Ambassador Calls on Japan to Lead Aid Effort for AfghanistanPolitics World Society
Cut Off by the Government
Dr. Shaida Abdali was appointed Afghan ambassador to Tokyo in May 2021. In August that year, however, Kabul was captured by the Taliban, who went on to establish an interim government in the following month. While there is no diplomatic recognition between the Japanese government and the Taliban, Japan continues to recognize Abdali as the representative of Afghanistan. However, the Embassy of Afghanistan in Tokyo no longer receives funds from the Afghan government.
Using its limited sources of revenue, which include donations and fees for visa applications, the embassy continues to perform some consular functions, including the provision of support for refugees and resident Afghans. Dr. Abdali is also maintaining frequent contact with Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials and politicians, and lobbying for more humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and the hosting of a donor conference in Tokyo.
We talked to Dr. Abdali in Afghanistan’s embassy in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, which is much quieter now that it has been forced to scale down its operations and lay off 70% of its staff.
Another Tokyo Conference?
How does the ambassador regard the current state of Afghanistan?
“Because the return of the Taliban in August 2021 caused Afghanistan to become cut off from the international community, trade is sluggish, the economy has become even worse, unemployment is up, and more people live in poverty. Afghans continue to flee the country. Afghanistan has suffered both droughts and floods, and in June 2022 many were affected by a major earthquake in the east of the country. With the onset of winter, the situation became even more grave. Afghan citizens therefore require comprehensive assistance, especially in rural areas. While I do not represent the current Taliban government, I act in Tokyo on behalf of Afghanistan because the people need all the aid they can get.”
After the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, Japan enjoyed a close relationship with Afghanistan. Abdali notes that the country’s people regard Japan as the state most able to play a leading role in efforts to continue support for their land. “Japanese aid is not tied to politics or military action,” he says. “Rather, it is provided for friendly reasons. Since the start of the current state of affairs, Japan has already committed to Afghanistan a significant amount of humanitarian aid, which has been deployed via the United Nations and other organizations.”
“For the last twenty-one years, Japan has played a very important role in supporting Afghanistan. In 2002 and 2012, Tokyo hosted two donor conferences, each of which gathered billions of dollars of aid from the international community. Japanese aid enabled the building of many schools and much social infrastructure.”
In particular, says Dr. Abdali, the contribution of Dr. Nakamura Tetsu, head of the Peace (Japan) Medical Services (PMS) of the Peshawar-Kai charity, symbolized what true Japanese values are. “Dr. Nakamura is someone who left the comfort of Japan to live amongst the world’s poorest—people on whom the world had turned its back. While he initially saved many lives as a doctor, he subsequently found himself dealing with a severe drought. Deciding that illnesses could be treated later and that he had first to ensure survival, he shifted from medicine to agricultural aid, and constructed a 27-kilometer drainage canal.” The canal borrowed from the methods used in the Edo era to build the Yamada dam on the Chikugo River that flows through Dr. Nakamura’s native Fukuoka Prefecture.
Dr. Nakamura’s straightforward character greatly moved the local Afghan people, Abdali says. “Carrying loads of stones on his own back, he toiled with the workers to construct the canal, planted millions of trees, and transformed a desert of death into a desert of life. The seeds Dr. Nakamura sowed will be passed on to the next generation and bear fruit. He is definitely someone who has a place in the heart of each and every Afghan. While Dr. Nakamura is sadly no longer with us, his legacy will endure.”
What sort of role does the ambassador hope to see Japan play?
“While the infrastructure built by Nakamura serves a useful purpose in the lives of the Afghan people, if the international community loses interest in Afghanistan, these achievements will be lost,” he stresses.
“To derive benefit from these past achievements, the effort to rebuild Afghanistan needs new direction. Japan is in an ideal position to lobby the international community for help. I would like to see another Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan, like the conferences of ten and twenty years ago, and to call on the Taliban to create a government that includes all ethnic groups. You could think of it as a second Bonn conference, the first being the International Conference on Afghanistan held in Bonn in December 2001 which urged all peoples to come together.”
As Abdali sees it, Japan has learned the importance of peace from its past experience of war, and serves as an intermediary between Asia and the West. Japan, which will serve as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council in 2023 and 2024 and chair the powerful G7 group in 2023, is in an ideal position to implement important international initiatives. Abdali notes: “I am confident that the international community will heed the opinion of Japan—a country that has selflessly considered the peace, stability, and prosperity of Afghanistan.”
Over the last 20 years, Japan has been second only to the United States as a provider of financial aid to Afghanistan, a reflection of cooperation between Japan and its American ally. However, the United States has now withdrawn from Afghanistan, making it difficult for Japan to act independently. While Japan is well placed and capable, it is political will that is important today.
When asked about the Japanese government’s stance, Abdali says: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is considering the situation carefully, but has yet to provide a clear response. The role of the United States is important. Thomas West, the US State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan, has travelled the world, continuing dialog with major nations. West visited Japan at the beginning of December 2022 and held discussions with representatives of the Japanese government, as well as making contact with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, an organization that has made an important contribution on Afghan issues.”
Since his 2021 appointment as ambassador to Tokyo, it has been Abdali’s duty to lobby for Japan to host a major conference of donor nations. “The United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban,” he explains, “and I believed a conference of donor nations was necessary to create a post-peace-agreement government for Afghanistan that reflected all Afghans equally. Unfortunately, however, things have proceeded in a completely different direction. Because the Afghan government was excluded from the peace negotiations conducted between the United States and the Taliban, we were unable to build trust.”
President Ashraf Ghani, in office from 2014 to 2021, went into exile when the Taliban invaded the capital. But as Abdali explains, he is no longer the point of contact for his own efforts to build connections going forward. “Ghani was originally sent at the introduction of Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN special representative for Afghanistan. While Ghani served as finance minister in the Karzai cabinet, as president, he made many mistakes, and was not the leader we had hoped for. Former president Karzai is currently in talks with the Taliban, and I am communicating with him on Japan’s renewed effort for change in Afghanistan. I have worked under Karzai for the last twenty years. He is an ardent supporter of this effort to forge stronger links with Japan, and likewise there are many other Afghans on the ground in Afghanistan working to resolve the current crisis.”
The Taliban movement is quite large, notes the ambassador, and not all Taliban think alike. They do, however, abide by decisions made by the leadership. “While opinions differ on the subject of women’s education, the Taliban leaders include some who have hardline views with regard to education and women’s rights in general. This means that we have to live with the reality of the Taliban, but at the same time we also need to try and support the moderates so that their views can ultimately prevail.
“My message to them is that international organizations have significant funds earmarked for Afghanistan that can be used if the government is recognized by the global community. No nation can operate or be sustainable without this recognition. At the same time, a hasty solution will not last. We need to consider new processes carefully as we implement them.”
Japan’s Role After the US Departure
What, then, can Japan realistically do? Since the establishment of the Taliban interim government, the Taliban have dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution declared by the previous government, and taken away the rights of women and girls to work and be educated. No country has yet officially recognized the Taliban government.
Over the 20 years through 2021, the Japanese government invested around $6.9 billion in aid to Afghanistan, making it the second-largest donor after the United States. As it is currently not possible to provide aid via the Taliban government, Japan implements humanitarian aid via international organizations and NGOs. While the Japanese embassy in Kabul had been closed down, the Foreign Ministry of Japan relaunched some operations in autumn 2022 while monitoring risks. Okada Takashi, the Japanese ambassador to Afghanistan, takes turns along with other senior diplomats stationed in Kabul, performing humanitarian aid and gathering information for Japanese citizens resident in the country.
The Japanese government is believed to be involved in dialog with the Taliban, encouraging respect for women’s rights. During the Taliban government of the late 1990s, Japan called on the Taliban to enter peace negotiations with the Northern alliance, with which they were fighting a civil war. In 2012, two Taliban leaders also attended the Dōshisha Conference on Peace Building in Afghanistan (hosted by Dōshisha University) and visited the atomic bomb memorial in Hiroshima. The fact that Japan is the only country to have had nuclear weapons used against it makes some Taliban empathetic to Japanese views.
However, both of the Tokyo conferences convened by the Japanese government took place under the Karzai administration, and were characterized by concerted action involving the United States and all the other industrialized nations present. However, in the current reality, in which the Taliban government does not even guarantee women’s rights, convening an international aid conference is no easy matter. Furthermore, thanks to the Ukraine war, the Myanmar crisis, and a host of other serious issues, Japan and the international community have even less funds or time available to invest in Afghanistan. While Japan’s past support for the nation also served the Japanese national interest, which emphasizes the Japan-US alliance, the United States has now withdrawn from the country.
Japan needs to fundamentally rethink the national interest of providing aid to Afghanistan, increase dialog with the Afghan people, including the Taliban, and help put together an appropriate framework within the international community.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Ambassador of Afghanistan to Tokyo, Shaida Mohammad Abdali. © Senba Osamu.)