From The New York Times, writer Gayle Tzemach Lemmon describes an orientation session for the business women held at an US military base.
“It’s very simple,” he said, speaking slowly in American English that his translator quickly rendered into Dari for the Afghan businesswomen seated around a long wooden table. “You just measure it across. If it doesn’t measure 18 inches, it is wrong.”
The women nodded and took notes as Captain Flores moved on to the next topic in a four-hour tutorial in how to produce goods to specification for the U.S. military.
The session, held in mid-November, was part of an initiative to use military purchasing power to accomplish two goals: strengthening the capacity of businesses owned by Afghan women and creating local supply chains to support Afghan security forces, which are poised to grow sharply by the end of the year under President Barack Obama’s strategy for the country.
The effort, started last year by the Pentagon’s Kabul Regional Contracting Center, sets aside contracts totaling $365 million over five years to produce clothing and equipment for the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. The international community pledged in 2001 to rebuild the country’s security and armed forces; since then, the United States has committed $26 billion to train and equip the A.N.A. and A.N.P., accounting for roughly 55 percent of total U.S. reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan to date.
In the view of military contracting officials leading the set-aside project, supporting female entrepreneurs and bolstering Afghanistan’s economy are part of countering an increasingly emboldened insurgency. “Fifty percent of the country are women,” said Air Force Maj. Chuck Seidel, a local procurement chief with a budget of roughly $1 billion to purchase local supplies, including uniforms, boots and now T-shirts and other basics, for Afghan forces.
Yet despite great enthusiasm both from the U.S. military contracting experts and the entrepreneurs at the session, the initial question concerning the program’s viability remains: Will companies owned by Afghan women have the capacity to meet the requirements of so large a contract for so demanding a customer?
Awards for the Afghan army and police clothing and gear are expected to total $35 million in the first year alone, with a $300,000 minimum for each company that submits a winning contract. Though both their numbers and their successes are growing, to date few female Afghan entrepreneurs have produced at such volumes or won such big contracts.
Businesses competing for the contract, whether as a single company or a joint venture, will have to assemble a proposal to produce one of two groups of items, either undershirts and linens or rain gear and sleeping bags. Both are complicated propositions given that large-scale, in-country manufacturing experience remains the exception rather than the rule among Afghan entrepreneurs.
Very few women own factories here. And as the first attempt at the proposal process showed, most who make textiles sew at home or in small workshops to produce one-of-a-kind, handmade goods. Quality control of the kind to which the U.S. military is accustomed is nearly nonexistent.
Those working with the businesswomen, however, warn against underestimating either the capacity or the potential of the entrepreneurs. They note that a number of male-owned Afghan companies have already won contracts to provide the army and the force with boots and uniforms under a local procurement program started several years back.