- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

In the immediate aftermath of September 11 and the routing of the Taliban, the Afghan diaspora, led by Afghanistan-born Americans, began to return to rebuild their mother country.

This army of the skilled — estimated at several thousand strong — professional, entrepreneurial and worldly, cut its teeth in business and other arenas of competition as refugees who escaped with the proverbial shirt on the back. Now, tried and tested, 20 to 25 years later, they are leaving lives of relative comfort for the wild and wooly frontier that is Afghanistan.

They are catalysts, bringing the principles of open societies, democracy and free economies to a closed country, an avant garde of nation- builders infusing high levels of educational, business, construction, industrial, medical, legal, engineering, banking, trade, science and arts experience into the evolving government and private sectors.

Their contribution to the success of the U.S. and allied quest for peace and progress in Afghanistan cannot be overestimated. They see inside the government bureaucracy. They know the strengths, the weaknesses, the potential, the dangers. They understand the urgency of reform, the need to counter the deadening economic and social constraints of “warlordism.”

U. S. reconstruction policy, while slow at the start to incorporate America’s diaspora contingent, has been moving toward a more robust role for this important resource. This is sure to intensify under the leadership of the new U.S. ambassador and Afghan policy chief, Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad, himself an AfghanAmerican.

Diaspora Afghans are not only experienced professional and business people. They know the lay of the land literally and figuratively. Versed in the rich history, languages, cultures and traditions of the Afghan nation, and with a threshold for risk far higher than that of non-Afghans, this group presents dream profiles for development agencies like the United Nations, World Bank, and USAID and its European and Japanese counterparts.

They can connect fluently, not only in their own Dari, Farsi and Pashto, but in donor nation English, German, Arabic, Italian, French, Urdu, Hindi and Japanese.

The vision of a Central and South Asian free-trade, free-market Afghanistan is being promoted by forward-thinking businessmen and women among these returning pioneers. In this model, Afghanistan is described by President Hamid Karzai, himself a returnee from Pakistan and his chief nation- builder, Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani who returned from Virginia, as no longer a land-locked but now “land?bridging” nation, tying together the ports, roads and rails of disparate Central and South Asian nations.

They talk about the opportunity of starting with a slate of modern commercial, investment, property and banking law that is based on global successes of entrepreneurial capitalism … and national policies based more on opportunity and less on legacy. But not all wish an end to that legacy, and they will fight to hold on to the past. It is an ongoing struggle between the old and the new Afghanistan.

Perhaps most important of all, diaspora entrepreneurs have flocked to Afghanistan in search of business and investment opportunities. Just about everything is needed, and they intend to be the first ones to provide it. No decent dry cleaning in Kabul? So and so has a friend who has five stores in North Carolina and can bring in the latest equipment to do the job. Thousands are running around in Kabul’s dust with dark suits. What a market. No place to work out in a neighborhood of 200,000? Start a gym. Factory idle? Fix it up and restart it.

A non-Afghan sees sadness in a neighborhood in Kabul destroyed by rockets with two lonely houses being rebuilt. An AfghanAmerican who long ago accounted for the sadness sees opportunity to rebuild 200 more.

But even AfghanAmericans can get tired of barriers placed in their way by the bureaucratic residuals of monarchism and communism. It should not be so difficult for people whose only desire it is to invest their energy and fortune in their mother country. The forces of change need to act fast enough before the patience of even the most loyal runs out.

Diaspora Afghans reflect the same ethnic and tribal variety as the rest of Afghanistan, but there is a significant difference. They have achieved business and professional success on merit not on tribal or family ties. There was no favoritism shown to Afghan refugees in the UnitedStates or in Europe.

Bringing ideas of meritocracy totribalandregional Afghanistan is in itself a significant achievement, and one that will be welcomed by the vast majority of people who were not part of traditional deal making by elites. Effective “national government,”so essential to creating an Afghanistan where the whole of the nation is greater than the sum of its oft-divided parts, needs people and institutions who make decisions based more on substance, facts and objective realities than on “who one’s cousin is.”

I know these returning pioneers as Nadir, Afzal, Mahmood, Ali, Mohd, Ashraf, Zalmai, Shair, Qadir, Mina, Sima, Soraya, Daoud, Fawzia, Najib, Hasan, Ibrahim, Jalani, Sara, Ishaq, Aziz, Homayoun, Youssef, Omar, Wali, Farouq, Farid, Rouhullah, Saad, Jahid, Naim — master nation-builders of the new Afghanistan.

Former Rep. Don Ritter founded the Afghanistan America Foundation and is a founding board member of the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce.

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