With Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington now officially confirmed for May, the time is ripe for the American public to meet the other leading figures within the Afghan government - the Ministers.
The ability of the Afghan government to improve the security and living conditions of Afghan families over the next couple of years will be as dependent on the men and women who report to President Karzai, as the man himself.
These Afghan leaders should introduce themselves on the airways and in radio and print interviews across the US during President Karzai's May 10-14 visit to Washington.
The President's Cabinet manages 25 ministries, oversees more than $2.6 billion in funding, and is responsible for everything from building roads and improving agriculture, to national defense and foreign policy.
These ministers represent the national government, but run programs that have a deep reach into the village, district, and provincial level in Afghanistan. Their ability to manage resources, craft plans, respect the rule of law, and deliver results will signal whether Afghanistan is going the way of Rwanda or Chile with their remarkable turn-arounds after deep civil conflict, or remains a weak, poor, and mismanaged state.
The young Afghan Finance Minister, Omar Zakhilwal, is arguably the most important technocrat in the Karzai Administration right now. Zakhilwal is a PhD economist who studied and lived in Canada, has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and is responsible in Afghanistan for collecting taxes and disbursing government funds to the most effective ministries and programs. If the Finance Ministry can manage funds well and ensure accountability and transparency, the Afghan government can build trust with the Afghan public - as well as the international community (which supplies 90% of the Afghan budget).
Asif Rahimi, the Agriculture Minister, is a bear of a man, who went to college in Nebraska, and lived in Canada from 2001-2005. Agriculture is the key industry in Afghanistan, and if Afghan families can't farm productively, they have little else to fall back on. Agriculture is the oft-stated top development priority of the Obama Administration, so Mr. Rahimi will be a key partner with the US moving forward.
Mohammad Hanif Atmar, 42 years old, is the Minister of Interior, a graduate of York University in the United Kingdom. He holds a Masters degree in International Relations, speaks four languages, and oversees the Afghan National Police. Without success in training the police (and the Afghan National Army, under the Defense Ministry) the security needs of Afghan families will remain out-of-reach.
After they check into their Washington hotels next month, the State Department would be well-advised to get them out on the airwaves and speaking to the American public. They would be thoughtful guests on the Charlie Rose Show, the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer, C-Span, the Diane Rehm Show, and speakers at the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, The Asia Foundation - or any other number of institutions. They will have a lot to say, and we should listen.
Even with their impressive educational backgrounds and public service to date, the jury is still out on these three Ministers (as well as the other 22). The best and brightest don't always deliver, nor understand what the poorest, or most remote, villages may need to succeed.
Their advanced degrees and impeccable English make them approachable to foreigners, but also reflect they left Afghanistan when their poorer countrymen were forced to stay during the wrenching years of war.
President Karzai will garner nearly all the media attention during his US visit, but what the Afghan Ministers say - and do - may ultimately deliver more results on the ground in Afghanistan. The success of these technocrats, their staffs, and their ministries will be crucial to setting the stage for the US troop withdrawals in July 2011.
It's time we meet them in America.
Cue Charlie Rose.
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