Seven years in US-Afghan relations
Thomas Cromwell

M. Ashraf Haidari has spent seven years at the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington, and is about to return home to work at the Foreign Ministry in Kabul. In an exclusive interview with he discusses US-Afghan relations and the prospects for his country.

Is President Karzai still popular in Afghanistan, even though his relations with some NATO governments seem to be tense?

Haidari: With a 66 percent rate of approval, President Karzai is one of the most popular presidents in our region and in Afghan history. And 62 percent of Afghans feel that Afghanistan is moving in the right direction, while a whopping 86 percent of Afghans support the current government. These figures are high for any leader and government.

By contrast, only nine percent prefer extremist rule, in part because of the absence or weak presence of the current government in areas under the control and influence of the insurgents, who intimidate people into submission. These figures are not ours, but in accordance with various public opinion polls conducted by various respected organizations including ABC, BBC, and the International Republican Institute over the course of 2009 and 2010. 

I admire President Karzai’s leadership, as someone who has closely observed the challenges facing him on a daily basis. He has one of the most difficult jobs of any president in the world, charged with managing the multiple priorities of securing and rebuilding Afghanistan, in coordination with more than 70 countries and international organizations, in a very tough and volatile neighborhood.

When President Karzai began leading Afghanistan in 2001, he effectively built a government based on the guidelines established by the historic Bonn Agreement. But the Bonn Agreement lacked a sound strategy to build systematically the institutions of Afghanistan’s new broad-based government. That is why reference to Afghanistan as “democracy on the cheap” punctuated press reports for more than seven years as our principal ally, the United States, got bogged down in Iraq, which sapped attention and resources from the priorities of establishing a democratic state in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, 

So, where we are today is very much a cumulative consequence of the failures of the past decade despite repeated appeals by President Karzai to the donor community in various international conferences on Afghanistan to focus their collective assistance — both civil and military — wisely and effectively on strengthening the Afghan state and enabling Afghans to lead and own the stabilization and reconstruction of our country.

It is in this context of ongoing dialogue with the international community that tension may occasionally surface. This should be seen more as a sign of maturity in our relations with the international community under which we have begun o agree to disagree on approaches to take in securing Afghanistan’s future. 

What is your reaction to the reshuffle of senior U.S. civilian and military officials that continue to play a major role in the Afghanistan war, particularly General John Allen as the new NATO-ISAF commander?

Haidari: The recent reshuffle of U.S. officials is an internal matter, but we cherish our two nations’ historic relationship and strategic partnership. As a soldier-diplomat of high caliber, General Allen is fully aware of the principal concerns of the government of Afghanistan — the key to which is to ensure protection of civilians, 86 percent of whom, as I said, continue to support the Afghan government and our partnership with the international community. This degree of popular support for an equal partnership with the international community is of great importance to winning the peace in Afghanistan. In the war for hearts and minds, we must preserve the perception that NATO forces are Afghanistan’s liberators — something most Afghans still believe in. 

Recently several people in Afghanistan were killed by Muslims who were angry over the burning of a Koran by a Florida pastor. For many this violent reaction seemed to indicate that the people of Afghanistan have not changed much since the days of the Taliban. What is your view?

Haidari: First of all, we strongly condemn all acts of violence, as well as the original sources and causes of such violent acts. The vast majority of well-informed Americans, regardless of their political leaning, left or right, have actually condemned the desecration of the Holy Quran by Pastor Terry Jones, who has clearly abused the principle of freedom of expression. President Obama and senior members of his Administration, including ISAF Commander General Petraeus in Afghanistan, have strongly condemned the burning of the Holy Quran.

The Afghan people are deeply religious, and believe in the Holy Quran to be, literally speaking, the word of God that must be revered, much like devout Christians believe in Jesus Christ as the personification of the attributes of God, whose sanctity must be revered. Knowing this, the pastor was well aware that his bigotry could provoke strong reaction in Muslim countries.

When the pastor planned to burn copies of the Holy Quran on the anniversary of 9.11 last year he was warned that it would invite widespread reaction in the Muslim world, especially at a time when more than a 100,000 Americans, both military and civilian, were serving in Afghanistan to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people against extremism. 

I think the pastor solely bears the responsibility for igniting the violence in the first place, which led to the loss of many innocent lives in Afghanistan. And those who took advantage of the peaceful protests in the north and south of Afghanistan and engaged in violence are equally to blame for the killing of UN employees and Afghans. President Karzai has strongly condemned their heinous crime, and ordered an investigation into identifying and punishing the perpetrators of the deadly violence.

Since this was not the first provocative act of bigotry by a minority of extremists in the West and could happen again, preventive measures must be considered by the United Nations to help maintain international peace. Although statements of condemnation by the Secretary General may help, he could do more to persuade governments to take precautionary steps to avoid such incidents in the future. When governments have preventively acted in the past, they have been very successful. I hope in future that they not only do this on their own but also support any preventive measure that the UN may initiate to introduce to the international community for consideration.

You have been in Washington for seven years, which is much of the time since the terror attacks of 911 thrust Afghanistan into the minds of Americans. How do you think the attitude of Americans has changed towards your country?

Haidari: This is a very good question. Looking at the occasional public opinion polls on the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, we see a negative trend, that is more and more Americans want the war to end. And that is good because most Afghans also want to see an end to a long war. But both Americans and Afghans demand a responsible end to the conflict so that our two nations’ decade-long sacrifices, both in blood and treasure, will not go in vain. That will happen when our shared values such as democracy and pluralism are firmly and irreversibly institutionalized in Afghanistan. 

Over the past seven years, I have traveled to more than 30 States, speaking at schools, universities, professional associations, think-tanks, and military bases. When I share with Americans the story of the suffering of the Afghan people and how the neglect of Afghanistan for a decade in the 1990s not only victimized Afghans but also allowed our country to be used against the United States, with the 9/11 tragedy as one major consequence of neglecting Afghanistan, most Americans sympathize with us and pledge to continue supporting the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan. In other words, they do not ask for a premature withdrawal of their forces from Afghanistan until we stand on our own. 

But the problem is that the American public does not get enough constructive news about how their tax money has helped change the lives of Afghans for the better, since the fall of the Taliban. Most press reports are sensationally about what is not working in Afghanistan, completely disregarding how Afghanistan is no longer the most isolated country in the world, how millions of Afghan boys and girls are going back to school, how Afghan state institutions are slowly functioning and delivering basic services to people, and how democracy is gradually taking root in our society where equal women’s rights are guaranteed by our progressive Constitution.

And I think the same goes in Afghanistan where our people do not know much about the tremendous goodwill and generosity of the American people towards Afghanistan. So, I’ve lost no opportunity to share with them the stories of what I call the soft face of the United States: my many encounters with ordinary Americans wishing us well and asking me whether their contributions have helped alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people. In all of my visits outside the Beltway, I see such a thirst for people-to-people contact, an area of public and cultural diplomacy in which the United States can and should do more, not just in Afghanistan but throughout the Muslim world where America’s soft power is more impactful and in high demand.

So, I think one key way through which the U.S. could project its untapped soft power is higher education. Say, for example, if the U.S. had invested $1 billion per year (out of roughly $60-120 billion it annually spends in Afghanistan) in training and educating Afghans in the United States, Afghanistan would have developed the institutional capacity and technical skills which could now help facilitate the implementation of the successful transition process that is currently under way. I’m afraid this has yet to happen as an integral part of a comprehensive state-building strategy. But it is not too late for the U.S. to consider striking the right balance between its military and civilian efforts to help secure the future of Afghanistan.

Do you believe the international forces fighting the Taliban in your country can be successful?

Haidari: I believe the international forces have already been successful in winning every battle against the enemy militarily. But they have yet to win the war at large. The various sources and causes of instability that constitute the big war in Afghanistan have yet to be tackled in an integrated, comprehensive manner where the full impact of development, diplomacy and defense are brought to bear on ending the war in Afghanistan.

Let me explain further the reason why Afghanistan remains insecure. We are facing four interconnected challenges that must be addressed to win the war in Afghanistan. The first has to do with problems internal to Afghanistan; the second has to do with regional interference in the Afghan affairs; the third has to do with the transnational security threats that transcend borders; and the last has to do with the ways in which the international community has tried to assist Afghanistan.

Each of these challenges — which I’d like to discuss — reinforces one another and together they have created a vicious circle, which destabilizes Afghanistan.

On the problems internal to Afghanistan, we are crippled by our landlocked geography, our least-developed status before conflicts, 30 years of war and destruction, and now a culture of abject poverty and profound human insecurity that pervade the Afghan society, even though we are a very resilient and enterprising nation. Also, our state institutions remain weak and we lack the requisite resources to deliver basic services to a population of what I consider vulnerable groups (including returning refugees, internally displaced persons, disabled, former combatants, jobless youth, the elderly, women and children). I think that in such an environment of human desperation and insecurity, socio-economic grievances are commonplace and can easily be exploited by internal and external actors to destabilize Afghanistan.

The regional dimension of instability that exploits our internal vulnerabilities is well-documented, and has deep roots in Pakistan, especially in the context of Pakistan’s hostile relationship with India. In other words, we will remain a prime victim of lingering tensions between India and Pakistan unless the two countries resolve their differences. It is in this hostile context that we must understand why Pakistan created and supported the Taliban movement to control Afghanistan until 2001. Pakistan continues to pursue a dual policy of fighting the Pakistani Taliban but actively sheltering, supplying, and supporting the Taliban that mainly operate in Afghanistan.

At the same time, transnational actors such as Al Qaeda have capitalized on Afghanistan’s internal and regional sources of instability and formed strategic alliances with the Taliban. These groups form symbiotic relations with one another for their mutual survival and success. 

Al Qaeda and its Pakistani affiliates continue to inspire, indoctrinate and brainwash jobless and frustrated youth in the Pakistani madrassas where the Taliban recruit fighters for their terrorist operations in Afghanistan. At the same time, transnational drug mafia have found a permissive environment in the south and east of Afghanistan where the Taliban financially benefit from taxation of poppy farmers and protection of the trafficking of precursor chemicals into Afghanistan and finished narcotic products out of the country.   

Finally, the very international response to these challenges facing Afghanistan has been inadequate and uncoordinated. This has grown to become part of the larger security problem. As I said earlier, we tend to forget that Afghanistan had no state institutions when the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. The Bonn Agreement essentially gave Afghans a government on paper only. But following that Bonn process no well-resourced, state-building strategy was adopted to provide Afghanistan with institutional capacity to deliver basic services to people. 

For seven years under the last U.S. administration, the priorities of state-building in Afghanistan were shortchanged because of the diversion of attention and resources to Iraq. The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen once famously said, “In Iraq, we do what we must; in Afghanistan, we do what we can.” This statement sums up the U.S. and NATO engagement in Afghanistan for seven years — which led to the full resurgence of the Taliban and their expanding control of the south and east of Afghanistan where the Kabul government has been either absent or weak.

In addition, Afghans have not owned the rebuilding process, since some 80 percent of the aid provided to our country by-passes the Afghan government and is spent by non-state institutions, including Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), NGOs, a family of United Nations agencies, and corporations. 

With these resources spent outside our institutions, we can hardly retain competitive employees for effective service delivery, and often lose them to higher paid jobs with international organizations. It is obvious that weak institutional capacity and underpayment of staff cause widespread corruption in the government system. Rife corruption in turn harms the legitimacy of the government in the public eyes, which we know leaves a negative impact on both governance and security across Afghanistan.

In sum, my long answer to your question is that all of the above challenges must be adequately addressed in order to win the big war in Afghanistan. Nor will the transition process currently underway will be successfully achieved by 2014 unless the above challenges are tackled to stabilize Afghanistan whose security problems have deep regional and international roots. 

What would success look like to you?

Haidari: Success to me is when our nation-partners sincerely accept Afghanistan’s problems as partly theirs, as I just explained, and thus collectively strive to create and consolidate the institutions of democracy in Afghanistan so that we can gradually but firmly stand on our own. Almost 10 years of an international presence in Afghanistan has produced some of the key building blocks of success — a progressive constitution, democratic state institutions, gender equity, and popular optimism for a brighter future — that must be solidified into full success for all of us. 

Do you believe that democracy is taking root in Afghanistan?

Haidari: Yes. As I said earlier, our democracy is still young, but we have come a long way since the days of complete state collapse and failure that endangered regional stability and international peace. And I think the tragedy of 9/11 is a sad reminder that neglecting the demand of the Afghan people for institutionalization of peace and democracy in Afghanistan will always run the danger of losing the country again, with grave consequences for regional stability and global security. Through participation in several rounds of elections in Afghanistan, Afghans have firmly embraced democracy. But they do expect the promise of democracy to materialize over time. Even though Afghans have yet to benefit much from the peace and prosperity dividends of democracy, they overwhelmingly support democracy as the best form of government compared to the regimes they have experienced in the past.  

What are the best things the international community can now do to help stabilize your country and prevent a return of the Taliban?

Haidari: The best thing the international community can and should do is to take advantage of the many opportunities that we collectively have to help stabilize Afghanistan. As we are in the tenth year of international intervention in Afghanistan, we have far more opportunities for success in the country than problems that might discourage us from getting the job done. Let me explain.

First, the Afghan people continue to remain supportive of the international presence in Afghanistan and seek a future with democracy rather than with extremists and terrorists. We have a young, resilient, and enterprising population, who, if given the opportunity and the means, will achieve self-reliance both to defend and rebuild our country. The international community must invest in the future of our young population, of which some 70 percent are below the age of 25. This can best be achieved through increased resources for secondary and higher education, as well as vocational training so Afghan men and women gain the expertise and skills our country needs to develop. 

Second, Afghanistan and the international community have achieved a number of milestones that we only need to build upon, as I said earlier. Today, we have a democratically elected president and parliament; the most progressive constitution in the region; some eight million girls and boys in school; over a dozen universities operating across Afghanistan; access to electricity and health-care expanding each year since the fall of the Taliban; millions of Afghans using mobile phones and connected with the outside world for the first time; and thousands of small, medium, and large infrastructure projects have been implemented across Afghanistan. These achievements constitute the key building blocks of success in Afghanistan. They should be consolidated to deepen democracy in Afghanistan and to effect an orderly and irreversible transition of military and civil responsibilities to full Afghan sovereignty beyond 2014.  

Third, after nine years of learning by doing, there are many, many lessons to be learned from our collective past mistakes. Above all, we know that if our nation-partners do not coordinate their civil and military efforts or if they do not put Afghan hands on every project by helping Afghans design and implement those projects themselves, success is not going to be sustainable in Afghanistan. Nine years is a long time, and enough for most countries to have the institutional memory they need to avoid repeating their past mistakes. If everyone gets their act together to do the right thing, we should soon see our collective efforts bear fruit in Afghanistan.

Fourth, Afghanistan is endowed with many natural resources. We have immense reserves of oil and natural gas, copper and iron ore, precious and semi-precious stones, and various types of minerals that must be extracted for export to regional and global markets. Capital intensive investment in our economy will help expand the Afghan economy, slowly allowing us to finance our country’s defense and development on our own. Assistance to extract Afghanistan’s natural resources coupled with harnessing our energetic and enterprising people will undoubtedly help us achieve self-reliance. Exploiting Afghanistan’s human and natural resources in a strategic manner to grow our formal economy is a fertile area of opportunity that must be fully exploited.

Finally, we understand that an inclusive transition of security, governance and development responsibilities to Afghanistan cannot be sustainable without implementing an effective peace and reconciliation process to achieve durable stability in Afghanistan. Through formation of a High Peace Council, which includes representation from Afghanistan’s major ethnic and political stakeholders, including women, the Afghan government is seeking a political end to the ongoing conflict with the Taliban. The government and people of Afghanistan are prepared to reconcile with those Taliban leaders who are willing to cut ties with Al Qaeda, renounce violence, and accept the Afghan constitution. 

At the same time, we have launched a reintegration process, through which we provide financial and job incentives to a vast number of the Taliban that fight for a daily wage to support their families. Through this effort, we hope to peel off the reconcilable and non-ideological rank and file of the insurgency and to weaken its local base of support inside Afghanistan.

Are you optimistic about your country's future?

Haidari: On most things I am a realist-optimist, and I think that sustainable peace is winnable in Afghanistan if the challenges I discussed are addressed, the democratic achievements I noted are consolidated, and the many opportunities I identified are taken up to secure the future of Afghanistan. I would be less optimistic about our future if Afghanistan and our nation-partners do not move forward in tandem with the above realities. Let’s hope that we will, not just for the sake of the Afghan people, who continue to bear the brunt of the ongoing war, but for the sake of peace for everyone throughout the world.

What do you hope to do when you return to Kabul?

Among other things, I look forward to helping advance our core interest of strengthening the Afghan state institutions so that we slowly stand on our own to drive the long-term development of Afghanistan. Advocacy for institutional capacity building is one of the principal duties of Afghan diplomats, and I hope to further fulfill this obligation in my interactions with the donor community in and outside Afghanistan.

Biography of M. Ashraf Haidari

M. Ashraf Haidari was born and grew up in Afghanistan, and shares a personal story that resonates with millions of other ordinary Afghans touched by decades of conflict. Haidari experienced these hardships firsthand both under the Soviet occupation in 1980s and the Taliban rule in 1990s.

Haidari served the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC, in various capacities including Chargé d’Affaires; Political Counselor; Acting Defense Attaché; First Secretary for Political, Security & Development Affairs; and Director of Government and Media Relations, from 2004 to 2010. In these positions, Haidari maintained bilateral relations with the U.S. Administration and Congress, and effectively managed coalition affairs; oversaw non-resident diplomatic relations with Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Argentina; and coordinated Afghanistan’s diplomatic, defense, development, and law enforcement relations with the relevant institutions of the U.S. Government and the Washington-based missions of the Coalition and non-resident countries.

He formerly worked as Assistant Vice President for Federal Relations, Research Analyst, and Assistant Director of Development at Georgetown University. Prior to this, Haidari had worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations World Food Program (UNWFP) in Afghanistan, Europe, and Central Asia.

As a strong voice for Afghanistan, Haidari has tirelessly engaged in public diplomacy in order to maintain focus on and support for the stabilization and reconstruction of the country. He is a frequent lecturer on Afghanistan and regional security issues, having spoken at many public and academic forums.  Haidari is also an accomplished author, whose writings have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, Asia Times, Korea Times, and other international publications. In addition, Haidari frequents major TV and radio shows to discuss Afghanistan and regional affairs, and has interviewed with CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC, VOA, CSPAN, NPR, Alhurra, and others.

Haidari is educated in the United States, Switzerland, and Afghanistan. He holds a Master of Arts from the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service; and a Bachelor of Arts from Wabash College. During 2002-2003, Haidari was a Fellow in Foreign Service at the Georgetown University Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and holds advanced certificates in International Affairs and Refugee & Humanitarian Emergencies from the University. In 2000, Haidari studied European Studies and International Law at the Kent State University Geneva Study-Abroad Program in Switzerland. He speaks English, French, and Russian.