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Terrorists Flush With Cash: In Q & A, Afghan diplomat gives candid view of his country
Paul M. Rodriguez
Insight/News World Communications Inc
06/12/2004


In an extensive interview with Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Said Tayeb Jawad, Insight has posed some tough questions and received surprisingly direct answers from the 47-year-old diplomat assigned to Washington only a few months ago to represent his war-torn country.

Central to the ambassador's mission is explaining what progress is occurring in Afghanistan and how success, or failure, in the land-locked Islamic nation emerging as a moderately progressive democratic state affects not only Afghans but free people across the globe.

If only, he says candidly, because it was in Afghanistan that al-Qaida developed the extremist brand of Islamic jihad responsible for the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and where today's bumper crops of opium are expected to produce about 80 percent of the world's illicit trade in heroin.

Ambassador Jawad says the resulting availability of enormous sums of money has united warlords, criminal gangs and terrorist groups capable of wreaking havoc on freedom-loving people across the world.

"We must not allow this to happen," Jawad says, adding that opium production fuels terrorism around the globe even as it encourages anarchy amongst Afghan people enslaved by rising drug habits and supports gangs such as the Taliban and al-Qaida that are hell-bent on destroying the fragile democracy emerging in Afghanistan.

The lessons learned by the United States and Afghan officials from their defeat of the Russians and subsequent infighting among Afghan factions that led to the rise and fall of the Taliban have been hard ones, Jawad says.

"We have paid heavily for our mistakes," he says, and hopefully "the partnership between Afghans and Americans will endure for a long time."

Jawad returned to his native country following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as a volunteer anxious to help his country and stamp out terrorism. A lawyer from a middle-class background -- his father was a university professor in Kabul before moving to California to teach and write books -- Jawad has a keenly practical sense of what's at stake in Afghanistan and how events there affect the rest of the world.

Insight: What do you mean when you say of our two countries that we have shared mistakes?

Ambassador Jawad: After the Soviets left, the energy that should have been focused on rebuilding Afghanistan and capitalizing on the victory over communism was dissipated or used for personal and factional gain. The Soviets were gone and their regime was defeated, but many more Afghans now lost their lives unnecessarily.

Q: Has that lesson of 10 years ago or even five years ago been learned?

A: The danger that violence will erupt is still there, though the situation in Afghanistan has changed drastically. We see stronger commitment by the international community to stand with the moderate forces in Afghanistan. Yes, those forces were weak in the past, and groups and factions with weapons and extremist ideologies were and still are trying to impose their will on Afghans with the assistance of foreign countries -- particularly neighboring countries. But we are working effectively with coalition partners to overcome such threats. Afghanistan is building national institutions and creating a civil society with an orderly rule of law and opportunities for everyone to come along and to participate in the building of the new Afghanistan. Those unwilling to participate will be sidelined.

Q: Do you mean the Taliban and other terrorist or extremist groups?

A: We have experienced no re-emergence of the Taliban, but we are seeing some cross-border infiltration by foreign terrorists. Some of the terrorist groups have acquired more mobility and are going after such soft targets as U.N. employees. While there have been attacks on Afghan and coalition military and civilian workers, these are not so widespread as before the Taliban were defeated.

One key reason for this is the increased cooperation we're getting from the Afghan people, who are tired of war and want peace. I'll give you an example. One U.N. worker, a young lady, was murdered by a terrorist -- but before the government forces arrived the locals had arrested this guy and they wanted us to kill him immediately. A cooler head had to intervene and talk with the governor to stop the people from killing this assassin before he could be given a proper trial. The people at last agreed. They had paid a heavy price under the Taliban -- but they agreed to let the law handle the problem because they know that the re-emergence of terrorism can only be defeated by democratic unity and popular respect for the law.

Q: What about yet another bumper crop of opium? With people starving to death, and criminal elements still in control of large areas where the poppy is cultivated, it is understandable that some opium production continues. But this is on a grand scale. Why should Westerners keep giving money to rebuild and stabilize your country even as your warlords and many ordinary people continue to produce and export this poison?

A: Bear in mind that there is a direct connection between drugs and terrorism. We cannot fight terrorism effectively without also having a comprehensive strategy to fight the drug war at the same time. We see a direct connection between drugs, terrorism and warlords in Afghanistan.

It is very unfortunate that the production of illegal drugs has increased, and it is a matter of serious concern to us and to the international community. Yes, it not only endangers the world community but it gravely endangers our national interest, penalizes our economy and prevents the reconstruction process that has started in Afghanistan.

We are very concerned about this and we're asking the international community to provide the necessary assistance to help us create an effective law-enforcement apparatus to deal with it. President [Hamid] Karzai recently signed a national drug strategy and we're training special police forces to fight narcotics. But we also need international support for crop substitution, and establishment of a national judicial system to put these criminals on trial and assure the people of Afghanistan that a new government is in control to protect its people.

Q: We've spoken with some of the drug farmers and they confirm that while there were barbaric aspects to the Taliban system of drug eradication, when they were ordered to stop they generally did so. Yet when the Karzai administration asks them to stop they do not. Why?

A: That's because we are not employing tactics of despotism but are trying to establish a rule of law. We're not going to kill someone on the spot because we find a few pounds of hashish in his home. That's what the Taliban did. They were punishing -- or threatening to punish -- by killing the farmers on the spot. Rather, we have looked at this problem in a comprehensive way and are trying to develop the means to deal with the economic and security factors involved in ridding our country of illicit narcotics. As I have said, it assuredly must include assistance from the international community.

The Taliban were successful in taking control because of despotism. They created a monopoly of production with themselves in charge and destroyed vast areas of agricultural lands to push up their prices. We're trying to stop this cycle of ruin and come up with sound plans to provide substitute crops and accelerate the process so that there will be other means of livelihood for the farmers. We've even tried paying cash for destruction of the poppy crop. But it's a very complicated situation, especially given the poverty of so many farmers and the continued control of many areas by the warlords.

Q: The problems you've outlined are immense for sure. But many Western officials raise concerns about your government's inability to control criminal activities. They say that in some cases the government appears to do nothing about the problem, suggesting it has little or no power where criminal activities are viewed as legitimate to keep people alive. Care to respond?

A: Yes, it can appear that way to outsiders. Criminal activities of any nature are wrong and those engaged in them must be punished. We are trying to do this under difficult circumstances and with very limited resources. My people are not prone to criminal acts. We have very strong moral values, and these have been made stronger as we endured year after year of tragedy and grief.

It's precisely because of our traditional values that we've been able to overcome so many obstacles. In particular in Afghanistan, but generally in Islam, those who cultivate poppies or engage in drug trades are considered criminals. Such a person is a sinner. And bear in mind that our country was destroyed by many years of war and violence, and the networks that supported the farmers were destroyed. One result has been that traffickers came in and provided credit to starving farm families in return for 25 percent of the crop.

We are trying to establish a rule of law and we are encouraging the religious institutions and religious councils to issue strong edicts and fatwas against cultivation of illegal drugs. But it will take time.

Q: Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

A: There is, but it takes time to get there and we're looking at the international community for help. Many resources and much money have been allocated to South America, for instance, but we're not getting such attention even in the midst of war. That's why, as I have mentioned, it is a complicated situation, it is a war that requires a strategic and comprehensive approach, and it cannot be done only by Afghans or done in a matter of a few months or a few seasons. It will take time to develop the actual law-enforcement capacity and come up with a substitute crop even as we accelerate the reconstruction process so that the people will be busy doing other things. But I'm sure we will prevail!

Q: One concern we keep hearing over and over again involves corruption within the Afghan government, sometimes coupled with allegations of corruption among some of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in your country. What do you know about any of this?

A: We assuredly would like to see details of any such alleged corruption of high-ranking officials. I've asked for people to come forward with names so we can investigate and take the necessary actions. At the same time, when it comes to corruption in the lower levels of the government, unfortunately it does exist. Some results from lack of human capital, lack of qualified people to perform the skilled jobs. Some of the posts in the present government were awarded to those holding them for the sake of stability in the country. We know that some of these people are not qualified to do this or that job, and that this leads some to try to secure their own future by corrupt practices.

After 30 years of war and violence, most services in Afghanistan are broken down, and public employment based on merit only now is being re-established. It's taking longer than some of us thought to train and put into place the right people to run the administration. But at least we are willing to be transparent so that those in the international community willing to help us can know we are appreciative and trying to clean up corruption and install qualified people.

Q: This is important to Americans who are concerned about sending our young men and women into your country at such high cost in lives. To switch gears, what are the positives of U.S. efforts to help stabilize and revitalize Afghanistan?

A: Well, there have been many achievements even though few have been reported in the press. For instance, in the last meeting of the Afghan council, 20 percent of the members were women, and they made their voices heard and their faces known. Together with the men, they adopted a new constitution which provides that 25 percent of the new parliament will be women. That's remarkable progress when you remember that, just two years ago, if a woman were seen by a male doctor both could be punished or even killed.

Today 5 million of our children are going back to school. This is the most important investment that you in the United States are making for the future of Afghanistan, for the future safety of my people and the future stability and security in the region. Of these 5 million children, 2 million are girls -- unheard of even two years ago! At the same time, more than 5 million refugees have returned because they felt that their country now is safe -- that's progress which few in the West can understand. But, believe me, we do.

Meanwhile the World Bank estimates that Afghanistan has experienced a 30 percent growth rate in the past couple of years -- the last year really. Granted, that's a growth rate from below zero, but it's a sign of immense potential that so much is going on in Afghanistan that is good, like the adoption of a constitution that may serve as a model for other postconflict nations. This shows the determination of the Afghan people to make their country into a peaceful, democratic nation.

We've also secured our currency and established a banking system and banking laws that have been approved by two international banks confident enough to open branches in Kabul. And this also occurred in relative peace. For example, we converted billions of old currency into the new monetary units with virtually no conflicts or violence. The same with the elections -- there were no security incidents.

Q: For all the promise of a more stable Afghanistan the country still remains dangerous in some areas. What inducement is there for a Westerner to invest in your country?

A: On a larger scale the greatest benefit comes from what must be called a critical investment in the security of the world. We learned from the terrible carnage in New York City that an evil in Kandahar or in Kabul can affect everybody in the world. The added profits that Western countries are getting from their investments here are safety and security.

Q: Are you saying, "Help us or get whacked?"

A: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. What I'm saying is that investing in Afghanistan is smart both in economic and security terms. For example, the United States is spending $11 billion a year in Afghanistan to maintain safety and security for Afghanistan. But this also creates safety and security around the world because it helps to stop international terrorists and their criminal supporters. If we could invest a portion of this money to build national institutions, the security and stability expenditures will start to ease and more direct aid can go directly to the people who want to see the country rebuilt and returned to normal.

Basically, Afghanistan is seeking around $28 billion over the next seven years to get this done -- and to do so with transparency. We're very grateful for the estimated $2 billion already spent for humanitarian needs by international donors. These are the kinds of expenses that should stop over time, however, so that the same volume of money can be used to enable the Afghan government to stand on its own and do the very same sorts of things that our international partners presently are doing for us. We think that over time we could do it cheaper. We're not looking for charity and don't want to be seen as asking for a handout. We want solid investments to enable us to stand on our own feet so that we no longer are a burden on the international community. Can this be done overnight? Of course not, but we are working hard to get it done at a faster rate than currently.

Q: When we were in Afghanistan last year we heard many complaints that little is being coordinated between the international humanitarian groups and the Afghan government. And we found instances where this was true. How is it today?

A: Yes, that was a constant complaint we heard last year, and the year before that when we first came into power. It's getting better. As I have explained, we lacked human capital on our side and had to create the institutional capacity to absorb all this assistance. That could not be created overnight, but we're making huge progress.

Q: What are the investment opportunities for someone who isn't affiliated with a government or NGO?

A: You can invest in many areas right now, particularly in power generation. It will have a high return in Afghanistan. We will be opening the Afghan hydro markets to foreign investors soon. Afghanistan is located on the crossroads of central Asia and south Asia. This provides the best opportunity to conduct trade with a number of countries in the immediate region and also with the Indian subcontinent and its emerging markets.

Q: What else would attract foreign investors?

A: Depending on the size of the investment, there are many opportunities in Afghanistan. For example, we're a major producer of fruits and vegetables, so there is an opportunity for packing fresh fruits and selling them to markets in the Gulf or Europe. Afghanistan has an eager and relatively inexpensive workforce and a number of highly valued commodities such as saffron and others. What I'm saying is that the investment opportunities in Afghanistan are tremendous and we're eager for the business.

We've established an office called AISA -- Afghan Investment Support Agency. This provides a one-window operation for the investors. In most cases, they are able to acquire the necessary permits and licenses within 24 hours whether the investor is small or large.

In addition, our new constitution has established equal protection for investors whether Afghan or foreign. It obligates the state to promote the private sector, guarantee the right of the investors, and assure strong protection of intellectual property rights, something that doesn't exist in many neighboring countries in the region. So we're very proud of our progress.

Q: We've heard complaints that Afghans who have lost their property have returned and can't lay claim to their family lands. What's the government doing about this?

A: That is another problem we're addressing. First, it tends to result from the fact that many of the old records that establish title have been lost or destroyed. Then there was outright corruption in government and abuse of power, especially in the major cities where real-estate prices have been very high.

That is why we established a special court just to handle land disputes. Though it's not been very effective for many people, we've learned from the mistakes and understand that to be successful means establishing a whole system of checks and balances to make it work. And we're doing that now by emphasizing the need to revamp our judicial system and put into place people who know what they are doing.

Q: That undoubtedly includes you. What's your background and why are you doing all of this?

A: I was born in Kandahar and raised in Kabul. I went to the French Bridge school and then on to law school. When the Soviet Union invaded my country I left and went to Germany where I continued to study law. From there I came to New York, where I got my M.B.A., and then to San Francisco where I worked for a law firm.

I returned to Afghanistan after Sept. 11 led to the freeing of Afghanistan because I saw an opportunity to serve my country. And I'm really proud of what I'm doing and glad for the opportunity to serve.

Q: Any similarities between being a successful legal professional and what you are now doing?

A: They are different worlds. First, the two professions are different of course, and going back to Afghanistan was astonishingly different. I think psychologically there's no way to be trained to deal with the challenges we are facing in Afghanistan, even though I was involved in Afghan issues for many years by writing articles. When I went back to Kabul I was amazed really. Nothing could have prepared me to see the destruction that I encountered and to face the difficult tasks of rebuilding the country and its national institutions. The issues were just enormous.

Q: Did you have any connections or did you just decide one day to go back to help?

A: I just went there to help. I did not know President Karzai before I went. I just volunteered to do what I could wherever I went and had the good fortune to meet him one day. He had heard my name through my work and on various radio stations. So he asked me to be his spokesperson. I was very honored and accepted.

Q: So you just gave up a high-paying job in America to volunteer?

A: Essentially, yes. When I saw how much was needed in Afghanistan and how starved they were for professional skills to tackle this monumental task my heart broke. And I really felt a great admiration for people who were there working so hard to restore the shattered country.

You know, we worked most of the time until 2 or 3 in the morning with no electricity and only candles. People were making huge sacrifices, and I was proud to be working with them to make an imprint on history. You might be making a lot of money in New York City or San Francisco, but this would have an effect on the lives of a whole nation. That's what induced me to go back and not worry about the financial part.

Q: What are your priorities in your new job as ambassador?

A: My task is very challenging because the biggest asset that we have is our relations with the international community and the United States. So I'll be focusing on three main areas: 1) how to accelerate and acquire more assistance and funding for Afghanistan; 2) how to communicate the truth about what really happened in Afghanistan; and 3) sharing with people what is being achieved in Afghanistan now.

I also want to encourage the Afghan expatriates here and in the West generally to take a larger role in rebuilding their country. The Afghan community in the United States is one of our biggest assets and they are playing a very positive role in reconstruction.

Q: Anything else to say to this magazine's large American audience?

A: Basically to re-emphasize the fact that Afghanistan has come a long way in two short years. A lot has been achieved there and sometimes the Afghan people get frustrated when they see that the only news of Afghanistan appearing in the Western media is related to sensationalism -- a soldier being killed or a mine exploded by criminal elements and a handful of terrorists. These things do not reflect the reality, which is that these are minor incidents just like crime everywhere.

An enormous amount has been achieved in Afghanistan, and Afghans are determined to make sure that their country will never be returned to the situation in which it found itself before the war. We appreciate the support provided us by the international community and the huge investment by Americans in terms of money and personal sacrifice and lives lost in my country.

We have all learned a great deal, and together we can rebuild Afghanistan to where free Afghans can govern themselves -- a beacon of light to other impoverished nations, confirming that there's hope of freedom for Muslim countries that can avoid the internal strife Afghans suffered before achieving the unity we're now experiencing. It's been hard but well worth the struggle to stand on our own feet. This could not have happened without the support of the United States of America, and we are grateful.

 

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