In a recent article, Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, declared that Pakistan’s “duplicitous policy has been the single most important factor preventing success in Afghanistan.” This, to a large extent is true; such a belief is widely held among Afghans and the international community. By using the Taliban and other terrorist groups as a bargaining chip, Pakistan has been behind much of the suffering Afghanistan has experienced over the last 16 years. U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to suspend security assistance to Islamabad is a positive development, and must follow with much more tangible actions.
However, a harsh U.S. policy as a counterbalance to Islamabad’s interference — premised on the belief that it has been behind all misfortune in Afghanistan — will not solve Afghanistan’s problems.
In addition to pressuring Pakistan, it is time for the United States and its international partners to turn attention to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government and do an assessment of its performance, with this question in mind: Has the National Unity Government (NUG) upheld its end of the bargain in return for the U.S.-led coalition’s 16 years of relentless sacrifice, in the form of both blood and treasure?
A broad array of factors — including ongoing rivalry between Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, disputes over appointments of officials for key posts, and the inability of the NUG to prevent terrorist attacks — must be of great concern to the United States and its allies engaged in Afghanistan. Ignoring these issues due to fear of political instability and continuing to support the NUG without proper checks and balances will have significant consequences for the U.S.-led coalition and for Afghanistan. Importantly, it will make winning in Afghanistan more difficult, as well as make it impossible to prevent the country from becoming a terrorist safe haven.
Since forming the NUG in late 2014, Ghani and Abdullah have failed to agree on basic principles of governance in two ways: as a matter of central government and preferential bias toward ethnicity when appointing officials for key posts. Regarding the former, Ghani’s preference has been to create a Kabul-centric powerhouse, while Abdullah has pushed for more decentralization. Ghani’s push for centralization of power has led to friction among Afghan elites who have, according to the New Yorker, called “Ghani an arrogant micromanager, and say that he has no close friends, no feel for politics — that he is the leader of a country that exists only in his own mind.” These frictions have undermined government’s legitimacy and created broader discontent in Afghan society.
Regarding the latter, while Ghani has been widely accused of “extreme Pashtun nationalism,” favoring mostly eastern Pashtuns, Abdullah has been accused of favoring Tajiks. Through September 2015, 75 percent of officials appointed in the President’s Office of Administrative Affairs (OAA) were Pashtuns, while only 14 percent were Tajiks. The leaking of a memo from OAA in September 2017, which emphasized ethnic favoritism on appointments, further legitimized these accusations. As stated by the memo: “Tajiks and Uzbeks, who work completely under us [Pashtuns], should be appointed symbolically so that people think every ethnicity is represented here.”
Despite this malfeasance, the most important question should be the NUG’s inability to prevent ongoing deadly terrorist attacks taking place across the country. In the last two weeks, three major terrorist attacks took place in Kabul; one in Kandahar; and another in Jalalabad — all of which caused hundreds of casualties, both Afghans and foreign nationals. Most notably, the two Taliban attacks in Kabul shocked the world, and raised many questions about the government’s commitment to internal security.
Although there are additional factors that continue to hamper Ghani’s ability to effectively govern, the three factors outlined above are the most consequential and could have devastating long-term effects for Afghanistan and its international partners. They will negatively impact the overall fight against the Taliban and other terrorist groups. But, the United States and its international partners have an opportunity to commit to restoring stability in Afghanistan, and put an end to a national misery that has gone on for far too long. The time to act is now.
To achieve this, the United States must first deliver a statement directly to the people of Afghanistan. And in doing so, it should not just restate America’s commitment to Afghanistan, but also pledge that any U.S. assistance to Afghanistan is contingent upon the NUG’s commitment to stop the infighting and begin governing for all Afghans. Accordingly, the United States must also use its leverage to ensure appointments within government institutions are not made purely along ethnic lines but are based on qualifications and commitment to serve. Contingent on these two steps, the United States and its international partners should announce full support for the Afghan government.
Not making support contingent on those factors will provide those opposing the National Unity Government with every reason to exploit the situation and continue to undermine Ghani’s efforts. Unconditional support will also send the wrong message to ordinary Afghans that the United States and the international community do not care about transparency and accountability within the Afghan government. Further continuing to support a dysfunctional government will leave the door open for regional exploiters such as Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others to step in and form new alliances with those who feel left out of the U.S.-backed NUG. This will lead to further division among Afghans and will limit support for Ghani’s central government.
One could argue that the condition-based approach outlined above will make the Afghan government look weak as it will imply that the United States and its allies are running state affairs in Afghanistan. The argument here is not to call on the United States and other donors to interfere in the day-to-day affairs of the Afghan government. I argue, instead, that the United States and other international countries who support the Afghan National Unity Government have a responsibility to ensure their efforts do not go to waste. The whole world knows that without the United States and international community’s support, there will not be an Afghan government. Ghani himself in a recent interview with CBS’s Lara Logan said that “We will not be able to support our army for six months without U.S. support, and U.S. capabilities.”
Second, improving the security situation must be the utmost priority for the United States and its international partners. To that end, they could help the Afghan government bring some key reforms within its security sectors. One way to achieve this is with the development and implementation of a robust vetting mechanism within Afghan security institutions for loyalty and potential adverse information. The frequent attacks in Kabul have raised questions about the existence of enemy loyalists within the various sectors of the Afghan government.
While many have criticized the government of failing to protect civilian lives, Wais Ahmad Barmak, Amrullah Saleh, and Hashim Alokozai — the minister of interior, former head of the Afghan spy agency, and head of the Senate’s Defense Committee, respectively — have all said that there are elements inside the government that work at the pleasure of the Taliban. Saleh went as far as claiming that one of deputies of the National Security Council is a Pakistani spy and works for Islamabad’s intelligence agency.
The focus here should not be on pointing fingers, but rather on how to bring everyone together to help the NUG succeed. In this regard, the United States and its partners can help Afghan security forces in the area of border security. This can start with providing advanced screening technologies and more robust training aimed at improving screening processes of passengers entering Afghanistan through main border crossing points, specially from Pakistan and Iran.
Finally, the United States and its European allies must appoint a seasoned and unbiased diplomat as a temporary envoy, tasked with unquestionable authority to help unite different factions, focusing in particular on the disgruntled political elites opposing the current National Unity Government.
There is no doubt that Pakistan harbors and trains Taliban fighters and other terrorist groups on its soil for use against Afghanistan. In fact, Pakistan will continue to do so as long as the current system in Islamabad is alive. What the United States and its international partners can do is to continue pressuring Islamabad to stop playing double games, until it changes its policy toward Afghanistan. But the most pressing and consequential question should not be entirely about Pakistan’s behavior, but rather on how the Afghan National Unity Government conducts its governing business with the international community’s support. It is a given that Pakistan sends terrorists to carry out attacks inside Afghanistan, but why has the Afghan government not been able to prevent these deadly attacks in its own capital?
Afghanistan is at war — not only with Taliban and Islamic State, but with 20-plus other terrorist organizations. To acknowledge the bravery and sacrifices made by members of the Afghan security forces on a daily basis, the Afghan National Unity Government leadership must work together to unite Afghanistan so that the country’s security forces know they are fighting for a purpose. Only then, the United States and the international community’s continuous commitment and sacrifice will produce results.
Ahmad Mohibbi served as senior advisor for the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan for four years. Fluent in Farsi and Dari, he holds a master of social science degree in peace and conflict studies from Uppsala University and Bachelor of Arts from Lewis & Clark College.