President Ashraf Ghani is fighting decisive wars on multiple fronts. His success and failure can dramatically transform Afghanistan and the regional landscape. At home, Ghani is engaged in an ambitious, yet risky campaign to reform and change Afghanistan’s lethargic, ineffective and corruption-ridden public administration that has consumed the bulks of foreign aid with little or no ability and willingness to deliver services to Afghan people. Abroad, the embattled leader has to work tireless and delicately with Afghanistan’s strategic partners to increase and maintain the flow of foreign aid and political-military support, on which the country relies for its subsistence and survival in this chaotic part of the world. Above all, Ghani has to establish himself as consensual, strong and unifying leader to restore trust and hope to a polarized and traumatized population that lived most of their lives in war, immigration and statelessness—something that has shattered their confidence in themselves and their country and future. Many Afghans and foreign observers acknowledge that Afghanistan’s honeymoon under Hamid Karzai— when money, job, foreign aid, NGOs were abundant and everywhere— is over and President Ghani’s two-wing National Unity Government, in which he controls only half of the political power, is left with painful legacy from the disobedient warlords to corruption, orchestrated mafia groups that illegally extract Afghanistan’s natural resources to troubling neighbors that routinely threaten the country with unrest and finally a violent insurgency that does not die. Unlike many Afghan leaders, including Hamid Karzai, who possessed powerful ethnic, religious, tribal and political constituencies, Ghani’s only political capital is his individual intellect, leadership and political vision that “every Afghan is equal, no Afghan is better than other.”
President Ghani’s is measured against his triangle of stability— economy, security and human resources—, which he has successfully articulated during the electoral campaign and remains the cornerstone of his vision and leadership to date. Currently, Afghanistan is dependent on direct foreign aid for almost everything, including funding and arming its security forces to fight. Although the United States and the NATO member have remained steadfast in their commitment, including financial support, the long-term cure to Afghanistan’s stagnant economy should be sought at home. Afghanistan’s sustainable economic development depends on the government’s ability to launch and accelerate critical infrastructural projects, including roads, transportations, reliable electricity, empowering Afghan ministries to generate revenues and finally connecting Afghanistan to regional and global markets through bilateral and multilateral trade agreements and widespread marketing for the country’s exports. President Ghani’s success in finalizing the trilateral agreement with Iran and India in Chabahar Port and inauguration of the $290 million Salma Dam project is significant step towards economic development through domestic potential. The shift in Afghan leaders’ mentality and attitude towards development from foreign aid to domestic resources is perhaps more significant than any single project.
Afghanistan’s main challenge at the moment is security. In President Ghani’s vision, security is not only about physical safety, but also human security which prerequisites economic development, rule of law and a renewed trust that the political system is fair, functioning, inclusive and accountable to its constituencies. The blend of domestic and external factors are contributing to Afghanistan’s insecurity. First, the war is rapidly altering into a lucrative enterprise that benefits certain groups and elements, even those with ostensible allegiance to the current political system. These elements continue to undermine the government, evade laws and even side with the Taliban and insurgent to safeguard their financial and political fortunes. The political culture of compromise and deal-making perpetuated and practiced by the former President Hamid Karzai has emboldened and empowered the local warlords, drug traffickers and their supporters. Karzai led Afghanistan for a decade and half with a tragic philosophy of purchasing political loyalty and preserving the status quo through financial and political incentives. As a result, Afghanistan’s central government remained fragmented, divisive and incapable of extending and consolidating its authority throughout the country. This political culture goes against Ghani’s leadership style and the vision of security in which every Afghan, including those tracing unique privilege and glory to Afghanistan’s Jihad or other status, should be accountable into a unitary political system, not parallel informal power-brokers. Although Afghanistan’s general situation is alarming, this new approach to leadership seems to be working with practical result in Afghanistan’s public administration and public service recruitment. Afghan youths, who had no or minimal opportunity to be part of the governance and political system, are gradually finding themselves in leadership position and the government utilizes meritocracy instead of a patronage-based recruitment system that had practically paralyzed the government industry. Under Ghani’s guidance, Afghan embassies have launched a worldwide campaign to invite Afghan expats to return and take part in the reconstruction of their country. Some of Afghanistan’s most notorious public administrations like Kabul Municipality, the Attorney General or the General Directorate of Customs which used to be the most corrupt and ineffective administrations, are now quickly transforming by young leaders whom Ghani appointed for their educational credentials than personal relationships. President Ghani understands that he can never stabilize Afghanistan if he fails to crack down on the power of these informal actors who are often blamed for violation of human rights and denying people access to justice in their localities.
In addition to domestic upheaval, President Ghani is fiercely fighting abroad. Afghanistan’s chaotic relationship with its neighbors, particularly Pakistan is a fundamental source of insecurity. Pakistan is blamed, often credibly, for war and instability in Afghanistan and President Ghani realizes it. Despite intensive overtures since 2001, the two countries have not been able to put aside their historical animosity for the sake of a genuine framework to partner in peace and stability. Currently, Afghan-Pak relationship is at the lowest point with both countries engaged not only in caustic verbal clashes but sporadic border skirmishes that have claimed human toll in both sides. Pakistan’s unwillingness to partner with Ghani is unfortunate and strategic miscalculation on Pakistan’s side. More than any Afghan leader, Ashraf Ghani is knowledgeable of the complexity of Afghan-Pak relationships and the importance of strategic partnership based on mutual respect. If Pakistan cannot work with Ashraf Ghani, it will not be able to work with any Afghan leader that may succeed him. President Ghani’s foreign policy objectives clearly indicate that tension and deteriorating relationship with any neighboring country, including Pakistan, is a disaster with no winner. Equally, imposing any humiliating condition on Afghanistan will backfire. War is the lost thing Afghans want, given their history, but Ghani’s war has generated some hope for the future.
Ali Reza Sarwar is a Political Analyst based in Kabul. He is a former Fulbright Scholar and Research at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Views are his own.