Arsla Jawaid, Foreign Policy and Counter-terrorism Guru

By Anam Abdulla | Stories

Dec 02
Arsla grew up in Karachi, which according to her is unarguably the greatest city in the world! Biryani is her weakness and travelling is her passion.
After pursuing her Bachelors in International Relations at Boston University, she briefly worked at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. In 2010, Pakistan was very much at the fore of policy discussions in the U.S. so she had a unique opportunity to move back home, develop a policy skillset that was more grounded and informed while having a good foothold in DC. She worked as a political journalist with South Asia Magazine for a few years and eventually returned to the world of policy research to work at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.
She holds an M.A in International Affairs from SIPA, Columbia University and has previously consulted on foreign policy and counter-terrorism related issues for a range of different think tanks in the US. She has also worked with the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, which allowed her to break out of the South Asian geographical focus. She is currently working as a Policy Research Assistant with the International Peace Institute in New York where she works on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, looking at violent extremism, youth, gender and local networks.

1. What inspired you to pursue a career in foreign policy, especially the focus on counter-terrorism policies?

I was VERY fortunate enough to grow up in a household where politics was constantly discussed and I was surrounded by some of the greatest political minds and journalists in our country. At some point, even if you didn’t intend for it to happen that way, that world becomes your passion.

The world of foreign policy is challenging, intellectually stimulating, and fast-paced, ebbing and flowing with current events and interconnected with a range of variables. You never know what could happen in the next hour. It’s perhaps the only kind of uncertainty I love!

My focus throughout my BA and MA was International Security, which was complemented by every job decision I made. By the time I was ready to embark on a professional career, Pakistan was at the center of foreign policy debates. Having seen the effects of uninformed strategies on-ground, I realized that given my background and interest, this was the perfect career choice for me.

Foreign policy itself is a broad field and I’ve managed to focus specifically on a few issues that best suit my interests. Terrorism has no geographical bounds and my work allows me to look at different parts of the world within the relevant policy umbrella framework. And I haven’t regretted it a single day!

2. Have you faced any challenges while pursuing your career goals? If so, what are some of these challenges and how have you dealt with them?

This isn’t so much of a challenge as it is an observation. Throughout my professional career, all my mentors have been men. And I’ve been blessed to have some truly phenomenal people guide and advise me along the way.

However, I find that women do not have that sort of convening and guiding synergy. Women are doing incredible things despite the area of security/policy being male dominated. But rarely do we ever partner with each other or function as a strong professional community. I think this is changing slowly and Dairay is one such example. I hope movements like this greatly impact our professional landscape

 3. You went to SIPA for an MA in IR. How important do you think a graduate degree is to move ahead in the foreign policy space and what are some of the most important things you learnt that are applicable to your career during grad school?

Very important. You’re going to be functioning in a highly competitive, global space and you have to make yourself stand out, whether it’s a higher degree, work experience, language skills, background, whatever. MA graduates are no longer a rare commodity so it is imperative that you add that level of education to your profile. My big advice is to always have AT LEAST 3 years of work experience before going to grad school.

Most applicable skills:

  • Analytical skills: academia will teach you how to frame arguments in theory. Learn how to apply that practically. Examine issues from different angles and always assess a short-medium-long term implication. Not only will this make you a better researcher, it’ll also make you a better writer!
  • Networking skills: get to know the people you go to school with, whether the faculty or your peers, the people you work with, and the external circle. Learn from them. Keep an open mind and allow that to push you further. Engage and network.
  • If you are in the city, use it to your ADVANTAGE. Grad school will keep you on your toes constantly but make an active effort to attend events at institutes/organizations that are relevant to your career focus.
  • Don’t limit yourself to academic or required reading. If you have a policy focus, make sure you are aware of reports/assessments/analyses that is published by think tanks, media groups, and policy institutes. Broaden your intellectual horizon and engage in discussions both online and offline

 4. One of your initiatives that we truly admired was Let’s Think Pakistan. Can you tell us a little bit about it and what you hoped to achieve with it?

I had returned to Pakistan in 2011 and was immediately struck by constant talk of how much people were frustrated with the state of affairs in the country. At all levels, LTP essentially began as a social media experiment to reach out to young people and ask them to make a pledge to their country and hold themselves accountable for fulfilling it. The idea behind it was that you didn’t have to be a celebrity or a political leader to make a positive change in your local community, city, or country. You just had to bet on yourself. And follow through.

We launched in 2012 with a beautiful website that created a digital canvas of pledges from around the world (literally!), detailing the smallest things such as turning the lights off to conserve energy, to some very big pledges such as changing a family’s mindset to transcend Shia-Sunni divides.

I was very proud of it but soon after wasn’t able to maintain the momentum any social media campaign requires. We didn’t have the right amount of manpower, funding, and eventually the longer term vision. To date, it remains one of my big failures and like any failure, it has also been one of the greatest learning experiences in terms of always having a longer term strategic vision, identifying right mediums, executing deliverability better and also somewhat of a wake up call. In essence I think I had approached it rather naively and grew disenchanted when I realized how little people walked the talk. I wouldn’t say I’m jaded because of it though. I have tremendous hope in the people of Pakistan. I’m just more sensible about it!

In hindsight, I think this was the best training to begin a policy-focused career. This particular experience has helped inform my work tremendously in the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) space where effectively engaging with local communities, be it Tunisia or Libya, through a myriad of different ways is imperative.

 5. Have you used any networks to achieve your goals? What networks have been the most helpful?

A school’s alumni network will likely be a strong community to rely on. In addition, I have consistently made an effort to remain engaged with my professional network over the years. Continue engaging with people in the industry, especially when you are NOT looking for something in return, make yourself visible and be aware of big policy discussions and movements which can help guide you towards your career focus.

6. What is the most valuable piece of advise you’ve ever received? Do you have any advice for our readers who are passionate about pursuing a career in foreign policy?

Define a focus early on (even if it is 2-3 major policy issues you deeply care about) and make sure that every professional decision you make plugs in to that in some shape or form, as you chart out your career. Don’t stretch yourself too thin. You need to build your own narrative so be conscious of every career move.

Be confident, not aggressive. Be patient, not passive. Make calculated decisions, don’t be impulsive. All of this will help you carve out your own niche and assess your own comparative advantage. There will always be someone better than you and that is a great thing. Don’t be threatened by it. Be inspired by it.

And some short answer questions for our readers: 

  • Success to me means…Waking up every day feeling happy and calm about your personal-professional nexus and yet eager and ambitious enough to find out what lies ahead.
  • Top three skills that I think are critical for success include…
    • Contingency plans: always have a backup incase the first thing you attempt doesn’t come through. You’re less likely to be thrown off if you have considered all the different possibilities
    • Keep your eye on the big picture: There will always be a 1000 ways to get to your final goal and there will likely be alterations along the way. And that’s ok.
    • BE CONFIDENT: I cant stress this enough, especially for women. Know your strengths and do not let anyone make you doubt that. Often times you’re breaking into a male dominated field, so have confidence in your skill set, your intellect, and your expertise to know that you belong there and are ready and equipped to carve out a space for yourself.   
  • Online/offline resources I refer to for inspiration and knowledge… New York Times, The Economist, Foreign Policy, and WSJ are regulars. Some policy monthlies are also great to look at for analysis. In addition to this, policy papers/reports/UN published assessment briefs/publications by Institutes and think tanks working on my areas of interest.
  • Words I live by…“Impossible is nothing” – Mohammad Ali