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Afghan envoy cheerleader for his country, U.S. - Said T. Jawad wants Americans to know how important their investment is in his country
Angie Chuang
The Oregonian

On an official visit to southern Afghanistan as ambassador to the United States, Said T. Jawad once sat under a tree and drank green tea with a farmer. Jawad asked him why he cultivates opium poppy instead of the pomegranates or grapes that once thrived there.

Thursday, on a daylong visit to Portland that included visits with U.S. military families, an architectural firm that's building a university in Kabul and Mercy Corps, he invoked that farmer several times.

"If you give a farmer a choice between life and death, he will choose life, even if he has to become a criminal," Jawad says. "But if you give a farmer a choice between a dignified livelihood and a criminal livelihood, he will choose a dignified existence."

Jawad's visit, organized by the World Affairs Council of Oregon, vividly illustrated Oregon's varied and direct ties to Afghanistan. As the public face of a country that was "the first front in the war on terrorism," Jawad sees his role here as a simple one.

"I'm like a matchmaker for information," he says. Jawad, 47, travels throughout his country and talks to people such as the farmer so he can share the insights -- with the wife of an Oregon National Guardsman, the aid worker who just returned from a volatile province, the architect envisioning a women's dormitory for the first American university.

He's also a cheerleader and a fundraiser, reminding Americans to stay invested in Afghanistan's reconstruction and that the U.S. military and aid presence are vital. The job gets harder as Iraq, Lebanon and Israel steal attention, but he sees Oregon as fertile ground.

"I've traveled to a lot of places in the United States where Afghanistan seems like a far place. But for many Oregonians, it is not. The connection is there."

Sold-out crowd

Jawad's official appearance in Oregon was a World Affairs Council luncheon at the University Club, attended by a sold-out crowd of nearly 200. In the audience were at least three who have husbands with the Oregon National Guard in Afghanistan.

"I'm interested in hearing what he has to say because my husband doesn't divulge any of what's happening," says Linda Gates of Portland. Though she sits only a few tables from Jawad, she's hesitant to approach him.

Jawad speaks about his country's struggles with the Taliban and al-Qaida -- which he refers to as "the terrorists" -- the sorry state of infrastructure, as well as successes, such as the near completion of the first ring road to connect the country.

But he most often returns to his favorite point: Education is key to Afghanistan's future. No anti-Taliban military sweeps or laws for women's rights will make a difference unless people gain an education to make an honest living.

"When I go back to Afghanistan, I see new roads and buildings, but nothing is more beautiful or more promising than the sight of Afghan girls going to school."

When the speech is over, audience members line up to talk to Jawad. Gates and the other wives hang back, but someone motions them forward. The ambassador wants to meet them.

"The Afghan people really appreciate your sacrifice," Jawad says, shaking her hand.

Plan for university

About 30 minutes later, Jawad is on the 27th floor of the PacWest Tower, studying architectural diagrams of the future American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. Yost Grube Hall Architecture developed the master plan with the Afghan firm Studio Zarnegar, headed by Rafi Samizay.

Principles Nels Hall and Joachim Grube, as well as university board member Zaher Wahab, a professor at Lewis & Clark College, walk Jawad through the plans. The first phase will house 500 students and 80 faculty, but more land will be needed for a residential campus. The $17 million pledged by USAID is stalled in politics and bureaucracy. Space for a light-rail transit system is included.

"It may sound high tech, but there was a light rail-like system there in 1923," Hall says, referring to the former electric streetcar.

"I remember," Jawad says, "on that road the trees were so big that two people could not put their arms around them and join hands. The Russians destroyed them."

Grube says: "Let's find some money for it."

Mercy Corps welcome

Last official stop is Mercy Corps headquarters on Southwest First Avenue. Chief executive Neal Keny-Guyer welcomes Jawad.

"You have been in Afghanistan when almost no one else was around," Jawad says.

He's referring to the aid and development of the nonprofit's 20 years in the country, as well as to Mercy Corps' presence in southern provinces, considered some of the most unstable. Many aid agencies have pulled out.

In 2003 and 2004, two Mercy Corps employees were killed in southern Afghanistan. The agency continues business and economic development programs despite risks. Keny-Guyer wants Jawad to know he's committed to staying.

Jawad says the majority of Afghans welcome U.S. nonprofits and, if anything, fear that they will leave too soon.

As the day comes to a close, Jawad says he's touched by what he calls Oregon's "grass-roots investment" in Afghanistan.

He mentions he's particularly glad he thanked military families.

Overall, a lot of information was exchanged, he says.

"And information and knowledge are the most important thing."

Angie Chuang: 503-221-8219; [email protected].

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