Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
The way Nisar Ahmad sees it, the war in Afghanistan has been pretty good to him. The 19-year-old runs a shop stall on a British military base in Helmand selling knock-off cigarettes, sunglasses, carpets and other assorted trinkets to young soldiers eager to spend their cash. On a good day, he takes in anywhere between $300 and $400 as the nicotine-hungry snap up 10-packs of Chinese-made, fake Marlboro cigarettes for just $5 a pop, or a pair of fake designer shades for $15. Sometimes he’s feeling generous and knocks them down to $10. Even with the cost of buying the merchandise in Kabul and driving it down to the far south of the country, into Taliban country and frequently through militant checkpoints, he still reckons he takes anywhere between $80 and $100 a day in profit.
“It’s good money, very good money,” he says with a broad grin, showing off a gappy, yellowing smile. “I didn’t go to school but everybody he go to school he not make money same as me,” he explains in his faltering English, learnt during six years of working on British and American bases.
In fact, Ahmad is a case-study in how market economics can take hold even in a war zone, and how mergers and acquisitions are a part of life wherever you happen to be, even in Afghanistan’s volatile southern deserts.
So successful was Ahmad that he effectively got taken over by Abdallah, 30, and his business partner Ismailah who run similar shops on five other bases and decided to ‘acquire’ Ahmad’s stall. He now works for a wage of $500 a month while he reckons Abdallah makes “$2,000 or $3,000, I don’t know, good money.” He’s not unhappy about the takeover, he says, because he’d rather have a regular wage and he’s only 19, so there’s time for other businesses. But in order to give himself a sense of rising up the ladder, he’s taken on a side-kick called Jasnour who doesn’t speak much English and does the dirty work of packing and unpacking the goods and handling the money. Ahmad just sits back.
On any military base in Afghanistan there are signs of business and globalisation at work. Pizza Hut, Burger King and Subway all run concessions on major bases, feeding troops hungry for food from home. The Pizza Hut on the British base is run by an Indian. The military supplies shop — which sells 10 packs of name-brand cigarettes for the regular price of $30 — is run by a Bosnian. Filipinos help with the laundry. Everybody wants a sliver of the fat economic pie that the British, Americans, Canadians and other nations serving in Afghanistan have thrown on the table. The problem is the entrepreneurial, money-making impulse is mostly taking root only on secure camps where foreign troops are based. It’s not happening outside the wire, where 24 million Afghans are longing for business investment and a better life.