What will the factors be that turn Afghanistan ca. 2002-2012 into a “good war” or a “bad war” when historians write their text books (or whatever has replaced books) in 50 years? As with all things historic, accurate perspective can only be gained from a distance of years when you are far removed from daily sensationalist headlines and daily sensationalist politics.
The Afghan people will have their own version of this decade of war. Will their history record it as a fading stain on a now-booming democratic nation, or will it have been sacrifices made by many to no avail?
Visiting Washington, DC this month is an Afghan delegation of 15 small business owners; 13 men and 2 women. Not only are they entrepreneurs in a culture not known for encouraging entrepreneurship, but they all own construction companies in a culture not known for architectural achievement. Their customer is 90% US Army Corps of Engineers and 10% Afghan Government. There are virtually no private construction projects in Afghanistan.
Their companies are small and young with the oldest one founded in 2003 and the newest just last year. Yet, they employ dozens if not hundreds of Afghan men – and yes women – in their businesses. They are individually proud of their progress in creating successful companies and in having a diversified workforce. All have women working in their offices and some have women engineers and architects in addition to the women bookkeepers, clerks and receptionists. None seem to have any trouble working in this diversified environment, something unimaginable just 10 years ago.
When they talk about their respective business challenges, they could be entrepreneurs sitting at any local Chamber of Commerce meeting in the US. The banks aren’t lending to help them finance their construction projects; they can’t find qualified labor; they can’t get bonding; they have to work 80 hours a week to make the business prosper; the amount of paperwork required to do a US Army Corps project is overwhelming. All are challenges shared by their US counterparts.
But there are important differences
They universally agree that their #1 problem is security, especially in remote areas where they are building roads, dams and bridges. Their women office employees are vulnerable to attacks and many keep their employment secret to all but immediate families. There is no public transportation to get their workers to the job sites. There is a scarcity of materials that often take months to procure. There is no one to hire that has any management experience. There is no Afghan building code to help guide planners or builders.
Yet they are committed to succeeding as an entrepreneur
Just like their US counterpart, their entrepreneurial mind is agile and optimistic. Their English is impeccable and their European suits would fit into any Corporate Board meeting. They understand cash flow, the value of employee benefits, the need for quality control, and how to market their services.
Will this small group of dedicated entrepreneurs and hundreds more like them at home be the ultimate victors that historians will write about? It clearly is too soon to tell and they will be the first to tell you they have no idea what their future holds. The withdrawal of US troops just 12 months away is worrisome to them and none have a business plan that extends past the end of 2012.
Perhaps most telling about this fledging delegation was the refusal of one of the women delegates to be included in any of the group photos being taken on nearly an hourly basis. No, it wasn’t any superstitious fear of a camera that kept her in the background. She is only 26 years old, unmarried and has traveled 7,000 miles from home with 13 men who are not related to her nor even previously known to her. If the worst happens and the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan after the US military leaves, she would surely face a brutal future. That single fact is the overlooked elephant in the entrepreneurial office.