For more than 20 years, Ali Ahmad Jalali lived with his family in suburban Maryland -- sending his children to Prince George's County schools, shopping at the local malls and carpooling to work in Washington, where he was a broadcaster and director at the Voice of America, specializing in his native Afghanistan.
A U.S. citizen since 1987, he recently left VOA to take up an unusual and daunting second career halfway around the world. Last week, Jalali became the Afghan government's interior minister, a powerful and influential position that places him in charge of the nation's police force.
"I symbolize the partnership that now exists between Afghanistan and the United States and the international community," Jalali said in his new office in Kabul, the Afghan capital. "That is the main reason I accepted the job. . . . I know the world, and I know Afghanistan."
Jalali is not the only U.S. citizen in the government of President Hamid Karzai. Four other cabinet members, the governor of the Central Bank, Karzai's chief of staff and one of four vice presidents are Afghan Americans who lived for years in exile. Most have worked alongside Karzai in what used to be Afghanistan's opposition abroad when this country was ruled by the Taliban Islamic movement, guerrilla factions, regional warlords and Soviet-backed leaders over the past two decades.
The backgrounds of the Afghan Americans arguably make them natural candidates for a fledgling administration that is trying to revive a shattered country. But their adopted nationality poses potential political costs in Afghanistan, which has a long history of foreign influence and popular resistance to it. Critics have accused Karzai of relying too heavily on Americans -- both for the U.S.-led military campaign that toppled the Taliban and now for civilian expertise in the government.
The editor of the newspaper of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani's Jamiat-i-Islami party, for instance, has railed against the Americans and other Westerners in Karzai's cabinet, saying they are out of touch with the realities of Afghan society.
The party's general secretary, Enayatullah Shadab, was more circumspect but made the same point. "We want the government to listen to those who defended the country and not only rely on elements that came from outside," he said. "Karzai must strike a better balance. We need people from the West and their new skills, but we can't ignore those who stayed and fought, because they have the most realistic view of our society."
American diplomats were sufficiently concerned about the number of Afghan Americans in the government that the U.S. Embassy commissioned an informal census recently to see how many had been appointed. Embassy officials have stressed the independence of the Karzai government in recent months, and are anxious about minimizing the appearance of U.S. influence on the government's decision-making.
Karzai dismisses the uneasiness about prominent Afghan Americans as misguided. "These ministers may have a green card or a U.S. passport, but they are Afghans for us," he said in a recent interview. "Some Afghans went as refugees to Pakistan or Iran and some to America, and none is more or less an Afghan."
Most important, he said, the Afghan people want results from their government, and so he has reached out to people who can deliver them. "I truly don't think the people are concerned about which ministers come from where," he said. "They just want the country to finally be run well."
The prospect of being part of that effort led Jalali to leave his family in Maryland and take a position of enormous challenge and risk. He says he knows he will be under constant scrutiny -- especially since he has defined his job as completely overhauling the chaotic, poorly funded and often corrupt Afghan national police force -- and he already has commissioned some of his relatives to serve as his personal bodyguards.
"What you have now in the national police is an odd assortment of former mujaheddin fighters who fought with different factions," Jalali said. "All they know is to use their Kalashnikovs. They do not know how to function as a police force." And as for police commanders, he said, "Many were not appointed. They installed themselves."
As qualification for the job, Jalali points to long years as a student of military organization, including several years as a top military planner with the Afghan resistance against the Soviets. He says he is the most highly and widely educated Afghan in the world when it comes to military affairs, and he has written extensively about the Afghan military for scholarly journals and the mass media, in addition to reporting on Afghanistan and Central Asia for VOA for almost two decades.
He also wrote an influential critique last spring of the U.S. military role in Afghanistan, arguing that the way the United States used local chieftains in the war on terrorism "enhanced the power of the warlords and encouraged them to defy the central authorities." He has since softened his criticism but pointed out that local militias still play a significant role in working with the U.S. military.
Many Afghan and Western observers say the aggressive approach that officials such as Jalali bring to their ministries is essential to the development of the country. But it also can quickly make waves and enemies.
Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, for instance, a former World Bank employee who is a U.S. citizen, is widely admired at the U.S. Embassy and many international agencies for his efforts to organize the country's finances and to change some established ways of doing business. But he also is harshly criticized by many Afghans and is said to have more enemies in Kabul than any other minister.
The other Afghan Americans in Karzai's cabinet are Sayed Raheen, the minister of information and culture; Sherief Fayez, the higher education minister, and Yusuf Nooristani, minister of environment and irrigation. Another important appointee, Reconstruction Minister Amin Farang, is an Afghan from Germany.
Most of the Americans have held academic jobs in the United States or, like Jalali, worked with the U.S. government. Nooristani served for several years in the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, at a time when the United States was covertly supporting mujaheddin guerrillas in the war against Soviet occupation forces. Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, the new governor of the Afghan Central Bank, was a professor of political science at Providence College in Rhode Island before his appointment.
Probably the most prominent Afghan American in Kabul, however, works for the White House, not the Afghan government. Zalmay Khalilzad, of the National Security Council staff, is President Bush's special representative to Afghanistan and has been at the forefront of setting and implementing U.S. policy on Afghanistan since the military action in late 2001. Khalilzad is now serving in a similar capacity with the Iraqi opposition, and his long absences from the Afghan scene are often discussed and lamented by Afghan leaders.
With Khalilzad less available, Jalali said, the presence of other Afghan Americans is especially important and a sign that the international commitment to helping his native country is long term.
"So many American citizens and German citizens and Australian citizens are returning to their native country every day, and why not?" he said. "In Afghanistan now, we need more of the American and international presence, not less."