U.S. set to award $1 million contract to expand the market for Afghan carpets

The war in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, as the U.S. military launched an operation in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. The war continues today.
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010

Afghanistan is a nation of weavers, with some 1 million people helping to hand-knot intricate patterns of delicate wool. But it is also a nation at war -- one that lacks factories and the equipment that would suit a proper industry.

Nearly all rugs made in Afghanistan are shipped to Pakistan for washing and finishing -- then relabeled "Pakistani."

Now, U.S. officials, hoping to stem what they see as a huge loss of potential income and jobs for Afghans, are getting into the rug business.

The Pentagon is poised to award a one-year, no-bid contract worth about $1 million to Tremayne Consulting to expand the market for Afghan carpets, a senior defense official said, speaking anonymously under rules set by the Pentagon.

The project is modeled on an initiative in Iraq, where the Pentagon sought to rebuild the carpet business after J. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, disbanded all state-owned enterprises. And, just as in Iraq, the Pentagon is turning to the same expert -- London-based Richard Ringrose, for many years the vice president for Oriental carpets at New York's ABC Carpet.

The Iraqi carpet factories had existed mainly to supply cheap, synthetic carpets for the palaces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Ringrose, who recently set up Tremayne for the Afghan contract, obtained a Defense Department contract for Iraq to help introduce the use of natural fibers and new designs, including a project to re-create the Mesopotamian design of the legendary Pazyryk rug, the oldest surviving knotted rug in the world. The rug, from the 5th century B.C., was discovered in a Siberian burial mound in 1949 and now hangs in St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum.

In Afghanistan, the challenges are different. There is no Afghan "brand" for rugs on the worldwide market. And instead of mass-production factories, the country has a cottage industry of weavers working mostly out of their homes. Ninety-five percent of the rugs produced in Afghanistan are shipped to Pakistan for washing and finishing, then labeled "Pakistani" rugs, according to a 2006 report by the USAID-sponsored Afghanistan Competitiveness Project.

Unwashed and unfinished Oriental rugs are essentially diamonds in the rough, and defense officials said as much as 40 percent of the wholesale value of an Afghan rug is lost to Pakistan. Moreover, each carpet requires seven or eight people for washing and trimming -- jobs that are also being lost to Pakistan.

Ringrose, under Pentagon contracting rules, was prohibited from speaking publicly with a reporter. The defense official and a person involved in the contract said that Ringrose would seek in the next year to establish training facilities for washing and trimming in Mazar-e Sharif and Herat, where much of the Afghan carpet weaving is centered. He will also create an Istanbul "hub" where foreign buyers unwilling to travel to Afghanistan could examine the merchandise.

The hope is that each facility would generate $20 million to $30 million in business, the defense official said.

The 2006 report, however, noted that Pakistan dominates the washing and trimming business because it has several advantages over Afghanistan, including lower wages and warmer weather, allowing for quicker drying. The report said such facilities in Mazar-e Sharif would need to use heaters indoors or close for at least two months in the winter.

Scott Gilmore, executive director of the Peace Dividend Trust, a nonprofit organization that works in Afghanistan, applauded the concept. "I think it is a great idea," he said. "It is the sort of thing that aid agencies should have done five years ago."

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