When you think of Afghanistan, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? War? Taliban? Makes sense.
How about “The next Bangalore”?
Probably not. But there’s a team at the Pentagon working on that. And last week, they brought five Afghan entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley and New York to give them a glimpse of the U.S. tech industry.
“We’re showing them what a startup environment feels like,” Paul Brinkley, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, tells Fast Company.
Brinkley is in charge of the Pentagon’s Task Force on Business and Stability Operations. The unusual group was created in 2006 as an innovative approach to the military’s counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq. The team was tasked with finding ways to grow Iraq’s economy under the premise that the stronger the economy, the more jobs there would be and the harder it would be for insurgents to recruit members.
Two years ago, the Task Force turned its attention to Afghanistan with a similar purpose, and since then it’s been working on jump-starting a number of sectors in that country, including technology.
“The goal,” says Brinkley, a technology executive before he went to work for the Pentagon, “is to create an indigenous economy in Afghanistan that gives the Afghans hope, creates employment opportunities for young people, and discourages association with the radicals.”
In Silicon Valley, the group visited Dave McClure’s 500 Startups and the Plug and Play Tech Center, two incubators fostering startups like the ones the Afghans have founded. They also met with Google and IBM, both of which are sponsoring a tech incubator in the city of Herat. In New York, they visited YouTube and Bloomberg’s data team.
As much as they came to learn, the Afghans also wanted to get the tech community thinking differently about their country. “Everyone thinks people in Afghanistan just want to fight,” Naser Halimi (pictured above, third from right), the founder of an IT services company called Microcis, tells Fast Company. “We want to change this view and get the venture capitalists and the big companies coming to our country.”
Powering up the tech sector in Afghanistan is not a simple proposition. Fewer than 30% of Afghans are literate. Much of the country’s bureaucracy still runs on paper. But the shortcomings also create opportunities. Several of the companies founded by the entrepreneurs are working on getting Afghan companies and ministries digitized.
Ultimately, the Task Force hopes to inspire Western companies to outsource work to the Afghan techies the way they do to India or Eastern Europe. It’s a lofty goal, but the Task Force has an encouraging record. This is the team, after all, whose work led to the discovery of about $1 trillion in mineral deposits in Afghanistan. They helped get GE building power plants in Iraq. They’ve even helped Kate Spade source cashmere scarfs from Afghan weavers.
And so the Task Force presses on, working to connect the international tech community with the Afghan entrepreneurs, whom Brinkley reflexively refers to as “kids." Indeed, they are young. Halimi, who speaks with the seriousness and thoughtfulness of someone twice his age, is just 20. Another is 23. And Seema Azizi (pictured, top, second from right), an instructor at Kabul Polytechnic University who also works with a Kabul startup, is 25.
The "kids" come across as just as energetic and ambitious as their Western counterparts—if also better dressed: more button-down shirts, no flip-flops. It quickly becomes apparent that they swim in the same seas. At the Plug and Play Tech Center, the founders of a startup called Wadja, with several million users, give them a talk on their business. "You’re the people who created that?" one of the Afghans exclaims. "I’ve been using it for years.”
For all the similarities, though, the Afghans carry with them a particular sense of urgency not found among their Western peers.
“The old people in Afghanistan believe in paper,” Halimi says. “We, the new generation, need to build the infrastructure and improve our society using computers and IT.”
Among all the obstacles the entrepreneurs face at home, including, for example, difficulty accessing capital, the greatest, Brinkley says, is simply “their own sense of whether they can actually do this.”
The U.S. trip might help change that.
“I was motivated before, but now I’m extra motivated,” Azizi says. “You look at all these big companies and you realize that, at the beginning, they weren’t big. They too once started with just one or two or three people. And then they worked, and they got big.”
[Images: TFBSO photos by Tina Hager]