Book of the Week: War Front to Store Front
February 15th, 2014
01:57 AM ET

Book of the Week: War Front to Store Front

By John Cookson

Fareed’s ‘Book of the Week’ is Paul Brinkley's War Front to Store Front. Brinkley was the Pentagon official tasked with getting capitalism going in Iraq and Afghanistan.  GPS's John Cookson spoke with Brinkley this week about his experiences, Afghanistan’s economic potential and the prospects for stability after the U.S. withdraws from the country this year.

Much of the focus in recent weeks has been on the politics of Afghanistan and on comments by President Hamid Karzai. But you say economics is the underlying issue for the country. What did you learn about Afghanistan’s economy during your time there?

We launched the mission in 2009, seven years after the Taliban had been deposed. We entered Afghanistan at the request of both the command and the embassy in Afghanistan to provide, to build and to understand what was possible economically. What was shocking about that was there was so much potential. But seven years into the conflict it was late to get started. The two areas we were most aggressively pursuing were resource development – both minerals and oil and gas – as well as agriculture.

Oil and gas and minerals had received no attention at all. And agriculture had basically been limited to provision of fertilizers and seeds, but no improvements in technologies, no improvements in yields, no effort to open markets and connect Afghan agribusinesses to international supply chains. So we immersed ourselves and launched an entire effort there to build a basis of economic stability for the country that you could then rest institutions on.

We had a good two-year push, and then unfortunately the bureaucratic machinations of Washington interfered and took the legs out of the mission. By 2011, the mission had been reduced to a small team to sustain a few projects that had already been started. But the whole economic backbone of Afghanistan remains undeveloped, which I think is a huge existential threat to the stability of that country.

What about poppy cultivation and heroin production in Afghanistan? 

The things that we found that were troubling were that while we had an incredible amount of energy focused over the last decade on eradication of crops, on eliminating efforts to move raw heroin out of Afghanistan and on reducing dependence on poppy, very little was done to create alternative sources of income for farmers. So it’s no good to go in and spray someone’s crop if they don’t have anything else to grow. Or if they grow something and there’s no place to process it.  If you are telling me to grow cotton or wheat or any other commodity and there’s nobody who wants to buy it – you haven’t connected me to a chain of market access – well, then what am I supposed to do? You’re basically telling a farmer that his only source of income, which are illicit crops like poppy, sold internationally – he can’t do that, but you haven’t provided an alternative. That doesn’t work.

There’s a whole series of absurdities about our engagement in poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. As the United States, we don’t seem to be able to control the drug trade on a border country, in Mexico. How we think we can go in and punitively control a drug culture in a country like Afghanistan really mystifies me. But it has to begin with providing an alternative source of income to that farm community, and that has never been done.

What does Afghanistan need going forward?

We did manage to design and do a massive undertaking that we describe in the book. We catalogued and created an understanding in Afghanistan of where their indigenous sources of wealth exist, both oil and gas, mineral wealth, and also a lot of work on agriculture. Now, what they need is time. The country today is still totally dependent on foreign aid for its governing institutions and a lot of its economic activity. They need another, honestly, five years. But if they get the parliament and the new president to really focus on this, they need three to five years of stability for an indigenous economy to take hold and create the kind of income that would allow them to sustain their own security and their own development going forward.

My fear is that in this time of fatigue in the West – the U.S., Europe, other coalition partners – and the desire to drawn down and turn over Afghanistan without that foundation of economic stability in place you will have a fragile state. So, I’m hopeful but honestly not optimistic of that three to five years of additional stability, given how late we are in starting that fundamental work on economic development. I’m concerned that three to five years of additional stability may be too optimistic.  If they don’t have that, then I fear for the integrity of that state.​

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    Poppies are even more lucrative than they are beautiful, and their cultivation is much easier than picking cotton or digging for oil.
    Were there no market for poppies, I might lose all motivation to grow them.
    Who buys all of those poppies?

    February 15, 2014 at 6:58 am |
  2. Joseph McCarthy

    Paul Brinkley's "War Front to Store Front" explains the very reason we went into Afghanistan and later Iraq in the first place. We went in to exploit these nations' natural resources by using 9/11 as the pretext. Until the Afghans and Iraqis cease to chant "Allahu Akbar" and start chanting "Capitalismhu Akbar-er", Paul Brinkley and his right-wing henchmen will not be happy!

    February 15, 2014 at 8:22 am |
  3. joe anon 1

    the iraqis have been businessmen, merchants, traders before europe, usa existed
    they were doing fine before war 1, sanctions, war 2, terrorism.
    capitalism like freedom, democracy just another propaganda word for stealing, control.

    February 15, 2014 at 2:41 pm |
    • Mark Rushing

      Well put, joe. You nailed it!

      February 15, 2014 at 7:26 pm |
  4. chrissy

    Unfortunately that is true @ joe. Todays Democracy is nothing how it was invisioned in the 6th century when it was created, only because it has been exploited so badly by some, who did not have the most honorable intentions!

    February 15, 2014 at 11:18 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      To avoid any confusion chrissy, democracy was created in Athens, Greece in the sixth century BC, not AD. In fact, democracy in Europe in the sixth century AD was totally non existent as the feudal system has replaced the Roman one altogether. Here in the U.S., democracy is giving way to a military bureaucracy aka the M.I.C.!

      February 16, 2014 at 12:01 pm |
  5. chrissy

    Exactly @ Joseph! And the military bureaucracy is extremely tainted!

    February 16, 2014 at 2:37 pm |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    The oil and gas, mineral wealth might one day be a curse in Afghanistan. With this wealth tribal leaders and warlords would see no reason to share it with the others. There might be more conflict in the country.

    February 19, 2014 at 8:52 am |
    • Felix Unger

      These resources are the very reasons we invaded Afghanistan in the first place, j. von hettlingen, and that's the reason Obama wants to keep our troops there indefinitely and thus prolong the obscene occupation.

      February 19, 2014 at 9:15 am |
  7. chrissy

    @ Felix, i agree with you that thats the reason we were there in the first place. However, as to that being why Obama wants to keep some military there, i think you are wrong. Only because his initial plan was to bring ALL troops home but Afghanastan did not want that nor did the DOD. Along with many other lawmakers (although they probably had ulterior making him appear to be a failure on EVERY wretched thing)! In any case the cards were stacked against a total retraction of military troops.

    February 19, 2014 at 12:13 pm |
  8. chrissy

    Sorry for spelling errors. Should be "Afghanistan".

    February 19, 2014 at 12:15 pm |
  9. karkar

    TFBSO claimed that Afghanistan would be "the Saudi Arabia of lithium", yet their exploration efforts failed to find more than 15 ppm Li in bines, a full two orders of magnitude less than their theoretical analog South American analog. Not a word about this to the press. Shame on the press for not following up..

    March 19, 2014 at 7:56 pm |
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