RACHEL MARTIN, host: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is in Afghanistan this weekend. During his visit, he said the U.S. commitment to that country is firm but not forever. In fact, the Obama administration plans to start withdrawing some troops next month.
It's been a tough balancing act for the U.S., building Afghanistan up so it can keep al-Qaida out without committing endless money and manpower. Gates, in particular, has been trying to lower expectations about how much nation-building the U.S. can do. Here's what he said in early 2009.
Secretary ROBERT GATES: Afghanistan is the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world. And if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose.
MARTIN: Yet for the past year and a half, the Pentagon has had a task force assigned to build an Afghan economy basically from scratch, not Valhalla, but still a massive undertaking. The director of that task force is resigning at the end of this month. We'll talk with him in just a minute.
But first, I sat down with author Nathan Hodge whose book, "Armed Humanitarians," talks about America's love-hate relationship with nation-building.
NATHAN HODGE: I'd argue that we're nation builders in denial in Afghanistan.
MARTIN: Hodge says the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy rests on a big assumption.
HODGE: The idea that if you get at the root causes of poverty and development, you can kind of solve the problems of violence and failing or failed states.
MARTIN: And that is the idea behind Paul Brinkley's Pentagon task force. It was actually created in 2006 to turn Iraq's economy around. Four years later, General David Petraeus moved it to Afghanistan to do the same thing there.
Brinkley is trying to help Afghanistan get at and use the trillion dollars worth of minerals under its soil. To make that happen, he brings CEOs over to Afghanistan - executives from J.P. Morgan Chase, Citibank, even Kate Spade - and tries to get them to invest.
But several lawmakers on Capitol Hill say the task force blurs the line between military and civilian missions, that touring CEOs around Afghanistan isn't something the Pentagon should be doing. So earlier this year, Congress ordered the task force to move its operation from the Pentagon over to the civilian-run State Department. Nathan Hodge says that could make it harder for the task force to travel around the country and do its work.
HODGE: The problem is people from the State Department, AID, they're not trained to be in combat zones. And very often, you're talking about doing this kind of armed development work while being shot at.
MARTIN: Paul Brinkley says there are inherent risks involved in this work, but ultimately, it's about convincing Afghans that the minerals under their soil could mean big rewards for the country.
PAUL BRINKLEY: We're seeing that virtuous cycle take hold, their awareness that they have something that will enable them to free themselves from dependence upon international donors and their understanding that they can create an economy based on something that the world needs.
MARTIN: Does the way of doing business in Afghanistan have to change in order to take advantage of these minerals?
BRINKLEY: I wouldn't think it - I don't think of it as having to change. I think it has to be created. There's never been, in recent history or going back even millennia, a core, indigenous source of wealth that would enable Afghanistan to have its own revenue base, its own base of wealth. And...
MARTIN: I mean, there is opium production, but obviously...
BRINKLEY: There is, right. But that's not - that's highly illicit. And that's a good point. In Helmand Province, where a significant amount of opium production takes place, we have communicated that there is literally billions of dollars of mineral wealth in Helmand Province. Properly developed, that completely dwarfs the poppy economy, right? But in order to properly develop it, there are changes. Creation has to take place of business practices that they never had to do before. So it's less about changing a business culture as it is about providing them access to the global economy.
MARTIN: Part of developing these business rules, rules of the road for dealing with these minerals, is making sure that once you get these minerals out the ground that there's a modus operandi for handling them and that this doesn't somehow become a corrupt industry.
MARTIN: I mean, immediately, you think about the Congo and blood diamonds...
MARTIN: ...and what that did to that economy and that culture. How do you approach this?
BRINKLEY: This is our greatest concern, and it is still a great concern. Our approach to this is to provide access to world-class expertise from this mining industry who have done this work in the places that Afghanistan wants to emulate. This is not new. This has been done before. There are paths that can be followed. But there's a long way to go between where we are today and where that future can be, and there are a lot of places along that path where things can go in a direction we wouldn't want them to. Afghanistan, with certainty, I can say, in 20 years is going to be a mining country. That is going to happen.
MARTIN: What makes you say so?
Because of the wealth that it possesses and the demand for the wealth. This will become a mining center. The question of what kind of mining center it will be is the one that we all need to be taking very, very seriously now. I don't think history will look kindly upon the international community if, you know, we put 10 or however many years we put into Afghanistan and the billions of dollars and the blood of our young men and women to have it turn into a Congo-like situation. And I think we all feel that responsibility and are doing everything we can to help Afghanistan move in a direction that avoids that outcome.
Mm-hmm. A lot of people have raised questions about whether the work that you're doing, which, let's be frank, in Afghanistan, you're trying to build an economy...
MARTIN: ...starting from scratch, as we said. This kind of work may - that it isn't appropriate that this be done through the Pentagon. I mean, as you've alluded to, this isn't something our government has really done before, let alone our military. You have decided not to make that move along with your task force.
BRINKLEY: Well, there's a host of reasons for my personal decision on departing here at the end of June. I mean, it's been five years. The second part is the entire federal administrative system in the Defense Department is going through a transition now. Many of our champions and sponsors and supporters are in the process of a transition themselves: Secretary Gates, General Petraeus, people who we've worked with very closely. So in terms of timing, those factors are as significant as any other.
That decision created a moment where one could step back and say: Okay, where are we at? What are we doing? How are we postured? And the fact that there's now an acknowledgement that this does need to probably get embedded within our civilian infrastructure is a good acknowledgement. So...
MARTIN: Is there any part of you that is hesitant about leaving the particular - the Afghanistan project right now, now that you've got this, you know, you've got, kind of, some momentum?
BRINKLEY: Right. We're at a point of inflection in terms of the overall American mission in Afghanistan. And what we're working very closely with our colleagues, both in the military and at the State Department on is how do we effect a transition that ensures that the initiation of this work, that that momentum continues to build and that things don't fall back.
MARTIN: Paul Brinkley. He's the deputy undersecretary for Defense and the head of the Pentagon's Taskforce for Business and Stability Operations. Paul, thanks for coming in.
BRINKLEY: Thank you so much, Rachel.
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