The Washington Diplomat / February 2002
By Larry Luxner
Haron Amin is a hot item these days.
Only 32 years old, Amin is the voice of the new Afghanistan, an articulate, passionate former resistance fighter who speaks fluent American English and knows the value of a sound bite.
"I've been talking a lot lately, and people listen," says Amin, Kabul's top-ranking diplomat in the United States. "I seem to resonate with people, especially within the Afghan-American community."
Not even a month into his job as Afghanistan's charge d'affaires here, Amin -- who has a hoarse voice from talking so much -- is no stranger to the ways of Washington.
In 1988, when he was only 18, the aspiring college student left his comfortable home in Southern California and rushed back to Afghanistan, thereby becoming the first member of the Afghan-American diaspora to take up arms against the invading Soviets. Later on, as chief representative of the deposed Afghan government at the United Nations, Amin spent much of his time lobbying congressmen, senators and other influential Americans about the growing dangers of the Taliban and its brand of Islamic fanaticism.
"Things could have been done in the 1990s that would have prevented Sept. 11, and they weren't done," he said. "For God's sake, I told people in Washington, don't abandon Afghanistan, there'll be a high price to pay. But nobody paid attention to me."
They're certainly paying attention now.
On Jan. 27, the White House will roll out the red carpet for interim Afghan government leader Hamid Karzai, who is visiting Washington for the first time. Karzai's hectic schedule includes a meeting with President Bush, an address before the National Press Club, a speech at Georgetown University, a symbolic flag-raising ceremony at the old Afghan Embassy and various get-togethers with public and private-sector officials.
In a hastily arranged interview squeezed in between urgent meetings and press conferences, Amin told The Washington Diplomat why Afghanistan should be uppermost in the minds of decision-makers both inside and outside the Beltway.
"My priority right now is making sure that every American household has some sort of empathy for the people of Afghanistan, so that the reconstruction, rehabilitation and redevelopment phase of Afghanistan moves forward with their support," he said. "I want to ensure that Congress will not walk away from Afghanistan. In line with that, I also want to mobilize Afghan-Americans -- over 200,000 of them -- who can help in that process because they know the culture. Their return is key to the reconstruction of Afghanistan."
Amin, whose face became familiar to millions of TV viewers in recent months as a spokesman for the Northern Alliance, has done over 700 newspaper, magazine, radio and TV interviews in the months since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. He says it's crucial to keep hammering away at the same message over and over again: don't forget about Afghanistan.
"The diplomatic corps in Washington knows that there are basically two paths -- one of repeating Sept. 11, and one of making sure they can overcome it by keeping the wheels in motion," Amin told us. "If the political process dies, it'll be problematic for Afghanistan, for the region and for the world, because while we've changed on the surface, the core has not changed. We need to engage the rule of law and justice."
Afghanistan also needs cash, and lots of it. During a Jan. 20-21 donor conference in Tokyo, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the UN Development Program estimated the cost of rebuilding the war-torn country at $15 billion over the next 10 years, though Amin puts the figure at $22 billion -- which works out to more than $1,000 for every one of Afghanistan's 20 million inhabitants.
"Every aspect of the infrastructure has been destroyed. Every household has been directly affected by the war," he said. "When the Soviets moved out, there was a period of disengagement which produced the Taliban. They in turn produced Osama bin Laden, who produced Sept. 11. The psychology of destruction is overcome by the paradigm of reconstruction. Once you shift the mentality to creative things, people will drop their guns."
Amin said the United States will likely end up paying for one-third of the total reconstruction price tag, with the 15-member European Union paying another third, and Asia and the Islamic world footing the final third.
Yet two crucial questions remain: how much of the $4.5 billion pledged by rich countries at the Tokyo conference will really be donated, and how much of the money that is donated will actually go to Afghans in need, rather than to corrupt officials.
"For the sake of transparency and accountability, the international community must devise a mechanism that will greatly diminish corruption in Afghanistan," Amin explained. "The money committed needs to be provided over a long-term basis, and needs to be made contingent on results. It doesn't have to happen overnight. Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo are very ominous examples of corruption. To make sure this doesn't happen in Afghanistan, we must make it contingent on results, and then dispense more."
According to The Economist magazine, the Afghan government -- which is literally broke -- needs $100 million just to meet running costs, like paying civil servants who have been working for free.
Asked how small his operating budget is here in Washington, Amin was clearly too embarrassed to say.
"I don't want to create too much sympathy by begging for money," he told us. "I'm sure my government will realize that Washington is the most important capital, and that they'll leave at my disposal the kind of budget I need to maneuver and flex some muscle."
For now, Amin and a handful of assistants are working out of temporary offices at 2000 L Street, N.W., while the Afghan Embassy at 24th Street and Wyoming Avenue, N.W. -- which has been shut since 1997 -- is being repaired.
"The roof has leaks, and because of freezing temperatures, all the pipes have broken," he said, though it's unclear who will foot the $1 million repair bill. "It'll be three or four months before we can move into the embassy."
By that time, Amin will likely be promoted to ambassadorial status -- marking the first time an full-fledged ambassador represents Afghanistan in the United States since bilateral relations were severed in 1978.
"It's going to happen in the next few months. It all depends on how well I do my job," said Amin, noting that he's had no time to read books or engage in any leisure activities since arriving in Washington. "I'm lucky if I get to sleep at 2 in the morning. I strongly believe there's a monumental task on my shoulders. All the expectations are solely on me."
Born in Kabul in 1969, Amin and his family fled their homeland when the Soviets invaded in 1980, heading first to Pakistan and then Germany before finally settling in the Los Angeles area. Amin returned to Afghanistan in 1988 to fight for his country's freedom under his mentor, Gen. Ahmed Shah Masood. In 1990, Commander Massoud -- who was assassinated by al-Qaeda just two days before the Sept. 11 attacks -- assigned Amin to represent Afghan interests before the U.S. government.
The young man returned to Afghanistan in 1995, working again under Massoud while joining the Foreign Service until the collapse of Kabul in September 1996.
Amin spent the next five years essentially in exile, working in various capacities at Afghanistan's permanent mission to the UN. His job: to prevent Afghanistan's UN seat from sitting vacant or falling into the hands of the Taliban, which the UN never officially recognized.
"The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was the first since 1917. We did it," he said. "Then we were abandoned. When the resistance took over, no one even cared."
Amin, who is pursuing a master's degree in political science from St. John's University in New York, said that throughout his years in the United States, he occasionally suffered discrimination. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, he even received a few death threats from ignorant New Yorkers who couldn't distinguish between the Taliban criminals and their Afghan victims.
But on the whole, says Amin, the American public, Congress and the Bush administration has been quick to embrace the Afghan cause.
"The State Department has been wonderful," he said. "I've also gotten a lot of calls from my counterparts at various embassies. In fact, it was the Pakistani ambassador [Maleeha Lodhi] who was the first to call me. She told me I had done a splendid job for my country."
Yet Amin and Mrs. Lodhi don't exactly see eye to eye.
"From my end, it's nothing personal -- purely business," he said. We have opposing views, and I mentioned to her that we can hopefully work toward overcoming those problems, as long as Pakistan bases its relationship with Afghanistan on three tenets: mutual respect, good neighborliness and non-interference."
He adds: "The Taliban did not rise to power because the Afghan people wanted them. They rose to power because Pakistan had carte blanche from the U.S., and it did what it did to Afghanistan for the sake of Kashmir and as a strategic move against India. The moment the United States capped Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly fell apart."
Asked about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts and what the United States should do with captured al-Qaeda prisoners, Amin doesn't bat an eye.
"I hope they make sure Osama gets killed, and that al-Qaeda is destroyed," he said calmly. "They only destroyed two buildings in America, but they destroyed the whole fabric of Afghanistan. Life was destroyed in the most horrendous way, and thousands of our women were raped. Everything was decimated. They did so much damage. They have brutalized an entire nation. Beasts like that need no tolerance."
He adds that Iran, home to about a million Afghan refugees, should be watched closely, as should Pakistan.
"Despite 20 years of no diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran, the only common denominator between the two was Afghanistan. Neither liked al-Qaeda or the Taliban, so there was a convergence of interests," he said, adding that "I would love for the United States to remain engaged in Afghanistan for as long as possible. As long as Pakistan or neighboring states are prevented from interfering, [war] will not happen again."
As such, Amin is asking foreign investors to reconsider Afghanistan, which happens to have the second-largest iron reserves and the third-largest copper reserves in the world.
"Every fabric of Afghanistan has been destroyed, so there is potential to do business," he says. "People right now are so hopeful the moment you show up there. A company is able to employ 10,000 people and produce something at minimal cost. We're talking about salaries of $100 a month."
Other potential investment prospects include oil pipelines, telecom systems, roads, schools, hospitals and other desperately needed infrastructure.
To that end, Amin says the most logical investors are members of the prosperous Afghan-American community. The nation's largest concentration is in California, with 80,000 Afghan-Americans divided among Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego; another 30,000 live in the Washington, D.C., metro area, with an equal number residing in New York.
In addition, large numbers of Afghans live in Pakistan (1.5 million); Iran (1 million) and Western Europe (200,000, mainly in Germany, France and Great Britain).
But foreign investment can't do it alone. Amin says Afghanistan can only succeed by making education accessible to all, including women who suffered virtual slave-like status under the Taliban regime. He adds that while Afghanistan is predominantly Muslim, it must learn to coexist with Hindus, Buddhists and other religious groups in its midst.
"I've been a good Muslim, and my take is that the religion of Islam promotes tolerance and peace," he said. "As the verse in the Holy Quran states, killing one innocent life is like obliterating humanity. My government stands by these principles."
Amin, whose entire family now lives in the United States, says he's hopeful that despite the immense obstacles facing Afghanistan, his homeland will eventually be able to pull itself together -- but only with massive and sustained international support.
The alternative, he warns, is unacceptable.
"Osama bin Laden's world view is one of division. I want mine to be one of unification," says the diplomat. "Afghanistan is going to be the litmus test for overcoming that clash of civilizations."