H.E. Manizha Bakhtari, Ambassador of Afghanistan, speaks about her goals and objectives of her term and the future prospects of her country.
Your term as Ambassador officially started in March this year. Which goals did you set for yourself and what are the most pressing issues you would like to work on?
During my term in Vienna, peace-building, state-building, economic cooperation, networking with Vienna-based organizations, serving and protecting Afghans in our working area, and safeguarding women’s rights are my priorities. Afghanistan offers immense potential for development. Therefore, lobbying for increased foreign investments in Afghan businesses and industries rises to the top of the agenda. Due to the history of war in my country, the economy has become dependent on foreign aid. Consider our optimal location as a conduit of trade for Central Asia, South Asia, and Europe. With energy demands, particularly on energy-rich countries in Central Asia for energy-hungry countries in South Asia and Europe, our geography gains more importance. Together with our partners, our joint efforts in the economic field have already produced large-scale regional projects such as the TAPI Gas Pipeline or the CASA 1000 Electricity Transmission Line for example.
Empowering women remains a critical part of my job as well. That is why we embed gender values in our laws and institutional frameworks. The prolonged violence claimed the lives of many men, impacting family structures and their economic realities. Through our Relief and Recovery Pillar, we boost women’s capacity to become professionals. Women are leading producers of Afghanistan’s major export commodities—carpets, dried fruits, saffron and pomegranates. The quality of these products can compete globally. However, we need access to those markets. Peace and stability also contribute to economic growth. Designing peace negotiations with Afghans in the lead ensures two invaluable outcomes. First, an Afghan-led peace process remains the optimal method of imbuing our people with a sense of ownership.
Second, Afghans are the best advocate for their interests. In this vein, women should be at the negotiating table. The international community frequently promulgates this ideal, so we antici- pate broad support, particularly from powerful women. Afghanistan still needs broad support, so networks are imperative.
Vienna bears significant weight in international gatherings. Consequently, deeper ties with Vienna-based organizations would prove advantageous for us. All the components of my agenda contribute to one overarching vision: to portray the true image of Afghanistan; a country with the drive and potential to become peaceful and prosperous.
The bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Austria date back to the 1950s – how would you describe the current connections between the two countries?
We have developed our relations across sectors—culture, sports, trade. But we intend to deepen this relationship. Our shared reverence for the same ideals—democracy, pluralism, human rights, and rule of law—facilitates this objective. Both countries‘ aim to sustain growth, jobs, basic social services, peace, stability, and democracy in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is grateful for Austria’s development assistance throughout the past years. Its recent contribution of two million Euros in assistance through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was an immense help. Like many developing countries, our strides towards our next level of development faltered due to this global crisis. However, the vital support of our allies helped us combat COVID-19 in Afghanistan.
How many Afghans are living in Austria and how is the Embassy engaging with them?
Almost 43.000 Afghans reside in Austria. Our team in Vienna exerts every effort to facilitate their integration into Austrian society. I regularly meet with individuals, Austrian officials, and Vienna-based organizations. Afghan migrants who arrived in Austria as part of the 2015-2020 wave still struggle.
They lack appropriate documentation and identification. Our organized conferences for Afghans, particularly those seeking asylum, provide correct and relevant information about Austrian institutions and society. We try to impart to them crucial values of their host-coun- try, easing their assimilation to Austria. Certainly, the global refugee crisis is complex and sensitive. Dismantling the stigma surrounding Afghans in Austria is imperative. We are aware of how the yellow press and some political parties portray immigrants. These false narratives distract us from our collective agenda—protecting the rights of refugees facing incredible hardships. The support and protection Austria has provided for Afghans abroad as well as its contributions to integration and reintegration programs for Afghans abroad are sincerely appreciated. A successful reintegration program partly relies on a strong and stable Afghanis- tan, allowing us to welcome back any Afghan emigrants effortlessly.
Afghanistan has a difficult past – what are your personal wishes and visions for your country’s future?
I wish that in the future, Afghanistan attains peace and prosperity. I envision a society where everybody exercises equal rights and people can live together without any fear of persecution. But I am not alone in my desire for this future. Since 2001, Afghanistan marks an era of reformation. People under the age of 35 comprise 75% of our population. This generation lives in our country with democracy as the norm. They have enjoyed more educational and profes- sional opportunities. Notably, women’s status in society has risen. President Ashraf Ghani stands behind these women and stressed that guaranteeing them respect and protection is non-negotiable. We seek to preserve these accomplishments. We will never sacrifice them for anything, even pressure from the Taliban. We aim to achieve lasting peace through an Afghan-led process. Yet, we require support to preserve our gains from the last 19 years. These triumphs include embedded democratic values in the public, preservation of constitutional mandates, specifically equal rights, and strengthened institutions of the republic. Of course, free and fair elections lead to the republic’s legitimacy and strength. Moreover, we continue to eradicate corruption and instill transparency in our institutions regardless of level or scope. Having studied journalism myself, I tried to introduce literary-journalism and ethics in Afghanistan. I was the very first person who raised these two subjects in my country.
Free media and a flourishing society are present. We have done a lot to make the roots of democracy endure in this republic and we wish to convey the true image of Afghanistan to the media.