Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is fighting a decisive war on multiple fronts. His success or failure will 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, which has consumed the bulk of foreign aid with little or no ability and willingness to deliver services to Afghan people. Abroad, the embattled leader has to work tirelessly 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 a consensual, strong, and unifying leader to restore trust and hope to a polarized and traumatized population that has 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, jobs, foreign aid, and NGOs were abundant and everywhere— is over. Ghani’s two-wing National Unity Government, in which he controls only half of the political power, is left with painful legacies: disobedient warlords, corruption, orchestrated mafia groups that illegally extract Afghanistan’s natural resources, troubling neighbors that routinely threaten the country with unrest, and, finally, a violent insurgency that does not die. Unlike many Afghan leaders, including 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.”
Ghani is measured against his triangle of stability— economy, security, and human resources—which he successfully articulated during the electoral campaign and which 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. Although the United States and NATO members 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, transportation, and 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. 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 toward economic development through domestic potential. The shift in Afghan leaders’ mentality and attitude toward 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 Ghani’s vision, security is not only about physical safety but also human security, which requires economic development, rule of law, and a renewed trust that the political system is fair, functioning, inclusive, and accountable to its constituencies. A 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 insurgents to safeguard their financial and political fortunes. The political culture of compromise and deal-making perpetuated and practiced by 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-builders, should be accountable to 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 results 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 positions as the government utilizes meritocracy instead of the 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 being transformed by young leaders whom Ghani appointed for their educational credentials rather than their personal relationships. 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 violations of human rights and denying people access to justice in their localities.
In addition to domestic upheaval, 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 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, the Af-Pak relationship is at the lowest point, with both countries engaged not only in caustic verbal clashes but sporadic border skirmishes that have claimed a human toll on both sides. Pakistan’s unwillingness to partner with Ghani is unfortunate and a strategic miscalculation on Pakistan’s side. More than any Afghan leader, Ashraf Ghani is knowledgeable about the complexity of Af-Pak relations and the importance of a 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.
Ghani’s foreign policy objectives clearly indicate that tension and deteriorating relationships with any neighboring country, including Pakistan, are a disaster with no winner. Equally, imposing any humiliating conditions on Afghanistan will backfire. War is the last thing Afghans want, given their history, but Ghani’s lonely fight has generated some hope for the future.
Ali Reza Sarwar is a Political Analyst based in Kabul. He is a former Fulbright Scholar and Researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The views expressed here are his own.