Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 12, 2010

The Silicon Valley strategy

Palo Altan Christopher Radin hopes technology marketing can help stabilize Afghanistan

by Sue Dremann

Palo Alto resident Christopher Radin has never set foot in war-torn Afghanistan, nor has he ever served in the military. The closest he's gotten to war is as an avid strategy enthusiast playing "Diplomacy" and other board games.

But on Feb. 18 at Tufts University near Boston, Mass., the Silicon Valley product-marketing manager will join 25 experts and policy makers to discuss political settlement and the role of military operations in Afghanistan.

He will speak on a panel beside Ali Jalali, former interior minister of Afghanistan, Noor-Ul-Haq Olomi, chairman of the Armed Services Committee of the Afghan National Assembly, and others at the nation's oldest graduate school of international relations, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

How did the former Intel Corporation engineer with a master's degree in chemical engineering go from his laptop to hobnobbing with international policymakers and military strategists?

By applying the tools of Silicon Valley marketing to the problems of instability and war, he said recently.

"The kinds of things you do to develop high-technology products are similar to the kinds of things you do for economic development," said Radin, who writes for "The Long War Journal," a nonprofit website dedicated to reporting and analysis of the "Global War on Terror."

Radin writes on the Afghanistan National Security Force, which is integral to stabilizing the country and withdrawal of U.S. troops. His 2008 map of areas of rising violence in Afghanistan appeared in the February 2009 Brookings Institute Afghanistan Index on reconstruction and security in post-Sept. 11 Afghanistan. He has been interviewed by Public Radio International and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Radin has had a lifelong interest in politics, international affairs and the military, he said. And although the two are oceans apart, he sees parallels between the rebuilding of Afghanistan and Silicon Valley, he said.

Both situations have competitors: In Silicon Valley, the competition is other companies and global trade. In Afghanistan, it is war lords and the Taliban, he said.

Both scenarios also must satisfy people: In Silicon Valley, one's customers must be satisfied; in Afghanistan, it's the residents, he said.

But Silicon Valley is a land of abundant resources; Afghanistan is wracked by poverty, limited natural resources and war.

Getting control over the country through military means costs so much money the government can't get ahead economically, he said.

"The Afghan government can afford to fund the security forces by about $9 billion over a 10-year period but it would cost $20 to $50 billion to fight the war over that time period. That's an enormous amount of money in a country where the GDP is $13 billion. They can't pay for it all. That leaves the U.S. and NATO footing the bill," he said.

Creating a strong national force while freeing up enough money to develop an economy is a tricky proposition, but that's at the heart of the Tufts conference, he said.

Economic and educational opportunities and infrastructure building must be developed in tandem to draw in insurgents who want to disarm. At some point, a tipping point draws down the need for overwhelming military force and frees up more money for government and economic growth, he said.

Radin applies risk analysis and the high-tech iterative process — executing a plan, using a team to quickly assess what parts are going wrong and adapting quickly to move a plan forward, he said.

Each step in a plan, from putting in wells to growing cash crops and building medical clinics, would be weighted in light of how it could create substantial change that could lower security needs, he said.

"I may change my plan completely tomorrow because I have learned something new and need to develop a different approach. You have to have a team to monitor very well" and adapt quickly, he said.

That approach differs from usual military thinking, which is more long term and plans in five- or 10-year increments, he said.

Radin shares his Midtown home with wife Pamela, a legal analyst who has worked with nonprofits and community neighborhood associations in Palo Alto and has been involved in transportation and park issues in south Palo Alto.

Even one Silicon Valley engineer sitting at his laptop can make a huge difference in helping to solve an intractable global problem, he said.

With Silicon Valley's enormous pool of talent and resources, Radin hopes his example will lead others to apply the knowledge of the valley to help solve world problems, he said.

"Just because you're 8,000 miles away doesn't mean they really can't make a change," he said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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