Kabul, Afghanistan | July 15, 2003:
Talk about being at the forefront of change. I am riding a wave that is being created in real time. Certainly nothing horrible has happened…yet. It has just been rather stunning to experience the rawness of this place. But then, what did I expect? Last week’s fact finding odyssey for getting an export license left me dumbfounded. It turns out that nobody has any idea what the country’s laws are….and I don’t mean that businesspeople who own multiple companies or employees of big men in town don’t know the laws. I mean, the Minister of Commerce doesn’t know his own laws!!! I was sitting with the Minister and his private sector advisor being told to my face things that turned out to be utterly untrue. Nobody in the Ministry of Commerce had any idea that somebody had created a law that caused a foreigner’s export license fee to be almost a 100 times more expensive than the locals ($60 vs. $5000). The only guy who knew was the one who wrote the law and I had the accidental luck of having dinner with him after a very wasteful few days of inquiry with supposed experts and runaround guys. At dinner, I listened to the big fat stupid “Dr. Dawud” (a 30 year old business Ph.D. from USC) as he blathered on insensitively about his obscenely contradictory law while the two American officials who wrote the entire Embassy primer for doing business in Afghanistantook notes!!! It was preposterous. It was like, no small foreign business had bothered to try this before and I was the first one!! Luckily, I didn’t require this permit. I had just wanted to get it as a nice little luxurious extra – a way to totally control my own destiny.
While I sat picking at my kabob and staring across the restaurant at the extremely large entourage of super scary warlord commando types, Dawud made jokes that I wasn’t really listening or interested in all his politico talk and all I cared about was how to get that $5k discounted. He was sure right about that. When I wasn’t running through scenarios in my head of being kidnapped into white slavery by the turbaned dudes across the chandelier-lit room, I was listening to the strange brown-nosing being conducted between the US embassy commercial liaisons and the Commerce Ministry officials. Dawud thought he had charm, but sadly all he had was a large ego, and the American officials returned somewhat energetic but strangely substance-less comments between wafts of targeted flattery. The night was not at all a loss though -- a huge amount of useful information leaked out of the political banter and I did enjoy the company of the kind and blue eyed Mr. Shaer Baz Hakimy (an Ismaeli advisor to Karzai who probably played a major role in eliminating competition and getting his Aga Khan people the recent $50 million wireless deal in Afghanistan). I have nothing but love for those Ismaeilis – if only the Afghans and all of Central Asia could understand how much they owed them for their good works, instead of thanklessly bashing them and calling them heretics.
Anyway, I still have a plan for skipping out on the $5k fee. It’s a special program providing concessions for women in the Ministry of Commerce…more to come next week.