Hamid Arsalan, an Afghan analyst and entrepreneur, spoke on May 25 to the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations about working in his home country and the importance of safeguarding the progress the nation has made since the Taliban was overthrown.
Arsalan, who grew up under Taliban rule before moving to the U.S., argued Americans need to hear more about the positive developments in Afghanistan so they can appreciate the need to protect the nation from the continued threat of both the Taliban and ISIS. He discussed the success of his own businesses, including his newest venture, which exports saffron from his home city of Herat for sale in the U.S.
Shortly before the speech, Arsalan sat down with Weld to discuss his work in Herat and his hopes and concerns for the future of Afghanistan. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Weld: Tell us about your new saffron business.
Arsalan: It’s a family business that we started back home. We grow the saffron ourselves, and by bringing saffron to the U.S., we are trying to tell a story, and that is that Afghanistan is not only about war or narcotics or drugs. We have alternative means and alternative products as well, and saffron is one of them. Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. Herat, where I come from, happens to grow some of the best saffron.
Weld: What other businesses are you involved in?
Arsalan: The first company that we started is also a family-owned company. It’s a pharmaceutical company. I was very young when we started that company; it’s also based in my hometown of Herat. We import a lot of medicine from the countries in the region and then we sell them to hospitals, to pharmacies, to clinics, and that business has been in the family for almost 20 years now.
And we have a couple of other companies on the construction front and the logistics front, also based in Afghanistan, and our recent project that I’m really excited about is this saffron business. We do hope eventually to make money, but more important than that is the story we are trying to tell. Such a business is a positive story of Afghanistan. Here in the U.S., we are often exposed to the negative news that comes out of Afghanistan.
I go to Afghanistan every two months, and I tell this anecdote often: I have this nephew who is four-and-a-half years old. And I called the family and asked if there’s anything I can bring them. And this four-and-a-half-year-old asked for an iPad from me. Me, I was 17 or 18 in Afghanistan and I didn’t even know what a computer was. But now a four-and-a-half-year-old in Afghanistan knows what an iPad is, they know what an iPhone is, they use internet, they have Facebook, they have Twitter, they have Instagram. If I have an iPhone 6 here, they have an iPhone 7 there! So what that tells me is that the Afghan society is now connected to the world. It’s not like in the past, when I grew up in the country. If I needed to make a call to my relatives in Germany or in the U.S., I would have had to literally walk throughout the neighborhood to find an old landline and ask permission from a neighbor if they would allow us to talk for a couple of minutes on the phone. So a lot has happened in the country and most of it is pretty good.
Weld: There has been a lot of speculation about what approach President Trump will take in regards to Afghanistan. You have indicated you want the United States to commit to staying in the nation. Do you think the Trump administration will commit to doing so?
Arsalan: What President Trump inherited from the previous administration are some really good frameworks. There is a bilateral security agreement that [is] signed between the government of Afghanistan and the government of the United States, where the U.S. is allowed to have military bases in Afghanistan. The security agreement, and also our strategic partnership agreement — these two frameworks allow the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan until at least 2024, where the U.S. Army can train, assist, and advise the Afghan forces.
We don’t know what President Trump’s strategy is toward Afghanistan. It’s mostly speculation, but there are some good [signs], at least, in the case of Afghanistan. It’s significant that the National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, chose for his first trip to go to Afghanistan. He’s somebody who served in Afghanistan. He knows the challenges and the role that Pakistan plays in the region — I should say the spoiler role that Pakistan plays in the region.
Also, the Secretary of Defense, General [James] Mattis, is somebody who served in Afghanistan. He also knows the challenges of the country, so we do hope that whatever strategy or policy that would come out of these reviews, that it would be a long-term strategy for Afghanistan and not another one-year policy toward Afghanistan. Also, I know that the Afghan government has been in contact with the Trump administration, so we hope that some sort of strategy that would benefit Afghanistan and that region will come out.
Weld: Many in America have become skeptical of so-called “nation-building.” Do you think the United States has an interest in investing in infrastructure and education in Afghanistan?
Arsalan: I think that we have made the mistake of abandoning that region once [after the Soviet army left in 1989] and I think we should learn from that. We shouldn’t commit the same mistake again. We have already invested billions of dollars in rebuilding Afghanistan. Millions of kids are going to school now, the health system has improved in the country, [as have] communications, roads, and a lot of developments that you don’t hear much about. If we abandon these, there’s no guarantee that we would not revert back to where we were. So it is smart and it is cost-effective for us to protect the gains rather than abandon the region, because if we abandon the region, the message it would send to other regional actors, other players like China, like Russia, like Iran, like India, and others, is that the U.S. is not serious. They come, they do something, and they will not finish the job or complete the mission, and then they will leave. So it will not send a strong message to other allies and other partners that the U.S. has in the region.
Afghans have always said this to the U.S.: we want to be like South Korea for the U.S., in terms of being a partner in a region where we have a country, Pakistan, that like North Korea has nuclear weapons and that has been destabilizing the region. The good thing in the U.S.-Afghan relationship is that the overwhelming majority of Afghans want this relationship. They want to have a strong relationship, they want to have a strong tie with the United States, with the people of the United States, and I think in our region it’s really important. Afghanistan is in a very critical [geographical location]. We have Iran, we have Pakistan, we have China, we have Russia, the central Asian countries [in the area], so stabilizing Afghanistan and protecting these gains would send a strong message to the regional countries that the U.S. is serious, they are not here to leave, and they are here to protect these gains.
Weld: Do you think the Afghani government can come to a peace agreement with the Taliban?
Arsalan: There is no reconciliation process, per se, going on right now. Since President [Ashraf] Ghani came to office, he has made a lot of attempts in trying to start some sort of channels in talking with the Taliban. But, I think, more important than the Taliban is Pakistan, because Pakistan is literally a key player and they have been not helpful on the Taliban front and on the insurgency front. When President Ghani took office in 2014, he really tried to reach out to Pakistan. He traveled to Islamabad and told the Pakistanis, “It’s in your interests to help us bring the Taliban to the negotiating table,” and they did not yield. There has to be some sort of pressure on the Pakistani front that they must genuinely cooperate and bring some of these elements of the Taliban [currently based in Pakistan] to the negotiating table.
Any sort of reconciliation, they have to be Afghan-led. The Afghans have to be the drivers of the process, but of course they would need the U.S. as their main strategic ally to help them in that process, to push some of these actors who are not helpful to genuinely cooperate in that process. If Afghanistan and the regional actors see a long-term commitment from the United States, then they may shift their strategy as well and then they’ll say, “Well, the U.S. is going to be here for a longer-term period, we are not going to gain much from the fighting, so we’ll make some sort of agreement on the peace agreement moving forward.”
And one last thing, as somebody who grew up in war, as somebody who grew up under the Taliban regime, I know that Afghans are thirsty for peace, but we do not want to have peace at any cost. If peace means undermining all the democratic values that Afghans have been experiencing, for women to again lose their freedom, for civil society to not have any space, for media not to have any voice, that peace is not going to be worth it for Afghanistan.
Weld: Are there any ways the U.S. could exert diplomatic or economic pressure to encourage Pakistan to cooperate?
Arsalan: Absolutely. Pakistan has received over $30 billion in U.S. aid so far from the government of the United States, so certainly the government has leverage on Pakistan on pushing them to cooperate. In addition to that, the U.S. has leverage in the IMF [International Monetary Fund]; the U.S. has leverage in the World Bank; so for like the loans that Pakistan is getting for these two entities not to be renewed. So the U.S. has a lot of leverage basically that they could push the Pakistanis to cooperate. And at the end of the day, in my view, it would be in the interest of the Pakistani government and Pakistani people to cooperate as well. On the economic front alone, the trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan is huge. Under the Taliban, it was only a very small amount, but it’s now in the billions, the trade between the two countries.
The key thing is, of course, the Taliban and ISIS and other terrorist groups that have been challenging the country’s security and the safe havens that are on the other side of the border in Pakistan. If Pakistan says they cannot bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, the least they can do is eliminate the sanctuaries that are in their territories. In the words of President Ghani: Either you swim with us or you sink with us. A stabilized and democratic Afghanistan that is prosperous economically is in the interests of everyone in the region.