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Peace, Taliban and Cricket in Afghanistan: A Conversation with Afghan Leader and Diplomat Dr. Omar Zakhilwal

The third installment of the NESA South Asia Interview Series is with Dr. Omar Zakhilwal hailing from Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province served as finance minister (2009-2014) under President Hamid Karzai and later was appointed as Kabul’s ambassador to Pakistan (2015-2018). He holds a PhD in economics from Carleton University in Canada and has also consulted for various international organizations including the World Bank and UNDP. He also served as Chairman of the Afghanistan Cricket Board. He tweets @DrOmarZakhilwal

Dr. Omar Zakhilwal

HASSAN ABBAS: It may come as a surprise, but my first question is about Cricket!  You served before as head of the Afghanistan Cricket Board and your team has greatly impressed cricket lovers across the world. Please tell us how Afghanistan has pulled off this remarkable feat in the midst of all the challenges that it faces. To me it is a story of Afghan resilience and hope that is often missed in media coverage.

OMAR ZAKHILWAL: Cricket, yes indeed!  In fact, I was the founder of the Afghanistan Cricket Board and also accepted to be its first Chair. To be honest, before my involvement in Cricket I was not much into this game and rarely watched it. One day in the Spring of 2009 when I was the Minister of Finance, players of our national team came for a meeting explaining their impoverished backgrounds, the difficulties in which they had learned and practiced Cricket, the vision and the sense of purpose they saw in cricket for themselves (proving to the World that, if given the right circumstances, Afghans could excel in almost anything and this in return could bring much needed smiles, hope and inspiration to the Afghan people). However, they didn’t have the minimum of the very basics of what they needed. That motivated me tremendously and I decided to be part of their journey. To make a provision for them in the national budget I founded the Cricket Board and then as per the players’ insistence I accepted to be the first voluntary Chair of the Board as well. I am proud of what we achieved in the first three years in terms of structure and infrastructure that set the stage for Afghan Cricket team’s subsequent rise and the rest is history.

HASSAN ABBAS: Moving now to the security dynamics in Afghanistan, do you believe that the Taliban have changed or transformed politically and ideologically over the years? Can they be part of a democratic Afghanistan as a political stake holder?

OMAR ZAKHILWAL: Ideological change is a big expectation. However, for peace, we don’t need to look for that change but rather for a change in their understanding of the internal and external environment as well as their end objectives.  Based on my knowledge of the Taliban, I believe they have the following understanding: Afghanistan and its people have come a long way in the past two decades. While they overwhelmingly want peace with a complete withdrawal of foreign forces and a state that is Sharia compliant, they also won’t accept peace at the cost of their basic rights – educational, political, social and others. They also know that even after the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, the international community may not remain as indifferent as in the 1990s. Therefore, I believe they know that monopolization of power, and ruling by force is a thing of the past and they will have to compromise not only on the nature of the state but also on power structure.

Official negotiations between Afghan state leaders and Taliban representatives

HASSAN ABBAS: In your assessment, what are the potentially major sticking points in the intra-Afghan negotiations that have followed the earlier US -Taliban agreement? What is the ideal outcome of these discussions in your opinion?

OMAR ZAKHILWAL: The biggest obstacle currently is the mutual deep mistrust. On our side there are important influential people who believe that the Taliban cannot possibly be people of peace and on the Taliban side there are influential people who probably believe victory by force is possible and is also the best way. These people are in minority on both sides but their rhetoric has affected the larger mindset with respect to peace which then fuels the continuing mistrust. However, I believe once the negotiations begin, the negative impressions on both sides with respect to each other will significantly be corrected. The next big challenge will be how to bring violence significantly and quickly down and hopefully to a complete cessation. Subsequent tough issues then will be as regards the model of the state and power sharing formula. With respect to the ideal outcome I will try to translate an Afghan proverb that says: “a prosperous year is known from its Spring”. Thus, the outcome of the negotiation will be foretold by the start of the talks – if the start goes well, the rest we expect to be promising.

Dr. Zakhilwal receiving the High State Medal of Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in 2018

HASSAN ABBAS: In your perspective as an economist, what are the major economic hurdles that Afghanistan faces today and what is your vision for moving your beautiful country towards economic independence and prosperity?

OMAR ZAKHILWAL: War and insecurity are always the biggest enemy of the economy. With peace and political stability, hopefully, that biggest hurdle will be removed. Then to move out of our current vicious dependency on foreign assistance for almost everything we need to open up for trade, business and investment. We have some of the world’s best opportunities in the mining sector and also in agriculture, tourism and transit and trade. These are the areas that would lift us – however, to repeat, security, political stability and business-friendly regulatory policies and environment would be the preconditions.

HASSAN ABBAS: You also served as Afghanistan’s ambassador in Pakistan and you understand the regional context very well. Is Pakistan’s Taliban strategy showing any signs of change?

OMAR ZAKHILWAL: It will have to. Pakistan has not benefited from war and instability in Afghanistan – in fact to the very contrary. Peace and political stability in Afghanistan will be an opportunity for peace and prosperity not only for us but also for our entire region amongst which Pakistan will stand at the top.

Be sure to read the first and second installments of the South Asia Series:

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.

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