EAST MISSOULA – He arrived in a suit and yellow tie, his dark hair combed to the side. He spoke fluent English, but his accent was something new; something the students had never encountered.
Over the next hour, standing before a camera feeding his image to classrooms across the state, Said Tayeb Jawad would tell students that big things often happen in small places, and individuals, no matter where they live, have the power to initiate change on a global scale.
“Many kids, when I connect with them in remote areas of Afghanistan, what they hope for, what they want for their future, is no different than what you want for yourself and your family,” Jawad said. “Human beings are the same regardless of where they live.”
Jawad is a man with a vision and a background rooted in a decade of war and the changes it has brought to his country. As American and allied troops battled al-Qaida and hunted down the Taliban, Jawad served as President Hamid Karzai’s chief of staff and filled the role as Afghanistan’s envoy to the United States.
In a video conference arranged by the Montana World Affairs Council - using technology provided by Alter Enterprise of Missoula - Jawad shared his country’s past and future with students at five high schools across the state, including Westby, Froid, Moore, Chinook and Bozeman.
Standing before a single camera in a nondescript, tin-sided building in East Missoula, he delivered a message far larger than the room from which he delivered it. Technology has made the world a smaller place, and it has opened doors to change that even students in Montana can take part in.
“At the end of the day, the peace of the world will depend on people like you connecting with people like my son, or my children, in places like Afghanistan,” Jawad told the students. “You guys will make the world a better place, and we have to make sure you connect with each other to do that.”
Aimee Ryan, executive director of the Montana World Affairs Council, watched the feed from outside the room where Jawad addressed students across a region nearly as large as Afghanistan itself.
It’s not every day that students in Montana get a first-hand account of foreign affairs from a political insider, let alone an Afghan national and ambassador. This wasn’t Fox News or CNN providing an American-centric analysis of the war. There was no filter standing between Jawad’s message of hope and the students tuning in.
“Some of these students have never been out of their towns,” Ryan said. “Some have parents, brothers or sisters serving in Afghanistan. To have the opportunity to engage and learn from someone, such as an ambassador, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The Montana World Affairs Council received funding for three years from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation to attract speakers like Jawad. As part of the Distinguished Speakers Program, the funding helps diplomats, dignitaries and international policy experts connect with rural Montana and provide a global view of current events.
Jawad’s visit proved popular among the school’s tuning in, and the program filled up nearly as soon as it was announced. Students fired their questions – what do ambassadors do? What’s health care like in Afghanistan? What about the Taliban and the future of the country?
“The Taliban is afraid of young people like you,” Jawad told the students, explaining that fundamentalism and extremism, regardless of religion and origin, is rooted in ignorance and a fear of losing control.
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“We are facing an enemy in the Taliban who is able to find financial, logistical and ideological support in places like Pakistan,” he added. “But I can assure you, Afghanistan is a place that has changed dramatically.”
On the subject of change, Jawad addressed his country’s history, the last 30 years of war, its economy and security, all with a sense of optimism. The people of Afghanistan are connected in ways they’ve never been – all changes that have come in the last 10 years.
Before 2001, he told students, just 4,000 telephone lines served Afghanistan. Twenty million Afghans now have cellphones connecting them to the outside world. Mobile banking is available, the infrastructure is growing and classes, once held under trees or tents, have taken to schools with walls and roofs.
“Before 2001 during the Taliban, there were 800,000 boys in the schools – girls were not allowed to go to school in many areas,” he said. “Now we have 9.2 million boys and girls going to school, and 35 percent of the students are girls.”
It was the topic of equality and opportunity that dominated much of Jawad’s presentation, particularly in the way of women. The country now has laws protecting the rights of women to participate in the workforce and to pursue their education.
But writing new laws was the easy part, Jawad said. While 27 percent of government employees in Kabul are now women, and 28 percent of the Afghan parliament is composed of women, achieving true equality will take time and education.
“When you talk about giving equal rights and opportunity for women, you have to educate both men and women on that,” he said. “It’s another long-term project that will take a while to accomplish.”
Jawad also addressed the war, the service of American and allied troops (41 countries joined the war effort over the last decade, he said), and the role the U.S. and other nations have played in rebuilding Afghanistan.
“Some of you may have family members fighting in Afghanistan, and we appreciate very much them leaving their families, their children here, to make Afghanistan a safer place for you, for us, for the rest of the world,” he said.
“At the end of the day, the responsibility of fighting should be the responsibility of the Afghans. There’s no shortage of courage in Afghanistan, or that people don’t want to do this themselves. There’s a shortage of skills.”
Jawad said the country now claims 185,000 trained national soldiers and a trained police force of roughly 145,000 officers.
“With your help and our many friends in Europe, we’re building our police and army,” he said. “These soldiers will fight the Taliban and terrorists, and there will be no need down the road for your soldiers to fight in Afghanistan.”