- from a counterinsurgency strategy focused on protecting the Afghan people from their own often rapacious leaders and police (as well as the Taliban) to digging irrigation canals and helping farmers get their crops to market.

My limited experience with Afghanistan is that many people understand how to do business, but violence, pervasive corruption and a high illiteracy rate (to say nothing of being landlocked with awful transportation infrastructure) conspire to make the country one of the poorest in the world.

International investors beyond the extractive industries (who go wherever the oil or minerals are) tend to shun such places, which mean that Mr. Brinkley has a very difficult job as, in the Businessweek reporter's words, "tour guide, ambassador, fixer, motivational speaker, and leader of the unofficial Afghanistan chamber of commerce. With all of his titles and duties, he prefers to think of himself primarily as a matchmaker, negotiating high-stakes unions between multinational companies like IBM and JPMorgan Chase and Afghan officials and entrepreneurs."

It's a fascinating portrait of a very American, can-do and optimistic approach. But it's hard to see a promotional effort yielding much investment fruit (let alone being a lynchpin in ending the war or addressing Afghanistan's pervasive problems) until, well, Afghanistan is less violent and large bribes on transporting fruit from one town to another or getting permits to build a factory (for starters) become aberations rather than the norm. The development of a skilled and efficient work force would be nice too.

And then there's the question of whether the Pentagon -- frequently derided as having a culture that's hostile to entrepreneurial thinking and famously inneficient in its spending -- is the right body to be trying to address Afghanistan's business climate in the first place.

The price tag? $150 million a year, according to the Businessweek article.

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