In Afghanistan, Reform Can’t Come Fast Enough

The Ghani government is embarking on an ambitious plan to combat corruption and incompetence. It’s going to need America’s help.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 25:  Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani reacts to a standing ovation at the conclusion of his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress March 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. Ghani told members of Congress his country owed the United States a 'profound debt' for the more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers who have died to 'advance the cause of freedom'.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 25: Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani reacts to a standing ovation at the conclusion of his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress March 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. Ghani told members of Congress his country owed the United States a 'profound debt' for the more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers who have died to 'advance the cause of freedom'. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There is so much that is wrong, corrupt, troubling, and dangerous in Afghanistan that it seems strange to return from a visit with positive impressions. Yet so it was, more than in any time I can recall in the dozen years I have worked in and visited Afghanistan. After several years in which the Obama administration barely put enough resources into Afghanistan to avoid losing, and when the Trump administration has neither altered the strategy nor understood why it still hasn’t produced victory, it is useful to look deeper into what is happening in some important areas that get little to no news coverage.

The three things that have so impressed me in my visit last month are in the reform of military leadership, civil service improvements, and anti-corruption efforts. None of the changes are complete, to be sure. All could be lost or reversed. The pushback against them from entrenched political elites is intense. The forthcoming elections may undercut them. But the important difference from the past is that the reforms now starting are Afghan initiatives. That makes it extremely important that American and NATO support for the new efforts be clear and unwavering so that they will be locked in place.

Military leadership, especially at the senior levels has been a grave weakness of the Afghan military. Generals appointed for political connections have performed poorly. The fall of the Afghan city of Kunduz in 2015 was a demonstration of government and military incompetence as much as it was a Taliban success. After my visit last year, I told senior officials of the Obama administration that without changes in the most senior Afghan National Army leadership, most of the other military reforms the United States was engaged in would be undermined. Now, slowly and painfully there is change.

A new defense minister has replaced one who was woefully inept. Lt. Gen. Mohammad Sharif Yaftali, for several years spoken of as one of the two best corps commanders, has become the army chief of staff. Most of the other corps commanders have been replaced by younger generals, promoted from the commands of brigades — and, in one case, the elite commandos — on merit rather than politics or family ties. And the replacement of at least some incompetent subordinate commanders has begun. In my experience, this is the first time that battle-tested officers are breaking through the political ceiling of senior ranks. It will take time, but President Ashraf Ghani intends this to be a generational change in Afghan military leadership. And as these new leaders take command, U.S. advisors and air support are essential. Current U.S. forces number just less than 9,000. The advisory teams they can field do not cover every corps, and of the combat brigades only a few receive periodic advice as floating teams of advisors move to reinforce the most critical needs.

The Obama administration’s numbers games pulled advisors from the field too fast, leaving major Afghan units without U.S. advice and training. Air support was yanked before an Afghan air force even existed, leaving Afghan ground troops to fend for themselves for nearly three years until we finally adjusted our rules. The Afghan air force is now coming online, but at least two years will be necessary to deliver the planned aircraft.

The answer to the frequently asked question, “why will a few thousand more troops help?” is that they are needed for a limited time to make up for our mistakes of the last three years and allow Afghan forces to reach their full potential on the battlefield. It would be an enormous error not to field these critical reinforcements just when the Afghans are starting to make essential reforms.

The defense ministry reforms are only a beginning. The equally critical but far more corrupt interior ministry has barely been touched. As Ghani told me, illustrating the difficulty of the political pressures he faces, “I could not do both at the same time. In two years Interior will be where Defense is now, but it will not be where Defense will be then.” To offset the slowness in reforming the interior ministry, most of the border police and the so-called civil order police battalions (ANCOP) will be transferred to army control.

Another critical area of performance is the justice sector, particularly with regard to corruption. In the nearly 40 years Afghanistan has been at war, bribery, predatory behavior, and corruption have become a way of life. Elites steal not only to enrich themselves but to maintain a circle of supporters and security on which their power is based. But this tradition now is being threatened by the Anti-Corruption Justice Center (ACJC), an Afghan government effort to go after serious graft in senior ranks launched last year. It is specifically limited to defendants of at least the rank of major general or their civilian equivalent or theft of over the value of $7,500. Cases are referred from the Afghan attorney general, the older Major Crimes Task Force (long thwarted by courts releasing those they had charged), and other sources. Some 140 new staff members and investigators have been polygraphed to keep corruption out of the ACJC.

To date, there have be 36 convictions in 14 trials with sentences ranging from 6 months to 22 years. Two major generals have been sent to prison along with four deputy ministers. These convictions are still only a drop in a sea of corruption. They have not yet reached the most senior levels and many Afghans seem unaware of what is happening, perhaps because the court does a poor job of publicizing its activities. Nevertheless, it’s a start. The conviction of senior generals and deputy ministers is cutting away at the ability of those more senior to protect them.

Perhaps the most important challenge to the sewer that is Afghan politics is the newly reformed Independent Administration Reform and Civil Service Commission (IARCSC). Despite several previous efforts, the Afghan civil service has been mired in political patronage. Connections, not qualifications, are the job requirement at every level from tea boy to minister. The new commission has immense power to change this. It can change the structure of ministries to smooth bureaucratic overlaps, determine hiring procedures, and reverse appointments deemed not to have followed proper procedures.

The revitalized commission is led by Nader Naderi, a young but widely respected civil society and human rights leader. Commission members include young leaders from several civil society groups conspicuously outside the normal political ranks. Their first success provides an interesting case study in doing things differently. Required to select 500 employees to work on a new electronic identity card, they took applications from 25,000 candidates across the country; 14,000 were then qualified to take an exam scored by computer with the names removed. This approach threatened every aspect of political patronage. A wide assortment of political leaders and parliamentarians attacked the commission claiming, among other things, that exams were given only in Dari to eliminate Pashto speakers (not true, candidates had a choice). In the end, the successful candidates, picked on merit alone, hailed from 33 of the country’s 34 provinces — with an ethnic balance roughly proportional to Afghanistan’s population. It was a huge success for non-political hiring that has raised the commission’s prestige. However, the commission still confronts a gigantic task. It cannot tackle all ministries and all the personnel and pay systems at once. Success will take years. What Naderi and his colleagues are undertaking at Ghani’s direction and with the support of national Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah is nothing less than challenging the basis of Afghanistan’s patronage politics. One should expect that the attacks on the commission will be ferocious, and quite possibly physical. This is the challenge of real reform in Afghanistan.

“Our situation is not normal,” Lt. Gen. Yaftali told me. “We are trying to fight, to change our leadership, and to win back the public’s trust all at the same time. This makes us slow.” The current government’s term is already halfway over, and campaigning for parliamentary elections next year and presidential elections in 2019 are already underway. The deal-making, corruption, and fraud of the electoral cycle will challenge even the maintenance of the reform effort. The United States will need to use its influence to help Afghan reformers stay on course.

Meanwhile, security remains a great challenge with many of the rural areas contested and attacks mounting in cities. The reform of the security services needed to reverse this state of affairs will take time. There are no magic solutions. One should not expect to see major change on the battlefield for at a year or two. The reforms beginning now should have begun years ago; they are necessary but not sufficient to alter a political culture that threatens the country. But they are a beginning and they manifest a political will not previously evident. They are actions, not just plans and promises. And for those reasons they should be a source for hope and a reason for continued support in America’s longest war.

Photo credit: WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images

Ronald E. Neumann was U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain, and Afghanistan. He is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

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