Afghan Ambassador Reports on Reconstruction

Afghan Ambassador Reports on ReconstructionIshaq Shahryar

Ishaq Shahryar cites return of women to schools, massive new construction, and new Afghan army as signs of stabilization. Thanks America for its support.

By Leslie Evans

"In every aspect of life there is some progress," Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Ishaq Shahryar, told an audience at UCLA's Faculty Center March 5. He cited mushrooming school attendance, particularly by women; large-scale road construction; the building of a new Afghan army; and a national survey underway of natural resources. Ambassador Shahryar was highly lauditory of the efforts of the Bush adminstration in his country and fended off a number of critical questioners in the audience.

Ishaq Shahryar, who had emigrated to the United States in1956, until last year was best known as a NASA scientist and pioneer inventor of photovoltaic solar panel technologies. He went back to his native Afghanistan from Southern California last year and then returned as Afghanistan's first ambassador to the United States since 1978. His talk at UCLA was cosponsored by the School of Public Policy and Social Research, the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations, and a graduate student organization.

Shahryar acknowledged that the successes of the Hamid Karzai government remain shaky: "This is a situation where negative forces are always ready to come back in. There is a history that goes back 4,000 years and that memory unfortunately favors dictatorship over democracy. Poverty is the soil where terrorism takes root."

Nevertheless, he said, "The people of Afghanistan have rallied to President Karzai, who can rally the population to rebuild the country. He called last week [during his visit to] Washington to reverse the brutal repression that women had suffered under the Taliban, and bring peace and security to a people who for a generation have known only violence. The grays and blacks imposed on us under the Taliban are being replaced with color. Our men can again play music. Our women and girls are returning to school, and the children can again fly kites."

A Legacy of Destruction

The problems his country faces are enormous. "One in two children will not reach the age of five," he said. The United Nations estimates that a quarter of Afghanistan's 27 million people are refugees. "Afghanistan is the most mined country in the world, and children at play will become the victims of land mines."

In face of this daunting situation, Shahryar said he considered the current Afghan reconstruction effort "perhaps the most successful since the Marshall plan." He pointed in particular to the construction of "ring roads." This is the project to rebuild the 2,400 kilometers of highways connecting major Afghan cities such as Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif. An additional 700 kilometers of roads are being built linking Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
"New ministries have been established and are functioning," Shahryar added. "We have established major embassies. We have put out a welcome mat for business and investment. We have reached out to business and the private community to invest in Afghanistan. We have great natural resources that remain undeveloped in Afghanistan. We understand that the international community will not invest until stability is guaranteed, until there is an infrastructure of communications and transport. We have a strategically important location in central Asia, but these elements will never be mastered independent of peace and security, and of course a business plan. I have helped to create the Private Sector Task Force in Afghanistan, which has carried out surveys to explore our natural resources. We will host a trade show in Kabul later this year. President Karzai and I are determined not to squander this moment in Afghanistan history."

A New Army Is Disarming the Militias

An Afghan defense committee made up of senior warlords, Ambassador Shahryar said, "has agreed on the composition of the new army and the disarming of the local militias." There are still about 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan, mostly in the south. In addition there is the ISEF (International Security Forces in Afghanistan), a force of Europeans, Turks and others. "I want to assure you," Shahryar said, "that the Untied States is doing an aggressive training of the Afghan army and police to stand on their own feet. The Germans are training the police and the Americans are training the army. They are doing a tremendous job in getting the Afghans to run their own army.

"Regarding the security of the country, President Bush came up with a plan called the Provisional Reconstruction Team, PRT, which calls for recruiting a lot of Afghanis to work on reconstruction, who will also have military training. The PRT type of system is moving forward. We had asked for NATO or other forces, but I think the PRT will work well as an alternative to that."

On the threat of warlord opposition to the government, Ambassador Shahryar was optimistic. "The warlords are not fighting against the national government," he said. "They are fighting against each other. I think we can demobilize the warlords. Also important is the construction of the ring roads, that will unite the cities of the country. With development and construction there will be demobilization and the Afghan people will be able to live together."

Clearly, Shahryar did not share the views of critics of the American intervention in Afghanistan: "America's efforts have already been heroic, creative, and generous." 

The Center of a Circle of Instability

Ishaq Shahryar sought to encourage the United States and other counties to support Afghanistan by portraying it as the center of a geographic circle prone to crisis and instability. Which way Afghanistan goes can determine the future of the surrounding states:

"Zbigniew Brzezinski referred ten years ago to the Hindu Kush as the arch of instability. It has been matched in recent years by another arch on the south side of the Hindu Kush, from Pakistan to Indonesia. The arch is now a circle. For 4000 years Afghanistan has been a portal. Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Alexander the Great crossed through the Khyber Pass, the gateway from Europe to Asia. Control the Afghanistan high ground and you will influence for good or for evil what flows from Europe to Asia."

If attention is not paid, he added, "the circle will be refilled with drugs, war, and terror. If attention is sustained, Afghanistan can become a hub of democracy and stability that is self-sustaining, a model for the region. I welcome the diplomatic resources of the United States and others to help this process succeed. I know it is a stretch to think of Afghanistan as the Switzerland of the region, but this is not an impossible future. We should work to prevent a weak center for a circle of instability. All nations will benefit from a new stability in the Middle East."

Will Afghanistan Be Dominated by the United States?

In his talk and in the question period that followed Ishaq Shahryar took up the risk of foreign domination of his country, particularly by the United States. "A writer said Russia is arming one warlord, Iran another, Pakistan and India are playing out their rivalry, and Afghanistan is the target. We must hold firm to the principle that Afghanistan, like every other sovereign nation, is for the Afghan people and not a playing field for regional rivalries."

He called for civilians from other countries to replace soliders in reconstructing the country: "We have had enough of occupation by soldiers. We need to be occupied by an army of teachers, bankers, public safety experts, and perhaps even a few lawyers. The goal is a jump start, not a permanent occupying force, a new benevolent army."

In the question period he was asked if there would be a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Shahryar replied, "Afghans never liked invaders, history can tell you that. They fought hard against the Soviet Union. America is known as a liberator. America first liberated us from the former Soviet Union and this time from the terrorists of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. We welcome that. We want America to make Afghanistan a model for other Islamic countries. We trust that America will not stay a day longer than necessary. The job America is doing is absolutely fantastic and the people of Afghanistan are very grateful."

Who Is Paying for the Reconstruction?

One member of the audience asked if it was true that the United States had reneged on a commitment to donate $20 million to the reconstruction effort. Shahryar replied, "That is not true. Those are rumors. The U.S. has been very committed to Afghanistan. We met in Washington with secretaries Powell and Rumsfield. $4.5 billion was promised in Tokyo. The U.S. has kept its part of that pledge, donating some $900 million, spent already, of U.S. funds. The Afghanistan Freedom Support Act calls for $3.3 billion over the next three years. I proposed to Senator [Richard] Lugar [R-Indiana] the creation of an enterprise fund. It passed both houses [of the U.S. Congress] and was signed by President Bush. It is the other donors who have not followed through with their pledges and we want to find out why."

What Will Be Done about the Two Buddhas?

One questioner asked if there were plans to restore historical monuments of Afghanistan's thousands of years of history. Shahryar replied that rebuilding has begun at many such sites, including the two giant Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban. "There are two schools of thought on the Buddhas; one wants to rebuild them, the other says leave them destroyed as a monument of a different kind. Relatively speaking, in every aspect of life there is some progress. Relatively speaking, a lot has been done. If more money comes we will move forward. But Afghanistan is very rich in natural resources: minerals, gold, oil. We are working very hard with the U.S. Geological Survey to map the resources. The country can stand on its own feet. We have an aggressive young man who is the Minister of Culture and he is working on rebuilding the museums and other art centers."

Will Shahryar's Solar Power Technology Be Put to Use?

One questioner asked if Shahryar's photovoltaic technologies would be used in the reconstruction. The ambassador visibly brightened at that and launched into a discussion that clearly meant much to him. "Yes," he said enthusiastically. "We are demonstrating a solar home power system, water purification systems, etc. We have started a new firm on photovoltaic technology based on nanotechnology, to break things down to the size of atoms, which are very active. It is pasted over glass. When we first developed photovoltaic we used silicon. To make the chips, silicon was 75% of the cost of the cells. There has been millions of dollars in research to develop a cheaper material. They have developed amorphous cells, where the material costs went down, but the manufacturing cost went up. Our new company, Global Energy, is looking to reduce the cost of electricity to 6 or 7 cents a kilowatt. We want to develop a model village with new technologies to build homes, using new construction materials and largely solar powered with a backup Honda generator to pump water. In the school, Internet connections would be solar powered."

The Afghan Diaspora

Returning to the issue of genuine independence one audience member asked "To what degree are the projects shaped by the donors rather than by the Afghan government? Do the people who have a direct stake in the program have a say in the outcome?"

Shahryar tried to reassure the plainly skeptical questioner. "The Afghan people are very strong willed," he said. "The donors are trying very hard to have the Afghans take charge of the country. There is a 70,000 member police force that is to report to President Karzai. Afghans do not like to take handouts. They are a very proud people. The donors realize this. Many companies are going to Kabul. We are trying to use the Afghan Diaspora to go back and lead a lot of this work. Education is moving very fast. Last year 3 million kids registered for school, 50% are girls.The government had estimated only 1.5 million would come. There are a lot of Afghan-Americans over there now. There were hundreds of Afghan business and companies that were destroyed during the war. Many are being revived with the help of Afghan-Americans."

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Ishaq Shahryar holds a BA in chemistry and a masters in international relations from UC Santa Barbara. Ambassador Shahryar was one of the three scientists who invented low-cost solar (photovoltaic) cells in 1972 and developed the process for modern day screen-printing (or mass-producing) of cells used in solar energy panels. He was instrumental in the development of ultraviolet sensitive solar cells for NASA for the Jupiter Project. In 1993, he was awarded U.S. patent rights for a 20% efficient silicon solar cell. His latest patent is pending for a new solar cell that will reduce the cost of solar cells by 50 percent. He helped to invent the printed rechargeable circuits used in solar powered calculators. In 1994, he was named to the U.S. Presidential Mission on Sustainable Energy and Trade to India and has acted as an advisor to numerous trade and environmental groups in the United States and abroad.

Ishaq Shahryar served as an advisor to former Afghan King Zahir Shah for five years, and was a key participant in the Bonn Accord negotiations in 2002 that formed the Interim Administration.

Published: Thursday, March 13, 2003