A worker assembles parts at a factory of the State Company for Mechanical Industry in Iskandiriyah, Iraq, one of many companies that TFBSO helped draw investors to.

A worker assembles parts at a factory of the State Company for Mechanical Industry in Iskandiriyah, Iraq, one of many companies that TFBSO helped draw investors to. TFBSO/Tina Hager

That 'Wasteful' Task Force? You're Not Getting the Full Story

In Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations fostered helpful investment — and pioneered an essential component of future missions.

It has been a rough few months for the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, set up a decade ago to woo investors and businesses to war-torn Iraq and then Afghanistan. Several harsh inspector general reports led to a Jan. 20 hearing on Capitol Hill, where senators, in rare bipartisan agreement, accused TFBSO of wasting millions of dollars. Even DoD seemed disinclined to defend the outfit; at the hearing, Brian McKeon, principal deputy defense undersecretary for policy, emphasized that its work occurred “before [his] time.”

However, a fairly robust body of evidence suggests that TFBSO was far more effective than the present headlines let on. In fact, an economic impact assessment produced by Vestige Consulting and Acertas asserts that its work in Afghanistan will ultimately yield spectacular returns on investment.

“[T]he consultants’ economic modeling found that task force projects would, by 2025, help lift Afghanistan’s gross domestic product to $107.8 billion, compared with just $53.3 billion if those projects didn’t exist,” Politico wrote about the report. These figures imply billions of dollars in revenues for the fiscally challenged Afghan government. For a subcommittee — the Armed Services’ readiness and management support panel — in search of metrics justifying TFBSO expenditures, it is surprising that they were apparently ignored.

At worst, in the words of McKeon, the results of TFBSO’s work were reportedly “mixed.” Such a characterization, though, is hardly conclusive. Indeed, the same could be said about the efforts of every single organization that has operated in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001—U.S. and international, governmental and non-governmental, military and civilian alike. It is an adjective that only amateurs from the proverbial nosebleed section would interpret as decisive.

Nonetheless, members of the subcommittee hardly acknowledged this circumstance. Sen. Kelly Ayotte praised the U.S. military and castigated TFBSO, but I know of no current or former member of the U.S. armed forces who would describe our military’s contribution to Afghanistan’s security and stability as an unequivocal success. As is true of most other entities that touched the country’s reconstruction effort, its results were similarly “mixed.” Such a conclusion, of course, suggests not that our military should be dissolved, marginalized, or subjected to poorly justified criticism, but that it should incorporate the lessons learned in Afghanistan into future population-centric counterinsurgency campaigns.

TFBSO’s origins and organizational design represent a substantial contribution to those lessons. The task force was established in 2006 at the request of field commanders who saw a gap in U.S. expeditionary development capabilities. As Iraq was slipping into chaos, there was a widespread and quite valid perception that economic development initiatives undertaken by both the U.S. military and USAID were falling well short of their objectives. Initially led by former JDS Uniphase executive Paul Brinkley, the task force was staffed by members of the U.S. private sector—in other words, by people who were, by virtue of their experience in business, best positioned to revitalize Iraqi industry and facilitate international investment. This represented a new approach to economic development in Iraq, one that was later applied in Afghanistan under Jim Bullion, President of management consulting firm Phoenix Global Services.

TFBSO functioned much like an entrepreneurial private sector entity, albeit one operating under the auspices of government. This naturally created some friction, which may help account for assertions, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that the task force fell short of its objectives.  However, as a recent RAND report concludes, “regardless of today’s perceived effectiveness of the Task Force in Afghanistan, or Iraq, it is likely that … future economic development efforts will contain private sector-focused elements akin to those employed by TFBSO.”

Even if you disbelieve the projected impact of TFBSO initiatives calculated by Vestige and Acertas, there is little question that the legacy of the task force should be positive. Indeed, its very creation rightly called into question the U.S.’s conventional model of government-led economic development. As the RAND report says: “rather than shunning the Task Force for perceived ineffectiveness, right or wrong, we believe that the U.S. policy community should plan for future organizational solutions to these same challenges.”

Both the members of the subcommittee and U.S. taxpayers have an interest in ensuring that economic development initiatives undertaken by the government yield a justifiable return on investment. In the case of TFBSO, however, there is a much more salient concern: whether those entrusted with the oversight and autopsy of the task force are even qualified to evaluate its efficacy in the first place.

There is ample evidence to suggest that they are not. At one point in the hearing, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko suggested that TFBSO should not have been working with the Afghanistan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum. Yet those of us who know anything about Afghanistan understand that extractive industries represent the country’s best hope for economic independence. At another point, Sen. Claire McCaskill questioned whether, given high security costs, any business would see profitable investment opportunities in Afghanistan. Yet, among numerous other examples, Monaco Telecom International (MTI) and TeliaSonera gladly took a minority stake in the wildly successful Afghan telecommunications provider Roshan.

A little-appreciated truth is that business goes on in conflict zones. But in conflict zones, businesses and investors also need a lot of help. TFBSO provided the necessary assistance because no other entity had the will or the expertise to do so. Given the present woeful state of the Afghan economy, and contrary to the current (and frankly very strange) TFBSO witch hunt, the relevant question for the American taxpayer is actually why we do not reconstitute some form of this very powerful expeditionary development capability.