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Two months after Erik Malmstrom C’03 returned from his tour of duty in northeastern Afghanistan, U.S. Foreign Service officer Matt Asada C’02 W’02 was posted in nearby Kunduz as part of a provincial reconstruction team. He spoke with the Gazette about the challenge during a visit to Philadelphia in June 2008. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

You’re part of a provincial reconstruction team. What exactly is your mission?

The reconstruction teams are there to extend the reach and authority of the central government, to work with the Afghan forces to provide a stable environment so that reconstruction activities can occur. I generate political support for development projects, and I lobby back in Kabul with USAID to get attention to those issues and to bring those national-level projects down to my province.

Where do you live and whom do you
work with?

I live on the German military base in Kunduz, a province in the northeast. I’m lucky—I’m a civilian so I get a single room to myself. It’s funny, it reminds me a lot of being back on a university campus, where you go to the dining hall for your food. You know, there’s the one bar on the base that everyone goes to in the evening.

Do you notice any difference in the way things get addressed by a predominantly German team than if you were attached to an American team?

The Germans are very planning-oriented. They like to consider the decisions on all sides before making one—but as soon as they’ve made one, they stick with it. On the other hand, some might say that the U.S. is an idea-driven culture: we’re more spontaneous, we like to try things out, we like to take more risks. So yes, you see some of those things come out in how the development work is done. Also you see some differences in how we view the security situation, and what that means for our development partners. For instance, we have USAID implementing partners who are active in the province and they may have a certain security footprint. They may require going around with bodyguards, for instance, and more vehicles, whereas you’ll have a German implementing partner or a German NGO that’s out there on its own, that has no bodyguards and only one or two cars. It’s just a different perception of the security environment. I think that does have an impact on how we do development. The one thing I would say is that the closer you can get to the people, the more effective we are going to be in the long term.

What kinds of projects have you been involved in, and what kinds of challenges have been involved?

We’re trying to do a lot with the private sector. How do we stimulate the private sector, and what does it take to grow the economy? Well, Afghanistan has been a country of trade for centuries now. They were on the Silk Route. They know how to trade—it is not something that we have to teach them. But they’ve gone through a couple different regimes, and their experience under the Communist regime—where you had a command economy as opposed to our market economy—really altered people’s perceptions of how an economy should work. And I think it’s something that we’ve never truly addressed, being there in Afghanistan. The Communists fell, then you had the mujahadeen, then you had the Taliban, and only now, in 2001, you have Karzai, who’s instituted again market capitalism. But there are still a lot of people who think that the government’s job is to provide jobs, build big factories. Whereas the big collective enterprises of the past, legacies from the Soviet system, are not competitive on the world market. I think what we are seeing is that rather than the government making these big industrial investments, we’re seeing a little bit smaller scale—small and medium enterprises that are trying to take advantage of opportunities.

What’s a good example of that?

Take the example of the guy who’s developing this new rice factory in Kunduz. He fled Afghanistan during the Taliban. He went to Tajikistan, and only with the fall of the Taliban in 2001 did he come back. And he’s come back not only having created this successful business in Tajikistan—having a more worldly approach, and also exposure to better business practices—but also a desire to do something in Afghanistan. So he’s started up an oil import/export business, he’s done Pakistani re-exportation of cement—that goes from Pakistan through Afghanistan through Tajikistan over a new bridge—and now he’s decided to invest in a rice factory. It’s the first time Kunduz province will have a rice factory that will basically mill and process the rice to take it from the fields to the consumer. But he has also not only done that, he has gone up to the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan and that new bridge that I mentioned before—a $49 million dollar investment from the U.S. government—and he has developed plans to make a 1,600-shop bazaar there.

Why is there an emphasis on export-related businesses, as opposed to, say, businesses designed to serve local markets?

In my area, I think the emphasis has been on these new trade linkages because of this bridge. It’s an hour from Kunduz and it’s on the paved road. It’s part of the future Central Asian trade route. And now with this new bridge, people are starting to look north, or look south, at new markets at new opportunities. I think we’ve always said that trade builds bridges, but in this case it’s been the bridge that has built the trade.

The idea of nation-building is a subject of debate and disagreement in the United States. What is its proper role, from your perspective?

In reality, there are many places around the world that are very unstable that threaten our security and our prosperity. And there are just some things that we are going to have to address. So I’m encouraged by the fact that the Department of State and the Department of Defense are looking to develop a core group of individuals that have experience in these lands, that can go into crisis areas around the world and assist these countries. I think it’s a little premature to consider myself a part of that group—this is my first experience in a country like Afghanistan—but I think for the future I’m looking to have regional expertise in South Asia: in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. But I think all of these challenges are too large for us to address on our own. And it’s the combination and coordination between the U.S. and its Western allies, and its allies in general, that will allow us to prevail.

Your posting to Afghanistan was for one year. Do you wish you had more time?

If I could spend two years or three years, I’d definitely be more proficient and more effective in the job. At the same time, there are challenges to living on a military base—where it’s a pretty solitary existence, and where there is personal security that you have to consider. You know, the military base has been subject to 10 or 11 rocket attacks. There’s the stress of being in that kind of environment. I’m looking forward to a place where I can go out to a restaurant, go to a bar, go to a club, go to the theater—whatever it may be—and not have to think about a suicide attack or a rocket attack in the evening, or checking the intel report before I step out the door.

< back to feature: Losing the Waigul Valley By Erik Malmstrom


A new bridge to Tajikistan:
If you build it, will trade come?

< back to feature: Losing the Waigul Valley By Erik Malmstrom

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Last modified 11/04/08