Robin van Puyenbroeck 0:07
Good morning and welcome back to Trade Wins. My name is Robin van Puyenbroeck, I’m your host and my guest today is Zabihullah Ziarmal who’s the CEO of CEFE Group based in Dubai, but also the founding President of the World Trade Center in Kabul. He’s also the first Vice-Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce in Afghanistan and was part of the government as the Director-General of the Afghan National Standards Authority. So Zabi, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 0:38
Thank you, Robin. Good morning to you. Thanks. I’m very well.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 0:41
Well, good. So I always like to ask my guests to briefly introduce themselves and tell people what they should know about you.
Zabihullah Ziarmal 0:49
Absolutely, with pleasure. My name is Zabihullah Ziarmal, my nickname is Zabi, and I’m the CEO of the CEFE Group International, which is a trading investment company established back in 2004 in Afghanistan, and then expanded to multiple markets and multiple areas from being a small consultancy firm in 2004 to a construction company to an oil and gas company, logistics, real estate, and commodities training. We’re based in Dubai, in DMCC (Dubai Multi Commodity Center). At the same time, I’m the first Vice-Chair and founder of the International Chamber of Commerce in Afghanistan, and also from June 2018, I’m the Executive Board Member of the International Chamber of Commerce, which is the largest business organization established back in 1919 and headquartered in Paris, France. Just a few months before the collapse back in May 2021, I joined the government of Afghanistan, the ex-government, I can say now, as Director-General for Afghan National Standards Authority. Also in 2020, we established a chapter of the World Trade Center in Afghanistan, which is World Trade Center Kabul that, unfortunately, due to the collapse which has happened in Afghanistan, our operation has been seized on the ground so far.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 2:18
Yeah, and it’s been nearly six months now since the government in Afghanistan collapsed and the Taliban took over. How is the situation on the ground for people? It’s a very cold winter.
Zabihullah Ziarmal 2:30
It is indeed. Actually, the collapse happened very immediately and unexpectedly. Afghanistan has gone through many turbulences back from 2001 until 2021, for the past 20 years. The country was moving forward by the international community aids, especially the United States government, along with their allies, the NATO forces on the ground. From being a war-torn country before 2001 when the country was ruled by the Taliban, at that time, 20 years back.hen a new chapter had opened for Afghanistan, and the new opportunities came for the people of Afghanistan. The country started to move forward, developing socially, economically, and politically. In terms of the businesses in the private sector, we had moved toward an open market economy, a free-market economy, and lots of opportunities were there on the ground mainly from the existence and presence of the international organizations and mainly the United States government on the ground. They were supporting financially, technically, the people of Afghanistan, the government of Afghanistan.
Back in 2002, I also had a chance of working with the coalition forces on the ground, that time as an entrepreneur. And I was realizing lots of opportunities were there for the businesses – for the companies. And I remember one day, I had a discussion, a conversation with one of the U.S. military guys, who was my boss at that time. We were in front of the background base, Bagram operating base, that was the last location that the U.S. government had before leaving the country, and before the collapse of the government into the hands of the Taliban again. So on a day-to-day basis, we used to come in front of the Bagramgates, and there were lots of contractors waiting for business opportunities from the U.S. government for small sorts of jobs or for a small scope of work. They used to provide a good amount of money as cash for the contractors on the ground. But one day I asked,his name was James, I asked James how the U.S. government is giving that sort of free money and easy money to the people on the ground. And I remember that he had a bottle of mineral water in his hand, which was half empty. And he started shaking it in front of me and said, “Zabi, what do you see in the bottle?” And I told him that I can see like a full bottle when you’re shaking the bottle. So, then he put the water out of the bottle, and he stopped shaking the bottle and asked me, “What do you see now?” And my response was obvious, I said that I can see an empty bottle. He told me that the economy of Afghanistan, the market in Afghanistan is like this empty bottle nowadays. And this is part of the U.S. government policy, that we have to be injecting some cash and funding into the private sector – into the hands of the people so that they start creating businesses on the ground. Once they establish businesses, the banking system will be established, the government taxation will be in place and the businesses will be providing job opportunities for the people of Afghanistan. And this way, people will get a chance of working in the private sector working in the markets. And also the businesses would make more money from the provision of the services, doing the trade, doing investments on the ground with the support of the international organizations, and mainly the U.S. government, being led by the international security forces at that time, which was called ISAF in Afghanistan. And then you say that, after the businesses start making money, then they have to be paying taxes for the government. And through the tax collection, the government would become stronger and stronger day by day, and you have to be providing some sort of public services for the people like healthcare, education, spending money on infrastructure and making hospitals, making schools, making roads, bridges, dams, and many more. So this is how the United States of America has been developed so far. And the same model and the same concept we want to apply into Afghanistan as well. So, which was a very good policy at that time. But unfortunately, one thing which has not been realized by the U.S. government, the capacity, or the absorption capacity of the Afghan people and the businesses at that time, because they used to be providing a lot of free money for the commanders, the ex-commanders, which they were fighting during the Civil War, and also through the national resistance forces from the north from Panjshir that they were fighting against the Taliban at that time, in order to bring them back to India. Normal life used to be providing lots of cash for them, with the expectation that they have to be moving forward and investing that cash into the businesses and to leave the battlefield and to move on to the market economy.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 7:37
To re-integrate them into society.
Zabihullah Ziarmal 7:40
Robin van Puyenbroeck 7:41
It’s very interesting because we’ve all, of course, witnessed this massive cash infusion over the years, and there is a sound economic model. That does make sense. But you did mention a couple of very important factors that are necessary for this to be successful. That is that there is some sort of rule of law and stability and that tax collection components are there that people actually don’t end up paying taxes, and that the tax money is used to reinvest in society to what you just mentioned, and also in education in schools and infrastructure. So all of this has to be almost a perfect storm for it to work. And obviously, it didn’t quite turn out that way. Did you see businesses really — of course, what you did with your company is one example, but overall in the economy —did you see that money being helpful for businesses to be established and be also independent after a certain amount of time from the coalition forces? Because if the coalition forces would be the only customer if you like, then it can also completely disrupt the markets, right? If the price they pay for services and products is disproportionate from what the local economy can absorb, then this whole notion of creating an economy from scratch is never going to work. So how did that play out? How did you see that with companies being started? Were they just and also trading with others and each other? Or was this always in competition with a dependence on foreign cash infusion and coalition forces?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 9:08
Very good question, Robin. Actually, this funding — which has been brought as a sort of supporter to the people of Afghanistan to the Government of Afghanistan at that time — changed a lot. The community, the social life, and the economy has changed a lot. We had a lot of developments in terms of the news infrastructure, which has been put on the ground in Afghanistan. And also, there were lots of entrepreneurs and businesses that came into the market. And also the U.S. companies along with the U.S. forces were there on the ground as well. The majority of the U.S. government contracts and large size contracts were going to the U.S. government contractors until the year 2008. After that, the AfghanFirst policy was put in place and some sort of contracts, which were mid-size, were supposed to be given to the African companies. But most of these businesses were mainly dependent and they were competing on the U.S. government contracts which was in place up to even the year 2016, up to the year 2018, which I can see myself also because back in 2004, I started the company also which is called now CEFE Group, it was a small consultancy firm, which we used to be getting opportunities of contracting from the use ID funds. We used to be working with one of the projects of USAID, this was called Afghanistan small and medium enterprise development project. And later on, we saw working with the other institutions, international organizations and on the ground and from 2006 we started working on U.S. government contracts until the year 2018, which was the last contract of the civic group. Also, it was a vision field contract that you got from the U.S. government. But apart from in between those years from 2002 until 2018, the number of contracting opportunities from the U.S. government and international organizations were minimized. Some of the businesses, they have started diversifying their portfolios like CEFE group.We have diversified from being only a contracting company on the ground or being a consultancy from on the ground, we moved on into the construction area, we moved on into investing into the real estate, we moved on into investing out of Afghanistan as well, not only in Afghanistan because, as it is said in a proverb, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. So nobody was putting all their eggs in one basket because of instability concerns, which has been realized during the course of the past two decades in Afghanistan, and the ups and downs of the politics were directly affecting the ups and downs of the businesses and economies on the ground. Some of the businesses could not survive. They received a lot of opportunities, but they couldn’t establish proper businesses, and they easily and quickly and, after some years, swiped out of the market. But some other businesses became more established, they became stronger with a different diversified portfolio not being only dependent on the U.S. government contracting opportunities. But they moved on into the trading side, into the investment side, into the investing into Afghanistan market, as well as outside. One aspect, which was one of the mistakes of the U.S. government from my point of view, which I realized personally was giving money on the handoff or giving free money into the hands of the politicians in Afghanistan and hands of the ex-commanders in Afghanistan, who had no idea about the business or this money. This money,not supporting the establishment of businesses, proper businesses on the ground, has created new concerns of corruption on the ground. And it has promoted and supported lots of corruption, which was being a manager which was being led by the Afghanistan politicians, even after the collapse happened. And,one of the main major reasons for the collapse was a lot of corruption, which was being realized within the government of Afghanistan, and mainly by the politicians of Afghanistan on the ground.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 13:14
Your story is, of course, fascinating, because you’re a businessperson, but then you also ended up not joining the cabinet in government, but the very high position as the Director-General of the Standards Authority. You had some, as a business person entering that world of politics and governments, you spent almost a year in that position, also working with the President. How was that? What did you see there,that was maybe even for you, unexpected? Well, how was that experience, then all of a sudden, you know, taking off your strictly private sector business hat and then joining, joining the government and seeing the workings of the government? Did that change your perception of what was happening in Afghanistan? Or what the future could be for Afghanistan? Or how was that?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 13:59
Let me answer this question in a different way. For example, what caused me to decide to join the government being an entrepreneur being a successful entrepreneur on the ground, being a businessman, being a leader of the private sector institutions, and deciding to go back to working for the government of Afghanistan, and not in a good time, because at that time, when I joined the government, there was a lot of concerns already on the ground, because in February 2021, when the Peace Deal was signed between the U.S. government and the Taliban.he real collapse of the country as it started from that time.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 14:39
So from the moment that the U.S. government basically ended up engaging with the Taliban, signing and basically coming to certain agreements, because the Afghan government was not part of that conversation. Is that correct?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 14:53
Absolutely. That Peace Deal, which was called a “Peace Deal,” was signed by the U.S. government and the Taliban. It was a disaster for the country, it was a disaster for the nation of Afghanistan. And from that very beginning, including myself, the majority of the people who are not optimistic about the consequences of that Peace Deal to bring in prosperity, to bring in sustainable peace for the people of Afghanistan, and for the country. It was shameful I can say, it was unfair because the Afghan government was not part of it and the U.S. government was supposed to be providing and supporting the ground for a Peace Deal to happen between the government of Afghanistan or the public’s I can call it ex-rRepublic, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, with the Taliban forces on the ground.t was not supposed to be a deal between the U.S. government and the Taliban, which was excluding the presence of the Government of Afghanistan. And it was starting to weaken the government systems and the government pillars in the country. But the main question which you raised before, what caused me to join the government, because being in the private sector, not only as an entrepreneur, since 2016, which we got a group of other five entrepreneurs, including myself, six people, we initiated to bring in the International Chamber of Commerce chapter of ICC in Afghanistan. And also previously, I used to be involved in the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and industries, as well. And then in 2020, we brought in a chapter of the World Trade Center in Afghanistan, putting all these efforts into the ground. Still, I was realizing that there are lots of things, there are lots of challenges still existing, that unless the business leaders move in to enter the government, and to take some critical and important positions like ANSA, the Ministry of Commerce and Industries, Ministry of Economy, Ministry of Finance, it is not possible to come to a solution and to provide and facilitate the private sector empowerment in the country,in Afghanistan. The reason was that first of all, as I mentioned before, the majority of the politicians in the country were corrupt. They were not pro-business people. They had no idea about how the business is going on and how the businesses should be supported. So the government policy was supposed to be pro-business in the country, which was not the case in the majority of that, plus the laws and regulations in the country w not supporting or facilitating the businesses in the country. But the laws and regulations, mostly, were challenges confronting their business activities and business operations in the country. This was one of the reasons which I became interested in. It is better that I have to join the government. And from the government position, I have to be facilitating and supporting the removal of these forms of obstacles and to provide more facilitation for the market and for the businesses on the ground. My joining of the government was based on the invitation which I got directly from the President of Afghanistan, the ex-President. President Ghani invited me for a meeting and I went over there. It was back in May 2021 and I was in Dubai at that time, so I went to Kabul on Saturday at 4:30. The meeting was set. And I had a one-to-one meeting with President Ghani, and we had a very good discussion and very good conversation. During this conversation, Ghani offered me to join the government and to take responsibility of the Afghanistan National Standard Authority (ANSA), which is one of the significant and important organizations in terms of supporting economic development and bringing new standards to the products, to the businesses, to the services into the market, because the areas of activities of ANSA was quite broad. So we would engage in each and every activity in the market starting from the goods which are being imported into the country being into the borders and customs. And r observing the quality and standards of the goods which are being imported to the production of the goods which is being produced in the country, that it should be according to the standards, to exporting of the goods that it had to be exported out to Afghanistan, with the quality mark of Afghanistan and made in Afghanistan to the international markets, to the services which the businesses were providing for the people and people were paying for them, and they were supposed to be receiving a good quality of the services starting from a meal to product to electronic to construction to whatever. So the role of this organization was broad and very critical and important. Only for the four months when I had the chance to work as Director-General of ANSA, we analyzed the entire spectrum of the ANSA. We had established new collaborations with the other countries including Uzbekistan, with the UAE, with Saudi, with Turkey, with Iran, with India, Pakistan, with many countries that we had an opportunity of increasing the volume of trade and exchanging quality products between Afghanistan to the markets and frontier markets to Afghanistan.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 20:17
It’s interesting that despite all the corruption and the problems, at the highest level, there was this understanding to offer you to do this. There was at least that goodwill, that realization that this work had to be done. And it couldn’t be done by someone who would traditionally be coming from politics or the bureaucracy. So in a way, you were given the keys to make something happen. But maybe it was that thinking from the President too much in an ivory tower and not realizing the realities around him? Or was it really a genuine effort to keep pushing through that change?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 20:56
Actually, in those last months of the government, I can say that the President had realized that he had to bring in professional people from the business community into the government, that they should not be working for the government because of the money: because of the corruption. So they should be wealthy enough that they have to be passionate about providing good quality public services for the people of Afghanistan. It was a good decision. But unfortunately, it was too late. You know, in the last four months, we did a lot of analysis, we studied the entire spectrum of the ANSA, we found a lot of corruption, a lot of issues in the administration, and we came up with proposals, with solutions that I already prepared with my team. Like, four in-depth analysis of the multiple challenges that the country, the economy, and the businesses were confronting. And this could be resolved by the proposals that ANSA has provided for the President. And the President appreciated that one. He read all the reports and all the proposals which I sent to him. And during the meetings also, which I had with him. So my last meeting was just Tuesday, a few days before the collapse. We were supposed to be making the decision within the High Economic Council. On the 15th of August, we were supposed to be having the High Economic Council and the entire agenda of the High Economic Council was dedicated to the Afghanistan National Standards Authority – four major decisions were supposed to be made and ANSA was supposed to be put on the right track and move forward. And even the time when the President invited me to join the government, although he knew this administration is very important, it was at the same time challenging as well because there was lots of corruption going on in the past and this institution, this organization didn’t have a good name. And I put some preconditions, like four preconditions in front of President Ghani. My first precondition was that I’m going to be joining and accepting this one with pleasure. But I need strong political support directly from your excellency to back me up, and not to leave me in the middle of putting reforms into this administration. My second precondition was that I’m going to be bringing a qualified and professional team that knows the standards and quality. I don’t care which ethnicity, from which tribe, my criteria of selection would be professionalism and capabilities.
The third one was that I expected the President that once in a month, I will be taking, like 30 minutes to directly report to you, and also some sensitive issues that I will be facing to the government, I want you to introduce one focal point to me that any of those sensitive things, he should be able to directly bring it to your excellency and to make the decision. And my fourth precondition was that I’m going to be serving as the Director-General of ANSA for six months. After six months, I will evaluate my performances and evaluate my performance. If I am successful, I will continue with moving forward with this organization. But if I’m be successful, for whatever reasons, then I will apologize to you and I would like to hand back this organization, and you have to appoint someone else. And the President replied to me saying that I accept all your conditions, except the last one, that this administration, this organization, six months is not enough. So I want you to work six months for this one, to put some critical reforms into the ground. And after six months, I want you to spend 20 or 30% of your time over there to ANSA and the rest of your time. I want you to be in the presidential palace because I want you to take care of some other missions which I have in my plans. Then we agreed and I started to take responsibility of ANSA as the Director-General.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 24:56
Were you surprised that things imploded this quickly as they did? Did it come as a surprise?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 25:03
I was not expecting, actually. My meeting with the President was supposed to be 25 minutes and it lasted almost 40 minutes. At the end of the meeting, the President had already announced his decision. He said, “I’m going to be issuing a decree tomorrow, and you will be appointed as a Director-General of ANSA. We have to be prepared for tomorrow.”
Robin van Puyenbroeck 25:24
Were you surprised that the situation at the end of August imploded as quickly as it did with the Taliban advance, and within a matter of days, everything was over. Were people surprised? Also in Kabul, Kabul is of course, different from the rest of the country, as the capital city were people really caught by surprise? Because everybody was, but maybe you were not because you were on the ground that you saw how fragile the stability actually was?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 25:52
I was not surprised because, at that time, I was part of the government system and there was some classified information, which we could get and the public didn’t have access to that classified information. For example, I will tell you that at the end of July I was sent for an official visit to Dubai, to the UAE, for a meeting with the standard organization of the United Arab Emirates, because we were supposed to be finalizing a bilateral agreement between Afghanistan and the UAE. During my visit, one night, I was invited for dinner by our ambassador, Ambassador Javad, who was the ambassador of Afghanistan in the UAE, along with another friend. We went for dinner. That night we had a discussion about how the situation on the ground was because Ambassador Javad was asking me and another friend of mine (who came with me to this official visit from Kabul), “How critical is the situation over there?” And we asked them that, why are you asking this one because the situation is still stable. We don’t see any issues on the ground, although it’s not a good time. But we have to be prepared. And we have to, all of us, have to be united and have to work for the people, for the government and for the country. Ambassador Javad told me that the reason I asked this was because I’m not on the ground and I want to get an analysis of you guys because two days back, I got to know that Mohab ordered all the two private jets from the UAE. And I got confirmation from the national security of UAE that the two jets which were ordered by the National Security Advisor of Afghanistan, more help, are prepared and anytime needed. It could fly to Kabul. And this was a bit shocking to us.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 27:37
But that was in July? This was in July right ?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 27:39
That was the end of July, the night of I think the 28th of July in Dubai, like two weeks before the collapse. That was shocking news. But when I finished this official visit, and I went back into Afghanistan, my last meeting with the President was the Tuesday before the collapse. The collapse happened on Sunday. I had a meeting in the morning with the President at the palace and I didn’t find the President in a good mood at all because psychologically he was not in a good shape. He was not in a good mood. And it was a common practice that whenever I had a meeting with the President, some of my friends who were working close to the President got feedback that there was a meeting going on with the President. So they asked me how the meeting was, and I provided feedback that the meeting was not good because I didn’t find the President in a good shape and in a good mood at that time. The next day was Tuesday evening, I got a message from another friend who was also close to the President’s team. He said, “I have an important message for you. I want to see you.” I told him to come over to my place for dinner and we’ll discuss it. So he came late in the evening and he told me that you have to leave the country because, at that time, he knew that my family and my wife and my kids were also there in Kabul. I asked him, “How are you telling me that I have to leave?” He said this is an internal message and I’m telling you because today the President said that anybody from the Senate government positions — because we used to get permission from the President when leaving the country — he said that there is no need for permission so they can leave the country if they wish. So finally, after the discussion I said, Okay, so I’m not going to leave, but I’m going to at least send my kids and my family out of the country. The next day, Thursday morning, my family left the country. And they came to Dubai then to Istanbul. And I was there in the country until Saturday and then I realized. I got so many messages and the situation became worse and worse and worse. And I had the chance of getting the last commercial flight at midnight from Kabul to Istanbul. Because at that time everything was gone. Taliban was in Mazar,Taliban was in Kandahar. They were in Herat, they were to the gates of Kabul, and there were no chances, no opportunity to stay anymore on the ground in Kabul.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 30:10
Incredible story, Zabi, and thank you for sharing that here. I definitely do not want to have the conversation about what could have happened and what could have been different, that’s carrying water to the sea, if you like. So, how do you see the future for Afghanistan? Because you were so much involved with the ICC and of course, the World Trade Center and the Standards Authority. As a business person, you were a driver of economic opportunity in the country so where are we going to go from now?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 30:46
Thank you, Robin, and actually we have a historical problem in Afghanistan. If I were to provide a solution for what the future should look like, I have to go back into the past. If we go through the pages of history, we can see that Afghanistan has always had turbulence of up and down. Our economy, our businesses were always dependent on politics. The politics and the businesses are supposed to be like two sides of one coin working together, which was not the case in Afghanistan. The corrupted politicians were another challenge. The U.S. government was also not honest with the people of Afghanistan by signing that shameful agreement called the “Peace Deal” with the Taliban, which previously they were calling the terrorist groups, and the majority of the leaders were blacklisted and still are blacklisted. But superpower of the world, like the U.S. government and being on the ground for the past 20 years, are entering into such an agreement. And this was one of the major reasons for the collapse. But another thing that could have happened to avoid this sort of collapse in the country, despite a change of regime, because this was not the first time that we have experienced in our regime. At least for my age, which I’m 40 years when I was born at the time which the Soviet Union was-
Robin van Puyenbroeck 32:17
You saw that before?
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So many regimes have been changed the Mujahideen, then Hafizullah Amin, then the Civil War, then again, the Taliban came. Then after September 11 happened, the North Resistance forces came by the support of being backed by the support of the U.S. government and U.S. coalition forces, then the President Karzai, and then we had a democracy, open society, and stuff. And then finally, again, the Taliban came over here. So this is not a solution, by changing the regime. The Regime could change in any part of the world. We are not the only country whose regime has been changing. In the Middle East and Africa, even in Europe, from time to time the regimes are changing. But what is important is that by changing the regime, the government systems, the public institutions should not collapse. The army, the police – they should not collapse. This collapse was happened due to an unfortunate selfishness of President Ghani because he left the country in a way that, intentionally, he wanted to make fail.When he failed, he wanted to make the people of Afghanistan fail, he wanted to make failthe government, the U.S. government, he wanted to make faileven the Taliban, which he did do He could leave the country, the regime could change. But we shouldn’t have to experience such a collapse, which we unfortunately have experienced. The President could leave the country by handing over power, the politics, into a council of the politicians that could be led by other existing politicians on the ground.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 34:01
Because they didn’t have the proper infrastructure in place.
Zabihullah Ziarmal 34:05
Exactly. The President had a chance to enter a Peace Deal directly with the Taliban months before this collapse happened, which he had a chance which he continuously refused to do. And I give an example, for example, that let’s say you have a beautiful house, that you’re the owner and you’re the one who’s using that house. By the time you get to realize that I cannot be staying in this house anymore. So is it better to leave that house? Yes. And the next person has to come and take care of this house? Or do you just put the oil all around this house, you burn it, and then you go out of this house by saying that if I don’t use it, nobody should be able to use it. This was the very worst collapse that has happened. And the reason, I can say that, was the ex-President of Afghanistan which is why thathappened. But, to come up with a solution for the future. The future, we could have a positive future only if the system of the government is changed from being a centralized government into a decentralized government. The absolute power should not be in the hands of one person called the President, or whatever. So the power has to be fairly distributed. From the capital to the provinces, probably federalism could be an example, or a centralized federal government like the U.S. government could be a solution. But in any way, the political power has to be fairly distributed among all the territories, among all the provinces in Afghanistan, unless we should come with this, or the politicians or the Taliban, or the people of Afghanistan together have to come up with a solution. I don’t see a bright and a good future for my country, Afghanistan, unfortunately.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 35:58
Again, that’s a very interesting observation. With this notion of nation-building or state building that centralized concept of a nation-state is being utilized as a blueprint, while looking back at the history of Afghanistan, or many other countries in the world, that’s just not fit for how people, how ethnicities, identities, feel they should be governed. So you’re saying that if a more decentralized federal type of structure, like in Germany, for example, or in other countries would have been applied, then you would not have such a potentially strong government that wouldn’t turn out to work anyway. So a much more decentralized structure? So let’s see. And this whole notion of a deal being brokered by two parties and the government is not being part of the – well, they’re the subject. That reminds me a lot now of what we see with the conversations happening around Ukraine where many countries seem to have a discussion about Ukraine, but Ukrainians are not having a seat at the table. So that seems like a similar mistake is being made right there again. Do you have any perspective on that?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 37:16
Actually, my idea is that at any time in terms of the initial building, in the process of the initial building, the people and the nation of any respective country have to be inclusive in any discussions in any tables, which the world or the countries or the powers of the world was discussing about. If a decision is being made without the existence of the people of that country at the table, it is clear that the consequences are not going to be positive. And the consequences would be what we have experienced in Afghanistan. Even right now, for example, the Taliban they have, they have a lot of challenges, they are facing lots of challenges, they see their failure, right from this moment. Because, previously when they were not in power, they were, from my point of view, in a much better position compared to being in power.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 38:08
It’s easy to govern, as it may sound, but also how the same mistake is being made over and over again, to not include people. Those powers like to decide on the faith of a people but not including that people themselves in that conversation of how they want their country to build. A very, very difficult situation. So of its Zabi, I really appreciate you sharing this story. I know it’s a very personal story, of course, as well. And also from a business perspective, you’re a man who has built a business and, of course, also had to deal with the frustration and the loss of a situation in Afghanistan, that was not your own doing, which is, as a business person, always extremely difficult. So again, thank you so much for sharing. And in closing, I always like to ask again, my guests, is there anything you can share that you may not have shared before, it could be something anecdotal business related or from your work with the government or something personal?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 39:12
Thank you, Robin. I would like to share something that probably some people may not like and this is the first time I’m sharing because it’s related to what happened in Afghanistan. And it’s related to the businesses to the community to the people of Afghanistan. It’s, I can call it a business secret or a business political secret, or a personal experience, which, as a CEO of a company, which my company and myself was one of the major contractors of the U.S. government in Afghanistan for the past two decades. Back at the end of 2012 There was a contract which was awarded to my company, it was a contract of producing white color 150 cc dirt bikes made in Afghanistan, they were supposed to be made inside the country. It was a challenging project. And this contract was being managed by a secret top secret place within Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. So when this contract was awarded, it was not possible to produce each and every component of the motorbikes in the country. So we had to design it. We had to order it from outside from different countries, different factories but we have established an assembly plant, or a semi production plan in Afghanistan. All those parts arrived in Afghanistan. And the semi-production plan was producing those dirt bikes, and the delivery point of all these dirt bikes was supposed to be into the federal operating bases of the U.S. government throughout Afghanistan, which according to the specific numbers, which was being given to us, my colleagues, my team on the ground, they have delivered all of them into the federal operating bases starting from Bagram to Canaria field to come my mother in the north, to Kunduz*field to Ghazni all over the country at the same time, because it was a bike contract. So we’re expecting that after this contract, there should be a regular schedule and unscheduled maintenance as well. So during this contract, we have all the extra parts as well, that we’re expecting that the workshop has to be established into different regions. And our team should be on the ground on a long-term basis for the scheduled maintenance and unscheduled maintenance of these devices. Well, when the contract was over, we sent another email to our contracting office, that we have ordered extra parts and to let us know about the scheduled maintenance of this contract. How is it going on? So they called me for a meeting in Bagram. And when I met over there personally, they told me that this contract is over and there is no more repairing and maintenance required for this contract. And whatever extra parts you guys have ordered, please advise and close out the contract. So I said okay, initially, at the beginning, I was very optimistic that this contract is maybe the U.S. government policy has changed, instead of making and keeping Afghanistan dependent on imports. They want to be supporting the local industries to start production in the country. But at the end of the contract, when this message was given to me, I was shocked and I was surprised that why such a contract doesn’t need repairing. Anyhow, we closed the contract, we got paid, and finished. After two months, we got some evidence that these dirt bikes, the white colors, were being seen to be used by the Taliban forces on the ground, the first report that came to me from Kunduz.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 42:46
So the bikes that the U.S. government paid for were used by non-U.S. government personnel. They were actually used by the Taliban.
Zabihullah Ziarmal 42:57
Exactly. This is the really shocking news to me and this is the first time I’m sharing this one that, unfortunately, those bikes were seen to be utilized by the Taliban people on the ground and, imagine, the number was 4,500 people. So 4,500 people being equipped with dirt bikes for sure, they have to be persistent, they have to be fighting much better, compared to being just empty handed.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 43:28
This was back in 2012?
Zabihullah Ziarmal 43:31
It was the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013. At that time, it was already announced that the U.S. government is supposed to be leaving Afghanistan by December 2014. So probably this was one of the tactics, it’s my opinion, my perception that at that time, when the U.S. government was saying that we are going to be leaving the country, this was one of the tactics that they have to be playing around, like being with the Government of Afghanistan at the same time in the backdoor, being with the Taliban somehow and supporting them in order to fight back and to become stronger. So this is the complication of the politics, which I’m not a politician to have an in-depth analysis, but this was one of the stories which personally I have realized and I just decided to share with you.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 44:16
Well, Zabihullah, thank you. That’s a very interesting observation because if things like this on that, let’s say, small scale with dirt bikes is already happening in 2012, 2013 and if you then extrapolate that to 2021 where the backroom dealing happens with the Taliban to basically allow the troops and all that to pull out, that’s many, many years in between. So if what you describe as an indication of something on a small scale is already happening back then, I’m sure it is probably much more going on, that it wasn’t just dirt bikes that were handed over to the Taliban, so thank you, again, so much for sharing that. Time will tell, and I’m sure the truth of a lot of this will come out. I think it’s just still a little too fresh for everyone, but much more conversation on this debacle in Afghanistan, and this action will come for sure. Zabi, thank you so much for joining us, and I wish you and your family all the best.
Zabihullah Ziarmal 45:18
Thank you so much, Robin. Thanks for your time. It was a great conversation with you.
Robin van Puyenbroeck 45:23
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