Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai may have been the ally the United States didn’t want but needed. But the country’s current president, Ashraf Ghani, has so far proved to be the ideal partner.
In just one of many stops on his whirlwind U.S. visit this month, Ghani addressed a packed room on March 26 at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. In an hour-long discussion with Robert E. Rubin, the council’s co-chairman and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Ghani — who was elected to the presidency in September 2014 — outlined the challenges his administration faces, his plans to rework Afghanistan’s free-falling economy, and the partners he intends to court along the way.
The challenges facing Ghani in his efforts to capitalize on Afghanistan’s strategic location and vast natural resource wealth may seem overwhelming. For one, Afghanistan, like many countries, is facing an unprecedented youth bulge. 68 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 25, a substantial number of which are unemployed. Limited opportunities for economic participation have created, as Ghani pointed out, “an army of unemployed youth up for grabs.”
“Without focusing on youth and without the economic empowerment of youth, women, and the poor, the three majorities — numerical majorities that are political economic minorities — you cannot have stability,” he said. “Stability needs to be defined in structural terms, a system where people become stakeholders, both economically and politically.”
The country’s underdeveloped formal economy presents enormous challenges as well. While Afghanistan’s GDP has grown by around 10 percent each year since 2002 — mostly due to agricultural production — its black market economy is nowhere close to disappearing. It has, in fact, thrived, with opium cultivation at an all-time high.
Above all, the three most critical, and most difficult, hurdles for the new Afghan president are tackling corruption, ensuring security and improving infrastructure.
Ghani’s government outlined its strategy to deal with these challenges in the December 2014 report, “Realizing Self-Reliance.” Prepared by the London Conference on Afghanistan, the report identified three “drivers” of corruption, namely weak rule of law, collusive procurement practices, and poor regulations that incentivize bribes. All of these have been entrenched into the current political system, Ghani noted. The only way out is to break it apart entirely.
Ensuring security, too, is critical. For Ghani, the country’s security is heavily dependent on the efficacy of anti-corruption measures. To some extent, the relationship is symbiotic. Practices like paying off strongmen to provide security not only perpetuates corruption, they also discourage community engagement in the development process.
Tackling both corruption and insecurity simultaneously will make it easier for the Afghan government to get to work on the biggest challenge facing its economy: infrastructure.
“The battle to maintain Afghanistan’s roads is a test of Ghani’s ability to govern,” wrote Saagar Enjeti in another recent post for The Diplomat. Ghani knows this — the Gardez-Khost Highway, a USAID project started in 2003 that would link Kabul, eastern Afghanistan, and Pakistan, could easily fall into disarray without continued U.S. funding. (It’s already fallen victim to corruption before too.) Yet railroads, not highways, were clearly on Ghani’s mind during his CFR talk, as he stressed the importance of a railway network to his goal of turning Afghanistan into “a transit country.”
“What happened in the United States in 1869 when the continental railroads were integrated is like—very likely to happen in Asia in the next 25 years,” he said. “Without Afghanistan, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia and West Asia will not be connected, so this is our first advantage.”
Curiously, given that one of Ghani’s main goals during his U.S. visit was to rebuild U.S.-Afghan relations, little mention was made of the United States’ role in Afghanistan’s development. Ghani cited China and India as two countries that have made “significant investment” in his country, as well as the Gulf, Azerbaijan (which Ghani sees as a model for Afghanistan’s development), and even neighboring Pakistan. Russia was not mentioned despite its status as a potential partner. Recently, the country dumped $20 million on the restoration of its old cultural center in Kabul and also offered security support following the withdrawal of NATO troops.
Missing, too, was the United States, which committed just days ago to maintain current troop levels in Afghanistan through 2015, altering its original plan to reduce troop numbers from 9,800 to 5,500 by year’s end. (Recent reports indicate that troops may even remain in the country after Obama leaves office.) President Obama has also requested another $1.5 billion for development assistance for Afghanistan in 2016, a point that was largely overlooked as Ghani bemoaned the detrimental effect the country’s reliance on foreign aid has had on the economy.
The United States’ absence was hardly a product of ingratitude. Throughout his U.S. visit, Ghani was quick to express his gratitude for the United States’ $1 trillion effort to bring stability back to his country — a marked departure from his predecessor’s sometimes more confrontational tone. His message, as The New York Times noted, is simple: He is grateful for the United States’ sacrifices of blood and treasure, and in order to honor such sacrifices, will cooperate fully. Ghani has two decades of experience living and working in the United States, so such a message is undoubtedly carefully choreographed. Still, it’s hard to see him lashing out as Karzai was wont to do. His professorial and calm demeanor appears as if it would be difficult to break.
In what is hopefully foreshadowing for the future, the event ended on a high note: Ghani praised his cabinet for its work in putting the country back on track. “I hope to be a bridge for the election of these people to the highest office in the land,” he said “including the first woman president of Afghanistan.”
“We may accomplish it before you!” quipped Ghani, prompting the room to erupt with laughter.
Hannah Gais is a nonresident fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association, and director of The Eastern Project. You can find her on Twitter @hannahgais.