The military is quick to claim credit for a systemic economic change that no one can realistically measure
The Pentagon provides economic stimulus for small businesses in Iraq and Afghanistan. / U.S. Department of Defense
I've been trying to understand the purpose of the Pentagon's Task Force for Business and Stability Operations for about a year now. It is an intriguing effort to apply business development as a tool for economic growth and as an instrument of counterinsurgency -- a frankly rare example of really outside-the-box thinking from the military. At the same time, evaluating its effectiveness has proved to be incredibly difficult. Along the way, almost a dozen puff-pieces about the TFBSO, as its known, have been published, which repeat many talking points about the task force but don't actually discuss what it does.
Earlier this month the Asia Times published the latest example of this media puffery (every single story about the TFBSO is focused on its charismatic former leader, Paul Brinkley). When it was started in Iraq in 2006, the vision of this task force, Mark Perry writes, was to gather "a group of civilian business leaders and military experts that would focus on stimulating economic growth (including reopening Saddam Hussein's state-run industries), and that would interest outside investors in the country." Perry goes on to detail what's happened as the TFBSO completed its activities in Iraq and now focused on Afghanistan.
All the success talk sounds wonderful, but do we really know the TFBSO was successful at what it set out to accomplish? One of the original problems, as pointed out by General Chiarelli in 2006, was unemployment in Iraq. This, the general and a substantial portion of the defense establishment felt, was fueling the Iraqi insurgency -- so if we could somehow reduce unemployment, then the insurgency would therefore be reduced. Perry assembles the TFBSO-supplied evidence:
A review of Brinkley's Iraq initiative yields a formidable list of successes: by mid-2009, his task force had sponsored more than 200 visits to the country by corporate executives and investors, generating more than $5 billion of investment commitments. Unemployment dropped - from about 50 percent of the total population, to somewhere near 15 percent: by then, General Electric had contracted to build power plants and Honeywell opened a Baghdad office to sell its equipment to the oil industry.
There is one small problem to this story: it is badly incomplete. The unemployment numbers, for example, are basically made up: The World Bank, for example, reported that in 2006 Iraq's unemployment was about 18 percent and it had no data after 2006; the UN estimated in April 2011 that unemployment had dropped during the same period from 28 percent to 15 percent; and Amnesty International estimated in its 2011 report that unemployment remained above 50 percent. And just last month, the UN Population Fund noted that extremely high unemployment in Iraq's youth was driving record emigration.
Apart from the shaky numbers the TFBSO supplied to support its claims to success, it is presenting those numbers in a dishonest way. Most of the money the TFBSO attracted as investment went to restarting state-run businesses, and there are almost no data about how well those businesses are doing now, if they still employ people, or if they're capable of producing products anyone wants to buy.
During the same period of time when the TFBSO was working to drive down unemployment, USAID, the World Bank, the IMF, UNIDO, and dozens of smaller NGOs were all collectively spending billions of dollars on employment issues. There is no way to disaggregate the TFBSO's employment activities from the other much more numerous, and much better funded efforts to reduce Iraq's unemployment -- nevertheless, the TFBSO is quick to claim credit for a systemic change in Iraq's economy no one can realistically measure.