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Afghanistan’s New Envoy Says Despite Setbacks, Her Country Is Moving Forward

By Samantha Subin

Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s first woman ambassador to the U.S., optimistically discussed her war-ravaged country’s social, political and economic progress during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Feb. 7.

“I strongly believe there is no going back, that there’s a shift now,” Rahmani said to a packed room. “There’s a shift in mindset and there is an irreversible change that has happened over the past 20 years.”

But experts worry that if the U.S. pulls out the last of its troops and makes a hasty deal with the Taliban, that those changes will indeed be reversed.

Since the U.S. toppled the Taliban-led government following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Afghanistan has now become America’s longest war — a war President Trump is intent on ending. He has ordered the military to withdraw roughly half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan Ambassador Roya Rahmani
Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s first woman ambassador to the U.S., is seen during a reception for newly accredited ambassadors held at the Meridian International Center on Jan. 15. Photo: Jessica Latos

And according to a Feb. 28 report in The New York Times, the Pentagon is preparing a plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country over the next three to five years as part of peace negotiations now underway with the Taliban.

After years of inertia, those talks have made significant headway recently. The two sides have tentatively agreed on a framework for the withdrawal of foreign troops in return for Taliban pledges that Afghanistan would not be used as a safe haven for terrorist groups. But the Afghan government has been excluded in the talks, and many Afghans fear a deal with the Taliban could return the country to the harsh rule it endured under the Taliban, which banned girls from attending school and imposed an extreme form of Islam over Afghanistan’s 35 million people.

But Rahmani, who fled Afghanistan during Taliban rule in the 1990s and lived in neighboring Pakistan, prefers to focus on the gains than the potential losses. The envoy, who previously served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Indonesia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, says the progress in Afghanistan has been astounding.

Today, nearly 4 million girls are enrolled in schools and one-third of Afghan university students are women.

There’s been progress on the economic front as well. Since the American intervention following 9/11, the country has seen a rapid increase in GDP and economic opportunity. In 2002, the World Bank estimated Afghanistan’s GDP at $4 billion. By 2012, that number nearly quadrupled to $19 billion (although much of that comes from foreign aid).

Rahmani, who earned a master’s in public administration from Columbia University, sees other economic prospects in the future as well, including transforming Afghanistan into a regional transportation and trade hub.

Afghanistan Ambassador Roya Rahmani
Afghan soldiers train at the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command’s School of Excellence on April 10, 2018. U.S. troops have been helping to train Afghan forces, although they may shift more toward counterterrorism strikes in the future while European troops might possibly take over the training role. Photo: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Felix Figueroa

 “For the first time now after 117 years we are once again connected to Central Asia,” she said. “With the potentials that exist between north and south, and the needs that exist, we are very situated to become a hub of energy, transport [and] data transport.”

Government projects targeting agriculture, education and technology at the regional level have given Afghanistan a “comparative advantage,” specifically in the import and export industry, Rahmani added.

The addition of new airports has also increased the country’s shipping capabilities. And in 2018, Afghanistan broke ground on a 1,127-mile inter-country gas pipeline that’s expected to cost around $7 billion and provide thousands of jobs.

“That’ll mean jobs, but it will also mean tax collections for the Afghan government,” Daniel Runde of CSIS said. “The more taxes they collect means the less foreign aid we’ve got to give — to think in American terms about this.”

“It’d be so great if Afghanistan, as it collects more taxes, could pay even more for its actual military,” he added.

But despite concerns regarding the military’s self-sufficiency, Rahmani expressed confidence in her troops and countrymen.

“Everybody in my country is working very hard to meet our roles for self-reliance,” she said. “We want it I could say more than you do.”

Despite the deaths of an estimated 45,000 Afghan security forces since 2014, Rahmani said the Afghan military continues to grow, as citizens enlist to fight against terrorism and support freedom and social progress.These values are also becoming embedded in the public sector — a claim supported by Runde.

Afghanistan Ambassador Roya Rahmani
Afghan women are seen wearing traditional burqas. While women have made tremendous strides in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion, many fear that a return of the Taliban to power could undermine that progress. Photo: Amber Clay from Pixabay

 “You have a legitimate constitution, a legitimate government,” he said. “People have gone out and voted, even putting their lives in danger … because they want to have their voices heard.”

In 2018, nearly 8 million Afghans voted in parliamentary elections, an uncommon occurrence in a country marred by election fraud, ballot stuffing and Taliban-induced election terror.

“The number of people that came out to vote is a testament to the result of democracy,” Rahmani said. “They want their voices heard.”

Ultimately, Rahmani sees this overall shift in Afghan democracy and mindset as proof that the county is moving forward, and that change is “irreversible.”

“[Afghans] are not going to fight,” Rahmani said. “They are fighting, and they will continue to fight.”


Samantha Subin is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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