Jila and Reza recently travelled to Hanover, Germany, to attend the Domotex International Rug Show. While visiting one of the vendors of Afghani carpets  they were surprised to be handed a business card from a representative of the United States Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. Intrigued, they set out to learn more about this unusual relationship between the Oriental Rug trade and the DOD. We wanted to share what we have learned about this relationship.

In 2006, the United States Department of Defense (USDOD) established the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) with the objective of promoting private sector investment in war torn areas where the United States military is engaged in combat. The effort was seen as a way of helping to stabilize the region through providing employment and strengthening the economy.  The TFBSO’s initial efforts were in Iraq.

In 2009, the task force began to evaluate potential opportunities in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is rife with natural resources and a number of opportunities immediately presented themselves. Among the areas identified as potential growth industries was the Oriental Rug trade.

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Afghanistan has long been seen as one of the foremost suppliers of Oriental Rugs and the industry has been intertwined with society and culture in the region for centuries. Hand-carded, hand-spun and hand-dyed rugs are trademarks of the high quality products being produced in Afghanistan. However, the rug industry in Afghanistan has been largely out of touch with American and European markets for some time – with notable exceptions – limiting the marketability of their products.

Furthermore, for years raw materials have been difficult to come by and prohibitively expensive. A lack of proper infrastructure with suitable trimming and washing facilities as well as a system of heavy taxation on exported carpets have meant that carpets woven in Afghanistan are sent to Pakistan for finishing and exported as Pakistani carpets. Add to that a mass exodus of weavers as a result of political and economic instability and the need for reform of the industry becomes clear.

Nearly one million people in Afghanistan are engaged in the carpet industry in one form or another. The TFSBO, recognizing the potential for change and growth in this industry, as well as the cashmere and jewelry industries, has established the subsidiary AfghanMade. Working in union with American businesses the industry is currently in the process of being revitalized in this nation. New facilities have been built to keep the finishing processes in country. Weavers, dyers, spinners and other specialist are being trained in modern techniques to improve quality and output. International suppliers such asJames Opie and Matt Camron Rugs are teaming with Afghani wholesalers to produce high quality and highly desirable products. For more information check out this video about the AfghanMade Initiative.

Some argue that the USDOD has no jurisdiction to be engaging in business operations. When the role of the TFBSO came up for debate in Congress in 2011, Congresswoman McCollum opposed the continued role of the DOD stating, “Every house member needs to ask why the Pentagon is supporting the development of the Afghan carpet industry while U.S. soldiers are under attack.” She argued that should the U.S. continue to support a mission of this kind, it should ultimately fall under the jurisdiction of a different agency.

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute took a different position. Being a strong proponent of the task force, he argued that while the DOD’s role in business operations is unusual, it has played an important role not only in safely and legally establishing connections between U.S. and foreign businesses in war torn areas resulting in considerable job growth and increased foreign investment, but that not doing so opens the field to other foreign investors.

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As we mentioned there are several notable suppliers such as Yayla Tribal RugsAnadol and Ariana Rug, Inc, among others producing extraordinary carpets in Afghanistan that are unaffiliated with the AfghanMade initiative. Yayla has independently been providing many of the same services that the U.S. Government is now expanding upon for years.

Chris Walters of Yayla rugs established the not for profit organization Barakat in 1999. As stated on their website, “One of Barakat’s primary objectives is to bring the benefits of education to the rug weaving people of Central and South Asia. Barakat strives to promote human resource development and community building, quality education for women and children, healthcare and environmental preservation.” They have strengthened weaving communities and continue to have a positive impact on the growth of the industry.

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We’ve seen many of the beautiful new products linked to this effort of the TFSBO. It is not yet clear to us how deeply it will impact the rug trade in Afghanistan, but for the sake of the many communities of weavers there we hope that it has a strong positive impact on the people and the industry that they serve.

Do you feel the government – particularly the DOD – should be spearheading an effort of this kind, or should it be left in the hands of private organizations? What do you believe will be the long term effects of this partnership?

*All rugs shown are currently available in our showroom. Contact us for more information.