There may be no nation on earth where 2014 looms with as much excitement and trepidation as it does in Afghanistan. This country, torn by strife and poverty for so long, will see two seminal changes in the coming year: The end of the long presidency of Hamid Karzai; and the end of the long presence of international combat forces on its soil. As Afghanistan's foreign minister (and now presidential candidate) Zalmai Rassoul told an Asia Society audience in New York recently, "it will be a critical time and a critical moment for our people."
It is a "critical moment," then, for any future leaders of Afghanistan — and a perfect time to welcome the latest group of fellows in Asia Society's landmark program Afghanistan 21. For nearly a decade we have been selecting young leaders from across the Asia Pacific, and from all manner of professional backgrounds, to serve in a broad leadership network known as Asia 21. As the years have passed, and the network has grown into a movement (800-strong now), some fascinating offshoots have sprouted. Afghanistan 21 is one of these — a nascent network of young leaders, in a nation that will need great leadership, no matter what transpires in 2014 and beyond.
This week we announce our choices for the new "Class" for Afghanistan 21. And we think you'll agree — it's a fascinating group. Ten young men and six young women; journalists and business people, diplomats and NGO workers. Together they will gather in Kabul, bringing their rich and diverse backgrounds to the table, and take aim at the myriad issues facing their country.
Some snapshots from the group:
To start with, there's a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Mohammad Shafiq Hamdam was nominated for his work as founder and chairman of the Afghan Anti-Corruption Network. Mohammad is a social activist known for his tireless pursuit of peace, justice and human rights. The Afghan Anti-Corruption Network is the leading and the largest network of civil society organizations fighting corruption in Afghanistan.
Also in the room will be Abdul Moqim Abdulrahimzai, a radio manager from Logar province; Freshta Karim, communication officer at ActionAid Afghanistan, who has also hosted a children's television show and been a presenter on Radio Nawa; and Ramin Anwari, who has worked for Radio Liberty and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In other words, young Afghans who know the value of media, and how to communicate a story.
Some have U.S. ties. Sadiq Amini is a political-military assistant at the United States Embassy at Kabul, and a former Fulbright scholar. Ahmad Shuja won the Kentucky Political Science Association annual award for his thesis — and today he is partner and co-founder of Impassion Afghanistan, which works to support human rights and social entrepreneurship. Ghulam Sarwar Sultani most recently worked as a visiting research collaborator at Princeton University, where he was involved in a project that promotes the participation of Afghan youth in political, social and economic sectors. And Mir Zarif Waez is senior democracy and governance advisor in the Office of Democracy and Governance for USAID/Afghanistan. He is currently the project manager for a sub-national governance project that is working to build the capacity of the 34 provincial councils at the sub-national level.
Among the women in our Afghanistan 21 group, Aarya Nijat has spent more than nine years working in the development sector in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a focus on policy development, strategic planning, and gender and leadership capacity-building. Saifora Barekzai remains active on behalf of women's rights; she is the gender coordinator at the Ministry of Education and has worked extensively to further the rights of women in Afghanistan, in conjunction with foreign government aid projects and the Afghan Women Network, among others.
Some have come to us via government ministries: Jamil Danish is strategic communication policy advisor to the minister for rural development of Afghanistan; Ameen Habibi is director general of development policies and practices and policy and program implementation at the Ministry of Finance; and Salma Alokozai is an assistant to the minister of education, and former aide to presidential candidiate Dr. Ashraf Ghani.
For high-tech wisdom, we'll have Ahmed Javed, chief technical officer for Afghan Telecom (AFTEL). Ahmed's main focus has been on the planning, designing, implementation and operation of the new GSM and 3G networks that will be launched shortly in Afghanistan.
Taken together, Asia Society's latest Afghanistan 21 class suggests a tapestry of diversity, in terms of background and talent, ambition and intelligence. More than anything, it's a rich and nuanced portrait of the nation's future, something other than the daily-news fare of violence and corruption. We wish them all the very best, look forward to the fruits of their engagement, and we, like so many who care about Afghanistan and the Afghan people, will dare to hope for great days ahead.