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I first met Lt. Col. Asad Khan of the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan when I embedded with his unit in 2004. Khan, now retired, was charged with the combat element of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Force — Battalion Landing Team, First Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment (BLT 1/6), which became the first conventional military presence in Uruzgan Province since the conflict began. What fascinated me so much about this Marine was the fact that he was a Pashtun American, who spoke Pashtun and whose family, at one time, was from an area just across the border in Pakistan. I thought, "Wow, this guy is one of a kind!"
The summer of 2004 was a good summer for Khan and BLT 1/6 as they cleared the central province of Taliban fighters, opening it up for the people there to cast ballots in the first presidential election in that country's history. The Commanding General at that time, Lt. Gen. David Barno, described Khan's push through Uruzgan Province like this: "Never in the history of Operation Enduring Freedom has there been an offensive operation like the one the 22nd MEU conducted. Never have we been this successful. You have made history here."
Just weeks after that quote, Khan was stripped of his command and he resigned his commission. Allegations of prisoner abuse surfaced that overshadowed the MEU's work. Ultimately Khan was handed the hot poker even though BLT 1/6 wasn't the unit involved in the abuse allegations. In fact, they were more than 100 miles away on named operations. Ultimately, Khan appeared to have been fired for being an over-the-top Marine officer. Marine green to the core. After much research, it is my conclusion that a distraction was needed to save others' promotions. Just my feeling, but that's a whole different story.
Since those days, Khan has taken a variety of assignments with different consulting firms all over the Middle East and central Asia. He helps provide mentoring services to various businesses, including Afghan businesses trying to get off the ground. He has much more interest in and knowledge of Afghanistan than the vast majority of Americans, and his insight should not be taken lightly.
A few months back, Khan sent me an essay he wrote, expressing his concerns about a U.S.-backed initiative called Afghan First, a program designed to help Afghan companies get involved in the billions of dollars being spent helping the country get back on its feet. Have no illusion here, Afghan First could never be the fix-all for Afghanistan, but it or a program like it must be part of the solution. Free-market entrepreneurship, much like the financial institutions, the courts and the military, must be built from scratch, and a program to aid its development needs to be regarded as a mandatory building block for a successful Afghan society.
According to a U.S. government website, the mission of Afghan First is a "program that allows Afghan owned businesses to be awarded contracts with certain dollar value restrictions. The program is intended to provide Afghan business owners and workers with a viable source of income while improving their skills. This also provides revenue for the burgeoning economy of Afghanistan."
However, what Khan is finding out — often times first hand — is that Afghan First would be more aptly called Afghan Last.
He writes about a counterinsurgency effort that espouses the importance of a growing economy in Afghanistan and how the Department of Defense is the largest contributor to that country's economy, but billions are spent with international contractors, with just a fraction of that money being used to invest in Afghan companies. More importantly, those Afghan businesses that do land contracts — to rebuild their own country — payment is woefully slow, to the point that it is making it almost impossible for Afghan businesses to get off the ground.
You think finding credit in the United States is difficult these days, imagine what it's like in Afghanistan! When contracted payments are late, the fledgling Afghan companies' resources dry up quickly. Simple as that.
But it goes beyond bureaucratic inefficiency and slow payments. Khan has many concerns, which he believes makes the field uneven. Things as complicated as Afghan companies not being able to bid on large projects because they cannot meet the high requirements. Or the obstacles in obtaining the proper visas to attend important meetings in the United States. Less complicated are issues like language barriers, buck sergeants pulling the money strings on businessmen, who in the Afghan world are highly respected, or the lack of access Afghans have to coalition bases, information and contracting/finance officers.
Khan's report is a basic read, but it covers much more and in greater detail than I can touch on in this post. I urge you to take a look at it here to better understand the complexities and obstacles that the world faces in the challenge of rebuilding Afghanistan.
Without that economic engine turning properly, this country can't recover. Foreign companies may make it look as though progress is in full swing, but beneath the surface, the economic health of the country is being hurt by the people trying to help.
Reporter, embedded journalist, former Marine