When I first joined the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., in 2004, as director of government and media relations, the embassy lacked everything from a basic management structure to carry out its routine diplomatic activities to a website that could help facilitate customer service online. The concept of public diplomacy through direct dialogue with the American people — explaining to them our shared interests in securing the future of Afghanistan — was unknown.
Indeed, like the rest of Afghanistan’s nascent state institutions, no one was to blame for this fledgling status that I encountered in one of our key embassies in the world. But it was apparent that unless the structural and organizational problems were resolved to create a functional system, individual diplomats, no matter how resourceful and skilled, could hardly be effective in their duties to promote bilateral relations and a long-term strategic partnership with the United States.
To help address these interconnected issues, we set out to revamp the embassy’s dysfunctional website so we could use it to present an image of the Afghan people and culture that was not well known to the U.S. public. More than two decades of war and destruction in Afghanistan meant that Americans had hardly heard about the core values of freedom, liberty, and pluralism that the Afghan people share with them. Nor did Americans know that the extremist ideology of the Taliban (which would later extend to sheltering Al Qaeda), which unfortunately prevailed in Afghanistan before the tragedy of 9/11, had been completely alien to Afghans before the Taliban’s 1994 emergence in their country.
We wanted to raise awareness about a new Afghanistan, with one of the world’s youngest populations, which overwhelmingly continues to seek a future of democracy and pluralism against totalitarianism and extremism. This took center stage in our outreach efforts. To help institutionalize these and other capacity-building efforts, I helped draft a five-year strategic plan, in which we organized our very limited human resources around the implementation of our core national objectives. In less than six months, consequently, the embassy began functioning as a proactive diplomatic institution, where issues of bilateral and multilateral interest or concern could be advanced or addressed.
We strove to fight against an image of Afghanistan as a “dirt poor” nation, often portrayed by critics of U.S. involvement in the country. The fact is that Afghanistan sits on about $1 trillion worth of minerals, and Afghans see this abundant mineral wealth as a way to secure and rebuild our war-ravaged homeland.
In addition to using the embassy website, I initiated an annual subscription to Global Business Gateways, through which we have tried to inform the U.S. business community of the profitability of being among the first to invest in Afghanistan’s virgin markets, as well as our historical tradition of commerce and cultural exchange that dates back to the era of the Silk Road. We wanted them to know that with each economic opportunity that is seized, Afghans, as an enterprising and resilient nation, can move one step closer to reconnecting with the global economy and securing a stable and prosperous future.
At the same time, I understood that Afghanistan’s untapped human resources lay outside the country in our large immigrant communities in many developed nations, particularly in the United States. So, I published two detailed articles in several prominent Afghan publications to highlight how resourceful Afghans abroad could play a vital role in the overall rebuilding and development of Afghanistan. I noted that they could do so by: 1) building institutional capacity in Afghanistan, 2) investing in the country’s new and emerging markets, 3) strengthening the Afghan civil society, and 4) advocating to maintain international focus on the priorities of rebuilding Afghanistan.
Years of exiled life with its attendant hardships mean that most Afghan immigrants need to be motivated to make the first move, much like the “first mover” investors. So, as a former refugee and internally displaced person myself — who later learned at Wabash College and Georgetown University how other nations, including the U.S. and Japan, had built their nations and governments — I reminded Afghan immigrants of their debt of service to our homeland.
In an article called “Rebuilding Afghanistan: The Diaspora’s Debt of Service,” I wrote, “Let us never ask what Afghanistan can do for us but ask what we can do for Afghanistan. We can do for Afghanistan what the Japanese and other post-conflict nations did for their homelands. We should begin right here and right now in the West where we have the resources, the capacity, the know-how, and the wealth to walk our talk about the challenges of securing and rebuilding Afghanistan. Let us do our share and avoid going down in the history books as a diaspora that never made a serious effort to save our homeland and allowed it to be a pawn in the game of others.”
I know from personal experience that the world hardly knows the soft and generous side of the United States. Indeed, it is because of the tremendous goodwill and generosity of the American people towards Afghanistan that their government continues to spend billions of dollars in civilian and military aid to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan. In order to thank them in person for their continued support of the Afghan people — with whom Americans share a common future through globalized security and economic prosperity — and to explain to them in specific, tangible ways how American taxpayer money had changed the lives of Afghans forever in Afghanistan, I have vigorously engaged in public diplomacy.
Between 2004 and late 2010 when my assignment ended at the embassy, I traveled to more than 30 American states, speaking at universities, schools, churches, think tanks, professional associations, and senior citizen clubs to explain to the American people how and why security and prosperity in Afghanistan equates to the long-term security of the United States. I reminded them how neglecting the post-Cold War reconstruction of Afghanistan allowed transnational terrorists and criminals to base their anti-American operations in the country and to isolate Afghans from the rest of the world. I would explain that had the U.S. invested a fraction of what it has so far spent on the war against terrorism since 9/11, Afghanistan would have been a democratic and developing nation, contributing, like South Korea, to the security of the United States and to international peace. In individual conversations after each talk I was heartened to hear from many Americans that they agreed that their country had long neglected Afghanistan and they promised to support their government in not making the same mistake again.
Moreover, I visited many American military bases to brief the senior leadership of the U.S. forces who were deploying to Afghanistan. I learned through my own participation in these military briefings how hard the U.S. government continues to try and prepare its forces for effective military operations in Afghanistan, even though I frequently impressed upon them the strategic loss that we and our nation-partners would incur as a result of civilian casualties. “Alienating or harming one Afghan, who supports your presence in Afghanistan, would mean losing the support of his entire village or tribe,” I would often remind the U.S. forces.
Incidentally, the embassy website allows visitors to enter their e-mail address into our online database so that subscribers receive our monthly newsletter with updates on the achievements of the government and people of Afghanistan, in partnership with the United States, as well as the challenges confronting our two nations.
I understand that stabilization of Afghanistan cannot be accomplished by the United States alone. We believe every country in the region and beyond must have a high stake in the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan — knowing that, in a globalized world, the effects of violent extremism and insecurity in one country can easily spill over beyond Afghan’s borders. Of course, Afghans must lead the way forward. But the burden of securing Afghanistan must be shared by the whole international community; both to bring peace to the country and to ensure a safer world for everyone.
I will soon return home to take up a new assignment at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Afghanistan, and I will draw on the past six fleeting years of experience in the United States to help advance the shared interests of Afghanistan and America toward a common secure future. I strongly believe this shared objective is achievable through a binding strategic partnership between our two nations, so that Afghanistan never again becomes a no man’s land — a fertile ground for extremism and terrorism from which the United States could be attacked as it was on 9/11.
M. Ashraf Haidari works with the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and formerly served as the deputy ambassador and political counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C.