The South Asia Channel

Is it Ghani’s Time to Shine?

When Ghani was elected, many thought he was the right man to repair the country. Despite all of his efforts, there are still four key areas where improvement is needed.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) inspects a guard of honour during an event to mark Independence Day at the Ministry of Defence compound in Kabul on August 19, 2015. Afghan Independence Day commemorates the Treaty of Rawalpindi in 1919 which granted complete independence from Britain although Afghanistan was never officially a part of the British Empire. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai        (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) inspects a guard of honour during an event to mark Independence Day at the Ministry of Defence compound in Kabul on August 19, 2015. Afghan Independence Day commemorates the Treaty of Rawalpindi in 1919 which granted complete independence from Britain although Afghanistan was never officially a part of the British Empire. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

When Ashraf Ghani was elected president of Afghanistan, many in the international community rejoiced. Surely a former World Bank official with a reputation as a reformer was the right man to fix Afghanistan’s most egregious problems and repair the country’s standing internationally. There was no better candidate to bring Afghanistan into a new age of good governance and begin to expand the rights and freedoms that have too often been denied many of the country’s citizens. Ghani likely agreed.

And Ghani hit the ground running with a series of high profile moves aimed at immediately building a sense of accountability that was absent under the previous administration, including re-opening the Kabul Bank case and dismissing a number of high-level officials he deemed corrupt, inept, or both. These actions contributed to a great sense of optimism among the Afghan people that their new president was serious about fixing their country. In a survey conducted by Democracy International last November, more than ninety percent of respondents expressed confidence in the president and his unity government.

Ghani also wasted no time in trying to repair Afghanistan’s relationship with its most important benefactor – the United States. His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, mastered a populist message that framed the West and particularly the United States as most responsible for his country’s woes – a message that may have resonated with distressed Afghans struggling with insecurity and a weak economy, but it sowed a deep sense of resentment with the United States and its partners, particularly in the U.S. Congress. Recognizing the counterproductive nature of such rhetoric, Ghani smartly abandoned Karzai’s tactic to buoy his popularity and instead adopted a tone that’s much more welcome in Washington and other Western capitals – one of gratitude and respect for the thousands of American and coalition lives that have been lost in support of the development of the Afghan state. Most notably, in a joint press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama in March, Ghani declared that American soldiers had “…stood shoulder to shoulder with us” and thanked the service men and women. He went on to thank the American taxpayers for their selfless investment in his country. These remarks more than any others highlighted the contrast between how this president would deal with the West and how Karzai did.

When Ashraf Ghani was elected president of Afghanistan, many in the international community rejoiced. Surely a former World Bank official with a reputation as a reformer was the right man to fix Afghanistan’s most egregious problems and repair the country’s standing internationally. There was no better candidate to bring Afghanistan into a new age of good governance and begin to expand the rights and freedoms that have too often been denied many of the country’s citizens. Ghani likely agreed.

And Ghani hit the ground running with a series of high profile moves aimed at immediately building a sense of accountability that was absent under the previous administration, including re-opening the Kabul Bank case and dismissing a number of high-level officials he deemed corrupt, inept, or both. These actions contributed to a great sense of optimism among the Afghan people that their new president was serious about fixing their country. In a survey conducted by Democracy International last November, more than ninety percent of respondents expressed confidence in the president and his unity government.

Ghani also wasted no time in trying to repair Afghanistan’s relationship with its most important benefactor – the United States. His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, mastered a populist message that framed the West and particularly the United States as most responsible for his country’s woes – a message that may have resonated with distressed Afghans struggling with insecurity and a weak economy, but it sowed a deep sense of resentment with the United States and its partners, particularly in the U.S. Congress. Recognizing the counterproductive nature of such rhetoric, Ghani smartly abandoned Karzai’s tactic to buoy his popularity and instead adopted a tone that’s much more welcome in Washington and other Western capitals – one of gratitude and respect for the thousands of American and coalition lives that have been lost in support of the development of the Afghan state. Most notably, in a joint press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama in March, Ghani declared that American soldiers had “…stood shoulder to shoulder with us” and thanked the service men and women. He went on to thank the American taxpayers for their selfless investment in his country. These remarks more than any others highlighted the contrast between how this president would deal with the West and how Karzai did.

This week in Kabul – at the biennial Senior Officials Meeting – will be another opportunity for Ghani to display the differences between his approach and that of his predecessor. This meeting is a follow on to the recent London Conference and the latest in a series of such meetings that have taken place since the creation of the modern Afghan state in Bonn in 2001. It comes at a critical time for the Ghani administration as it is the first of such meetings held with the public knowledge that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is dead and it also takes place in a volatile security environment in Kabul, where it appears that the Taliban’s leadership void has resulted in a serious increase in deadly bombings and attacks. It will be critical for the meeting to put on full display both the strength of Afghanistan’s National Unity Government and the commitment of its partners within the international community to its success. The message to the new Taliban leadership must be one of strength and enduring commitment, from both the Afghan government and the international community.

Following up on the London Conference, the Afghan government committed at this meeting to refresh the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF) adopted in 2012. The TMAF details a set of shared goals for the government of Afghanistan and the international community through what is known as Afghanistan’s transformational decade (2015-2025). The effort to refresh the TMAF will largely focus on syncing it with the reform program that the government announced at the London Conference, known as “Realizing Self Reliance,” which was well received by the international community. Largely, that program outlines the goals of Ghani’s administration, with a great focus on improving security, combatting corruption, and improving governance. In their discussions in renewing and refreshing the TMAF, the participants in this week’s Senior Officials Meeting should consider the following issues key priorities:

Reintegration

Reconciliation with the Taliban should remain a key priority of the national government, despite the ambiguity in leadership that exists within the Taliban. Ghani understands the necessity of reconciling with the Taliban, but in addition to working toward a grand deal between the government and the Taliban, Ghani must make it abundantly clear to individual Taliban members that the door is open for them to join the political process should they meet key conditions: renounce violence; embrace peaceful politics; and respect the foundations of the Afghan state, particularly the rights afforded to women. With a leadership crisis apparent in the Taliban, there is a real opportunity to weaken the organization by incentivizing its members who may be wavering with the death of their leader to abandon the group. Ghani and his team should embrace this opportunity with vigor.

Corruption

According to the head of the Independent Join Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, an organization tasked with monitoring graft within the Afghan government, corruption has gotten worse since Ghani assumed the presidency. A recent survey by Afghanistan’s Institute for Strategic Studies highlighted how immensely important the issue is to Afghan citizens, who overwhelming believe that their government is not doing enough to fight corruption and that the international community is involved in corrupt practices (70 percent reported this belief). Strikingly, more than 90 percent of Afghans believe corruption is a key cause of insecurity. The fight against corruption should be at the top of the list of issues for senior officials of the international community and the Afghan government to focus on. While high profile actions like those Ghani took in his first weeks in office are necessary to discourage others from engaging in corrupt practices, they are far from sufficient to tackle the issue that may be most responsible for eroding trust in government, contributing to insecurity, and further weakening the economy. A clear and feasible plan that combines effective mechanisms of transparency and accountability should emerge from the meeting or corruption will continue to prevent the further development of the Afghan state.

Strengthen the Economy

While combating corruption should be a key pillar in the Afghan government’s plan to strengthen its economy, the dire state of the Afghan economy should receive a great deal of focus independently. Employment opportunities are essentially non-existent for Afghans and with the continued reduction of foreign assistance it only stands to get worse. A key point of discussion at the meeting should be how to begin to eliminate the dominance of the informal market in Afghanistan and start to push business activity into the open to drive economic growth, revenue generation, and job creation.

Clarify the Transitional Process

The unity government that exists in Afghanistan today is struggling to win the confidence of Afghans and make progress on critical issues like those discussed above. A key goal of the Senior Officials Meeting should be to re-emphasize the importance of the transitional process outlined in the agreement for the National Unity Government and commit to developing a more detailed roadmap for institutionalizing the governing framework included in that agreement. That means establishing a timeline and the sequencing for the entire process, including adopting election reforms, administering parliamentary and district council elections, and convening a Loya Jirga to formalize the office of the CEO and specifically outline its responsibilities and relationship with the office of the president and the legislative branch. This government will only succeed if it is committed to following through with the commitments for reform it made at the conclusion of last year’s contested election. It is critical for the long-term sustainability of the state and for its immediate term effectiveness.

The challenge for Ghani is not just committing his government to tackling these issues but actually making real progress in doing so. The Karzai administration was famous for grand declarations, but showed little to no ability to actually follow through on such promises. Ghani must end to this bad habit if he is to reinvigorate popularity for his presidency and his unity government and, more importantly, if he is serious about fixing the failed state that’s undoubtedly most important to him: his own.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Jed Ober is the Senior Director of Programs at Democracy International, where he oversees the implementation of elections and political transitions programming around the world.

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