Interview: Daniel Markey

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s extraordinarily successful trip to Washington, and the new outlook for Afghanistan.

Interview: Daniel Markey
Credit: U.S. Department of State via

Daniel Markey is an adjunct senior fellow for Pakistan, India, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and senior research professor in International Relations and Academic Director of the Global Policy Master of Arts Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is the author of the book No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad. He recently spoke with Jack Detsch about Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Washington.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani enjoyed a warm reception from President Obama and the cabinet in Washington this week, a far cry from the White House’s fractious relationship with his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. What accounts for the warmth toward Ghani? 

From his time at the World Bank, Ghani has a long history of personal relationships with policymakers in Washington. That’s a real resource that he has that not every world leader brings. He’s built quite an impressive network of well wishers who more than came out of the woodwork for his visit.

As far as trips can go, it was extraordinarily successful. That was reflected by the body language of the various people who met with him, the opportunities that were afforded to him, in terms of speaking engagements, and the attention that he got from senior members of the government. The troop announcement was not huge news by this point, but it was an important step for President Obama to take, and in many ways a reversal of the White House’s policy, which doesn’t happen that often.

As you noted, the U.S. will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2015. In practical terms, how are we going to measure the success of the U.S. mission through the end of the year? 

It’s going to be a hot several months, literally and figuratively. As the summer offensive starts, the measure will be: can Afghan National Security Forces hold the field enough to create a sense of inevitability about the persistence of the Afghan state? The Taliban narrative, obviously, is the opposite. They would claim that the failure of the government in Kabul, over the long-term, is inevitable. The continued presence of a reduced number of U.S. troops is significant in the realm of training, equipment, logistics, management, supply, and in some cases, direct support, in more extreme circumstances, particularly with respect to special forces operations.

Those are the areas where we’ll be judged over the next six months. I think the underlying hope for this relates to expectations that it will translate into political openings in the fall and winter, if not with all of the Taliban, at least with a portion of them. That would permit a changed security environment, which, the White House continues to hope, would permit an even further downsized presence to maybe a thousand troops, give or take, in an embassy attachment in Kabul. That’s how I would judge this strategy in the months to come.

Pakistan and China seem to be taking the lead in pushing for negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban. Should the U.S. take a more aggressive stance in pursuing those talks?

At this point, given past negative experiences, U.S. policymakers aren’t questioning whether they should take the lead, because I don’t think they see the upside to that right now. The real issue is whether the Chinese and the Pakistanis, who are playing a more active role, will actually deliver in tangible ways. If they begin to deliver, and then it becomes more apparent that a heavier U.S. role in terms of facilitation would be useful, by providing some kind of assurances, commitments, or otherwise contributing to the process, then Washington certainly would be willing to come forward. But every experience to date suggests that a heavier American lead on this hasn’t worked very well. At least for the moment, with President Ghani seeming reasonably comfortable with the idea of working more closely with both Pakistan and the Chinese on promoting this kind of a dialogue, I think U.S. officials seem willing to sit back and see how it plays out.

Ghani made a big point of addressing corruption in his address to Congress on Wednesday morning. In light of reports that corruption is on the rise, how should we view Afghanistan’s institutional and democratic development? 

First of all, the National Unity Government is still a very fragile creation. It’s less fragile than some critics and skeptics might have thought it would be at this point, but it’s still fragile. I don’t think I could find any analyst who knows much about Afghanistan who’d be willing to put a huge amount of money on its long-term success. But it’s better than the alternatives, and so policymakers, at least in Washington, are willing to try to double-down on it, because they don’t have some better alternative. If you’re looking for the kind of institution-building, state-building, technocratic mindset that you were missing in Hamid Karzai for all these years, you really couldn’t do better than to find an Ashraf Ghani waiting in the wings.

There’s really nobody out there and probably very, very few international leaders who would be able to come close in terms actual experience in building state institutions than Ghani. So perhaps we’ll look back five years from now and say Afghanistan was blessed with a modern, technocratic genius who was able to somehow begin to pull the strings together and make what has been a very messy, very corrupt, and ineffective Afghan state led by a charismatic figure in Karzai into a functioning modern institutional setup.

That’s maybe too rosy, but that’s certainly the vision he wanted to create in Washington. A lot of his proposals and plans and aspirations for fighting corruption strike exactly the right note here, and have not been tested yet, or at least barely tested, and initial tests have gone reasonably well, things like going after Kabul Bank, something that the previous government was never able to do, or never willing to do. Part of the challenge, of course, is that all of this is happening under circumstances in which U.S. aspirations and resources are going down, not off a cliff necessarily, or so precipitously to jeopardize the whole project, but they’re far lower on all counts than where they were in the beginning of the Obama Administration. So it’s also possible that when we’re looking at this five years from now, and we’ll say Ghani was too little, too late, and that if he had shown up five years earlier we’d be in a much better place.

Ghani’s address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday featured  pretty soaring rhetoric, but it seems like U.S. expectations for Afghanistan’s future have diminished. Is Washington becoming more realistic about Afghanistan? 

Ghani made a pitch about Afghanistan needing to put its own house in order. Is it a bit unrealistic? At the very least, he’s taking responsibility for it. So it’s no longer a question of how is the United States going to create a more capable and high-functioning Afghan state; Ghani has put the shoe on the other foot and said no, it’s how is Afghanistan going to create, with American help, a more effective state. So it’s less a matter, in that particular instance, of U.S. aspirations shrinking and more a matter of his shifting responsibility. That is very much in keeping with a broader shift, and what I would claim is a central part of the Obama view of the world, that we are quite willing to work with and assist partners in various countries, even partners that have weaknesses. What we are less willing to do is to try to do things for them. So if we’re working with them, that’s one thing. If we’re working for them, that’s something quite different.

So that’s shifted. I don’t know if I’d characterize that as greater realism. Ghani made a lot comments about the importance of recognizing that the mission in Afghanistan is not simply one of counterterrorism or even state building. There’s a bigger and very ambitious agenda to fundamentally alter the fate of millions of Afghan women moving forward, and to create greater protections for them in ways that certainly weren’t there before our involvement. That is hardly an unambitious agenda. I don’t know if it’s realistic or not, but it’s certainly high-minded, it’s not just sticking to the lowest common denominator of U.S. interests having to with fighting international terrorism. I think we really saw a mix of noble humanitarian aims and grand ambitions, as well as a shifting of responsibility to the Afghans, a willing shift of that responsibility, and a claim of that responsibility in a way that’s quite welcome.

Training of Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Afghan National Army (ANA) has proceeded slowly. Are analysts in Washington confident that Afghan troops are ready for the security transition in 2017, and more immediately, a difficult summer fighting season?

With regard to 2017, the level of confidence as far as I can tell is low.

In terms of this summer, I think that the confidence level that Afghanistan could fight independently was not high enough and that’s precisely or a big part of why you saw this policy shift in terms of pulling U.S. forces out less rapidly. I think that there’s a line that’s being used by the Obama Administration to discuss or to explain why timelines have a forcing function, and create incentives that are actually healthy for the Afghans to take on greater responsibility on the security front. There’s a logic to that, and I do think that the Afghan National Security Forces are a great deal more capable of taking the fight to the Taliban sooner than we probably would have expected. Part of that is necessity.

I think the other half of the story, and part of what makes people so nervous, is that part of winning a fight like this is maintaining a broader political impression, both within Afghanistan and then beyond in the region, that time is on your side, that you’re gradually consolidating both the capabilities of the modern state, and the capabilities of a modern military and police force. Moreover, you have to show that you’re doing that at a rate that exceeds the capability of your opposition, and the Taliban, to consolidate its gains. There, it’s been a far more iffy thing: so I think that the degree of confidence is low enough that we really do need to rethink these timelines. That’s why we’ve seen such a fairly strong outpouring among policymakers, many of them now outside of government, who don’t want to sacrifice the gains that we have made for the relatively artificial timeline of getting everybody out by 2017. It’s just not worth it for that. The agenda is to keep the pressure up, and keep pushing forward to Afghanize the conflict. Those things have a great deal of support. There’s no desire to revisit a significantly greater U.S. presence there, but there’s less of a tendency now to see the departure deadline as a victory in and of itself.

Some framed Ghani’s visit as a breath of fresh air from the Karzai days. Is that a fair assessment?

The fact that President Obama really didn’t get along with Hamid Karzai has had world-shaping consequences, and the fact that he seems to get along with Ashraf Ghani also could have world-shaping consequences. That to me has been incredibly striking. I think politicians know it and people who are working in government know it, and we all kind of should know it, but we sometimes kind of downplay it. This is a case where we shouldn’t do that. Academic political science doesn’t get it. Even if we get it, sometimes we’re still surprised by how you can wake up one day, and realize, wow, all of these things that we thought that we basically could never try to do with Karzai, that we knew he was going to reject or that we knew were going to be difficult, those things are possible. These kinds of interactions with Karzai were going to be painful, even on a good day. Now we can wake up and say, “huh, we don’t have to worry about that anymore.” It just creates all kinds of openings and a different mood that permeates the entire process.