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Ashraf Ghani and a Game of Fiefdoms

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The Pulse

Ashraf Ghani and a Game of Fiefdoms

Is the president being too ambitious in his effort to end corruption in Afghanistan?

Ashraf Ghani and a Game of Fiefdoms
Credit: U.S. Department of State via

The administration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which  has completed its first 100 days in office, has come under increasing pressure since New Year, despite a recent success with the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement to keep NATO and ISAF forces in the country. Since the swearing in of the U.S.-brokered government, which made Ghani president and rival Abdullah Abdullah CEO, Afghanistan has been plagued with increasing security concerns, including suicide attacks and bombings in Kabul, and a failure to select a cabinet. Some claim the dysfunction is a natural outcome of the power sharing deal brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over the summer.

The president of Afghanistan has the power to appoint members to the cabinet, with the approval of the Afghan Parliament. Ghani has sworn to elect individuals based on merit and not tribal and clan affiliation, a promise he made to rid the Afghan government of its corrupt patronage system, a system that pits the various ethnic groups and tribes against each other and undermines the legitimacy and credibility of the government. Whether this is a feasible goal is still unclear. Ghani may have to learn to be a pragmatic politician instead of the all-knowing professor.

Since the swearing in ceremony on September 29, 2014, Ghani and Abdullah have been unable to agree on cabinet appointments. Mohammad Mohaqiq, a former warlord and adviser to Abdullah, has stated that he expects 20-22 percent of all cabinet positions to be filled by the Hazara people, an indicator of a possible fissure between Ghani and Abdullah.

Ghani will also have to balance the needs and worries of various provincial governors throughout the country, including Attah Mohammed Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province who threatened an uprising against Ghani over the summer election, and who is a strong supporter of Abdullah.

During recent visits to provinces throughout Afghanistan, Ghani fired 15 police commanders, eight district governors, five border police commanders, and the appellate court prosecutor in Herat province over charges of corruption. However, he failed to replace the fired officials, and locals have since complained of increasing violence in the region.

The inability of Ghani and Abdullah to agree has caused paralysis in the government, as major posts go unfilled and government services cease. Simple tasks such as school enrollments or teacher pay have slowed to a crawl.

Ghani’s fight to end corruption and promote a meritocracy may be creating instability in Afghanistan. The foundation of Afghanistan’s government rests on patronage and corruption – trying to root it all out within a single term appears reckless. A balancing act among the various tribes and ethnic groups will be necessary if Ghani to lower violence and build trust within the system. That means he will have to work with Abdullah and bargain with the legislature, allowing some appointments that are not based on merit.

Ghani and Abdullah claim to have agreed on most cabinet positions and ministers; the holdup appears to be with the appointment of the head of the Ministry of Interior, a highly coveted and powerful position within Afghanistan, steeped in corruption and cash.

Former ministers of the Interior have included Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, a one-time Northern Alliance commander, current Defense Minister Ghulam Mujtaba Patang, who was impeached by the Afghan Parliament in 2013 on charges of incompetence, and Mohammad Omar Daudzai, who was accused of accepting large bags of cash from Iran to buy favors within the Afghan government.

The Ministry of the Interior overlooks law enforcement and the security apparatus, meaning that it is awash with jobs, guns, and power. During his impeachment hearings, Mujtaba Patang complained that he received more than 15,000 requests from parliamentarians, some illegal. Many were patronage requests to post relatives to positions and jobs within the Ministry of the Interior.

Ashraf Ghani will have to learn to balance the tiny fiefdoms in Afghanistan and become a pragmatic politician, a skill mastered by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. His fight to end corruption will not come with one mighty blow, but with a series of small steps. Currently, his efforts have only emboldened the Taliban, and weakened the central government by making it appear incompetent and ineffective. A meritocracy may someday come to Afghanistan but not under the current administration. For now, security and stability should be the priority.

Shawn Snow is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He served 10 years as a Signals Intelligence Analyst and completed multiple tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan with Marine Special Operations Command.