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Ambassador: Afghanistan is among poorest despite economic uptick
Vesna Jaksic
The Stamford Advocate

STAMFORD -- Business is booming in Afghanistan, but the country -- still among the world's poorest -- needs continuous international aid and support, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States told a gathering in Stamford yesterday.

"What we're asking for is larger upfront commitment," said Jawad, who's been in his post for nearly two years. "The sooner we're able to stand on our feet, the less burden we'll put on our partners and friends."

Jawad spoke to 100 members and guests of the World Affairs Forum during a 7:30 a.m. breakfast at the Stamford Yacht Club as part of the organization's Ambassadors Roundtable series.

Jawad has served as Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's press secretary, chief of staff and director of international relations in Kabul. He lived in Afghanistan until the Soviet invasion in 1980.

Jawad said Afghanistan and the United States have had a friendly relationship since the early 1900s and have been working particularly closely in recent years to get rid of terrorism.

Afghans have been pleased with the United States' help, he said, and most believe they are better off today than when the Taliban regime was in power.

The U.S.-Afghanistan partnership has led to several accomplishments, particularly in the economic arena, Jawad said. Over the past three years, Afghanistan has enjoyed double-digit economic growth, with 13 foreign banks and global companies such as Coca-Cola and DHL now operating there.

Many expatriates have returned and opened businesses, such as an Afghan who started a wireless network company, he said. The economy has attracted about 60,000 workers from neighboring Pakistan and Iran, he said.

"The demands for consumer goods are just unbelievable, and the opportunities are really good," said Jawad, adding that a strong private sector will be the key to rebuilding the country.

Nearly 4 million Afghan refugees have returned home, and 5.6 million children are going to school now, Jawad said. Women are being educated, and many are working, he said.

Jawad, who was Karzai's principal liaison to the committee that drafted the Afghanistan Constitution, said the law mandates that two women be elected from each of the 34 provinces to the lower House of Parliament. This means that at least 27 percent of the lower House seats will be occupied by women, compared with 15 percent in the United States and 18 percent in England, he said.

Last year, 8.6 million Afghans participated in the country's presidential election, which Jawad said was a huge accomplishment.

"In a country like Afghanistan, a very poor country, a country with a small number of educated people, when 8.6 million Afghans lined up to cast their vote, they were not only showing a commitment to democracy but also sending a very strong message to terrorists and extremists," he said.

The country has pockets of terrorist activities, and "soft targets" such as schools and mosques are attacked most often, Jawad said. And after 25 years of war and conflict, Afghanistan must rebuild a lot of its infrastructure, he said.

Twenty-nine percent of schools have roofs, and the country is considered the sixth poorest in the world, Jawad said. Seventy percent of the population lives under the poverty line, 23 percent have safe drinking water, and 6 percent have electricity, he said.

In addition to building infrastructure, the country's biggest challenges are ensuring security and controlling narcotics and the related corruption, he said.

Though he acknowledged the difficulties in rebuilding Afghanistan, Jawad said it can play an important role in trade and commerce because of its unique position connecting Central Asia, India and the Middle East.

Jawad, who speaks several languages, was educated at a French school in Afghanistan, studied law in Germany and received his master's degree in business administration from Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

Fred Brooks, president of the Connecticut Economics Corp., said it was interesting to learn what a big role narcotics played in Afghanistan.

"We knew it was a great problem; his view was just very interesting," said Brooks, a director at the World Affairs Forum.

Gaysha Lawrence, who works for MasterCard International, said she never thought about how difficult it is to get teaching tools in Afghanistan since many textbooks had to be rewritten.

"They were not able to access information during the war for so long," she said.

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