“You can never get anywhere until you put yourself in the shoes of the person sitting across the table from you.” Dr. Susan Shirk, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
A Conversation with Eklil Hakimi, Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States
Forced from his homeland of Afghanistan in 1994 by the proliferation of violence and chaos, Ambassador Eklil Hakimi dreamed of one day returning to serve his fellow countrymen and use his talents and abilities to help improve the state of affairs there. It is a dream that would be fulfilled and in due course he would go on to serve as Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the United States, a position he describes as a very challenging job at a very important time.
Having emerged in the mid-1990’s from factional warfare to reign in Afghanistan, the Taliban implemented archaic policies, particularly in their oppressive treatment of women, which provoked international isolation and condemnation of the regime. Despite the near universal disdain for the way they ruled, Hakimi said it was difficult to envision a day when the Taliban would be gone. In 2001, the fall of the Taliban was not only a pivotal moment for the war on terrorism and “great news” according to Hakimi; it was this development that would lead to the realization of his dream as Hakimi promptly decided to return home to Afghanistan.
With one major ambition achieved, Ambassador Hakimi is working diligently on behalf of his country to achieve even bigger aspirations. In January 2002, Hakimi returned to Afghanistan and was asked to join the interim administration. He would go on to serve as an adviser in the fields of policy formulation, government reform, and institutional capacity building at the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission and the Office of the Vice President. An important part of his diplomatic portfolio was to strengthen ties between donor countries and various ministries of Afghanistan.
In 2005, Hakimi was appointed as the Ambassador of Afghanistan to the People’s Republic of China, while serving as non-resident Ambassador to Mongolia and Vietnam. He would later be tapped to serve as Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Japan and immediately prior to becoming Ambassador to the United States he returned to Kabul to serve as Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs. He became Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the United States in February 2011 and is primarily responsible for maintaining the strategic partnership between the two nations as well as playing a major role in facilitating reconstruction efforts and economic development.
As is characteristic of most diplomats who have risen to the status of Ambassador, Hakimi exudes a dignified composure. Whether discussing human rights or electrical transmission lines, he speaks with a direct, poised confidence that reinforces his message. And that confidence is interjected with a compelling dose of enthusiasm when Ambassador Hakimi speaks about two topics in particular—women’s rights in Afghanistan and his nation’s economic potential.
On the latter subject, Ambassador Hakimi looks forward to a day when Afghanistan moves from largely being a recipient of largesse from foreign governments to more of a destination for investment by foreign businesses. The Ambassador focused on two attributes of his country that could be utilized to generate a better economic future—its strategic location and its natural resources—and create jobs for the Afghan people which will be essential to fostering security and stability in the long-term.
As the state of Indiana is known as the ‘Crossroads of America,’ Hakimi would be pleased if someday Afghanistan goes by the moniker the ‘Crossroads of Asia.’ He pointed out that it shares a border with six nations – China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – and could serve as a gateway to India for goods, energy and water moving south. For example, Hakimi cited an $8 billion project transferring natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to its ultimate destination of India. Due to Afghanistan’s location, he indicated it is foreseeable that the money they could collect from taxes, if they succeed in facilitating trade, may be able to fund the government’s daily operating costs and development budget.
As the Ambassador put it, “connectivity of the region” is critical to Afghanistan’s economic future; a notion that fits well with the Obama Administration’s Afghanistan strategy of regional cooperation which features economic collaboration as a key underpinning. Hakimi noted regional design projects involving railways and transmission lines as tangible illustrations of the regional connectivity concept. He also singled out their “enormous water reserves, particularly in Northern Afghanistan” as important to their future and that of the region. Investment in this area could be used to generate electricity and help farmers switch from opium poppies to agricultural products that someday could be exported to Central Asia and the Gulf states.
But water is not the only underdeveloped natural resource in Afghanistan. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has conducted extensive surveys through a variety of techniques across the country to assess its natural resources and have estimated Afghanistan’s mineral wealth to be more than $1 trillion. Ambassador Hakimi rattled off a long inventory of natural resources, including lithium, zinc, iron, natural gas, oil, cooper, and gold, that could attract foreign investment and create much needed domestic jobs.
While the bonanza of untapped mineral wealth could dramatically help improve the nation’s impoverished economic condition, there is a realization that outside assistance will be necessary to extract the natural resources. To this end, Hakimi plans to use the Embassy as an information hub – displaying maps, housing geological data and employing experts – in an effort to entice companies to invest. He said U.S. firms have the technical expertise and that initially based on a win-win principle U.S. companies should partner with Afghanistan by investing and reaping the rewards.
In addition to economic development, Ambassador Hakimi, who has three daughters, believes that forging progress in women’s rights is critical to his country’s future. And it is an issue he considers to be a success story for the post-Taliban government. “Women now enjoy civil liberties which they were deprived of under the Taliban’s rule,” Hakimi conveyed, “Many women have gone back to school and work while others have begun venturing into different areas of politics, economics and some even in active duty with security forces.”
He continued, “I am committed to doing everything in my power as the representative of Afghanistan in the United States to further the work of Afghan women and support them with the help of my wife, Sultana.” Reaffirming that there will not be any changes to the constitution to diminish the gains women have made or reduce their role in society, he encouragingly noted that twenty-eight percent of the Afghan parliament is comprised of women while women make up forty percent of the Afghan media. The Ambassador’s efforts in this area have not gone unnoticed.
“We are proud that Ambassador Hakimi and his wife, Sultana, have made women's issues a priority, have embraced working with our Council and recognize it is the best vehicle bringing the public and private and non-profit sectors together to help assure progress for women and girls in Afghanistan,” related Anita McBride, former Chief of Staff to First Lady Laura Bush and member of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. “While real progress has been made, much more work remains to be done. In fact, Mrs. Bush, who was instrumental in launching the Council in 2002 and now serves as its honorary advisor, has met with the Ambassador and his wife and conveyed her and President Bush's ongoing commitment to expanding freedom and opportunities for Afghanistan’s women.”
According to McBride, the Council, along with the Ambassador and Mrs. Hakimi, were recently hosted at a high level meeting at the White House with Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, First Lady Chief of Staff Tina Tchen, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer and the Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Marc Grossman. Ambassador Hakimi praised the Council’s efforts to implement projects in education and literacy, entrepreneurship, health and political leadership; all of which create a better life and increased opportunities for Afghan women.
For his nation to actually realize economic growth and to truly guarantee basic rights for Afghanistan’s citizens, it will be necessary to quell the violence and defeat the extremist elements to achieve prolonged stability and peace. On this point, Ambassador Hakimi, conveyed, “We are eternally grateful and determined to make sure the blood and treasure you have invested in Afghanistan bring greater security to both our countries….While together in the past several years, we have achieved a lot there are still enormous challenges in front of us which require more fighting and indeed more loses; but there is no doubt in our minds that together we will prevail and make the world a safer and more civil place for all of us.”
While several times throughout our conversation Hakimi conveyed a genuine appreciation for the human sacrifice of America’s sons and daughters and those from other nations as well as the massive sums of financial assistance intended to rebuild his country, he also looked forward to a future in which Afghanistan could stand up on its own in terms of both security and economic vitality. Expressing this sentiment, the Ambassador shared, “We have pride and that pride needs to be seen with a sense of equality.”
When asked about his aspirations for his fellow countrymen given their endurance of decades of violence and struggle against the Soviets and Taliban, Ambassador Hakimi said they have “hope but are determined not to be treated as a subject of others.” Having said this, he made it clear that they are truly grateful to the United States for the political, military and financial support. And his vision in the long-run, or dream if you will, is for Afghanistan to be a permanent ally of the U.S.; an ally able to stand on its own and not rely on others while contributing to the security and economy of the region. Only time will tell if this dream will also be realized.
Ambassador Hakimi: On the Issues
Hakimi on Women’s Rights
The protection and promotion of women’s rights is a top priority in our democratic process. The resilient women of our country have come a long way and are hopeful about the future of Afghanistan as a country where both men and women prosper and enjoy the security and opportunities of a peaceful life.
Hakimi on America’s Sacrifice
Like the American people, my countrymen will never forget the sacrifices your troops have made for the stability of our region. We are eternally grateful and determined to make sure the blood and treasure you have invested in Afghanistan bring greater security to our both countries.
Hakimi on the Death of Osama bin Laden
As President Karzi said the death of Osama bin Laden is a significant achievement and a great success, especially for Afghanistan as we are on the front line and have suffered more than any other nation. We’ve always been a strong advocate of this. The successful operation got rid of their symbolic leader but network is still there and the ideology of bin Laden will not be phased out quickly.
Hakimi on the Importance of Education
The Ministry of Education has increased school enrollment to 7 million children, 37% of that number being girls. 4, 500 school buildings have been constructed with active participation from community members to allow for a safer and more appropriate learning environment. The Ministry has not only created better educational opportunities to children, but to adults as well.
Hakimi on Social Media
Facebook and Twitter are very useful channels of communication. You see a lot of negative news (about Afghanistan), but there are a lot of success stories. And sharing those stories is a top priority—to tell what we’ve achieved so far with the support of the United States.
Ambassador Hakimi may be followed on Twitter: @Amb_Hakimi