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‘Afghanistan First’ Program Shifts Focus to Training

By Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, March 14, 2007 – Give an Afghan a job hauling bags of cement, he works for a day. Give an Afghan a job that offers on-the-job-training, and he works for the rest of his life.

That is the general idea behind a shift in focus in the Afghanistan First program, a policy that gives incentives to Afghan companies and contractors in Afghanistan that use local Afghan labor to fulfill work contracts. More than $1 billion in contracts went to Afghan companies in 2006.

“It was a socioeconomic development program, a way to provide the population with jobs and employment,” explained Army Maj. Guy Jones, Combined Joint Task Force 82’s chief of future plans. “It provides an economic impact on the people. The problem is it does not increase capacity or skills. We’re now going to focus toward contracts that include training programs.”

Under the original concept of Afghanistan First, unskilled laborers had jobs, but remained unskilled laborers once the job was done, a situation that would continue to work only as long as the coalition was there to keep hiring them.

“Afghanistan First looked at how we could change long-term capabilities,” Jones said. “We refocused from the number of Afghans employed to the number of Afghans being trained while employed.”

The goal is to encourage contractors working within Afghanistan to train unskilled Afghans or hire skilled laborers, thereby encouraging Afghans to seek training at training centers. Jones said this will allow Afghanistan to grow the kind of skilled laborers the country currently lacks.

“In the end, we have physical, human capital already trained,” he said. “It allows them to get a job later. It builds the human capability inside of Afghanistan.”

Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew Stevens, principal assistant responsible for Afghanistan contracting, said Afghanistan cannot survive without skilled people.

“Afghanistan has lost 25 years of skilled labor in wars,” he said. “You can’t make a master electrician just like that. It takes years.”

Afghanistan has plenty of unskilled laborers as well as highly educated members of the work force such as doctors and lawyers. What it lacks, Jones said, is the group that falls in between.

“You cannot have a sustained economy without that center tier of employment,” he explained. “We’re missing the in-between skills that drive employment.”

To grow that center tier, training centers run by the Afghan government, the coalition and private contractors offering free training have popped up all over the country. The trick, Stevens said, is to get people to go.

“At some, they get paid $3 a day to attend class, then generally the company running the training center will hire them. We don’t want all low-skill labor here. We want to infuse skill sets so the economy can sustain itself and international companies can come in and are comfortable that the local labor they hire has a skill reference point.”

Jones said the program would spark a continuing cycle that would help Afghanistan progress.

“It would truly be able to give Afghans an economy that is not based solely on external donations,” he said. “By doing that, it helps us provide more help to the government at the local level and enable them to get some projects done faster.”

While focusing on infrastructure skills such as engineering and construction for now, Jones said, officials are looking for ways to expand Afghanistan First into other areas.

“We’re figuring out what other programs can be linked,” he said. “We hope to spread to education, where we can hire skilled, trained teachers, and (to extend the program to) agriculture.”

Stevens said if the program works as well as he thinks it will, Afghanistan eventually can become a global economic force.

“In 25 years, I see the Afghans being an independent, economic force in the global market,” he said. “To what degree depends on their desire and will to pursue that endeavor.”

(Air Force Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher is assigned to Regional Command East Public Affairs Office.)

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