Long before his inauguration half a year ago, President Barack Obama told the world that Afghanistan would be his top foreign policy priority. Less than a month after taking office, Obama authorized 21,000 troops to be sent to Afghanistan, bringing the total U.S. troop strength there to 57,000 today, and up to 68,000 by year’s end.
All of a sudden, everyone started remembering what pundits had dubbed “the forgotten war.” That sharp new focus has turned Afghanistan’s Said Tayeb Jawad into one of the highest-profile ambassadors in Washington. These days, Jawad gives at least 20 media interviews a month — not counting numerous op-ed pieces in newspapers and magazines, and frequent speeches at think tanks and seminars.
The Washington Diplomat caught up last month with Jawad, Kabul’s top envoy in the United States, who said he’s busier than ever. “My job is to get the message out and confront some of the misunderstandings Americans have about Afghanistan,” he said. “Washington is a sophisticated city. This is not PR. It’s educating people about what’s going on.”
And Jawad has been busy with his education campaign — blasting the West for the “meager resources” given to the Afghan government, “underinvestment” in the national army, and “total negligence” in building the country’s police and judicial systems. He also rebuffed suggestions by U.S. officials that the administration set more “realistic” goals for Afghanistan, a country known for its resistance to foreign intervention. “To suggest that Afghans do not deserve peace, pluralism and human rights is wrong and racist,” Jawad argued in a forceful speech he gave earlier this year at Harvard University.
Since then, the envoy has taken a cautiously optimistic tone in the wake of Obama’s renewed commitment to Afghanistan. “With the new administration in place, we had to renew all our contacts. The good news is that there’s a willingness to listen,” Jawad told The Washington Diplomat over glasses of iced tea spiked with cardamom, as the embassy’s director of media relations, Martin Austermuhle, took notes.
“Today, Afghanistan is the number-one foreign priority of President Obama’s administration, because the situation in Iraq is improving. We are also fortunate that more than 40 countries have sent troops there to help in the peace process. And many countries are also contributing financially.”
Still, the world knows this is America’s war, and Jawad himself heaped praise on the American soldiers fighting in his country, calling them “the best-equipped troops and the most courageous” of the 100,000 or so military personnel currently in Afghanistan.
“The Americans go everywhere they’re needed. When they come in, they make a difference. They go after the bad guys,” he said. By comparison, “some of our NATO partners don’t have resources.” Without naming specific countries, Jawad complained that NATO troops in general must increase their fighting capabilities — and soon.
“They’re not doing patrols. They’re not doing anything to protect people’s lives. That’s why the Taliban are attacking,” he charged. “It undermines our perception of security.”
And establishing real security — more than seven years after the U.S. ouster of the Taliban following the 9/11 attacks — is exactly what Obama hopes to do by waging an entirely new strategy in Afghanistan. In addition to the troop buildup, there’s been a greater focus on reconstruction and economic development. Also key to winning the proverbial “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people is to keep those hearts beating, so there’s been a huge emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, says his soldiers aren’t out to kill, but rather clear areas and hold them — providing residents with lasting security. “The operations are not aimed at the enemy force. They are aimed at taking away the population from the enemy,” he recently told Time magazine.
Jawad praised Obama for not only “adopting a comprehensive new strategy” to confront some of Afghanistan’s most daunting security challenges, but also for setting up a powerful team that includes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser James L. Jones and Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The rapid collapse of the Taliban on the one hand, and the diversion of attention and resources to Iraq on the other, created a condition where many of the expectations of the Afghan people to live in a safe and secure Afghanistan were not met,” the ambassador told us, noting that comparisons between Afghanistan and Iraq irritate him.
“We are working very hard to decouple Afghanistan from Iraq,” he said. “For one thing, the terrorist threat to the United States came from Afghanistan — not Iraq — and secondly, there’s a strong international consensus to help Afghanistan. Despite the challenges we face, this is a just war.”
A war that, for better or worse, Obama has inherited and staked much of his foreign policy reputation on, though Jawad is optimistic that “with the new administration, there’s a much better understanding of the magnitude of the problem — and a better plan in place to deal with it,” he said. “What we are seeing is a surge of military troops, but also a civilian surge that goes along with it, going into places around Kabul and southern Afghanistan to confront the terrorists.”
But the new strategy is sure to mean more deaths in the short term. As of press time, U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan totaled 670, with more than 55 international troops — including 31 U.S. troops — killed in July alone, making it the deadliest month of the Afghan war for U.S.-led international forces. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell acknowledged that the United States is losing troops “at an alarming rate,” telling reporters that July has been “an extraordinarily difficult month for all of us who are so heavily invested in trying to better the situation in Afghanistan.”
Likewise, the number of British soldiers killed — 184, including eight in a 24-hour period in July — has become a major political issue in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, Britain’s army chief said more troops are needed in Afghanistan’s volatile southern province of Helmand as U.S. and NATO soldiers continue a bloody campaign to oust Taliban fighters ahead of presidential elections set for Aug. 20, in which President Hamid Karzai is expected to win re-election.
Jawad, 50, is the same age as his boss, Karzai. Prior to his appointment as ambassador in 2003, Jawad served as the president’s chief of staff, spokesman and press secretary. He was also director of the Office of International Relations at the presidential palace in Kabul.
Karzai’s man in Washington is fluent in English, German, French, Farsi and Pashto. In 1980, while studying law and political science at Kabul University, the Soviets invaded, and Jawad was forced into exile in Germany.
Since then, he said, Afghanistan has never been the same.
“If you look at Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, it was a peaceful, prosperous country, where women served in the cabinet. It was a destination for tourists. This war in the past 30 years is a new phenomenon,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is bring Afghanistan back to what it used to be. In some areas, such as the Afghan National Army, we’ve made significant progress. Today, Afghanistan is a very different country from what it was seven years ago. There’s a long road ahead of us. We must rebuild state institutions because we’re still facing a brutal enemy.”
He pointedly added that the world had a hand in creating this enemy. “Everybody nourished and financed extremism in order to provide an alternative to communism. Nobody really thought about what would happen once the Soviets were gone. In fact, the ones that received the most amount of money were the most extreme groups.”
In January 2002, after U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and root out al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the United States helped establish an interim administration with Karzai at its head. With strong backing from the Bush administration, Karzai won the 2004 presidential election and promised to bring peace to his country.
Yet the war has dragged on unabated. In Washington, there’s no shortage of opinions on how the Obama administration should confront the increasingly frustrating dilemma of how to win the war in Afghanistan — or what even constitutes victory in the troubled nation.
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.