By Wes Siler
I recently met two ex-US Army Rangers in a bar, and got onto the topic of the war against ISIS. They told me they knew the solution: flip flops. I scoffed, which probably isn't something you should do to an Army Ranger's face. And they put me in my place.
Matthew "Griff" Griffin and Donald Lee both served multiple tours in Afghanistan fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban. These are the guys behind Combat Flip Flops. They still see it as their mission to defeat Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and they think they can do so more effectively with jobs than they ever could by dropping bombs.
Combat Flip Flops makes flip flops in Colombia, bags in America and sarongs, shemaghs in Afghanistan. and jewellery in Laos.
"Your average fighter just wants to go make money to feed their families. The average annual income for an Afghan is $600 (£387). If you give them the option and say 'Hey, I'll give you $50 (£32) to go plant this bomb or I'll give you a job where you can make an honest wage and you don't have to worry about getting killed,' they'll take the job. It's proven, it works."
"We started making flip flops in Afghanistan, but now we make them in Colombia," continues Griff. These days, Colombia is South America's next big tourist destination, but not long ago, it resembled something closer to present day Afghanistan. "Fighting in the mountains, a narco-financed counterinsurgency war…what the Colombians did was take our targeting methods and our JDAMs and our precision munitions and hunted the top guys with those. They took the head off the snake and then they granted amnesty to everyone else."
"They said, 'Hey guys, here's the deal: we're going to subsidise you and give you technical training to launch small businesses in Colombia.' And then, in the US, we got behind it and we established a free trade agreement."
"The guys who make our flip flops? They used to farm coke" says Lee. "They don't do that anymore, they make flip flops. And that's pretty rad. We use that as an example, people need jobs and we have a really successful, veteran-owned case study of that succeeding."
"In Iraq, back in 2009, a group of guys rolled up to a checkpoint full of Americans, came to a stop and detonated a bomb," Griff says. "After it went off, more cars rolled up and machine gunned down anyone who survived. We caught it all on a Predator feed and were able to watch as they drove back to their house. 45 minutes later, my buddy's standing there with a dog doing the interrogation. He asked 'Why are you doing this?' They answered 'What else are we going to do? There's no jobs here.'"
"Lee and I's first trip together was to Afghanistan," continues Griff. "Our whole thing was to deny Al Qaeda fighters access to safe havens during the winter. Essentially, these guys roll up to 10,000 foot plus villages and just hang out all winter and think they're safe. Well, SOCOM figured they had some guys that would go and get 'em and so we rolled up to the mountains and we hunted guys for a few months in the snow. But, in doing so, we were dependent on local villages and local people to help us out. There we were living in schools and these guys are feeding us all the food they had in the middle of winter. That was definitely a moral dilemma."
Lee says that experience changed the way they thought they should be fighting the war. "We weren't fighting imams preaching hate, we were fighting in villages that are still, to this day, feeling the effects of polio, where they don't have access to education, where they don't even know what a vaccination looks like. It's biblical, is the way I'd describe it. And that's the environment in which the enemy is recruiting people and where they're hanging out."
Lee (left) and Griff (right), riding on top of 2,000 pairs of not-good-enough flip flops. They'd donate them to locals in need.
"We could never fight or win a war there because we could never sustain ourselves there long enough to do that," says Griff. "That's coupled with the fact that they're growing opium — poppies — and they're forced to because that's the only way they can feed their families. It's their only cash crop, they have to."
"So here we have hyper-violent organisations going into remote rural villages where we can't sustain a presence and forcing people to put their economic dependence on them," explains Lee. "If we go in there and cut that down, we just create another enemy. So what the fuck are we going to do?"
After leaving the Army, Griff spent a few years working for defence contractors installing medical clinics in both Afghanistan and in the parts of Africa that are being radicalised. His job was to liaise between pharmaceutical companies and local governments, securing permission to bring in the drugs, medical equipment and personnel necessary to establish western-level medical care in areas that had never seen it before. And it showed him a different side of the war.
"They were like 'Cool, you're bringing in dollars.'" Griff says the local community valued him as a result, protecting him from bombs and other violence. And, during that time, he visited a boot factory where he found the inspiration for Combat Flip Flops.
"The international community, we sponsored a 340,000 member police force in Afghanistan. That means at least 340,000 pairs of boots, pants, backpacks and all that. And, instead of buying the stuff in China and shipping it there, they gave preferential treatment to Afghan factories. This one factory I visited was turning out a thousand pair of boots a day and employing 300 people to do it. Each of those was supporting five to 15 family members, so the social impact was amazing."
But, when the responsibility for procurement shifted from the coalition to the local government, they decided to save money and import the equipment from China, so the factory Griff was visiting was about to close down.
"There in the factory was a flip flop thong punched through a combat boot sole. I picked it up, through it looked pretty cool and the proverbial lightbulb went off. I figured we could ramp up commercial production in this factory so when the military production went down, we could export commercial products to keep these guys employed. That was the plan."
A detail on the flip flop is a 7.62x39mm shell casing, the kind used in AK-47s.
The product that gives the company its name is still that combat boot sole topped by a leather flip flop thong. But, despite everything they tried, producing them in Afghanistan just proved impossible. The challenges of doing business in a culture where credit is haram are daunting for a new company, particularly during the chaos of an ongoing war. An original batch of 2,000 pairs turned out to be duds when the guys flew over to pick them up and, when the border was closed shortly after, they found themselves with a shipping container full of the raw materials for 4,000 pairs of shoes, but nowhere to assemble them. The first 4,000 Combat Flip Flops were made in Griff's garage, outside Seattle.
Those were sold out before they even sat down to make them, the team was subsequently able to put a claymore/laptop bag into production in America and eventually found its shoe production facility in Bogota.
"So now we're making bags in America, flip flops in Colombia and everyone wants to get back into Afghanistan," Lee explains. "We found this woman-owned factory in Kabul and we said, 'Hey, can you make a sarong?'"
"We didn't know it at the time, but the woman who runs this factory is a fucking badass," says Griff. "Her name's Hassina Sherjan. She's Afghan-born and American raised and, back in the '90s, heard that girls in Afghanistan were unable to go to school there. So, she flys over and engages with the Taliban about educating girls. They said no, so she started doing it anyways, funding underground schools and smuggling in teachers. Post-2001, she was able to start building schools for women who had not been educated under the Taliban and tackled the issue of giving them employable skills so they could contribute to the country."
"It doubles the workforce, imagine the effect on the economy," says Lee.
"She started a textile manufacturing facility and now we're her only customer at a woman-run facility making sarongs and shemaghs," says Griff.
"We send them back pictures sent to us by our customers," Lee explains. "Blonde haired, blue eyed American women wearing the sarongs they make on the beach. They make those in Afghanistan and that's national pride. They haven't had that since the 1960s. We're giving them a sense of themselves."
"The cool part is, we entered into an agreement where for every piece that we buy from them, they'll match a donation to Aid Afghanistan for Education, so that each of these sarongs puts a girl in school for a week."
The two ex-soldiers are adamant that employment, socially conscious business and education are the most effective weapons against our enemies in the region. "Our economy is the most powerful weapon we have," explains Griff. "That's why we're putting embargoes on Russia and why we're crashing oil prices. It's the most powerful tool we have against foreign forces we don't like, period."
The former Ranger concludes, "You know we've been at war in Afghanistan for 14 years now and we still don't have a free trade agreement?"
This article originally appeared on Indefinitely Wild, Gizmodo's blog on adventure travel and the gear that gets us there