The Washington Diplomat / March 2004
By Larry Luxner
Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, seeks $28 billion over the next seven years to rebuild its war-ravaged infrastructure and get back on the road to democracy.
That may seem like an enormous amount of money, given the fact that Afghanistan's embassy in Washington — its most important overseas mission in the world — gets by on a budget of only $30,000 a month.
But then again, says Ambassador Said Tayeb Jawad, "that's not really so much when we consider that the United States is spending $9 billion to fight terrorism in Afghanistan. We would like this kind of expenditure to stop, and this money invested in rebuilding Afghanistan so we can have a democratic and prosperous society."
Jawad, 47, is the same age as his boss, President Hamid Karzai. Prior to his appointment as ambassador only three months ago, he served as Karzai's chief of staff, spokesman and press secretary. He was also director of the Office of International Relations at the presidential palace in Kabul.
Afghanistan's new envoy in Washington is fluent in English, German, French, Farsi and Pashto. In 1980, while studying law and political science at Kabul University, the Soviets invaded his country, and Jawad went into exile in Germany. Six years later, he relocated to New York to work for a Wall Street investment firm and in 1989, moved to San Francisco and earned an executive MBA from Golden Gate University.
"Before coming to this position, as President Karzai's chief of staff, I was well aware of the limitations of building good governance," Jawad said. "The major problem we face in Afghanistan is a lack of skilled human capital. My staff here is extremely small — only 14 people — and we work very hard. We really don't have the people we need to cope with the many challenges we're facing. In addition, we have very limited financial resources to pay adequate salaries in order to attract qualified Afghans."
Struggle and controversy have long plagued the Afghan Embassy, located at 2341 Wyoming Avenue.
In 1943, Abdul Hossain Aziz Mohammadzai formally established relations with the United States; that same year, the new ambassador purchased the mansion for $50,000 from the outgoing chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thirty-four years later, a representative of the Taliban regime, which by then was ruling Afghanistan, took control of the embassy. Following protests by Afghan-Americans and other groups over this "illegal occupation," the State Department closed the embassy.
In January 2002, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and root out al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the United States helped establish an interim administration, with which it established diplomatic ties. The Afghan Embassy quickly set up shop in a rented office at 20th and L Streets, with 32-year-old Harun Amin as charge d'affaires.
Within a few months, however, the Afghan flag was once again raised over the old chancery in Washington, in the presence of Karzai and top U.S. officials who were still busy coordinating the search for Osama bin Laden and destroying the last Taliban strongholds.
"After the war started, the international community realized that terrorism was a threat that required an international response. The network established by al-Qaeda is much larger than one individual," said Jawad, pointing out that "the capture of Saddam Hussein didn't significantly change the situation in Iraq."
At present, 9,000 U.S. troops are on the ground in Afghanistan; just over 100 of them were killed in the entire operation.
"Right now, the terrorists are going after soft targets like UN workers, in order to discourage foreign investment," he said, "though we are building our own Afghan national army to fight alongside the coalition forces."
In spite of the financial and staffing difficulties, says Jawad, the sparsely furnished Afghan Embassy is now fully functional. It also oversees a consulate in New York, and is in the process opening another one in Los Angeles, home to some of the 240,000 Afghans living in the United States; the largest communities are in San Francisco, Washington and New York.
Jawad, who's also accredtied to Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and eight other countries, said his embassy also conducts much of its business through its unusually sophisticated website at www.embassyofafghanistan.org.
"We know that resources are limited, but it's a fact that the legacy of Operation Enduring Freedom depends on what comes out of Afghanistan," he said. "Like the new constitution we adopted a month ago, Afghanistan is emerging as a model that will affect the aspirations and hopes of peoples throughout the world."
He added: "The new constitution of Afghanistan is proof that it's possible to reach an equilibrium between traditional Islamic values and the building of a democratic and prosperous society based on tolerance."
Those are lofty words for a country wracked by bitter ethnic divisions. Although 99% of Afghanistan's 27 million inhabitants are Muslim, the country is a mosaic of Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara cultures. Sometimes, these minorities don't get along, and violence is the result.
"One of our biggest dilemmas," said Jawad, "is how to emphasize our rich Islamic heritage while adhering to the international norms of human rights" that were ignored during the Taliban Islamic dictatorship.
In the first or second week of March, international donors will gather in Bonn, Germany, to "reaffirm their commitment to Afghanistan" and provide additional funding for the country's reconstruction.
"Most of the $4.5 billion pledged to us in Tokyo two years ago has been delivered and spent," said Jawad, noting that the additional $28 billion now being sought will be focused in three areas: education, infrastructure and trade.
And in the area of education, the most important project involves providing schooling for girls and young women.
"Today, four million children are going back to school, 40% of them girls," he said. "The best way to insure in the long run that women's rights are respected is to provide women with adequate education and empower them economically."
Jawad's wife of 18 years, Shamim, is involved in that struggle. A former financial consultant, her main interest is "women's economic empowerment" in the post-Taliban era, (and in raising the couple's 14-year-old son, Iman, who attends Sidwell Friends). As such, she's active in various foundations and non-governmental organizations, "basically trying to keep the issue alive."
Afghan women, said Jawad, are determined to overcome their inequalities; at present, Afghanistan's overall literacy rate is under 10%, according to the ambassador, and for women, even less than that.
"Last September, before I came to Washington, terrorists burned a girls' school one night in Logar province, about 40 kilometers south of Kabul," the ambassador recalled. "The next day, every girl at that school showed up, sitting on the ashes and insisting on continuing their classes."
The second priority is building infrastructure, namely roads, power plants and schools. A 480-kilometer road from Kabul to Kandahar has just been completed at a cost of $300 million. The government is also rebuilding the "ring road" from Kabul to Mazar Sharif, Herat and back to Kandahar. It also hopes to construct new schools; at present, only 29% of schools in Afghanistan have roofs; most classes are conducted in tents.
"We would like to see Afghanistan reintegrated into the regional economy. We think promoting trade will help bring peace to the region," said Jawad. "Our emphasis is on promoting the private sector and providing an environment conducive for the growth of that sector."
Towards that end, he said, Afghanistan is attempting to privatize its state-owned airline and encourage investment from Afghan expatriates living in the United States.
For example, a Hyatt hotel will soon rise in Kabul, thanks to a $30 million infusion of cash from a wealthy Afghan living in New York. And a number of housing projects underway in Kandahar and Kabul are being financed from Afghans in northern Virginia.
And an Afghan-American artist in New York known as Haidarzad is trying to raise money to rebuild the 2,000-year-old Buddha statues in Bamiyan, 90 miles west of Kabul. The massive Buddhas, carved into a sandstone cliff, measured 165 feet high and were the world's tallest standing Buddhas before they were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001.
All this is helping fuel 30% annual growth in a country with a per-capita income of only $250. Admittedly, Afghanistan is starting out from a very low base, but that kind of growth is still phenomenal in this landlocked, mountainous country where most people still don't have running water or electricity.
"If you look at what we've achieved in the past two years, it's a very good sign that Afghanistan is on the track to recovery," Jawad said, adding that 2.4 million Afghan refugees have since returned from Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere to rebuild their lives and communities.
"Things are changing so drastically, it's frightening. Monthly rent in a nice area of Kabul is more expensive than Washington, up to $5,000 a month for a house," he said.
The down side of growth and prosperity is corruption.
"We are facing a serious challenge," he said. "Some of the corruption taking place in Afghanistan is due to factionalism. We also see drugs and the narcotics trade going hand in hand with corruption. That makes our job even much harder."
Much of Jawad's job, in fact, consists of lobbying on Capitol Hill, meeting with members of Congress and giving speeches on Afghanistan's current situation. He gets help from lobbying firm Piper Rudnick, which does pro bono work for the embassy.
"It's an extremely busy schedule, though the Bush administration has been extremely cooperative," he said. "I have easy access to the administration. There's also strong bipartisan support for Afghanistan in Congress. On our way to recovery, we have had great friends on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue."
Of particular help, he said, have been the efforts of Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) and Sen. Chuck Nagel (R-Nebraska). Two California Democrats, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have also been outspoken in their support for the rights of Afghan women.
"We are working on building more capacity," he said. "We really don't have a group that specializes in lobbying activities. Even among our staff, only one person deals with Congress, though we have just hired a young Afghan to oversee the embassy's PR outfit."
He said his goal now is to "prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state, where narcotics and terrorism" will again flourish.
"The main reason for the war was the infusion of money and extremism into Afghanistan initially in the '70s, when we were fighting the Soviets. Long before Sept. 11, the Taliban terrorists were brutalizing the Afghan people," he said. "Now for the first time, the Afghan people are getting a chance to rebuild their national institutions. That's why we're asking for sustained engagement, so we can stand on our own feet and prevent the Afghan economy from becoming criminalized through narcotrafficking."
Jawad noted that around 80 of the 650 detainees now being held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo, Cuba, are Afghan nationals. Some of them are teenagers who may or may not be members of al-Qaeda. More likely, they may have been innocent bystanders caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Afghans are reportedly the fourth-largest group of terrorists being held in Guantánamo," said Jawad. "That by itself shows that Afghans were victimized by terrorists. They did not actually play a significant role in the leadership of al-Qaeda, but these Afghans committed many crimes. We would like to see justice delivered to all of them. The international community should come up with some sort of system to try these people."
What about the world's top fugitive, Osama bin Laden?
"He's a criminal who has committed crimes against humanity," said the ambassador. "At this point, we don't have the national institutions necessary to bring a criminal such as Osama bin Laden to justice, but we would like to see justice done to him too."