Politics & Policy

Above & Beyond

Profiles of Afghan commitment.

Each one is different. They have come from as far away as Australia and the United States; most are Afghan, several are not. They are inventors, entrepreneurs, cosmetologists, broadcasters, and veterinarians. But for all their variety, they share a single common bond: the desire to make a significant contribution to the daunting process of reconstructing Afghanistan.

Home Again

Ishaq Shahryar made the first contribution of time and talent. A successful inventor and manufacturer of low-cost photovoltaic solar cells and an American citizen since 1967, Shahryar resigned his business interests and citizenship to serve as Afghanistan’s first ambassador to the United States in 24 years. “When President Karzai made the request, it was my duty to do everything I could to help the country reenter the community of civilized nations and assist in its reconstruction,” the former ambassador observes almost offhandedly.

Dubbed the “Sun King” by British media for his professional accomplishments, Shahryar created important light and warmth in the renewed U.S.-Afghan relationship in the weeks and months following the country’s liberation. “Our greatest moment was when President Bush visited the embassy on September 10, 2002,” Shahryar enthuses, “after we had completely renovated it after so many years of neglect. The president told me, ‘Ambassador, you are a great man and a good man. I salute you for putting the country of your birth ahead of yourself and I came here to give you my support.’”

Zahira Zahir, cosmetologist and hair stylist to presidents, was determined to do everything possible to help Afghan women return to formal education, after being blocked for eight years by the fanatic Islamist Taliban regime. It was a stiff challenge in a country where UNICEF estimates only 14 percent of women are literate.

Graduate of and teacher at Zarghoona, Kabul’s leading girls school; daughter of a respected prime minister; wife of the country’s last ambassador to the United Nations before the 1978 Communist coup; the person called “Z” by both Presidents Bush: Zahira Zahir formed a tax-exempt foundation in 2002 that has to date raised more than $300,000. “Every penny”, she notes proudly, “has been spent on renovating my school, giving the students proper supplies, increasing teachers’ salaries, and building a completely new school facility. We are currently educating seven thousand girls, every day, and by August the number will be more than 12,000.”

Saad Mohseni has worked in senior finance positions in his native Melbourne, Australia, and London. He has performed pre-liberation diplomatic duties in London, Paris, and Washington on behalf of his ancestral base, Afghanistan. Today, he is a full time media mogul in Kabul, “Bringing first-world communications services to the land of my forefathers.”

Arman FM is the nation’s first FM radio station. Tolo TV ranks number one in Afghan television and has established a regional presence as well. Afghan Scene is the only professionally-edited English magazine in the country and Yellow Pages Afghanistan is fast becoming the best business directory in the market. Afghan ITT focuses on information technology and telecommunications, while the currently-forming Lapis provides advertising agency services. Is it too much for one man to juggle with limited, if dedicated, staff? “The challenge is there and it is real,” Mohseni says. “Afghanistan needs everything, and it needs it now. The country’s recovery and survival very much depend on bridging the gap between the outside world and our beleaguered nation. The voice of the nation has rarely been heard, at home or abroad. Moreover, our media entities give the people a chance to voice concerns and grievances–vital for any democratic system and process. We have become a means for the nation to let off steam.”

Ashraf Ghani, Ali Ahmad Jalali, and Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani–all PhDs from leading American universities–are three of many Afghan Americans who returned home to help rebuild Afghan society, working with the 24 million who stayed. Nuristani works seemingly endless days as first deputy minister of defense, Jalali in the high-stress post of interior minister, and Ghani as president of Kabul University. So far, all three are working and living in Kabul as dual citizens of Afghanistan and the U.S. A controversial clause in the new constitution stipulates, however, that only persons holding a single–Afghan–passport may serve in the government, making the choice difficult for those who have lived most of their adult years abroad and would like to maintain a foothold in their adopted countries.

It is an important issue which remains to be solved by the new national assembly following the September elections. While no one is willing to predict the outcome, retention of the single citizenship clause would deprive the government of much-needed expertise gained abroad during Afghanistan’s dark period from 1978 to the end of 2001.

A Little Help From Some Friends

Not only Afghan émigrés have arrived to help rebuild the country. Army Colonel Lyle R. Jackson, a veterinarian member of the 351st Civil Affairs Command, has spent most of the past three years studying livestock conditions in the country. He has assessed the destructive extent of what is considered a foot-and-mouth-disease epidemic affecting cattle, sheep, and goats throughout the nation, and developed a plan for its limitation, and control which he tirelessly pursues. “More than 80percent of all Afghans own at least one of these animals, which can be a significant contribution to both diet and income. If we can find the funds to provide $5 annually per animal to vaccinate the herds, the reduction in animal death and the increase in production will provide a critical boost to the legal economy–a boost providing the replacement income that can wean Afghan farmers from the cultivation of poppies,” Col. Jackson observes.

“The net cost to undertake a nationwide program would average $8 million per year for five years, as we will be asking farmers to progressively pay for their animals to be treated. This is a fraction of the aid we are giving individual Afghan provinces annually and would have a national impact. Moreover, working through our Provincial Reconstruction Teams in 22 provinces, we have the delivery system to impact 70-80 percent of the Afghan herd.”

Clearly, this nationwide vaccination would create huge benefits for Afghanistan and the entire world. Col. Jackson notes, “The replacement of poppies will mean the saving of billions of dollars worldwide lost to the debilitating effects of heroin consumption, and at the same time save Afghanistan one billion dollars in capital outflows annually, currently paid for imported livestock. The reinvestment of that import cost back into the Afghan economy will create new wealth. This newly created wealth will help stabilize the economy, an absolute necessity before other sectors–including mining, natural resources and manufacturing–can be exploited.

“This program will be an axe at the root of the deadly poppy/opium/heroin disease,” Jackson concludes. “When Afghan farmers can feed their families adequately and legally, the war in Afghanistan will be truly won. They need to be able to look up from their plows and see the needs of the whole country–security, education, police, and other government services.”

Wiring Afghanistan

Cisco Systems, the leading developer and manufacturer of networking equipment for the computer industry, has made a significant investment of resources to develop Cisco Networking Academies to train students in the installation and maintenance of modern computer networks. To date, three academies operate in Kabul, with more than 400 enrollees, including almost 40-percent women. Students who successfully master the demanding one-year program receive the Certified Cisco Networking Associate degree, recognized worldwide as the first of four career levels in the networking field. The program is being expanded to four of Afghanistan’s major cities–Kandahar, Mazar, Herat ,and Khost–under the auspices of USAID and its collaborators, Cisco and UNDP. There are also plans to create another eight to twelve academies, including at least two more in Kabul. Early next year, the plan is to launch additional courses that will qualify graduates as Cisco Certified Networking Professionals, a major step up in the Cisco hierarchy.

“Cisco has been farsighted in developing these academies, first in Africa, where they now have more than 100 academies,” observes Lane Smith, USAID/Afghanistan’s coordinator of this and other Information Technology programs. “They realized that products and systems were changing so fast they had to develop a large training component and founded the non-profit Cisco Networking Academies Program in 1997. Cooperation with AID and the United Nations has successfully introduced this high tech educational program into some of the least developed countries in Asia and Africa with a minimum of problems.”

Will and Determination

The list of individuals and organizations–foreign and domestic–who are aiding Afghanistan in rebuilding from virtually total destruction is long indeed. Perhaps not surprisingly, all of those who has assisted in reconstructing the society are adamant that the will and determination of the Afghans has been vital to success achieved so far. “There is a determination to create a free and prospering society,” notes one, “that is fierce and unrelenting. They are determined to get the job done.”

So is former Ambassador Ishaq Shahryar, who with two Afghan-American colleagues is working on the development of several significant industrial and agricultural projects. “The most important thing those of us who have become naturalized citizens of other countries can do is to lend what expertise we have gained to rebuild Afghanistan,” Shahryar comments. “Our goal is to develop worthwhile projects that will provide employment and income opportunities for thousands of Afghans. Other expatriates are bringing expertise in government and education. With our brothers and sisters throughout the country, we can together make our nation modern and viable.”

Don’t sell this visionary or his country short. Any man who gives up his business and citizenship to serve the country of his birth is both brave and a calculated risk-taker, two factors which untold numbers of Afghans are applying daily in the rebuilding of their country.

John R. Thomson is a longtime Middle East businessman, diplomat, and journalist.


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