Posted by Paul Anderson on Apr 25, 2018
Walt Koenig, Kerrville Chamber of Commerce President, and a member of our Noon Rotary Club, shares his expertise on the country of Afghanistan derived from his time there (and in Iraq) as a U.S. diplomat.
According to Walt, Afghanistan is a country of contradictions - 90% of the population have cell phones, while electricity penetration is amongst the lowest in the world.  It is a landlocked country of about 260,000 square miles in area (about the size of Texas).  The country's population is estimated at 37 million, with 70% below the age of 30.  It's a highly tribal country with 11 major ethic groups and 2 official languages (Dari & Pashtu).  Afghanistan also has a very long history of occupation, resistance and upheaval dating back to the time of Alexander the Great (who conquered the country in 330 on his way to India).
With respect to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, 9/11/2001 is the date that changed everything.  The attack on the twin towers led to our direct involvement in the region.  According to Walt, with little obstacles or military resistance, getting into the country was not difficult (particularly for a fighting force like the U. S. military).  Gains were easy at first, and there was much international involvement and support.  A constitution was drafted and initial elections appeared both clean and fair.
However, early gains were lost quickly, and Walt surmised that the Iraq conflict was primarily to blame.  With a diversion of assets and attention to the Iraq War, things got messy in Afghanistan.  A huge influx of funds earmarked for development led to rampant corruption.  The weak central government was unable to control the provinces and tribal areas, and to make matters worse, Afghanistan's neighbors were less than helpful.  Iran, China, Pakistan and other surrounding ex-Soviet states were all prohibitive and restrictive, also influencing discontent and upheaval in the country's outlying regions.  General complacency also contributed to these troubles.
A military and civilian surge helped the U.S. stabilize the situation as a response to these losses.  The initial military surge, and subsequent increase in troop count, helped restore equilibrium to the country.  Working in tandem with the troop surge, the whole of the U.S. Government worked to rebuild civil society in Afghanistan through re-establishing the rule of law, rebuilding essential government structures, and working to create opportunities for economic development.  Walt was integrally involved in developing economic opportunities in Afghanistan, as he began the first Chamber of Commerce in the country's long history!  He worked to create $100M in trade deals, many with American blue-chip companies, on a $1M budget.  As a matter of fact, Walt mentioned that this experience is what drove his interest in working with chambers in future endeavors. He also met his lovely wife Maria, during his stint in Afghanistan, as it was her responsibility to check references in vetting applications for Visas for the chamber.
According to Walt, despite the relative stability, there is still a lot to do in Afghanistan.  However, with a different approach from the White House - one more of pressuring the enemies of our efforts there instead of appeasing them and criticizing the efforts of the Afghan people - he is optimistic of the continued gains we can achieve.  Pakistan is key.  They are responsible for creating, funding, and mobilizing the Taliban, and were clearly guilty of harboring Osama Bin Laden during our search for the terrorist leader.  Walt mentioned that we have significant leverage on Pakistan, and with a concerted effort, we may be able to work with the country to help bring more lasting stability to Afghanistan.  He also mentioned the importance of maintaining a continued military presence in Central Asia.
Thank you Walt for sharing your expertise!