The South Asia Channel

Buying Time for Afghanistan

The Afghan government recently marked its 100th day in office. Here's how President Ghani and CEO Abdullah are doing so far.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani smiles as he speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on November 1, 2014. China on October 31 hailed an international conference on Afghanistan that it said agreed to launch dozens of programmes to boost development and help the country maintain peace as foreign forces draw down. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai        (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani smiles as he speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on November 1, 2014. China on October 31 hailed an international conference on Afghanistan that it said agreed to launch dozens of programmes to boost development and help the country maintain peace as foreign forces draw down. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

With the Afghan government having recently passed its hundredth day in office, it is natural that there be some stocktaking. Reality is setting in after a honeymoon period of high expectations. Certainly, the new government got off to a promising start, sounding the right notes substantively and stylistically in addressing the issue of corruption and the country’s economic challenges. The government undertook bold initiatives in trying to refashion relations with several neighboring countries and the international community. After drag-out negotiations, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah seemed determined to make their national unity government work despite still unresolved issues.

Afghans’ confidence in their government has rapidly eroded. The long delays in naming members of a cabinet and filling other high positions have exposed familiar ethnic fault lines and the pull of political obligations incurred by electoral alliance building. Failure to address unemployment and inaction on other pressing issues has cast doubt on Ghani’s reputation as a decisive leader and administrator. And the Taliban’s gains in key provincial districts and the high profile attacks in Kabul have called into question the government’s ability to deal with the country’s worsening security.

The public’s growing impatience and frustration with Ghani’s performance notwithstanding, most Afghans feel they have little choice but to give the new government more time and space to succeed. They seem to acknowledge that for all its shortcomings to date, the fledgling Kabul government remains the best and perhaps last hope that the country can avoid falling into the political abyss of civil war.

Similarly, the international community shows no sign of wanting to turn its back on Kabul. However disappointed donor countries and international agencies are with a government that appears immobilized, there is wide appreciation that without their continued backing the regime would almost certainly collapse. The December London Conference was attended by 59 countries that affirmed their support for Afghanistan’s security and unity, and their confidence in Ghani. Undaunted by his problems at home, the Afghan president was able to impress the participants with a clear vision for the country and the steps he plans to take realize his goals. Unlike his predecessor, Ghani left no doubt at the conference about his embrace of the full international community and gratitude for its assistance.

The Ghani government had earlier bought itself important time with Afghanistan’s principal aid benefactor, the United States, and for now has quieted those critics in the U.S. Congress and media pressing for a total pullout. Ghani not only signed the long delayed bilateral strategic agreement, but quietly lifted a ban on night raids by U.S. and Afghan Special Forces. Washington’s commitment of trainers and advisors through 2016 carries the promise of financial aid to last well into the future. A subsequent decision by President Obama to broaden the scope of U.S. military engagement and his increase in troop levels planned in 2015 may have signaled a new flexibility and perhaps a willingness to reconsider the timeline his administration has set for a full U.S. military exit.

The regional powers have thus far not wavered from giving the new government a chance to prove itself. The neighbors are anxious to avoid becoming entangled — as they were in the 1990s — in a proxy war. Moreover, in their heightened concern over the export of radical Islamic ideas and fighters, none would today welcome the Taliban emerging victorious. There is also now growing recognition among these countries that a prospering Afghanistan can positively contribute to the region’s economic growth. Several regional organizations, most notably the Heart of Asia grouping, have pledged cooperation in helping to secure Afghanistan through liberalized and expanded trade, and infrastructure development.

Perhaps the starkest indication of a willingness to take a fresh look at Afghanistan comes from China and Pakistan. The Ghani government has reached out to both, emphasizing how their interests are in line with a stable and united Afghanistan. Until now China has limited its prospective investment of over $3 billion in a copper mining project at Mes Aynak.

Ghani’s first visit abroad was to Beijing in an effort to enlist greater Chinese involvement in Afghanistan. He apparently succeeded in impressing the Chinese with the advantages of assuming a more active role in shoring up Afghanistan as the Western presence declines.

Ghani followed up his China trip with one to Pakistan on November 14 where he met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Raheel Sharif. As a result of a series of follow-up exchange visits, both sides have suppressed their dominant narratives blaming the other for their problems in favor of discussions of areas of cooperation, beginning with curbing terrorists operating across their borders. In place of Hamid Karzai’s visceral hatred of Pakistan, Ghani has shown Pakistan’s leaders the possibility of having a friendly regime in Kabul without having to impose its influence. The Afghan president’s decisions to put off visiting India and a planned transfer of arms from the Modi government sent a strong positive signal to Pakistan. Still, no one underestimates the determination of irreconcilable elements in the intelligence services in both countries to attempt to undermine any rapprochement.

The Afghan government is also looking toward Iran and Saudi Arabia to help get it through the next several years. Despite their deep rivalry, the common interest of both countries to keep Afghanistan from falling into Taliban hands gives them reason to back the present Kabul government. Relations between Tehran and Kabul are expected to improve markedly with a strategic agreement between the two countries in coming weeks to increase bilateral cooperation on such mutual concerns as drug trafficking and the threat of extremism. With trade already at $4 billion, a significant boost to Afghanistan’s economy could be provided by further Iranian investment and aid.

Saudi Arabia could increase its relatively modest financial assistance and use its influence over the country’s Sunni Muslims to help delegitimize the Taliban. Alternatively, Saudi Arabia and possibly China are envisioned as potentially being able to convince Pakistan to use its supposed leverage to induce the Taliban to negotiate.

The Taliban is of course determined not to give the Kabul government breathing space. Its leaders are banking on a prolonged campaign of attacks wearing down popular resolve to resist the insurgency and on Afghan security forces fragmenting from internal divisions. The Taliban are also counting on Western governments already bucking skeptical publics at home to soon lose patience with the Afghan government. The dominant view within the Taliban leadership remains that negotiations with Kabul would rob them of the military victory they believe lies within their grasp.

But the willingness of Afghans and external players to give time for the Kabul government to succeed could open the possibility of a political outcome that bypasses having to strike a grand bargain with the Taliban. It could allow for Afghan security forces to demonstrate their ability to deny the Taliban major inroads, and offer an opportunity for the Ghani government to improve the delivery of basic services — above all justice. With these developments, individual Taliban commanders and their fighters may well conclude that time is not on the side of the insurgency and that the grievances that led most of them to fight are best resolved within a viable Kabul government.

Marvin G. Weinbaum is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and previously served as analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

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