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Interview with His Excellency Said Tayeb Jawad of Afghanistan

August 11, 2008
Interviewed by Kristin Oto, Contributor

The Diplomatic Courier’s series of interviews with Ambassadors from the U.S. and around the world continues with an interview with the Afghan Ambassador to the U.S., His Excellency Said T. Jawad. A man with great pride for his country, Ambassador Jawad is very frank about not only the delicate situation in Afghanistan and the progress Afghanistan seeks, but the abounding culture and history of this unsung gem of a nation.

My visit with Ambassador Jawad gave me a sense of hope for Afghanistan, despite populare notions of the country in the media as a “failed state”. The Afghanistan exhibit in the National Gallery of Art is comprised of many gold artifacts made thousands of years ago that were re-discovered in 2004 after they were considered to be lost during the Soviet invasion of 1979. Yet they were found—solid gold pieces of jewelry, artwork, and statues; all intricately crafted. These hidden treasures are very much representative of the country itself. Thought to be lost in great chaos, they are re-emerging—and if you look closely, you can see the beauty of Afghanistan’s very elaborate past behind its present. The ancient gold artifacts and Ambassador Jawad remind us of the Afghanistan that was and that we hope to see again.

What are your goals as Ambassador here?

It’s relatively easy to be the Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States because the two countries share many common objectives and values. My goals here are very simple and straightforward. First, to further strengthen the political and economic strategic partnership. Second, to seek further support from the U.S. Congress and U.S. government in the area of building Afghanistan’s economy and also to encourage the Afghan expert community to play a more vibrant role in rebuilding Afghanistan. The history of relations between Afghanistan and the United States is long. We have been partners in fighting terror and tyranny for many years. The partnership with Afghanistan started during the Cold War where the United States came to assist Afghanistan, right when we were fighting Soviet Union and that was later further enhanced in our common objective of fighting and defeating terrorism.

What are the biggest challenges Afghanistan is facing right now?

First and foremost the challenges Afghanistan faces are challenges that today humanity faces—which is terrorism. We are working hard in partnerships with our friends all over the world, including the United States, to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan, to make the region a safer place for our children, and to enhance security in the world. That partnership is not just between Afghanistan and the United States. More than 60 countries are assisting Afghanistan. More than 40 countries have troops in Afghanistan. This is the first challenge. The second challenge that faces Afghanistan is to build state institutions. Because of the three years of war and destruction, most of the state institutions have been destroyed. And also, the other challenge that we face is the shortage of human capital—the shortage of people to rebuild Afghanistan. Alongside these challenges, we also have great opportunities that include a strong sense of bipartisan support for Afghanistan here in the United States—the goodwill of the American people to see Afghanistan succeed after many years of suffering, war, and violence.

With all the challenges in Afghanistan now—Rory Stewart just described Afghanistan as close to being a failed state in the latest issue of TIME Magazine—would you say democratization will work or is working in Afghanistan? Do you think any country can be democratized?

Afghanistan has a five-thousand-year-old history. The history of Afghanistan did not start with 9/11 or the Soviet invasion. But the state institutions of Afghanistan came under attack since 1978 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. There was a systematic destruction of the state institutions since 1978. Before this date, Afghanistan had a very capable government. Today, what we are facing in Afghanistan is a joint effort by Afghanistan and the international community to rebuild the institutions—to rebuild a state. We are in some extraordinary conditions in Afghanistan right now. We are fighting terrorism, we are building the state institutions, and we are building the infrastructure in Afghanistan, after many years of destruction. So, to call Afghanistan a failed state is like calling the United States a failed state during the Great Depression. So, it is an extraordinary situation, we are working with—Afghanistan is still in a fragile state—this is true. We are building this capacity gradually and, comparatively speaking, where we are today compared to six years ago when the Taliban was our government in Afghanistan, there is a difference of day and night. We have come a long way in Afghanistan, but we are still not out of the woods. And there is a long way to go in partnership with the rest of the world. But there has been tremendous achievement in building the state institutions in Afghanistan.

Is U.S. involvement in Afghanistan undermining the credibility of the Afghanistan government?

They don’t know the history of Afghanistan. If they studied the history of Afghanistan-even the recent history of Afghanistan—they would know that the partnership between the two nations started with the Soviet invasion. We were asking, we were seeking, as Afghan people, support, the partnership, and the assistance of the United States. In fact, our complaint was that after the Soviets were gone, after the Communists were defeated in Afghanistan, the United States left Afghanistan. And therefore, the extremists from foreign countries and the destruction of the state institutions provided a ground for the terrorist groups to hijack Afghanistan. The United States came to Afghanistan to help out the Afghan people. They came to defeat the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the terrorists who were foreign to the Afghan culture and to the Afghan history. And today, Afghans are very pragmatic. They know that the security institutions in Afghanistan like the army, police force, the judicial system, and other institutions, for those we do need the presence of the international community. Otherwise, the terrorists will be back in Afghanistan—and the prime victims of terrorism are first Afghans and then the rest of the world.

There is a lot of focus on the negative aspects of the situation in Afghanistan. Will you shed light on some of Afghanistan’s strengths and how far the country has come?

There are many areas that there has been significant improvement in Afghanistan. Sometimes the media, by its nature, will focus more on sensational news. They say “if it bleeds, it leads”. But the accomplishments in Afghanistan have been significant. Just to give you a few examples, six million children are going back to school in Afghanistan. More than 35% of the children are girls. Comparing to Taliban times, only 900,000 Afghan children were allowed to go to school, and those were only boys. This is a great accomplishment. And the GDP in Afghanistan now reaches nine billion dollars, compared to 2.4 billion under the Taliban—a growth of more than 300% since 2002. Over 4.7 million refugees have come back to Afghanistan. This shows their confidence in the state institutions stability in Afghanistan. Many other accomplishments in the area of telecommunications, building infrastructures, introducing new banking system, new currency, having an elected president, an elected parliament, women returning back to their jobs, and a lot of other accomplishments that have been very significant compared to where we were. But still, Afghanistan is a poor country. The Afghans will continue to work much harder, and will need the assistance of the international community to provide a peaceful and prosperous society for them. We are very fortunate that we see this kind of willingness on the part of the international community to stay with Afghanistan.

Both candidates for the U.S. presidential election have different strategies for Afghanistan. McCain promotes an “Afghan surge” and an international trust fund to finance that effort, while Obama wants to refocus on Afghanistan with military as well as political and economic means. What do you feel is the best strategy at this point?

Both candidates agree that more resources are needed in Afghanistan. We really are very grateful for both candidates to show a willingness to do more in Afghanistan. We do need a surge of both military but also resources and financial assistance in Afghanistan in the short term and long term. In the short term we need a small increase in the number of the international forces in Afghanistan to counter some of the immediate threats by the terrorists. In the long term, we welcome investment and building the capacity of Afghan police force and the army. This is the more sustainable—the more economic—way. And Afghan people would love to defend their country on their own. There is no shortage of courage or commitment on behalf of the Afghan people. We do need the resources, we do need the equipment and the training to fight terrorism in Afghanistan ourselves and to be an important ally for United States in this challenging part of the world.

Are women’s rights improving in Afghanistan?

This is a very important question. I am glad that you are asking this. Yes, there is a lot of improvement of women’s rights in Afghanistan. The laws have been changed to provide for full participation of women in all aspects of life. Today 27% of members of the Afghan parliament are women. Women are coming back to teach, be nurses, and participate in public life. But yet, frankly, Afghan women do not enjoy all the rights that they should enjoy under the law or compared to other societies. Some of the impediments that the Afghan women are facing are due to culture. And you cannot change a culture by a decree, or a law. You can change the culture by education. So Afghan women are much better off today than they were six years ago, but still in order to provide for full gender equality and full participation of Afghan women, we need to provide for better education opportunities, and also for job and income opportunities. When women are better educated, when women have income, then they will participate more fully in society and men also are more considerate about their rights. They have come a long way, but cultural impediments are still there and we need to invest on education and economic opportunities to really improve the quality of life for women drastically and across the board.

A lot of our readers are aspiring young people who are looking into entering the Foreign Service. What is your advice to them?

Today we live in a globalized society. It is really a privilege to be a diplomat and to represent their country anywhere in the world. We are much connected today. Our destiny is a lot more shared—all of us as humanity. And especially for young men and women in the United States, I certainly encourage them to join the Foreign Service. It is a great job; it’s a great career. But also it’s a great country, the United States, to represent outside, and to be associated and affiliated with. There is tremendous affection for U.S. lifestyle, culture, and it is as I mentioned, it’s a privilege being a diplomat in today’s world anywhere because you are bringing people together and it is a much greater privilege to represent a country like the United States. It is a tremendous not only financial, but also cultural impact in the way people live and see the world today.

Is there anything you would like to add?

There’s a wonderful exhibition going on at the National Gallery about some artifacts that we brought from the national Museum of Afghanistan in Afghanistan. These are pieces that are between two to four thousand years old. Most of them are solid gold jewelry from Afghanistan. I really encourage your readers, especially if they are here in the Washington, DC area, to take the time to visit the National Gallery because this exhibition is a good way of knowing Afghanistan’s history. And as I mentioned most of these pieces are solid gold and very fine jewelry shows not only the craftsmanship and the art in Afghanistan, but also shows the local wealth that existed in Afghanistan. So for those of your readers in the area, I think they will enjoy visiting the exhibition.