Afghanistan in 2016: Ashraf Ghani's Case for Cautious Optimism

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In 2015, the Taliban made gains in Afghanistan. Though this was not an entirely unforeseeable chain of events, the gains made by the Islamic State in the country were largely surprising and unexpected. In addition, the economic consequences of coalition forces’ 2014 withdrawal began to manifest. In the face of these obstacles, however, there remains an astounding optimism within the Afghan leadership. Is this optimism justified?

News from Afghanistan remains pessimistic. The myriad challenges facing the country have mounted as the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) endured a tough fighting season. Despite these daunting challenges, President Ashraf Ghani maintains a positive vision of Afghanistan in the future. This might seem counterintuitive on the surface, but sizable opportunities for Afghanistan to engage regionally could facilitate favorable economic development. Regional engagement would allow it to capitalize on the progress made in the last 13 years and take advantage of both the infrastructural resources left behind by the coalition expansion and the natural resources that are readily available in the near-term. Focusing on what can be done while working toward more aggressive objectives may be a way to keep Afghanistan on a slow but positive path.

The common refrain of the international community is that Afghans have learned to provide for their own security. The truth is that the withdrawal of coalition forces left ANSF with fewer of the critical combat systems they had come to rely on, such as close air support, medical support and coalition intelligence systems. Army performance on the defense has been spotty at best. However, as the loss and subsequent retaking of Kunduz demonstrates, the Army has been much more successful when it turns to the offense,. The police force has been severely tested in Kabul and more recently in Kandahar. While the ability of the Taliban to attack in large cities has created a bunker-type mentality wherein leaders and foreign representatives stay largely behind “Texas Wall” compounds, the Afghan National Police have been able to respond in good order to restore the peace.

The ANSF has a long way to go in order to be a completely effective fighting force; however, they have been good enough to keep the Taliban and the emergent Daesh (Islamic State) threat at bay in the major cities and in much of the rural areas.

Interestingly, the attacks from the Taliban have not been as successful as they could have been. This might be due partially to the announcement of the death of their long-time leader, Mullah Omar,  which has caused in-fighting and jockeying for leadership within the organization. However, the attacks that have occurred – or more specifically the political signal launched by these attacks – were strong enough to have given rise to an increase in capital flight and brain drain. Obviously, the diminishing of these vital ingredients of growth is detrimental to economic recovery.

Unchecked expansion of the drug trade continues to fund Taliban activity, destroying local communities and hindering trustbuilding efforts with neighboring countries. The long-term impacts of poppy cultivation on national health, education and social fabric stand in the way of long-term legitimate economic growth.

Afghanistan’s allies and neighbors have committed to a strong Afghanistan in words, but these commitments were often not followed by actions. Pakistan showed positive inclinations toward full support in April 2015, but by September 2015, the fledgling cooperation had turned cold due to continued mistrust and accusations of support to insurgents on both sides. While Pakistan fights a fierce war against its “own” Taliban, it still falls short of adopting a more decisive stance against the Afghan Taliban who find shelter on Pakistani soil. Also, Iran is determined to have a stable Afghanistan as a neighbor but is accused of hedging its strategy by supporting both the Ghani government and Taliban leaders in the north and west of the country. Central Asian countries desire a peaceful southern neighbor but have not committed the resources for investing in Afghanistan and, worse, refuse to recognize that countering Islamic extremism requires cross-border cooperation. Conflicting signals come from China; although a  “long-term partnership” was declared during Ghani’s foreign visit to Beijing in November 2014,, the latest version of President Xi Jinping’s new silk road vision (“One Belt, One Road” or “OBOR”) bypasses Afghanistan in the North (and uses Pakistan mainly as corridor to the sea).

The United States and its allies committed to another year of military support but only after long negotiations, and so far for only one year. The fits and starts of limited U.S. and NATO commitment undermines President Ghani’s ability to project near-term confidence and long-term vision. A region not fully committed to Afghan prosperity combined with unreliable outside support is unlikely to become a catalyst for rapid development.

The same holds true for the slow domestic process and the lack of good governance. The cabinet ministers have taken over a year to be confirmed, while the parliamentary elections have faced numerous delays. The inability to establish confirmed government leaders quickly has prevented progressive policies from being created and implemented. The immediate challenge was to create a political and tribal balance through coordination between the President and the Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah, in order to strengthen the unity government while addressing corruption head-on at all levels. The government is now moving more rapidly to congeal and has appointed some new, young, educated and energetic professionals to begin the process of improving the efficiencies in many of the most important ministries.

As a result, the Afghan government has to fight near-term internal conflicts along with external fights with the Taliban and Daesh. It must simultaneously struggle to sustain support from its neighbors and allies. Yet, even with a multitude of daunting challenges, President Ghani keeps his eyes on a positive long-term future for Afghanistan. He asserts that a regional economic growth strategy is vital to long-term prosperity. The president emphasizes the need to capitalize on what exists in terms of infrastructure, resources and a more educated youth capacity.

The Afghan government is seeking inventive ways to raise capital in order to fund critical projects already planned and accepted, including  reforming land ownership laws and policies required to secure collateral for loans,  improving banking laws and confidence in the banking system and increasing savings and loan potential.  Currently, renegotiating existing contracts to ensure that they are compatible with local market standards has freed up capital for other projects and enabled more efficient project completion.  The government is also working to slow capital flight by improving the investment climate, and there is an effort to explore public-private partnerships to help companies realize a profit for major infrastructure requirements. These actions all represent a recognition that capital is needed to realize project completion.  The coalition’s draw-down and diminishing foreign investment support has amplified this effort.

Afghanistan recognizes that it does not have the capacity to grow by itself. Regional cooperation and allied support is vital to its long term success. The government has adapted a policy of taking advantage of opportunities that can be quickly realized while continuing to work on building trust and overcoming historical obstacles. Capitalizing on the recent regular government outreach to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, there has been progress made on implementing both the TAPI pipeline and CASA-1000 from their northern points of origin while continuing to work on overcoming implementation obstacles with Pakistan. To account for continuing challenges with improving trade and transit through Pakistan to Karachi, Afghanistan has dramatically increased the flow of goods through Iran and Turkmenistan. Membership in the World Trade Organization and other regional and global organizations will help improve confidence in Afghanistan’s ability to become a viable economic partner.

Recognition of existing infrastructure, resources and capacity will help to create near term opportunities for growth. The thousands of miles of roads built over the last 13 years, while not perfect, provide the basic network needed to utilize the thousands of trucks left idle by the coalition departure. Likewise, the airfields, construction capacity, cement plants, and other hard infrastructure left behind offer opportunity for entrepreneurs. Combined with vast oil, gas and mineral reserves, Afghanistan is primed for near term successes if security concerns can be reduced and the government can create a more efficient business environment.

The art of leadership is built on the ability to resolve near-term challenges while remaining focused on long-term goals and objectives. President Ghani clearly articulated a strategy to achieving long term growth while addressing the many near-term obstacles in his path. The vision of a better solution with an effective government that capitalizes on economic opportunities while earning the trust of the population establishes a reasonable goal. The actions related to improving governance, education, regional cooperation and trust, and taking advantage of those readily available resources define the ways in which this vision can be achieved in the medium- and long- terms. The means associated with residual coalition capacity, natural and human resources, and a dedicated search for capital are understood, if not readily available.

It remains to be seen if President Ghani can solidify this strategy and galvanize his people and the regional and international communities behind it.  Does he have the power to communicate his vision and strategy internally to the many tribal, religious and political constituencies as well as the international community? He has taken much of the burden on himself, and it is unclear whether his government has the capacity or will to effectively take this burden from him and move forward toward his vision. The regional animosities remain a stumbling block that hinders both the bilateral and multi-lateral cooperation needed to achieve Afghanistan’s goals. Afghanistan’s ultimate prosperity will be tied to President Ghani’s strategy; the question is whether or not he can build the momentum necessary to implement his vision, and also whether the international community will uphold its support at this crucial juncture.

James L. Creighton is a Distinguished Fellow with the EastWest InstituteHe served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army for 30 years. Ambassador Martin Fleischer is Vice President, Director of the Regional Security Program and head of the EastWest Institute’s Brussels Center. 

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