A new chapter
Said Jawad smiles as he remembers the Afghanistan of his youth – cycling under a canopy of acacia blossoms in Kabul in spring and wintering in his lush hometown, Kandahar. It’s a memory that inspires him in his work as Ambassador to London to restore peace in his homeland.
Those memories ended abruptly in 1979 when the Soviets invaded and, as an activist hailing from an intellectual family, he was forced to flee, eventually settling in the US. But Jawad never abandoned his homeland, frequently appearing in the media to draw attention to the extremists who had taken his country hostage after the Soviet collapse.
Out of exile
Then 9/11 happened. Watching from the sidelines was over, and Jawad returned to Kabul to offer his services to the new interim administration. “The next thing I knew, I was appointed Hamid Karzai’s spokesperson and chief of staff!” he says.
But the cosmopolitan Kabul of his youth had become a city of despair. The blossoms were long gone, as the trees had been felled for fuel. “It broke my heart,” he says. “It was also a big motivation to bring Kabul back to life. We would put in 18-hour days to make it happen.”
As the President’s Principal Liaison with the Constitutional Commission in 2002, Jawad helped organise the first Loya Jirga (a gathering of leaders to elect an interim administration). As a member of the cabinet and the National Security Council he was part of the team charged with rebuilding the country’s national defence, security and civil institutions.
“The responsibility was huge,” he says. “After any revolution, the incoming administration has a three-year golden period where you can bring about a lot of change.”
Jawad takes pride in their accomplishments: improving gender equality; access to education and maternal healthcare, even in the remotest parts of the country; and greatly enhancing connectivity, with telecoms and roads.
He has regrets, too. “In a post-conflict situation, you have to strike a balance between stability and justice. In order to have stability sometimes you cannot deliver justice, especially if you don’t have institutions and instead of justice you deliver revenge, which makes matters worse. But there are those who still need to face justice for their actions because stability and peace is not sustainable without justice.”
In late 2003, President Karzai appointed Jawad Ambassador to the US where he served for the next decade, and built up formidable diplomatic and defence ties.
Now as Ambassador London, Jawad is re-connecting with old friends, such as FCO Minister Rory Stewart, whom he met after Stewart’s epic walk across Afghanistan. There are Royal links too: Prince Charles supports the Turquoise Mountain charity aimed at reviving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and Prince Harry famously served in Afghanistan.
“We are so grateful to Prince Harry and all those who fought in Afghanistan. They are our heroes. They fought to make life better for our children,” he says.
Following the withdrawal of more than 100,000 NATO troops in 2015, the security situation remains fragile. The Ambassador welcomes the recent promise of more troops, but says continued institutional support to Afghan security forces is vital. “We need combat ‘enablers’ to allow us to do the job ourselves,” says Jawad. This includes upgrading equipment and defence capabilities and the training of Afghanistan’s security forces.
It also means cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbours. “Our biggest foreign policy priority is to enhance regional cooperation for peace, deradicalisation, stability and prosperity,” he says.
Curbing narco-traffic is another priority, to cut off terrorist funding. To do this effectively requires a holistic approach, explains Jawad. To get farmers to switch to legitimate crops, they need access to credit, services, decent infrastructure and the assurance of a better future.
So the Ambassador welcomes DfID’s pledge of £450m of development assistance over the next four years. “Britain is helping us improve the quality of governance to enable us to eliminate corruption and deliver services in the countryside,” he says.
British aid is also involved in demining and supporting NGOs working on female empowerment. “We have one of the most liberal constitutions in the region protecting women’s rights, but the difficult part is implementing these laws. It requires building institutions and changing attitudes through education,” explains Jawad.
Education charities do excellent work, including a school run by the Ambassador’s wife, Shamim, for orphans in Bamiyan. The FCO is funding Chevening scholars while the Afghan Government is investing in education institutions to create the skilled workforce needed for a growing economy.
“The key to Afghanistan’s stability is economic opportunity,” stresses Jawad and there are opportunities for investors in infrastructure, telecoms, energy, mining, agri-business and financial services. Even small entrepreneurs can have blooming businesses – quite literally in the case of philanthropist and perfume manufacturer Barb Stegemann, who backed farmers growing orange blossoms instead of poppies. Now her fragrances are on the shelves of department stores worldwide.
It’s a success story that appeals to Jawad, a poet and
storyteller, who wants to change the narrative on Afghanistan – in the media, through culture or on the sports field (he is an enthusiastic polo player). The return of blossoms is a chapter in Afghanistan’s story of revival.