The South Asia Channel

High Stakes for President Ghani’s Visit

When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrives in Washington, he'll have to prove to the U.S. government and the American people that his country deserves their continued support.

Ashton Carter Travels To Afghanistan
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) sits down to a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s arrival in Washington this Sunday will be the first time that an elected Afghan president whose name is not Hamid Karzai has visited the American capital. His trip comes in the wake of a turbulent, but ultimately peaceful transition of power from one elected president to another — a first in Afghan history.

Yet Ghani heads a delegation carrying unhealed scars from last year’s disputed presidential elections, which ultimately required a power-sharing deal brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The resulting national unity government is headed by Ghani, but accommodates his electoral rival, Abdullah Abdullah, as the “Chief Executive Officer.”

This is a momentous time for Afghanistan, and the challenges facing its new government are formidable. As Ghani and Abdullah attempt to forge a working relationship, they must also manage relations with the United States amidst the planned drawdown of international forces by the end of 2016, kick-start a struggling economy and build up the government’s revenue base, and develop a strategy to resolve — through a combination of diplomacy and military action — the long-running conflict with the Taliban insurgency.

Ghani’s primary objective during this visit will be to rebuild the U.S.-Afghan relationship that was badly damaged by his predecessor, Karzai, and to present a new and more trustworthy face of Afghanistan to the American public. This will hopefully help secure a reaffirmation of the security and financial partnerships that the government has depended upon since 2001. Ghani moved quickly after taking office to ease the strains of his predecessor’s last years in office, signing a Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States on his first full day as president. Through an address to a joint session of Congress, visits to Arlington National Ceremony and the Pentagon, and appearances by Ghani and Abdullah at Washington think tanks, including the U.S. Institute of Peace (where we both work), the trip will provide the new president with several opportunities to explain his views of the bilateral relationship — and what the Afghan government will do to shore it up — to the American people and their representatives.

A scholar of anthropology and Afghan history, Ghani fully understands that Afghanistan’s sovereignty depends on its ability to carry out the functions of a state. As a former finance minister, he also appreciates the country’s reliance on continued support to supplement its nascent state capacity and to help offset security sector costs, which — at roughly $4-5 billion annually — are nearly triple the government’s annual revenues. In addition to trying to convince the American public, the Obama administration, and the new Republican-dominated Congress that Afghanistan’s new government is a reliable strategic partner, Ghani’s visit is being carefully planned to show that it will be a far more assiduous steward of American taxpayer assistance than its predecessor.

While making this public case will be extremely important, equally important will be private consultations held between U.S. and Afghan officials at Camp David at the outset of the visit. These consultations, hosted by Kerry, will include efforts by the Obama administration to assess the state of the relationship between Ghani and Abdullah, and to ensure that the national unity government can deliver on its commitments to its own people and the international community.

On this score, there is considerable cause for concern. Six months after the inauguration of the new government, only one-third of the cabinet positions are filled, and hundreds of other senior positions remain empty. While Ghani has personally driven investigations into corruption and malpractice, and has initiated bold foreign policy outreach to Pakistan and other countries in the region, there is a sense of domestic drift. The worsening fiscal crisis and sharp economic contraction, the summary dismissal of a number of national and provincial officials, the lack of any progress on electoral reforms, and the unresolved power-sharing debates between the presidency and the chief executive’s office are contributing to growing public perceptions of political gridlock and a government that has lost the momentum of its first few weeks in office.

Ghani and Abdullah are said to have a good personal relationship, and for all the delay in forming the cabinet, they have kept their disagreements largely behind the scenes. But both are constrained by their respective camps — powerful people who supported each candidate during the election and are expecting political rewards in exchange. The power-sharing deal has made it paradoxically harder to honor these commitments; a clear defeat would have absolved a candidate from honoring their pledges of appointments or other favors to their supporters. But when both candidates are deemed to have won a share of power, the key question is less about whom to appoint than whom to disappoint.

Resolving these debates is critical for the future of Afghanistan, where the activities of both local and transnational militant groups undermine the security of the country, the region, and the United States. With the national unity government largely being the creation of U.S. diplomacy, the United States has a responsibility to help ensure that it continues to work. Peace and stability in Afghanistan will require the United States to make continued commitments of diplomatic, financial, and security support to the country. At the same time, Afghan leaders must make the case to an increasingly skeptical American audience that this is a partnership worth supporting. This means demonstrating that they will be able to put aside their differences and use Afghan and international resources to bring accountable and effective governance to Afghanistan. The success of Ghani’s visit will ultimately be measured by the extent to which it helps ensure that both the U.S. and Afghan sides live up to their end of the bargain, and lays the foundation for a renewed partnership based on shared interests.

Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images

Scott Smith is the director for Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed are his own.

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