“Afghanistan’s natural resources have to be viewed as national strategic assets”


Syed Zafar Mehdi

Omar Samad is a Senior Central Asia fellow at New America Foundation and Founder-President of Silkroad Consulting L.L.C. He was Afghanistan’s Ambassador to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009), and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004). He is currently Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah’s senior advisor.

Q. How do you see Afghan economy shaping up in the future?
A. There is no doubt that high dependence on foreign funding can have disadvantages as well. With reduced aid, Afghanistan might face serious short-term challenges in managing its fiscal and monetary affairs during this historic security and political transition period. All sectors of the economy have to adjust to a new reality, and I am not confident that the current out-going government has done enough to prepare the population for belt-tightening measures or pro-actively strategized for change that is already underway.

The donor community also bears responsibility to makes sure that aid reduction is neither blunt nor crippling as agreed to in various donor conferences.

Recessionary signs are already seen in some sectors, but if the country can experience a successful political transition and security can be maintained at current levels, then the transition will be much smoother and a positive Afghan public and international mood can avert a deeper recessionary scenario.

Q. Afghanistan boasts of astonishing resources endowment worth nearly $1 trillion USD, which includes coal, copper, lithium, gold, gemstones, natural gas and oil fields. Do you think the country has the potential to stand on its own?
A. Afghanistan’s natural resources, whether mineral or otherwise, are to be viewed as national strategic assets that require thoughtful and professional planning and management skills. But first, the country’s leadership needs to make use of its best minds to strategize as part of a long-term vision. The prioritization and sequencing of all related matters i.e.security, infrastructure, capacity building and rule of law, are necessary for the proper exploitation of resources.

Furthermore, these resources cannot be efficiently exploited without the proper investment and business framework that includes the transfer of new technologies and skills to the country, and aims to generate revenues and create jobs.

Afghanistan should at all cost avoid the errors of some countries where their mineral wealth became a curse.

Q. Afghanistan has two manufacturing giants as its neighbors – China and India – and both are captivated by its enormous natural resources. How should the new Afghanistan government engage with regional countries in general and these two countries in particular?
A. Both China and India already are productively engaged in Afghanistan. These relationships, and others within our region, can further expand as Afghanistan’s new elected government (once election results are finalized) outlines its policy priorities and desire to work with our friends near and afar on the basis of shared interests. Each side will be looking after its comparative advantage and seeking new opportunities in economic sectors that bind them. It is essential that we offer our populations new avenues for income generation and steer some away from radicalization, and illegal and criminal activities.

Q. Notwithstanding the massive inflow of funds, the Afghan government, backed by the international community, has not only failed in building a robust economy but also failed to address the problems of unemployment and poverty. What reasons do you attribute to it?
A. Since 2002, the Afghans and their international friends have had to fight a war, rebuild a state and institutions destroyed over three decades of conflict, revitalize the economy, rebuild human capacity and deal with numerous challenges. We are grateful for the foreign assistance, the sacrifices and the generosity. Indeed, more could have been done despite a four-fold increase in GDP, domestic revenues and job creation. The main culprits are: lack of vision and political will, weak governance, inability to stem high-level corruption, inability to effectively fight the narcotics business, an ineffective judicial and prosecutorial system, shoddy contracting methods, and to some extent, weak coordination with and within the donor community.

Q. Despite massive water resources, most of the country has no electricity and diesel-operated generators are extremely expensive. Do you think the Afghan government has not been able to conserve and manage water properly?
A. The Afghan government and donors failed to prioritize this sector until 2008. After 13 years, Afghans should not be relying so heavily on imported power. Granted, this is a high investment sector that requires large-scale infrastructure work, but alternative power generation techniques should have also been studied besides hydro – an abundant source of power in Afghanistan. Since hydro power and agriculture both benefit from efficient water management, there has been little work done in this sector. This is an area that requires special attention by a new government.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about the U.S. State Department project of ‘The New Silk Road’, which is aimed at facilitating Central Asia’s efforts to return to its historic role as the gateway between East and West?
A. It is a concept that was first introduced by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 at the UN in the presence of Afghan leaders. Clinton said “building a web of economic and transit connections across South and Central Asia with a central hub in Afghanistan would help the transitioning country to build a sustainable economy, in turn ensuring a more prosperous future for the region as a whole.”

The idea revolved around increasing regional trade to “open up new sources of raw material, energy and agriculture products for every nation in the region.” However, this concept has experienced some resistance from China. Our hope is that both ideas can find common ground and not be seen as part of a zero-sum game.

Q. Afghanistan is primarily an agricultural economy but agriculture gains in rural areas continue to face the wrath of illicit opium trade, which is illustrated by the rise of opium production in recent years. What is the way out?
A. It is unfortunate to see the fight against opiates in Afghanistan, estimated to have cost more than $7 billion, not produce desired results yet. Not only has criminality increased, but society and the economy have been impacted by this scourge. Afghanistan’s addict population has seen a dramatic increase over the years and even some political sectors are infested by the drug proceeds. We also know that without an external demand market, our supply capacity would be diminished. Also, the profit margins from this illicit business are to a large extent in non-Afghan hands as the trade beyond our borders is in mafia hands.

There is no quick and easy fix for this problem. It starts with political will and ends with poverty-alleviation, rural development, farmer support, educational programs and addiction combat measures.

Q. How would you rate President Karzai’s performance in economic development and what is the biggest challenge in front of the new government?
A. In my book, the Afghan government since 2002 gets a “C” grade for handling economic and development activities. On the other side of the coin, the international community receives the same grade for the manner in which they provided, oversaw and disbursed their funds. While Afghans are grateful and experienced relative increases in their living standards, poverty is still endemic, and they also realize that so much more could have been done with the extraordinary sums that were pledged, processed and finally spent on the ground. They realize that between 10-20% of all funds were actually disbursed inside the country, while large amounts were repatriated or paid as part of sub-contracting methods.

While some infrastructural work has been completed, it has not as part of a strategy that prioritized all aspects of development. While the private sector has grown, it remains fragile and uncertain. The trade balance is off as the country relies heavily on cheap imports.

A new government will face much harder conditions as it will inherit a sub-standard, corrupt establishment, will face foreign aid shrinkage and will need time to find its bearings. It will be critical to appoint effective and competent leadership at the helm of critical institutions and focus on priorities.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)


“Exemplary leaders make a commitment to strengthen others”

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Jim Kouzes (Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University) says the most significant shift in leadership has been from the notion of leadership as command-and-control to one of serve-and-support.

What are the most important qualities a leader must demonstrate?
The truth is that credibility is the foundation of leadership. This is the inescapable conclusion we’ve come to after thirty years of asking people around the world what they look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow. The key word here is “willingly.” It’s one thing to follow someone because you think you have to “or else,” and it’s another when you follow a leader because you want to.

What does it take to be the kind of person, the kind of leader, whom others want to follow, doing so enthusiastically and voluntarily? It turns out that the believability of the leader determines whether people will willingly give more of their time, talent, energy, experience, intelligence, creativity, and support. Only credible leaders earn commitment, and only commitment builds and regenerates great organizations and communities.

A leader’s credibility makes the difference between being an effective leader and being an ineffective one. Credibility determines whether others want to follow you or not. It determines how loyal they will be, how committed they will be, how much energy they will put into the cause, and how productive they will be. And the effect of personal integrity of leaders goes far beyond employee attitudes. It also influences customer and investor loyalty. People are just more likely to stick with you when they know they are dealing with a credible person and a credible institution. In business, and in life, if people don’t believe in you, they won’t stand by you.

How can a leader lead and inspire a team to perform their best and strive to achieve goals?
In our research examining Personal Best Leadership Experiences, we identified Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® that leaders enact to make extraordinary things happen. When performing at their best leaders:

  • Model the Way—they clarify values and set an example based on a set of shared values.
  • Inspire a Shared Vision—they envision an uplifting future and they enlist others in a common vision.
  • Challenge the Process—they search for opportunities and experiment and take risks, learning from the accompanying mistakes.
  • Enable Others to Act—they foster collaboration and strengthen others.
  • Encourage the Heart—they recognize contributions and celebrate the values and the victories.

For each of these practices there are many specific behaviors and methods that leaders use to engage and inspire teams to perform their best and achieve significant goal, but these Five Practices are descriptive of the fundamental skillsets of exemplary leadership. We know from our 30 years of research that leaders who employ each of these Five Practices more frequently are seen by their constituents as more effective, have higher performing units, and have significantly higher levels of workplace engagement than those who employ these practices less frequently.

How important is time management and ability to effectively delegate tasks to others?
How you spend your time is the single clearest indicator of what’s important to you. Constituents use this metric to judge whether you are serious about what you say is important. Visibly spending time on what you say you value shows that you’re putting your money where your mouth is, that you’re practicing what you preach, that you’re doing what you say you will do. For people to believe what you say your values and priorities are, those principles have to show up on your calendar and on meeting agendas. Take a look at your daily planner. What’s the connection between how you schedule your time and what you say are your key values and priorities? Take a look at your agendas. When you’re in meetings, what do you spend most of the time discussing?These are the ways in which people measure your personal credibility.

Exemplary leaders make a commitment to strengthen others. They create a climate in which people are fully engaged and feel in control of their own lives. They enable people to take ownership of and responsibility for their group’s success. Delegating meaningful and significant tasks — not just trivial or unimportant ones — is one of the ways leaders strengthen others and increase their self-determination and accountability.

There are other things they do to strengthen others. They listen to and act on others’ ideas. They involve people in making important decisions. They acknowledge contributions and give credit to others. They publicly support the decisions their constituents make. They share useful and important information. They invest resources in helping people to learn and grown. In a climate of competence and confidence, people don’t hesitate to hold themselves personally accountable for results, and they feel profound ownership for their achievements.

What is the most difficult part of being a leader?
The hardest leadership practice to master is also the one that differentiates leaders from individual contributors. The truth is that focusing on the future sets leaders apart. The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is the defining competence of leaders. And, our data tells us that this is the most difficult set of skills to learn.

Developing the capacity to envision the future requires you to spend more time in the future—meaning more time reflecting on the future, more time reading about the future, and more time talking to others about the future. It’s not an easy assignment, but it is an absolutely necessary one. It also requires you to reflect back on your past to discover the themes that really engage you and excite you. And it means thinking about the kind of legacy you want to leave and the contributions you want to make.

A pessimist can do none of this. You must remain optimistic and hopeful about what is yet to come. You must truly believe that the future will be brighter and be confident that we’ll all get there together. Only a positive leader can make a positive difference.

How critical is it for a leader to embrace change and communicate it to others?
The truth is that challenge is the crucible for greatness. All you have to do is reflect on leaders throughout history. We’ve been asking people for three decades to think about historical leaders they admire — leaders they’d willingly follow if they were alive today. The lesson from this simple exercise is always the same: Challenge is central to every situation.

When people think of the business leaders they admire, they think about people who have turned around failing companies, started entrepreneurial ventures, developed breakthrough products and services, or transformed industries. When they talk about community, government, military, or non-governmental leaders they discuss men and women who liberated people from tyranny, fought for human rights, won wars, struggled against oppression, organized movements for change, or suffered greatly for their causes. Challenge was the context in which these leaders operated, and change was the theme of all their campaigns.

But you don’t have to study historical leaders to learn this lesson. You can just look at everyday leaders such as yourself and those down the hall or across the street. When we first analyzed the initial set of personal-best leadership cases nearly three decades ago, what immediately struck us was that people always chose situations in which they were challenged in very significant ways. It’s the same story today.

The personal-best leadership cases are about triumphs over adversity, departures from the past, about doing things that had never been done before, about going to places not yet discovered. They are all about challenge and change. What’s significant about this finding is that we didn’t ask people to tell us about challenge or change. We asked them to tell us about personal-best leadership experiences. They could have discussed any leadership experience, but they chose to talk about times when they were tested. Not one single person claimed to have achieved a personal best by keeping things the same.

As a leader, what are the most difficult decisions to make?
Your ability to excel as a leader depends on how well you know yourself. The better you know yourself, the better you can make sense of the often incomprehensible and conflicting messages you receive daily. Do this, do that. Support this, support that. Decide this, decide that. Change this, change that. You need internal guidance to navigate the turmoil in today’s highly uncertain environment. I think the most difficult, but also the most important, decisions to make are the ones that are the most personal.

As you begin and continue your journey toward exemplary leadership, you must wrestle with some of these difficult decisions:

  • What are the values that should guide my decisions and actions?
  • What are my beliefs about how people ought to conduct the affairs of our organization?
  • What are my leadership strengths and weaknesses?
  • How consistent is my view of my leadership with how others see me?
  • What do I need to do to improve my abilities to move the organization forward
  • Where do I think the organization ought to be headed over the next ten years?
  • How clear are others about our shared vision of the future?
  • How much do I understand about what is going on in the organization and the world in which it operates? What are the challenges we face, and how prepared are we to deal with them? How prepared am I to handle the complex problems that now confront my organization? What gives me the courage to continue in the face of uncertainty and adversity?
  • How will I handle disappointments, mistakes, and setbacks?
  • What keeps me from giving up?
  • How solid are my relationships with my constituents?
  • How much do my constituents trust me and trust each other?
  • How can I keep myself motivated and encouraged?
  • How am I doing at sharing the credit and saying thank you?
  • What can I do to keep hope alive—in myself and others?
  • Am I the right one to be leading at this very moment? Why?

All exemplary leaders have wrestled with questions like these. Such personal searching is essential in the development of leaders. You can’t lead others until you’ve first led yourself on a journey of self-discovery.

Ideally, how should a leader go about developing his or team?
Building relevant individual and team skills is essential to delivering on the organization’s promises and maintaining the credibility of leaders and team members alike. The first thing you have to do to develop your teams is to make up-front investments in training and educational initiatives.

Research finds that companies that spend more than the average amount on training have a higher return on investment than companies that are below-average spenders. Organizations that have invested more than the average amount of money on training enjoy higher levels of employee involvement and commitment and better levels of customer service, along with greater understanding of and alignment with company visions and values.

Training, of course, is only one way that people learn. Hands-on experience is perhaps the most important teaching method available, so you need to make sure that people get an opportunity to apply what they learn.

But experiencing something without proper guidance is unwise and imprudent. While we can only prove we can swim by getting into the water, we could drown if we don’t know the basic strokes or if the pool is too deep. You need to coach constituents, because no one ever got to be the best at anything without the constructive feedback, probing questions, and active teaching of respected coaches. People also learn by watching those who are already skilled in something. Provide opportunities for people to observe others and learn from them.

As a leader, you need to make yourself available. In a three-year study of the impact of training, it was found that the high-improvement learners were four times more likely to have had one-on-one conversations with their managers than individuals who showed little or no improvement.

It wasn’t the training that had the most effect on improvement; it was the coaching that followed it. Be available to offer advice and counsel as people apply what they have learned in real-time situations.

And one other thing, we found in our research that the best leaders are the best learners. Leaders who engaged more frequently in learning activities were rated by their constituents as more effective leaders than those who engaged less frequently in learning. What applies to your team also applies to you. To be the best you can be, you have to put time and energy into improving your knowledge, skills and abilities.

Do you think there is enough leadership in management today? What needs to be done?
And that’s just not my opinion. It’s shared worldwide, and not just by leadership scholars, but also by practitioners, and especially senior executives. A study by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and the Economist Intelligence Unit found that over three-quarters of executives around the globe indicate that the most critical people issue related to their organization’s success is leadership development, especially as it relates to developing their future pipeline of leaders. They also find that developing leaders is at the top of the list of the three most pressing talent concerns. These executives are even more concerned because the baby boomer generation is quickly approaching retirement, a consequence of which is that vast numbers of experienced leaders are expected to retire or to step down from full-time employment by 2020, creating a leadership vacuum. A lack of leadership bench strength is of great concern to organizations worldwide.

To close this leadership gap, the best organizations are investing more heavily, despite the worldwide recession, in leadership development at all levels, and leaders at all levels get to participate. They also create a culture of leadership in which everyone, not just executives at the top, is expected to exercise leadership. There are processes designed to accelerate the leadership development of high potentials. They have succession planning processes in place and the leadership development programs are tied to the business strategy. Senior managers are role models for the leadership behaviors that are expected of others, and people get rewarded for exemplary leadership and not simply for results. The Boards of the best organizations for leaders devote a large percentage of their time making sure that the leadership pipeline is full. Leadership competencies are measured and are a regular part of performance reviews.

In other words, in the best organizations for leaders leadership development is not an event, it is part of the culture. It’s a way of life in those organizations, and everyone knows it.

How important is it for a leader to know that his or her role as leader is to serve, not to be served?
Perhaps the most significant shift in leadership has been away from the notion of leadership as command-and-control to one of serve-and-support. Credible leaders serve a purpose and they serve the people who have made it possible for them to lead. They put the guiding principles of the organization ahead of all else, and then strive to live by those principles. They set the example for others and are the first to do what has been agreed upon. In serving a purpose, you strengthen credibility by demonstrating that you are not in it for yourself but instead have the interests of the institution, department, or team and its constituents at heart. Being a servant may not be what you had in mind when you chose to take responsibility for the vision and direction of your team, but serving others is the most glorious and rewarding of all leadership tasks.

Alan Mulally, president and CEO of the Ford Motor Company, made that point directly. When asked by the Washington Post, “How has your leadership style changed over the years? What have you learned? What do you know now that you didn’t use to?” Alan responded, “I think that just always remembering that we’re here to serve. We have the honor to be selected to be the leader, but we’re actually serving our customers, we’re serving our employees, and the more that you have a servant perspective or a servant attitude, then the more inclusion you’ll have, the more respect for people’s ideas [you’ll have]. You’ll seek to understand before you seek to be understood.” Alan maintained that this servant attitude played a large part in the turnaround process at Ford during the difficult years at the end of the twenty-first century’s opening decade.

As a pre-eminent leader on leadership and management, what tips would you give to other aspiring thought leaders?
The title of a new book by Georgetown University professor Cal Newport says it all: So Good They Can’t Ignore You. That title, Newport says, actually comes from an answer Steve Martin gave in response to a question from Charlie Rose during a TV interview about the advice Martin would give to aspiring performers. Martin replied, “Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how your write a script,’…but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”

That would be exactly the same advice I’d give every aspiring thought leader. “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” There’s no such thing as an overnight success. There’s no such thing as a fast track to excellence. Like Cal Newport, I firmly believe that to be a credible source of information on anything you have to study, study, study and practice, practice, practice.

I typically devote the first couple hours of every day to learning. Usually it’s reading—that’s my preferred approach—but it might also be watching videos, listening to interviews, attending a seminar, or talking to people who are knowledge and practice experts. I spend another two hours writing. Writing for me is not just a way of producing product. It’s a means of learning. You might say I also learn through my fingertips.

It might be a blog, an article, pages for a book—even a 140-character tweet—but I can only stay sharp if I write every day. I also like the advice of Dave Balter, the founder of BzzAgent, the leading word-of-mouth marketing company. He said, “Dig a hole, throw your ego into it, and pour concrete on top. Find humility instead.” I am by no means the smartest guy in the room. I don’t know everything there is to know about my subject matter, and I’ll never know it. But I love to learn. I love to explore new ideas. I love to engage in research on something related to my field. It’s this passion for learning that really drives me.

When it comes to leadership and management, what are the notions people need to reframe their thinking on?
As technologically advanced as our world is, there still persists an insidious myth that leadership is reserved for only a lucky few who genetically inherit the trait. We are confronted with it nearly every time we give a speech or conduct a workshop when someone asks, “Are leaders born or made?” Let’s get something straight. Leadership is not preordained. It is not a gene, and it is not a trait. There’s no hard evidence to support the assertion that leadership is imprinted in the DNA of only some individuals and that the rest of us missed out and are doomed to be clueless.

Too often images of who’s a leader and who’s not a leader are all mixed up in preconceived notions about what leadership is and is not. Conventional wisdom portrays leadership as something found mostly at the top. Myth and legend treat leadership as if it were the private reserve of a very few charismatic men and women. Nothing is further from the truth. Leadership is much more broadly distributed in the population, and it’s accessible to anyone who has passion and purpose to change the way things are.

Over the last few years we’ve analyzed data from five million respondents around the globe to the Leadership Practices Inventory, our tool for assessing the practices of leaders. The numbers reveal that the behavior of leaders explains much, much more about why they people feel engaged and positive about their workplaces than any particular individual or organizational characteristic. Factors like age, gender, ethnicity, function, position, nationality, organizational size, and the like together account for less than 1 percent of the reason that people feel productive, motivated, energized, and the like in their workplaces. The leaders’ behaviors, on the other hand, explain nearly 30 percent of the reason. Leadership is not about who you are or where you come from.

It’s about what you do.



“When work becomes source of enjoyment, it never gets old or boring”

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Mr. Harkirat Singh (MD, Woodland Shoes) says an efficient leader should have curiosity, inquisitiveness, simple mindset, and ability to deal with complicated situations.

Woodland is among the top lifestyle brands in India presently. How has been the journey so far?
With its roots in Qubec, Canada, Woodland Shoes ventured into India in early 90s when the footwear market was largely unorganized in the country. Uniquely positioned as a rugged, outdoor adventure wear brand, launch of Woodland was an instant hit and the brand never looked back. We created a new category of specialised outdoor adventure shoes; the products widely liked by adventurists. Over a period, the style caught-up and became a lifestyle itself.

Over a period of over 2 decades of its existence, the brand gradually developed and added more product lines be it apparels, accessories; leading to be a one-stop shop for outdoor adventurists.

Many global sports lifestyle brands are increasingly finding the Indian market lucrative. Has it anything to do with booming middle-class and increase in purchasing power?
Post the passing of 100% FDI by the government, global sports/footwear brands will enter Indian market as there is an immense scope and potential for growth. The notification of 100 per cent FDI in single-brand retail will attract more global brands, since it is a good opportunity for them with the growing upper middle class population. With rapid globalization in the last 2 decades, purchasing power of Indians has strengthened and thus, has huge scope for International Brands especially when most of the economies have a slow down effect.

You have been instrumental in spreading the brand ethos of fun and joy at Woodland. Is fun at work necessary to ensure increase in productivity?
Of course, when you love the work you do you work harder. Fun acts as a turbocharger it releases energy in people that is not even discovered by self, at times As a result, they work with passion; leading to unusual results …. Far beyond expectations.

In addition, when work becomes a source of enjoyment, whatever you’re doing never gets old or boring. On the other hand, when fun is restricted or prohibited at work, unhealthy and costly symptoms quickly appear—boredom and negativity set in, people become irritable and their energy level goes down. This will result in less effort towards work there by productivity gets affected.

Woodland is one of the prominent brands, which believes in splurging heavily on mass media advertising. How crucial is the communication strategy for the brand?
Woodland being an adventure brand draw close connects with the environment and this is what has been the soul of the brand since inception. We not only build this association through our promotions, but also through our processes and practices. The entire range of shoes and apparel from woodland are quality eco-friendly products – made with materials and chemicals that don’t harm the nature. Our manufacturing process is less harmful to the environment; our brand communication is woven around these facts.

Social media is one of the most powerful platforms; helping is effectively communicating our brand values among our audiences and buying in their support. Our customer feedbacks are crucial, for this social media is a viable platform; they tell us their expectations from the brand and we customize our products accordingly. Our communication involves high level of interaction with consumers using social media (Facebook, Twitter, Blogs et al), raising awareness on environmental issues and sustainability, and communicating what Woodland’s doing to make its products and processes green.

How would you compare the market for sports lifestyle brands in India with other South Asian countries?
Outdoor Adventure is a developed sport in a no. of South Asian countries however, it has started gaining visibility in India. Being the pioneering outdoor adventure brand in the country, we have been aggressively developing the category and we are proud to see the growth as well as the response from masses. The new generation has a lot of interest in outdoor adventures and thus, they are looking forward to such sports.

Based on its diversity, India has a number of options in outdoor adventure sports and thus, there is a huge scope. Now that people have tasted the sport and thrill, next few years will see a lot of development in outdoor sports in India.

What gives you the competitive edge and makes you a force to reckon with among footwear giants having operations in India?
Growth in the branded shoes market has increased over the past few years. The youth and people with high-disposable income in metros are driving this demand. The growing propensity towards good looks with a certain dress code is also one of the key factors. As a result, several brands are coming in with their own specialty, leading to the overall growth of the sector.

We are a very technical and a functional brand, our products are basically meant for outdoors and we specialize in adding specialized, technical aspect in our products. Most of our products are environment-friendly. I think, the competition today is not between two different product lines rather they complement each other to give the best combination to the consumer. We have always tried to give the best of the functionalities to our products and this has been our way to beat competition and make our own market.

What are the core values and objectives that drive you?
We stick on to our brand legacy, the quality of products, constant innovation and efforts to be eco-friendly are what position us as highly trusted brand

How has the nature and role of business leadership evolved over the years?
A leader is the guardian of the brand; he/she should be sure about organizational goals. A leader should bear the following qualities, Curiosity, inquisitiveness, a simple mindset, along with an ability to deal with complicated situations. My role as a leader is to guide fellow colleagues during hindrances, on the road to success.

As a leader and manager, what qualities do you look for in an employee while hiring?
While hiring new employees, we look for responsible people who have strong goals yet flexible enough. They need to be ethical with love for their work. We have been the ones who got the retail revolution to the country and thus, as an industry leader and there is a lot we have learnt over the period that has made us as well as our team strong and competent.

Our employees are our brand ambassadors too; they carry our brands trust on their shoulders.

Winners do not avoid challenges and complexity; they master it. What is your success mantra?
I believe in setting higher goals and work towards achieving them; I strongly believe in my employees, we work with mutual trust. This helps me in empowering them to cultivate a sense of belonging with the brand.

The ever-changing dynamics at workplace has considerably altered the employer-employee equation? How critical is it from business point of view?
Change is constant. We are a youth brand and love to adapt to changes in the interest of the organization and the people who make it. My team is my strength and its only because of them, we are what we are today.

Many big companies struggle with innovation. How do you make sure that you maintain sense of control over the organisation while innovating?
Woodland is a specialized outdoor adventure wear brand. We have always associated with people who are adventurists, be it sending someone to Mt. Everest, Arctic, Antartica. While we do have a strong R&D Team spread across the World where-ever we are present, who go the last mile to ensure that we add the best of technologies and features to our products, its our brand ambassadors who test our products and share valuable feedback before we launch the products commercially.

As I said, change is constant be it product and this is what consumers look for. We have a systematic process that ensures that we keep adding value to our products through constant innovations.

What are your thoughts on the talent pool in India? How can public and private sector collaborate to increase job opportunities for youth?
India is not just a potential market but it’s also a place with an exceptional talent pool. India is geographically spread out as well. Continued economic growth can be sustained with growth in the working age population assuming that there are continued investments in education and skill building. The steady economic growth over the last few years has created multiple opportunities for the country’s youth, who are looking beyond the traditional options of engineering, medicine or law when it comes to pursuing a career. The surge of opportunities in these areas has translated into a huge demand for employable talent. There is a lot of scope for deserving candidates in both public and the private sectors. Both are ready to make use of the talents.

How can a top functionary of company assist HR in selection and recruitment of employees?
The increasing focus on employing people with the right skills and talent to ensure the company performs successfully places greater responsibility on human resources managers. Top functionaries should assist HR in selection by specifically laying down the skills required by the employees for each job that gets them the understanding of what is the skill-set required for the particular requirement. Once there is a clear understanding of the requirement, nothing can stop HR to get the right fit.

(First published in The Sunday Indian, The Human Factor and 4Ps)

Man with a Midas touch

Syed Zafar Mehdi

At a time when young entrepreneurs are wary of diversifying their business into various segments owing to the high risks involved, Mr. Anil Jindal is showing the way. For this visionary, who leapfrogged into business sector exactly 27 years ago, diversification means strong focus on understanding the consumers’ needs and fulfilling them under one roof.

His entrepreneurship and commitment as the Founder-CEO of SRS Limited has grown the company to Rs 2200 crore conglomerate. Under his leadership, the company has evolved into a diversified entity with a business portfolio comprising of Gold & Jewelery, Cinema Exhibition, Retail, Hotels and Food & Beverages.

A go-getter and true believer in perseverance, he confesses to have evolved professionally over the years but the core values of fulfilling the commitments and creating value for the stakeholders remain intact.

Q1. You announced your foray into business sector in the year 1985. Twenty seven years down the line, how has success changed you as a person?

I sure have evolved professionally over the years but can say with confidence that the core values of fulfilling my commitments and creating value for our stakeholders are still intact. I have always been a go-getter, a true believer in perseverance as it is what makes a true winner and that I still am.

More than changing, it has affirmed some of my core values. I have realised that respect for the individual and society, plus an unwavering faith in honest work always pays. You have to be focused with a positive spirit that rubs-off on everyone around you. Another thing that has got re-inforced is the fact that after a point, growth in business comes from the efforts of the team, and hence nurturing an empowered team with the right values is absolutely critical. Probably the one thing that has changed is that now, my focus is more on others than on myself – our people, our investors, our consumers and our society. It’s my strongest desire to add value and bring goodness to the lives of everyone associated with brand SRS.

Q2. Diversification often carries the risk of losing the edge you might have been able to gain from skill. Does it also anyway affect clarity and focus?

Our focus has always been on fulfilling the needs of a common man. Right from entertainment to eating out, fashion wear to designer jewellery, buying household items to owning a home itself, SRS offers it all. We have consciously diversified into such verticals to make sure that when a customer is associated with us, he gets whatever he requires from one brand, SRS.

At SRS, we have strong synergies amongst our brands and we draw strength from all of them. We have diversified into businesses that are inter-linked to a great extent, and each feeds into another by way of consumer footfalls, management skills, brand salience, resourcing, operating procedures and the like. This enables the group to grow, while still staying nimble. SRS attaches lot of importance to cross-promotional synergies, which basically means that the company is able to convert the consumer of one vertical into buying the services of the other verticals. So it works great for us, wherein we have a number of brands that complement one another.

So what you see as diversification can actually be viewed as a very strong focus on understanding the consumers’ needs and fulfilling them under one roof. In that sense, it is a very focused, synergistic diversification.

Q3. The nature of business leadership is both a complex and compelling phenomenon. Has the role of a business leader evolved over time?

Yes, it surely has. Once upon a time, leader’s role was to do things from the frontline with his team of people and micro-manage it. The leader used to be one key personality who gave flavour and direction to the various projects and businesses, and his character had a very strong focus on the entire business.

Now, that has changed a bit, adding a new series of responsibilities in addition to being the ultimate custodian of the business and brand. A leader’s most important task is to create future leaders – replicas of him/her in the system who will add momentum to the company’s growth. Secondly, they need to guard, nourish and strengthen the DNA of the organisation’s value system which is believed, respected and followed throughout the company. Thirdly, they need to help lift people from the level of employees to intra-preneurs and instill the same spirit as that of a leader. So, essentially, it is more about creation of strong team, a culture of openness and pro-activity, and putting in place a decentralised model to multiply growth avenues and increase response time.

To my mind, a leader is like the trunk of the tree, which holds the tree firmly to the ground while ensuring it grows taller with strong branches, healthy leaves, sweet fruits and goodness for everyone who comes to it.

Q4. According to a Harvard Business School study, when it comes to overall management, American firms outperform all others. In contrast, developing countries like Brazil, China, and India lag at the bottom of the management charts. What reasons do you attribute to it, and what role can HR managers play to help in bridging the gap?

I think a fair amount of this can be attributed to the Licence Raj and policy issues. Once red-tape is cut down, polices made clear and simple, regulations made transparent, reforms more active and approvals quicker, one will be as good and fast as the fellow corporate in the US or Europe. What then will be required is quality professional education and training. I also feel if that if the country’s leaders can run politics and businesses separately, things will be much better.

HR can play a very strong role here by helping to maximise employee growth and engineer their quicker professional development. The principles of human resource development remain unchanged – what is required is their consistent application in relation to today’s dynamic and new business, political and social environment.

Q5. According to Global Retail Development Index 2012, India ranks fifth among the top 30 emerging markets for retail. How do you see the industry shaping up?

With the lives of consumers getting more complicated and the unabated growth of nuclear families, there is a serious pressure on the availability of time in one’s life. It has given a boost to organised retailing in India because of the convenience of shopping. Further, the continuous improvement in average education, rise in the number of working women and the ever growing spending capacity of the service class have also contributed towards the growth of organised retail.

While there has been tremendous growth in the sector over the last few years, organised retail in India still has a long way to go. Organised retail holds just about 6-10% market share in India as compared to 75% in Europe and 90% in America. We expect that after 2-3 years, the industry will see unprecedented growth for next 12-15 years.  The current times may well possibly be the turning point for the retail industry as the government is considering reforms in retail and several international players are looking at India cautiously. The industry is at a nascent stage, and once the logistics and back-end platform takes shape in line with the requirements of organised retail, there will be no stopping. Considering the current market share of organised retailing and the likely development in the near term, we can confidently say that there exists a huge untapped potential, which SRS, as a serious player in the industry, aims to capitalise upon.

Q6. India is emerging as a huge consumer market for jewellery and government’s decision to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) of up to 51 per cent in single brand retail stores is likely to spur it further. How do you see these developments? Will it increase the competition on domestic front and what role can HR play to help companies in this ‘struggle for survival’?

Competition is good for the market and above all, it allows the consumers the freedom to choose. Any brand worth its salt will be able to offer value to the customers and will not only survive but do well even in a competitive market. One of the first things that FDI is likely to do is to trigger the development of the logistics and back-end backbone. This will take the industry to an altogether new level, and coupled with infusion of new technology, it will be beneficial for everyone – consumers, retail companies and government alike.

So the role of HR will not really be to help companies to struggle for survival – instead it will be to help bring in and develop fine professionals for the trade. By creating a good work environment, focussed training and skill development across diverse functions such as logistics, sourcing, customer service, vendor management and related fields, HR can bring such companies to top form. A good HR strategy that empowers the employees will make them serve the customers even better, thus enabling the brand to leave an indelible impression on its consumers.

Q7. You have a presence in diverse businesses. How difficult is it to cope with the competition and manage such diverse businesses?

Today, SRS Limited has evolved into a diversified Company with a business portfolio comprising of Gold & Jewelery, Cinema Exhibition, Retail, Hotels and Food & Beverages. The five business verticals of the Company enable it to profitably exploit the business synergies, as well as, smoothen out seasonal business fluctuations. Additionally, these businesses help us build a strong set of brands, ensure high visibility and leverage cross-selling our various value offerings. Not the least, it is also instrumental in creating a strong knowledge pool and a multi-faceted professional team. As mentioned earlier, at SRS, we have strong synergies amongst our brands and we draw strength from all of them. We have diversified into businesses that are inter-linked to a great extent, and each feeds into another by way of consumer footfalls, management skills, brand salience, resourcing, operating procedures and the like. This enables the group to grow, while still staying nimble.

Q8. As a leader and manager, what qualities do you look for in an employee? What is the hiring procedure you follow?

For us, three qualities are most important in a potential employee. Integrity, knowledge of his/her domain coupled with strong willingness to learn and finally, being able to perform in a team environment. Anyone with these attributes has great chance to join the Team SRS.

Q9. As they say, winners are not the ones who avoid complexity; winners are those who master it. What is your idea of success?

My idea of success is to work tirelessly towards the attainment of your set goals and then when you achieve them, revise them to make them even more challenging and start all over again. I sincerely believe that the successful fulfillment of the needs of our customers and their satisfaction are the true barometers of our success. If the customers are happy with our efforts and we are able to create value for our stakeholders in the process, then that is true success for me.

It is my belief that victory is journey, and every win is a milestone in this eternal journey.

Q10. There is something common between Apple, Starbucks, Nike, FedEx, Virgin Atlantic, Berkshire Hathaway and Southwest Airlines. They are all run by the founders. Do you believe founders bring a leadership that most hired CEOs can’t?

It will be wrong to say that hired CEOs do not bring in growth. However I would say that one aspect that founders have is the same kind of attachment with the company as one has with his child. This attachment can definitely prove vital towards pushing the founders to strive for goals that a CEO lacking this attachment might perceive unachievable. Maybe, that’s where the difference lies. 

Q11. It’s often said that the most successful businesses are the ones where people know how to break the rules. What’s your take on this?

Well, if you are breaking rules to improve upon deliveries and services or fulfilling promises and commitment, then I don’t see any harm in it. It is critical to remember that the story is not really in breaking rules, but in actually being innovative, bold, responsive, responsible, passionate and growth focused – so much so that the current set of guiding principles too need to evolve. To the casual eye, this could be about breaking rules, but actually, it is much more than that.

Q12. Do you think the changing dynamics at workplace has considerably changed the employer-employee relationship also? How important is it from business point of view?

Yes, of course. The ever-evolving scenario at the work place has made the relationship much informal over the years. Today, a prudent employer looks upon his workforce as partners rather than just the employees. This approach helps the organisation grow as a family and helps one reap the benefits of joint efforts as the employees become all the more committed towards the company’s cause.

Q13. Many big companies are struggling with innovation. How difficult is it for companies to innovate and maintain a sense of control over the organization.

Innovation is the life blood of an organisation. One who doesn’t innovate will perish with time as there always will be someone who comes across with a product or service with better features or price and the customers will naturally favour them. It indeed is difficult for companies to manage innovations and also exercise control over the organisation and the only way I see it happening successfully is by having a real good team in place. If you have a good team backing your plans with full conviction, you have half the battle won. Your innovations will have the chances of finding favour with the end consumers as well.

(First published in The Sunday Indian and The Human Factor)

“The blame for resurrecting insurgency in Afghanistan ultimately rests with the U.S.”

Syed Zafar Mehdi

An acclaimed journalist and author, Anand Gopal has extensively reported from Afghanistan for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor. He has also reported on the Middle East and South Asia for Harper’s, The Nation, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, and other publications.

As a Bernard L. Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, he authored the just-published No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes(Metropolitan Books), which has generated an intense debate about the purpose of America’s intervention in Afghanistan.

Through the dramatic stories of three Afghans caught in America’s war on terror, Gopal shows that the Afghan war, often seen as a hopeless quagmire and an intractable conflict, could in fact have gone very differently.

Q. In your just-published book, you argue that the U.S. forces pressed the conflict in Afghanistan and resurrected the insurgency. Do you think the blame goes squarely on the U.S.?
 I believe the blame for resurrecting the insurgency ultimately rests with the U.S., but blame for sustaining and continuing the insurgency is shared equally by the U.S. and Pakistan. Of course, the Afghan government is also to blame, but we cannot look at their actions independently of outside forces, since they are playing by the rules that outsiders set.

If we take a longer view, stretching back thirty years, I believe the U.S. and the Soviet Union are ultimately responsible for the conflict. On the one hand, the Soviet Union killed over a million and destroyed the country; on the other, the U.S. spread extremism and warlordism through their patronage of rebel groups. Furthermore, the U.S. and Saudi patronage in the 1980s transformed the Pakistani state, helping make the ISI what it is today.

If we take a longer view, stretching back thirty years, I believe the U.S. and the Soviet Union are ultimately responsible for the conflict

Q. The top Taliban leadership, you claim, tried to surrender soon after the U.S. invasion. Why was the U.S. not willing to accept them?
 The mood at the time was that, like Bush said, “You are either with us or against us.” America’s goal was to wage a war on terror, and the fact that its enemies were trying to switch sides was something that did not mesh easily with the ideology of counterterrorism.

Q. Your book tells the story of Afghan war through the lives of three Afghans: a Taliban commander, a tribal warlord and a village housewife. Is it just a co-incidence that they are all Pashtun?
 No, it is not a coincidence—it is because the war is largely being fought in Pashtun areas. Moreover, all three are Pashtuns who lived at least part of the time in rural areas. There are many excellent works of reporting on Afghans living in cities, and in other parts of the country. However, there is very little about the lives of Pashtuns in rural areas, and I felt that it would be impossible to understand this war without exploring their experiences.

Certainly, there are many other facets of Afghanistan, and many other books waiting to be written about them, but I felt that this slice of life was necessary if we were to have a better picture of the conflict.

Q. According to a recent Gallup poll, many Americans believe it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan. Do you also hold that view?
 I think there is no simple answer to this question. If we attempt to answer it in the most straightforward way possible—are Afghans’ lives better?—then we should ask: which Afghans? Life in cities is far better today than it was before 2001. Life in the north, particularly in Bamyan, has considerably improved over the brutality of the Taliban era. Life in Sangin or Baraki Barak, though, is considerably worse than it was in 2001. Whose experiences qualify as genuine? I would say both, and in a way, that is a tragedy.

Even the gains, though, are precarious. The Afghan state, such as it is, relies on rural strongmen and militias alongside the army and police, and the Afghan economy cannot function without a massive and unending influx of Western aid. There is no realistic plan for sustainability or genuine state building—and though President Ghani’s ideas on this front seem promising, I am skeptical that he can do much when the source of these phenomena, Washington, is showing few signs of changing.

I do not believe the Taliban are interested in peace at this moment, irrespective of who is sitting in Arg (presidential palace)

So the question is: where will Afghanistan be five, ten, fifteen years from now? The best-case scenario, if we are being realistic, is that it will be right where it is today—with the Taliban not strong enough to take the country, and yet not weak enough to be defeated. And the worst case scenario—the international community cuts its funding—would likely lead to another state collapse and civil war.
If this turns out to be the American legacy in Afghanistan, then there will be no debate whether the entire intervention was a mistake.

Q. You have not sufficiently highlighted the role of Pakistan in the resurgence of Taliban. Do you believe the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had no major role to play in it?
A. The ISI played a major role in the resurgence of the Taliban by providing safe haven for Taliban leaders, influencing commanders, eliminating those they do not like, and generally by trying to control things behind the scenes. They are a major force of destruction in Afghanistan. However, this is well known, and as such my book focused on the U.S. role, which was much less-well known.

There is an idea floating around in some circles that Pakistan willed the Taliban back to life in 2002-4, but this simply does not appear to be the case. Rather, real grievances inside Afghanistan were the impetus for the Taliban’s regroupment, and Pakistan saw this process unfold and manipulated it for its own purposes.

Q. Your depiction of Taliban as oppressed Pashtuns fighting against a corrupt government and foreign ‘invaders’, many believe, is not fair. How would you respond to that?
 I think it is important to distinguish between the reasons that led many to join the Taliban initially, and what the Taliban represents as a movement. It is true, and a matter of record, that many joined as a response to the torture, killings, air strikes, night raids, and other crimes committed by the foreign forces and their proxies. You can travel through Deh Rawud district in Uruzgan, for example, and see many pro-government villages. But in neighboring Char Chino, the majority of territory is held by insurgents.

Why such differences? The reasons have to do with local politics and local histories, and particularly, the differing nature of grievances and government connections in those two areas. This is not unique to Afghanistan; many insurgencies around the world stem from real grievances.

To recognize that a group had, at one point, legitimate grievances is not the same as saying the group acts legitimately to address those grievances. Armed groups often take a life of their own, and their ultimate purpose is usually to ensure their own survival and potential for obtaining power.

I describe in the book how the Taliban quickly came to mirror the actions of the very warlords they were fighting. They are a force of oppression, just as many of the other armed actors in the conflict.

Q. With the new government in Kabul now, do you see peace process making headway in near future?
 Unfortunately, I do not believe the Taliban are interested in peace at this moment, irrespective of who is sitting in Arg (presidential palace). Some of their influential leaders believe that they can defeat the Afghan government.

I think this is unrealistic, as the Afghan government has greater firepower and manpower (thanks to its foreign patrons). But some top Taliban figures appear to be clinging to this notion, and the withdrawal of foreign troops has only emboldened them.


“It is not a withdrawal, it is transformation”

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Heinz Feldmann, Spokesman of ISAF in Afghanistan, says the stage is set for a security transition in Afghanistan this year, but the ISAF mission in Afghanistan is not over yet.

Q. Since 2011, responsibility for security has gradually been shifted to Afghan forces and ISAF’s mission has changed from a combat-centric role to training, advising and assisting Afghan forces. Do you think it has worked? 
A. Last year this time, we had a big discussion with our partners, with our superior headquarters, whether the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) would be able to take the lead to provide security in the country. The Commander of ISAF raised three questions, whether they will be able to provide security for the country now, whether they will be able to provide security during the elections and whether they will be able to assume full responsibility after the end of ISAF mission. He answered all three questions with a clear yes.

Look where we are today, we have seen the security forces were able to provide security during the elections, which was a big success. They have proven they can do it. This is the success of ANSF and it gives a clear signal to people of Afghanistan that the security forces are ready to take full responsibility after the end of ISAF mission.

Q. Late last year, in an interview with BBC, President Karzai said and I quote, “On the security front, the entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains because the country is not secure.” He said ISAF has failed to bring stability to Afghanistan. How do you respond to that? 
A. It is not upto me to make comments on the President of Afghanistan as ISAF Spokesperson. What we see is that we have come a long way since 2002. We have provided credible security forces, the society has moved on, there is remarkable progress and development in many areas, many people in this country are looking into the future with renewed confidence and that would be my response.

Q. The international community has paid a high price for its 12-year involvement in Afghanistan. According to data collected by the Brookings Institution, more than 3,300 coalition troops have died since the international community’s intervention in October 2001. It raises questions about the purpose and achievement of the military intervention, particularly since the security situation in Afghanistan continues to be volatile. What is your take on this? 
A. We came to Afghanistan to make sure the country will not be used as a launching pad for international terrorism in the future. That was the core reason why we came here. The international community has paid a big price and so have the Afghan people. This is a strong bond, as we both have paid a huge price. We are now committed to make this a success, to stay focused, to provide security. We are committed to address the losses and sufferings, and we need to make sure the price we have paid helps in bringing peace in this country.

Q. There have been reports about secret detention facilities in Kandahar and Helmand where Afghans and foreigners are detained by ISAF/NATO forces. A government committee has also confirmed the presence of these detention facilities. Do you agree it violates the Afghan laws since it is a sovereign country? 
A. ISAF is aware of the statements made by Afghan officials regarding detention facilities in Kandahar and Helmand province. We are waiting to receive the commission’s official report to better understand the basis of the allegations and findings. We continue to work with our Afghan partners to reinforce the rule of law and create conditions of safety and security for the people of Afghanistan. Every facility that is used by coalition forces for detention is well known by the Government of Afghanistan and operates in accordance with International standards that are routinely monitored by the International Committee of the Red Cross. We intend to continue to work with the Afghan government to resolve any detention facility issues and concerns.

Q. This year we will see the withdrawal of international forces. Do you think the proposed military exit has been choreographed well? Is it the right time to move on? 
A. We have no reason to believe they (ANSF) are not ready and they have proven that they can do it. There are some areas where we would like to continue like in the field of logistics, medical care and countering improvised explosive devices.

I would like to mention we are not withdrawing. We are transforming the current mission into a new mission, which is called ‘Resolute Support’. We will see a different approach to the security requirements in the future. So it is not a withdrawal, it is transformation. We will focus on streamlining the processes and procedures on the Ministry level and the highest level in army, and that is the new approach and I think we are at a point where we can start to shift our efforts.

Q. What legal basis will ISAF/NATO forces have for staying in Afghanistan? Currently, it is the UNSCR (UN Security Council Resolutions) allowing International forces to operate at the request of the Afghan government. So will the future presence be governed by the military agreement (BSA) or UNSCR? 
A. What we need to stay in Afghanistan is a legal framework. You can also call it an invitation from the government and the people of Afghanistan. This legal framework is necessary because it gives us in our respective home countries the legal right to send troops abroad. Without this legal framework, we cannot stay. That is our requirement and that is why the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) needs to be signed and for all the nations it is the NATO Status of Forces Agreement. We stay optimistic that we will get both agreements signed in the future, and in the meantime, we continue our preparations for the new mission.

Q. The stalemate over BSA continues even though all the candidates have promised to sign the deal. Why did Karzai refuse to sign it? Do you think his reservation regarding some clauses in the agreement were legitimate? 
A. That is something you should ask the President of Afghanistan. Why we need this agreement is pretty obvious.

Q. While there has been remarkable improvement in the security situation, but we have also seen a spate of terrorist incidents not only in provinces but also in Kabul. How can these attacks be prevented? 
A. All the people we work with are very dedicated to prevent attacks, to make Afghanistan a safer place in the future. Does that mean we would be able to prevent every single attack in the future? No. What we can do is establish processes and streamline our procedures. We can work closely with all the other relevant agencies and Ministries in order to prevent attacks in the future. That is what we are doing.

Q. The release of Bagram detainees was widely criticized by international community as they thought the detainees released were hardened Taliban insurgents who pose threat to security. The Afghan government said the charges against them were not proven. What is the actual story? 
A. We made it clear from the beginning that we want the process with prisoners according to the Afghan laws. That was our primary concern and we made that clear. There was a different decision made and that is all I can say.

Q. The recent attacks in Kabul and provinces are still shrouded in mystery. The Afghan government blames Pakistan’s ISI, while the Pakistani government dismisses the allegations. What is ISAF position on this? 
A. Every time there is an attack, there is a thorough investigation. We have seen in the past that our Afghan partners are doing thorough investigations and they are able to draw the right consequences out of it. It would be premature at this time to make comment on that specific event you mentioned. We still have to wait for the findings.

Q. We will see the new government in Kabul now. Do you expect the security situation to improve under the new government? 
A. First of all, we need to wait until the end of elections and until we have a new government. I am pretty convinced the new government knows exactly what to do to improve security.

Q. Afghanistan continues to face enormous challenges but it is a better place now than it was before the international community’s intervention. Where do you see Afghanistan ten years from now? 
A. I see young Afghans dedicated to serve in security forces, dedicated to serve their country. I have met many young Afghans dedicated to improve healthcare, economy, and education. This shows that society is moving in the right direction.


“My art works majorly focus on women and children in Afghanistan”


Syed Zafar Mehdi

Somaiya Behroozian is a young Afghan artist, photographer, author and children’s rights activist.

Q. You were born in Iran andcame to Afghanistan in 2001 after the ouster of the Taliban regime. Was it like homecoming or you found it a different world?
It was an absolutely different world to me.  The environment and even people sometimes shocked me. To be honest, initially I was down in the dumpsafter seeing the ground realities,the abysmal facilities and infrastructure.

It tookme several months to adapt and adjust in a totally different environment,and even longer to communicate well with people around me. After a while,I discovered my comfort zone and this country became a part of my identity.

Q. You studied Computer Science at Herat University and worked as Lecturer in the same university. How and when did your affair with arts and paintings begin?
Painting was one of my profound passions since early childhood. Although I am a computer engineer by profession,I feel like an artist, because that is my claim to fame. I opted for computer science because I believed that a computer engineer will have less financial constraints than an artist.

But I never gave up on my dream. I studied computer science but I devoted as much time to painting. The videos on YouTube and online art courses helped me tremendously. I am a self-taught artist.

My maiden work as an artist was illustrations in a book project called ‘Let’s play together’in 2005 which wasundertaken by War Child Holland in Herat where I was studying that time. It was a great beginningthough I could not produce more work in those years because of the computer studies, which consumed most of my time.

Then I got a scholarship to study at Technical University of Berlin in Germany. I graduated successfully and decided to teach at a university. I worked in several organizations as network administrator and database designer.

I had a good life with good income, but I always felt something was missing.The dreams I had dreamt had to be fulfilled. So I decided to give art the first priority in my life. It is a talent I have been blessed with so I must make most of it. That is how it all started and then there was no looking back.

Q.Your art works majorly focus on women and children in Afghanistan. Do you believe the works of art can effectively communicate the agony and plight of children and women in Afghanistan?
A. I have always believed that art is a tool to make life better and easier for people. It can help people see the positive, better side of life, especially in a war-ravaged place like Afghanistan. The main target of my work has been children.

My works carry the message of equality, peace and the right to learn and live. I believe we must play an active role in shaping the cultural valuesand that is possible only when we focus our attention on children, who are the future of this country. We need to nurture them and encourage them to explore their potential fully and substantially.

Q. You have also written short stories for children which have been distributed free of cost in many primary schools and kindergartens. How did that idea originate?
The idea of writing books for childrenstruck me when I became mother. I have a 3 years old son. When I went to buy children books for him, I could not find books in Dari language that would tell the stories about Afghan society, culture and customs.

I wanted my son to understand Afghan culture through stories and learn Afghan proverbs. I grew up in a different culture and when I came to Afghanistan, I found it difficult to converse with people. I did not want my son to face those problems.

I also realized that unfortunately not much attention is paid to children literature and education in Afghanistan. So I decided to write books and distribute them free of cost to children in primary schools. I also published two books of illustrations and paintings for children besides the story books.

Q. In 2003, you start doing graffiti painting on the walls of schools in Herat province to spread the message of love and peace. Do you think it is a powerful medium to espouse the cause of peace?
I strongly believe that art can be used as a tool to changeperceptions and in my case I used my art to bring peace. Sometimes, a simple piece of artcan change perceptions about different things. I did that graffiti work as a testament of my love for children andmy resolve to bring peace to my country.

Those graffiti works will serve as a reminder to those students. I choseschools because these are the children who will build the foundations of future and shape the destiny of this country.

Q. You also held an art exhibition in Herat called ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Tell us more about that.
A.The response to that exhibition was tremendous. It was my first art exhibition in Herat and people came in large numbers to support and encourage me. I displayed 52 art works in the exhibition. Most of them were about Afghan women and the suffering they have been through.

Through those paintings, I tried to persuade people to help in ending violence against women and espouse the cause of peace.The message was loud and clear and was meant for everyone.

I also displayed portraits ofseven famous peace messengersincluding Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.I placed a mirror in between to show everyone that they can be peace messengers too. That mirror was important as it showed people the importance of doing what those great men did.

Q. What is your take on the art scene in Afghanistan and the young artists here?
There are many young and talented artists in Afghanistan today and they are supportive of each other. Unlike in the political arena, artists help and support each other here. We have freedom of speech in Afghanistan, which is truly a gift and I believe artists do use this right well. The art scene is brimming and it can only get better from here.