Excellence is not an accident. When cities and countries thrive, it mostly has to do with who is leading and charting the course. Smart leadership is able to weed through the white noise and identify opportunities when others aren’t. And when leadership falters or is usurped, crisis follows.
Such is the case with Afghanistan.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Abdullah Sharif, a native of Afghanistan, and author of the book Sardar: From Afghanistan’s Golden Age to Carnage regarding the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.
What was immediately striking about our conversation was a gem of history that most don’t realize ever existed in Afghanistan – a “Golden Age.”
Abdullah Sharif remembers the Golden Age. When he left Afghanistan in 1976, his mother could wear a miniskirt on the streets of Kabul without fear. Afghanistan was a thriving republic with a hopeful future.
It hadn’t always been that way though. Prior to the 1930s, there was much “competition” for rule and plenty of skirmishes. The Treaty of Friendship signed between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union in 1921 was faltering by 1929 as Soviet troops challenged Mohammed Nadir Shah, then King of Afghanistan. The Soviets were unsuccessful in overthrowing the King, but the King was later assassinated by a teenager’s bullet in November of 1933.
And then new leadership emerged – in what some would consider an unqualified, certainly not experienced, youth. Nadir Shah was succeeded by his 17-year-old son, Mohammed Zahir Shah, and from 1933-1976 Afghanistan thrived under good governance. Mohammed Zahir Shah was “legitimate” in the eyes of his people and as a result the nation experienced a relatively peaceful 40 years to 1973. His leadership earned him the title “Father of the Nation” and the period became known as the Golden Age.
King Shah was overthrown in 1973 by a cousin and it didn’t take but three short years for Afghanistan and its leadership to be infiltrated by the Communists and KGB. By 1979, mass killings were taking place across the country – and Afghanistan was on the verge of demise.
Since 1980 the country has been a hotbed for terrorism.
But Abdullah Sharif believes this can change. Not just change through rhetoric but real change that requires solid leadership and hardline milestones that the U.S. is willing to enforce. And Mr. Sharif speaks from a position of knowledge and experience. After leaving Afghanistan, Mr. Sharif spent three decades consulting as an aviation engineer in North America and Europe. Since 2009, he has served as a U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan. His first deployment, from 2009–2011, was for the Department of State, with a second, from 2012–2013, under the auspices of the Department of Defense working on peace and reintegration. As a U.S. diplomat, Abdullah brought a keen eye to U.S. reconstruction efforts, while his childhood experiences and understanding of local culture helped him see those efforts from an Afghan perspective.
In his book Sardar: From Afghanistan’s Golden Age to Carnage, Sharif describes his work with high-ranking officials like former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and the mayor of Kandahar during his tours for the State Department, including how he turned down government positions due to concerns over corruption. He also speaks about his personal journey and the shock he experienced when he returned to Afghanistan for the first time in over 30 years. The childhood memories he had of the once diplomatic and thriving country did not match the devastated place he came to eventually help.
Our interview revealed that from his perspective, America has already moved on from this war and in some ways has forgotten it – right when we need to be paying closer attention.
When I asked him what he thought we needed to do, his response was that of a seasoned diplomat – “push for political cohesion.” This can only be achieved through mentorship – and that mentor, in his opinion, needs to be the United States.
Bottom line: Leadership matters. Regardless of whether it is Afghanistan or your local community, there are usually “warring factions” that want to replace the existing leadership. And while political cohesion can sound like a lazy catch-phrase, it is absolutely vital to the growth, development and health of every community.
To learn more about Mr. Sharif and his book, visit: www.abdullahsharif.com
— By Michael Schindler
Michael Schindler, Navy veteran, and president of Operation Military Family, is a guest writer for several national publications, author of the book “Operation Military Family” and “The Military Wire” blog. He is also a popular keynote and workshop speaker who reaches thousands of service members and their families every year through workshops and seminars that include “How to Battle-Ready Your Relationship” or “What Your Mother-in-Law Didn’t Tell You.” He received the 2010 Outstanding Patriotic Service Award from the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.