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

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010; A06

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."

The Obama administration also is pouring aid into Pakistan, but defense officials insisted that the new effort will not adversely affect Pakistan's troubled economy.

Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy, also said officials in Islamabad were not worried that the project would hurt the Pakistani carpet trade. "Afghanistan is a neighboring country, and we would like to have a good business relationship with them," he said.

Defense officials were so impressed by Ringrose's expertise that they essentially designed the contract to match his qualifications. The requirements include a minimum of 20 years of hands-on experience in the washing and finishing of hand-knotted carpets, 30 years' experience in carpet management production, carpet experience in post-conflict regions, a minimum of 50 business relationships with high-end retailers in Europe and North America -- and conversance in French, German and Turkish.

Michael Scanlan, who spent 35 years trading antiquities and carpets in Afghanistan, noted that the requirements did not include knowledge of Afghan languages. "They know their stuff on the outside of Afghanistan," he said. "But how much do they know about Afghanistan? You've got to work with the people."

Two other companies briefly indicated interest in the contract but never applied, leaving Ringrose's company as the sole applicant. The notice of intent for the contract suggested the value of the contract might be $7 million, but officials said that was "boilerplate language" regarding the size of the company. Officials said the contract's actual value, once awarded, will be about $1 million, much of it to provide security.

"There is a very, very small group of true experts in the hand-knotted industry," the defense official said. "We raised the bar to reflect the expertise you need to overhaul an industry."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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