We are stepping up collaboration in technology with India: Afghan Ambassador to India Shaida Mohammad Abdali
What comes to your mind when you hear Afghanistan? Perhaps Taliban, terrorism or a war-torn country, struggling to balance itself and its relationship with India, Pakistan and the US. But this is not the full story. After the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, much has changed in Afghanistan—be it construction, communication, key infrastructure, education and security—there is gradual improvement. In all these sectors, India is playing a crucial role. So far, it has committed $3 billion and now governments of both the countries are stepping up their collaboration in technology, specially in the areas of e-governance, smart cities, ICT in education and election management.
In an interview with Mohd Ujaley, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India Shaida Mohammad Abdali shares his views on importance of good relation between Indian and Pakistan for the region, India’s role in rebuilding Afghanistan and how his country is now collaborating on tech front with India. He said, “We are keen to explore India’s technology prowess, specially in areas of governance, education and election management.”
India is contributing in rebuilding effort of Afghanistan, at what level this partnership is being replicated in technology space?
There is deep gratitude of people of India and government of India for all they have done for Afghanistan for last many years. Especially after collapse of Taliban regime in 2001, much has changes in Afghanistan. Not only in technology space, also in other fields like construction, communication, establishing of key infrastructure, education and security. In all these areas, India has played defining role. We have done it under the strategic partnership agreement that we signed in 2011. This agreement is the guidelines for the two countries to continue the engagement.
India’s assistance particularly in education is considerable given the fact that it was our priority. Having suffered for decades, we needed an impactful education for our youth. India got on this early. Today, we have thousands of students who have studied in India and have return to Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, around 16 thousand graduates returned to Afghanistan from India after completing various courses.
Today India has developed so much in technology. It is contributing within the country and beyond. On this, we are keen to indulge with India, because it is the technology that makes one smart rather than too much of affords in other field. If we invest meaningfully in technology, it will achieve more things in easier manner. India recently announced $1 billion aid for Afghanistan, in addition to $2 billion, it has already invested. The new $1 billion investment, we have decided to use it for irrigation, rehabilitation and training. In training, technology is an integral part. We want our youth and government officials to become digital savvy and sophisticated in technological areas. So, we have launched number of programmes. One of them is Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme for Afghanistan men and women. Under this programme, government officials and others from Afghanistan come on regular basis for computer and vocational training in India.
We are now focusing on technology more than anything else. Recently, attorneys from Afghanistan came and got trained for three months in finger print technology in India. They were from 40 to 50 provinces in Afghanistan. Now, they all are applying those learning after returning to Afghanistan. This is just an example, we all are going to engage and learn more from India.
For examples, elections management is one area where we feel that we can learn a lot from India. Afghanistan is heading for two crucial elections – President and Parliamentary – in next two years. India’s method to use technology in elections, specially the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) have been very cost effective and we are deeply looking into this to adopt it in Afghanistan. We will be sending our teams very soon. We have already discussed with India to establish a collaboration between election commission of India and election commission of Afghanistan. The collaboration will enable training for Afghanistan Election Commission officers in India, so that they can go back and prepare our next election according to the system India has, which is highly tested one.
How soon are you going to establish this collaboration?
We already had number of delegates exchanges. Since, we recently announce redress for election in Afghanistan, we will now step up this effort, more than what we did in the past. We have already discussed and agreed that India and Afghanistan will collaborate on election. Now the planning is under process so that we start systematically in which particular field training should start first and other later. So a lot is happening on this front.
How is the response of India’s Election Commission to this collaboration?
They are absolutely positive about it. They want to help us. It has been decided at the highest level that India will be contributing in election reform. Not only this, we are also looking at the vocational training programmes. New officers, officials and new graduates from Afghanistan will be trained in vocational courses in India. They will also be given year long training programme. So we have a big scheme of technological cooperation between India and Afghanistan for investment.
Recently, India has decided to build 100 Smart Cities. Those cities will be technologically rich. Is Afghanistan also partnering on this with India?
Definitely, we are building new cities and certainly we are planning those cities according to the needs of the people and the way other cities in the world are developed. To this end, we also have a bilateral treaty. We visited many states in India and together we have developed an Idea that we will create the concept of sister cities. So far, 12 cities of Afghanistan have principally agreed with various states in India to have sister city relationship. Cities like Delhi-Kabul, Hyderabad–Jalalabad and Kolkata–Mazar-i-Sharif among others have been chosen based on their commonality and hopefully, we will sign an official agreement soon. This would mean that they would share the best practices and key learning from one another.
Yes, reform and old city to be amended on the context of new city is the difficult task but you have new city rising in many parts of India. We are looking at our old city to have proper planning as per the need of the people and at the same time building new city in collaboration with our friends and allies particularity India.
In 2006, India rolled out National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) to make all government services accessible to the common man, over the years this has significantly changed the speed of e-governance in India. Is Afghanistan also looking to leverage e-governance?
The ITEC programme that I mentioned you have an element of e-governance. Afghanistan is very much looking at India’s e-governance programmes. Because paperless world is the reality. Technology intervention in the government improve transparency and it is a weapon to fight corruption. Afghanistan has made lot of progress in this segment. Through our technological cooperation, it will be an important factor in Afghanistan development in e-governance.
Most of the big technology companies usually go to the market where it finds stability and substantial business. How Afghanistan is attracting big technology firms?
Look, Afghanistan is a great market for technology companies and there are number of reasons for that. Afghanistan’s 65% population is below 25 years of age. These youth interest is unbelievably high in technology, media and communication. One of the biggest achievement of the Afghanistan in last 15 years is in the communication field. We had nothing till 2001 when Taliban was ruling, today we have 20 million mobile users in Afghanistan, this signifies the interest of a nation in the technology. Similarly, you can see interest in other medium like TV channels and internet.
Once, we had only one state TV station, today we have more than 60 TV channels, more than 200 newspapers and use of social media has grown like anything. So the market is huge in Afghanistan because of youth, they are attached to technology, the way any other nation is around the world, perhaps ours is more because they are young and fresh. They want to learn things via internet. People who have invested in Afghanistan have made millions of dollar. I remember one telephone company earlier on in 2002 invested $45 million and in no time that company had investment of $200 million in Afghanistan.
Countries seem to be going back to fencing. Neighbours like US–Mexico, Ireland–United Kingdom and Afghanistan–Pakistan are mulling to cement the border. Do you thing fencing is a solution in today’s tech-savvy world?
Fencing border is no solution. Fencing border would mean that your are dealing with the symptoms of the problem, not the root of the problem. Now, terrorism has become so sophisticated that you cannot stop it by simply creating walls or creating fences. Fighting terrorism and creating security would mean that we should focus at the root level, that we stop the nurturing of the terrorist who would want to cross over to the country.
I don’t believe fencing the border would solve problem anywhere in the world. Today, it is the connected world. How would one defined the global world if we start creating borders and fences? In fact, word is borderless because of existing facility like mobile and internet. So, I believe it is very outdated effort to think that fencing will create security. The best approach would be to look at the reason for the security challenges. Basically, the terror networks were given support by the states, after training, they cross over to other country. We need to get rid of those centres rather than fencing the border.
You recently wrote a book – AFGHANISTAN PAKISTAN INDIA: A Paradigm Shift. It is quite unusual for a serving ambassador to do so because many things that you have discussed is being dealt by you. What was the reason behind it?
You are right. Book writing is normally considered for those who retires. But I believe in thinking outside the box which is needed in today’s condition. We are living in a precarious situation, especially on the front of insecurity and its treatment. We have dealt with these challenges diplomatically but with this book I gave an idea that we should be speaking of the issue at hand while one is officially designated to deal with it rather than hiding it and share it with the world when one is no longer with official responsibility.
You said that it is unusual. You are right, it is unusual but the things that we used to do usually have not delivered the intended result, therefore unusual steps need to be taken. If you recall, since last three decades, we are dealing situation on economic development to security mechanism to range of other issues but we have not been able get out of this precarious challenge in the region. In fact, the situation has become more volatile.
That draw me doing something which was unusual. Because it was important for me to be frank. I have written about countries relationship with one another, their problems and challenges and existing treaties which have potential to strengthen ties but we have not pay attention to them. So, in that book I have been very frank about my own experience in last 15 years in the government.
Also, I can see situation in this region becoming more and more difficult. That is why it is important to think differently and experiment with new ideas. When you speak out while you are in position, you are heard more.
In your book, you have mentioned about the importance of good relation between India-Pakistan in the region but on most of the challenging issues like terrorism or Kashmir, we don’t see any consensus. In fact, in last few years, they have become an integral part of vote bank politics on both side of the border. Is there anyway that we could get out of this?
I have not only written about the need for good relationship between Indian and Pakistan but also the role these countries have to play in harmonisation in the region. I have analysed the impact of the improved relation among these three country. I have also analyse the challenges that we face and at the same time the treaty that exist which we can use to address some of the issues.
I believe that unless we diffuse the situation that has kept us apart, we will not be able to see prosperity, peace and the development in any of these countries. Currently one may be better than the other politically, economically or in any other manner, but because of spillover effect, the impact of what currently going in one country on the other is inevitable. I know some of the issues can’t be solved overnight but we have to take steps to resolve our issues.
I understand the conflict that we have at the borders and number of other difficulty that we face but I have suggested some very easy steps which should not have any reference to any other difficulty but to improvement in the life of people of these three countries. Economic trade and business, we must separate them from political issues or security reservation. If we put these things apart, we will be able to move on issue which are doable. I know, there are issues which cannot be touched, but there are many things that can easily be handled. It will at least open the door for a relationship that shall ultimately evolved towards complete resolution.
We have number of cases globally and I have refer to those cases of the wars in Europe, the difficultly that world power and neighbour have among one another like France and Germany. They fought two world war but today you can see how closer they are. If those countries after having difficulties for year and with cost of billions, could resolve and live together peacefully, why can’t we?
I still believe that we cannot continue on the path that we are on without thinking of ways and means that we have to start at some point and removing the gap that exist, between our states.
I want everyone to be beneficiary of that outcome, which I will continue to insist upon that we need to open up and we need to talk. This is something, we see happening. For example, Chabahar Port, I know some may not like it, but ultimately this is not only going to connect people of three countries but the entire region, it will pass through Middle-East and Afghanistan, so we need to think about the positive aspect of the relationship.