Rebuilding Afghanistan

Mar 24, 2005

Kettering/GMI alum Louis Hughes '71 is part of the international coalition working to rebuild Afghanistan. As Iraq moves toward independence, nation rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan will be a template for healing and rebuilding Iraq.

Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, a U.S., Allied, and Northern Alliance military action toppled the Taliban for sheltering Osama BIN LADIN. In 2001, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Steering Group (ARSG) held a worldwide conference in Bonn, Germany, to establish a process for political reconstruction that ultimately resulted in the adoption of a new constitution and presidential election in 2004. On Oct. 9, 2004, Hamid KARZAI became the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan. The new Afghan government's next task is to hold National Assembly elections, tentatively scheduled for April 2005. - CIA World Factbook Editor's Note: The following comments originally appeared in the January 15, 2005, issue of "The Financial Times" and is reprinted here with permission. "The Financial Times" reports that Louis Hughes moved to Kabul in September 2004 to head the U.S. State Department's Afghanistan Reconstruction Group. The 55-year-old is former president and chief operating officer of Lockheed Martin, and former executive vice president of General Motors. He currently lives in a 15' by 8' shipping container in the U.S. Embassy compound.

By Louis Hughes as told to reporter Victoria Burnett

September 11 was a defining event for millions of people. The U.S. decided to come to Afghanistan and to Iraq, and because I serve on a lot of European boards-British Telecom, ABB, Sulzer, Electrolux-I witnessed first-hand the conflict the Europeans were having with their old friends the Americans. Why were we doing this? Was this the right thing? Was it necessary? I was convinced it was, but having spent 14 or 15 years in Europe I could understand why the Europeans were raising the questions they were raising.

Then in the autumn of 2003 I got a call out of the blue from the White House. At the time I had been considering pursuing a CEO role again aftertaking a pause for a couple of years for personal reasons. Some of my friends could not understand why I was even contemplating a move to Afghanistan. I had a comfortable life with a wife and two children, a number of homes and wonderful [executive] boards and a very nice lifestyle. Why would I give all that up to live in a hooch and eat cafeteria food for a year? The answer is simple: it was to make a difference. I am convinced that Iraq and Afghanistan stand on the nexus of history and we can either watch and complain about what's going on, or we can do something about it.

Living here is like living in a minimum security prison - you're walled in and there are armed guards. People can't come in without permission and you can't leave without permission. But it quickly becomes home. We all work 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. You have this inner clock that drives you to keep pushing, because you're constantly getting this positive feedback - by making this effort I'm going to help these people get electricity faster, or get a book, or get some medicine, or get a road.

A typical day: up at seven; a quick breakfast in the canteen; check my e-mails. Then I have a security meeting with the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, and General David Barno, head of the 18,000-strong U.S.-led military coalition. Then I usually read intelligence reports. Then another meeting. Lunch. Invariably in the afternoon I meet ministers. Dinner - again in the canteen. After dinner I head back to the computers and do e-mails until about 11. In the hooch at 11. Call home, do my personal e-mails and in bed by one. Then it starts all over again.

I exercise early morning or late afternoon when the air is still clean before the wood-burning fires start. I jog around the compound - five laps is about two-and-a-half miles. My downtime comes on Thursday nights and Fridays. We have a bar here on the compound. On Friday, instead of sleeping till seven, you sleep till eight. Then you do your own laundry. It's been 20 years since I did my own laundry.

The reconstruction group is an experiment in nation building. The U.S. State Dept. does not usually recruit from the private sector. We have specialists in health, education, finance, privatization, marketing and transport. A colleague calls us the corporate monks.

I have had exciting periods during my career - when I led Opel during German reunification, we were trying to take millions of people who had lived under communism for 40 years into the free market. The difference here is that in such a desperately poor country as Afghanistan it is very upfront and personal. You're not just building a business, you're building a nation. That's incredibly exciting.

I think most of us are here because we're looking for answers. Many of us still don't understand how this schism occurred between some people in the east and our culture in the west. We want to experience at a visceral level exactly what makes our cultures different and what we can do to bring those cultures closer together. We've all been very practical business executives who've decided that's not all there is to life. Living in a big home and having a nice life is not all there is.

I'm believing more and more every day that it isn't a clash of civilizations - that the overwhelming majority of people are just looking for peace and for their children to be educated and for them to have a decent life. A bit of land, a bit of bread and a bit of peace. In every culture you're going to have people at the extremes and those extremes are trying to take over the rest of us and we can't let them do it.

For more information about Afghanistan rebuilding efforts, visit: or


  • Population: 24.9 million (UN, 2004)
  • Capital: Kabul
  • Area: 652,225 sq km (251,773 sq miles)
  • Major language: Pashto, Dari (Persian)
  • Major religion: Islam
  • Life expectancy: 43 years (men), 43 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 Afghani = 100 puls
  • Main exports: Fruit and nuts, carpets, wool, opium
  • GNI per capita: n/a
  • Nato leads international peacekeeping force in Kabul
  • Many parts of country controlled by regional warlords and their private militias
  • Attacks by Taleban remnants and militant groups continue
  • Incumbent leader Hamid Karzai won presidential elections in October 2004
  • Parliamentary elections expected in 2005

Contact: Dawn Hibbard