OU Graduate Sees Continued Instability In Afghanistan's Future

Jul 4, 2013

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Jon Lyman hands a piece of candy to an Afghan child during a security patrol on November 30, 2011.
Credit Reece Lodder / United States Marine Corps

Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry announced on Monday that insurgents had killed nearly 300 local and national police last month, as well as 180 civilians. A day later, militants detonated a suicide car bomb at the gate of a NATO compound in Kabul killing five guards and two civilians.

Dana Mohammad-Zadeh says knowing attacks like these will happen is part of life in Afghanistan’s capital city. She earned a degree in Economics and International Studies from the University of Oklahoma in 2012, and now works in the development sector in Kabul.

“Kabul is a city of more than four million people,” Mohammad-Zadeh says. “It is a city where every day four million people get up, go to work, go to school, and have found ways to cope with an insecure security situation.”

Economic development in Afghanistan has also been slow. Mohammad-Zadeh says that many young people don’t see much hope for the future of their country and “have plans to go abroad.”

The economic situation is likely to worsen. Mohammad-Zadeh says foreign aid has poured into Afghanistan over the past few years to help develop the country’s infrastructure, but that money is drying up.

“My project, it is being completely funded by foreign governments,” Mohammad-Zadeh says. “Once the project ends and once that money is no longer there, my colleagues will have to look for jobs elsewhere.”

The withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan in 2014 will signal the end of plentiful aid money Mohammad-Zadeh says.

“In a recent Tokyo conference, international aid and assistance was guaranteed for another couple years,” Mohammad-Zadeh says. “In that interim, Afghanistan will have to find ways to make up for the loss of international money being poured in, in order to keep its own government structures afloat.”


SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Dana Mohammad-Zadeh, welcome to World Views.

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: Thank you for having me.

GRILLOT: So you're an OU graduate, you have an interest in international affairs, your background is in economics and international studies, and you found yourself right after graduation working in a country that many of us might be surprised we'll send our students: Afghanistan. Tell us how you ended up in Afghanistan. Can you tell us anything about what drew you to study, or to work, in a country like Afghanistan?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH:  So, as I was doing my job search second semester senior year before graduating, I knew that I definitely wanted to go to the region. And so I'd been looking for different opportunities in various countries in the region, and I happened to come across one that was forwarded to me by some of my professors who had heard about the job opportunity in Afghanistan. And so I followed through with that, got information about it, and decided that this was an opportunity I that wanted to be a part of, a country that I wanted to learn more about, and specifically learn more about what the international community has been doing in Afghanistan and get involved in the development end of things.

LANDIS: Now, you're an Iranian-American. You speak Farsi, Persian, how much did getting your job at AID as a very young, fresh graduate have to do with your language skills?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH:  I think speaking Farsi definitely contributed to the strength of my application. I think a lot of times in the development sector candidates who can speak the language of the local community are preferred, and so I've been fortunate enough to use my Farsi skills there in speaking with colleagues and speaking with locals who I interact with.

LANDIS: Now, how much does it help you? What percentage of Afghans can understand Farsi? And what's this Dari, this sort of counterpart language? How many Afghans are Dari speakers or Farsi speakers, and how close is it to Dari?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH:  I don't know the exact number, but almost every Afghan that I come across in Kabul can speak Farsi.

GRILLOT: So, as I mentioned, many of us think of Afghanistan as a high security risk. It's a country that many of us would not consider traveling to, much less working in. What is it, upon your arrival there, what were some of things that were really striking to you? You see images, it's a beautify country, but, you know, it's obviously in its early development stages in terms of economic development and political development. What do you find striking about it in terms of the way the people live on a daily basis going about their business as usual?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH:  Yeah, definitely. So one thing that I always say is Kabul is a city of more than four million people. And though the week before I left there were two attacks within about ten days of each other, it is a city where every day four million people get up, go to work, go to school, and have found ways to cope with an insecure security situation. On that note, some of the things that I found surprising when I first got there... I thought I'd be seeing more women in the streets. Sometimes when we're driving around or getting around town, I can be driving for more than five minutes and see just a handful of women walking around, and I thought by this point there would be some more women getting around on their own or on foot.

GRILLOT: So they still feel rather insecure as women in this country?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH:  I don't know if it's so much to do with insecurity as it is maybe with some restrictions on their personal travel imposed by themselves or family. Or for whatever reason they don't have a need to go out. I'm not sure what it is; there just aren't as many women as I thought there would be walking around.

GRILLOT: And so as a young woman yourself, does this concern you? Do you feel personally like there are security concerns with your own just living and existing in Afghanistan?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH:  No, not so much for me. I think people are aware when there's a woman walking by or something. They may look longer for whatever reason, but I don't personally feel in danger.

LANDIS: Do you get a lot of cat calls and that kind of thing, sort of "Hey sweetie" that sort of thing as you walk around?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH:  Not so much that, but there's definitely staring and it happens to all the women, Afghan, foreign, I think it happens across the board.

GRILLOT: Do you feel like the country is making any progress? That it's better off today than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, two years ago? Is it moving in the right direction?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH:  So in the eight months I've been there I've been able to see, for example, the changing of the seasons. And in that small time, one thing I've been looking at as an indicator is roads, for example. It doesn't seem like there are any more. The road infrastructure is not getting better. There are still a lot of roads in Kabul right when the winter hit where there were just massive puddles and massive icy slush that was all over the streets. And the whole plan the whole time was "Okay, they've been rebuilding these roads for the last couple of years now and they'll surely get these roads done by the time the winter hits." And still a lot of the roads were not done. So in terms of infrastructure, you also see a lot of buildings being built and then now... like one by my office is being rebuilt, it's a pretty big, maybe 15 story building and it's been recently repainted, but I'm not sure who's going to be occupying these buildings. But it's difficult for me to say because I haven't seen the progress over the last decade. But when I talk to a lot of youth that are not necessarily youth, but in their late twenties, and ask them about the future direction of their country, I've talked to more than a few who are planning on, who have plans to go abroad.

GRILLOT: That's probably a consistent problem, I would imagine.

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH:  Yeah, I've heard it from...

GRILLOT: A lot of people leaving the country for a better life someplace else.

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH:  Yeah, I've heard it from more than a handful of people.

LANDIS: Let me ask you, as America prepares to leave, and we say we're going to leave militarily or at least largely militarily by 2014, we're going to hear a big sucking sound of American money leaving Afghanistan. The GDP of Afghanistan is about $30 billion a year. That's $1,000 per person. Now, the endowment of Harvard or Princeton University is bigger than the GDP of all of Afghanistan. Their government revenues are about two billion dollars a year. America, at the height of its occupation, was spending $6-7 billion a month in Afghanistan. We've built up a big police force, a big military, all this infrastructure that's supposed to keep the Karzai government in place and keep Afghanistan from falling back into violence. How is Afghanistan going to maintain security if they're to go back to a budget of $2 billion and not have this giant funnel of money coming in from the United States? Or will America just keep on funding this for many years to come?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: Yeah, I think if you look at the situation right now, Afghanistan requires a lot of international assistance to keep a lot of these structures from completely collapsing when international forces leave militarily. I think in a recent Tokyo conference, international aid and assistance was guaranteed for another couple years. But in that time, in that interim, Afghanistan will have to find ways to make up for the loss of international money being poured in in order to keep their own government structures afloat.

LANDIS: What percentage of your friends in Afghanistan, the people you know, the professionals that you work with, are dependent on external money? How many of their jobs are going to be gone once all these aid dollars stop flowing into Afghanistan?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: Yeah. Well, I can say right now, on my project, it is being completely funded by foreign governments. And so in that sense, once the project ends and once that money is no longer there, my colleagues will have to look for jobs elsewhere.

LANDIS: And how many of those are there?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: Just on my project in particular, that's around 80-100 people.

LANDIS: That must be replicated right across Kabul.

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: I imagine so, especially among those who have received university education from neighboring countries and have now secured jobs with international organizations. There will be more competition for those Afghans in terms of finding jobs with international organizations who are going to stay in the country.

LANDIS: So are they desperate to get out of the country and leave before this money stops?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: Some people that I've talked to are looking to that as an option.

GRILLOT: Can you see much evidence in Kabul of the draw-down of military forces there?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: In my eight months that I've been there, I haven't personally seen any international security forces. Everyone I've seen who's wearing a uniform is Afghan, is part of Afghan national security.

GRILLOT: So the training of the Afghan security forces has pretty much worked in that respect in that they've taken over at least the security responsibility for Kabul?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: Yeah, looking at the day-to-day operations, it seems to be being run by Afghans. When there're unforeseen events that occur around the city like suicide bombings, I don't know if foreign forces are stepping into that or not. But in terms of the day-to-day operations, it seems like it's being run by Afghans.

GRILLOT: Have you been able to travel around Afghanistan at all?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: I haven't been able to travel yet, but I have plans. I'm hoping to make my way up to some of the Northern provinces.

LANDIS: Now, you must then spend a lot of time with expats in this town. So it must be this sort of very hothouse community of expats who spend all their time together. Do you go to restaurants most of the time? Do you go to hotels? Can you go hiking in the countryside? Swimming? What's fun?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: What's fun? Yeah, so, a lot of expats will hang out at local restaurants around town. There's also in the summer and springtime, people will go to areas outside of the main city and hike in the mountains there. Over this past winter, I had the opportunity to go to various concerts at the Afghan National Institute of Music, which is a wonderful organization there that works with local children on developing their music skills. And so those were wonderful events to go to. And then there're also various film showings around town. There might be a book club or two going on.

GRILLOT: So there's cultural life going on in Afghanistan.

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: There is cultural life, but a lot of people at the same time are there to work. And so they have very long, and sometimes stressful, workweeks.

GRILLOT: This is what I was thinking when Joshua asked the question about the community of expats. I could also see this being a hotbed of people who really want to come together and work hard and long to help put Afghanistan back on the right path in terms of development, and do something really good for this country. Is that kind of the sense that you have in that that community is there, kind of all unified to help save and preserve Afghanistan?

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: I think you see both ends of that. You see some people who have just... their contract has sent them to Afghanistan and they're there to do their job and maybe didn't have much of an interest in the country beforehand. But on the same note, you do see a lot of people who have studied Afghanistan for years, maybe did their graduate school work on Afghanistan, and have even taken language courses and really love the country, and are there, and interested, and very invested in its future.

GRILLOT: It's probably just like any place else. It's going to attract people for the job or really because they want to contribute to an amazing outcome or something of that sort.

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: Exactly. I think you see both.

GRILLOT: Well, you certainly are experiencing very interesting things, Dana. Thank you so much for being with us today on World Views to discuss your time in Afghanistan.

MOHAMMAD-ZADEH: Thanks so much for having me.

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