In 2008, when Asif Chaudhry became U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Moldova, the small Eastern European country wedged between Romania and Ukraine was in flux. As it moved from Communist rule to a free market, pro-Western government, the country was seeking a stronger relationship with the United States.
Chaudhry ’88 PhD knew the new Moldovan government faced economic problems as well as social issues with human trafficking. He also recognized Moldova’s importance as a former Soviet state and an economic partner with the European Union.
“The biggest challenge that we faced was a country that previously was not as strong in terms of the institutions, neither for democracy nor for a strong economy,” he says. As ambassador, he helped the new Moldovan government streamline business licensing, build infrastructure, enact justice reforms, and make a concerted effort to curb trafficking.
A circuitous route led Chaudhry from rural Pakistan, where he was born, to Pullman and Washington State University and later to the U.S. embassy in the Moldovan capital of Chişinău. He grew up in the village of Nindowal. “When I was going to primary school, there were five classes but the school had only three rooms. So two of the classes were always held outside under a tree, and we didn’t have benches so we sat on the ground,” he says.
He learned English from his father, a former officer in the British Indian Army. He eventually went to high school, college at the University of Punjab, and then to the American University of Beirut for a master’s degree. Along with several of his cohorts, Chaudhry sought a doctoral program in the United States. Meanwhile, civil war had broken out in Lebanon.
“For that period of time while I finished my master’s, the airport shut down, there was no mail coming in. I had to escape from Beirut in a taxi to Damascus. From Damascus, I had no money, I went to the Pakistani Airline office and was able to get them to give me a ticket to go back to Pakistan,” says Chaudhry. “But I had in my hand the acceptance letter from WSU.”
Back in Pakistan, his brother-in-law gave him money for travel and one semester’s tuition to start his studies in agricultural economics at WSU. Chaudhry credits economics professor Leroy Rogers for helping him find enough work to be able to pay in-state tuition and complete his degree.
The doctoral degree helped him build toward his future career, thanks to professors such as Doug Young and Tom Schotzko. He also credits the exposure to the international community on campus. “The quality of education I received laid a great foundation for me to have the confidence to go and do what I’ve been doing. There is no substitute for good education and I got that at WSU,” he says. “And if I had not had that international exposure, I may not have learned what America is about. It was this foundation that helped me become a successful Foreign Service officer.”
Chaudhry’s personal life changed, too, cementing his lifelong affection for the town and WSU. His wife, Charla (Carolus) ’85, was “a local girl, so Pullman has become a home. Even though her parents are now gone, for her and for me this is home.” The couple have two sons and a daughter.
After a short stint teaching at Montana State University, Chaudhry applied to the State Department’s Foreign Agricultural Service where he was hired and assigned to Poland in 1992. He helped form a ministry of agriculture and extension centers to bring resources from universities and other sources to the Polish farmers.
“It was right at the time of transition from the old communist ways to a free market economy. As an agricultural attaché, a big part of my job was to help the Polish agricultural sector to transition from the old ways of collectivized farming to a free market agricultural system,” says Chaudhry, who during that time met President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and former President George H. W. Bush.
He next moved to the U.S. embassy in Russia to serve as a counselor for agricultural affairs. The economy there collapsed in 1998. Chaudhry helped establish an assistance program from the United States to export commodities to the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries, bringing business to the ports, railroads, and processing, and sending proceeds to a pension fund for the elderly.
After Russia, he spent several years overseeing U.S. trade relations with five countries in the Middle East from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, then in Washington, D.C. at the Foreign Agricultural Service. In 2008 he was appointed U.S. ambassador to Moldova.
Among its issues with trafficking and economic transformation, Moldova has a separatist area called Transnistria, which complicated the ambassador’s work. Once, he and Senator John McCain were approached by a mother whose son had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges by the separatists.
“It was a very touching moment, and I personally raised the issue with the head of that separatist movement and asked him to be lenient and let this young man leave. Then Senator McCain promised he would come back to the U.S. and do what he can,” says Chaudhry. “For us to be involved as individuals and as representatives of the United States in protecting an individual’s rights, those are special moments.” Chaudhry later received an email from that young man thanking him for the help that led to his release.
Currently, Chaudhry is the foreign policy advisor to the chief of U.S. Naval Operations. He works with officers in their engagement with other countries on such issues as maritime access for trade. Chaudhry says he is learning a great deal about the Department of Defense and how foreign policy and national security interact.
Looking back, Chaudhry is still amazed at how full his life has become.
“To start from that village, where there was no electricity, no running water, sitting on the ground under the tree, it seems unbelievable that I would make it to the U.S.,” he says, “let alone come to a great institution like Washington State that prepared me to go into the Foreign Service and become a United States ambassador.”