From War Front to Store Front
No matter where you site on the political spectrum, there is not much positive you can say about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul Brinkley’s book is a welcome exception, because it talks about efforts to create human security in both countries which the United States Department of Defense created and promoted.
Paul Brinkley’s From War Front to Store Front is just that.
After a decade or so as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, the Texas-born Brinkley was asked to join the Department of Defense after 9/11 to bring business expertise to the Pentagon. He quickly realized that there was an even bigger problem, the lack of what we in the peacebuilding community call human security in those war torn countries. As he puts it for the entire Middle East:
unemployment and lack of prospects for a better life define daily existence for millions of restive young people, in spite of massive amounts of aid funding channeled from U.S. taxpayers, and endless promises from traveling U.S. politicians that Americans would help them create a better life (3).
Quickly, he came to see that there was no purely military (or, in DoD terms, kinetic) way to win the wars. We could oust the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, but in so doing, we often created the seed of further uprisings–perhaps worse ones. Again, his words are instructive:
Absent a return of normal life, including jobs, schools, and other facets of normality, these communities would again become hotbeds of unrest, ripe for a return to insurgent activity (19)
So, with the support (admittedly grudging at first) from Secretaries Rumsfeld and Gates, Brinkley and his team set out to do what he could to return to normal life by doing what he was trained to do–create businesses and jobs.
The book chronicles the way that he and his colleagues reversed course on one of the major blunders made by the Coalition Provisional Authority–dismantling all of the Iraqi state-owned companies. With the support of Deputy Secretary Gordon England, Brinkley created a Task Force on Business Stability Operations that gained authorization to restart those businesses under private ownership when and where conditions permitted. To make a long story short, Brinkley worked with some of the more open minded Pentagon leaders including England, Gates, and Generals Petraeus, McChrstal, Odierno, and others to create companies that could address some of the shortcomings he talks about in the statement I quoted from before.
It was not an unqualified success. He faced continuous opposition from the State Department, USAID, and some on the Hill, which eventually did in the program two years into the Obama administration, in which he also served.
In the end, this is one of the few book one can read about the post 9/11 world and end up feeling hopeful. It is also a delightful read because it shows us how dedicated Americans–in and out of uniform–helped make this a slightly better world in the midst of one of the worst foreign policy disasters of the last half century.