Unlikely diplomat is all business with US

Ishaq Shahryar, Afghanistan's first ambassador to the United States in 25 years, likes to talk business. Literally.

The key to stability in Afghanistan? "Economic development." The key to international diplomacy? Creating a "win-win situation."

The key to jump-starting a political office that until recently didn't exist? A background in business.

In an interview with Mr. Shahryar last week at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., the Kabul-born scientist-turned-businessman-turned-politician recounted his winding route to Washington.

Shahryar, a member of Afghan's privileged class, came to the US in 1956 on a scholarship funded by King Zahir Shah - leaving the country at a time when "people were not yet hungry," he says. The self-professed West Coaster studied at U. of California campuses in Berkeley and Santa Barbara. He then went to work for NASA, became one of three scientists who invented low-cost solar cells, and eventually founded and sold two businesses, including Solec International, one of the world's leading makers of solar electric technology. Long before he was "His Excellency" the ambassador, a British science magazine called Shahryar the "Sun King."

One of the most important diplomatic posts in a post-Sept. 11 world didn't appear then to be in his future. By his own admission, Shahryar's master's degree in international relations was more practical than prophetic. Then, while Shahryar was part of a team of advisers to the exiled Afghan king during Taliban rule, he turned down an offer from President Hamid Karzai for a cabinet job in the new central government. But the ambassadorship seemed to be the perfect fit for an emigrant, someone who "loves both countries" - the requirement that he give up his US citizenship notwithstanding.

After accepting the position last June, Shahryar returned to Afghanistan for the first time - a trip he describes as intensely emotional. Since then he's focused on gathering international aid: The US plans to spend up to $400 million on nonmilitary assistance to Afghanistan this year - compared with some $270 million in 2002. Shahryar also hopes to draw individual investors to his native country.

But even for this consummate businessman, economic development is only a means to something more basic. "I've been [in the US for] 45 years. No one ever told me what to do or what to think or what to say.... I want that for Afghanistan now."

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