’The test was survival’: Afghan President Ghani on his first 18 months

Efforts to fix Afghanistan have been a colossal disappointment. 2016 will be its make-or-break year.
Sally Armstrong
Afghanistan, Kabul, March 27, 2015. Burqa-clad women walk past Afghan riot police next to the Kabul river close to the spot where last week the 27-year old woman Farkhunda was murdered by a mob after she was falsely accused of burning a Koran. The police is expecting demonstration to ask for justice of the killers. (Joel van Houdt)
Afghanistan, Kabul, March 27, 2015. Burqa-clad women walk past Afghan riot police next to the Kabul river close to the spot where last week the 27-year old woman Farkhunda was murdered by a mob after she was falsely accused of burning a Koran. The police is expecting demonstration to ask for justice of the killers. (Joel van Houdt)
Afghanistan, Kabul, March 27, 2015. Burqa-clad women walk past Afghan riot police next to the Kabul river, close to the spot where the 27-year old woman Farkhunda was murdered by a mob after she was falsely accused of burning a Koran. (Joel van Houdt)

The Taliban control 25 per cent of the country. Islamic State has a foothold in one province. Transparency International has declared Afghanistan the third-most corrupt country in the world (after Somalia and North Korea). Young people, the demographic needed to grow this confounding place, are fleeing at the rate of 1,000 a month and joining the mass migration that’s flowing like lava from erupting volcanoes in Syria and Iraq across the Mediterranean to Europe. Now is the winter of Afghanistan’s discontent.

Oddly enough, Afghans are better off today than ever before—better health care, better education, longer lifespan and access to new technology. What’s more, the country is burgeoning with young entrepreneurs, street artists, rappers and athletes.

However, to the international community that supported Afghanistan and to the Afghans themselves, the overall picture is a colossal disappointment. There were high hopes when Ashraf Ghani became president of a so-called unity government 18 months ago. But the Taliban were hopeful too, poised like foxes to test the soft underbelly of the transition. Incredibly, no one predicted the fallout.

When asked to rank his first 18 months in office, Ghani, sitting in his immense, all-white but decorous office in the presidential palace in Kabul, says: “The test was survival. We’re not on our knees, as many predicted, and we’ve adjusted to the new realities; 2016 is going to be better.”

While rumours of a collapsing government and increased insurgencies abound, the lessons of the last year have punched up a revised game plan for 2016. In fairness to Ghani, he inherited a country with an ongoing insurgency. What’s more, 100,000 of the best-trained soldiers in the world, with the most sophisticated fighting equipment, had just left this fractious place that hasn’t known peace for 40 years. As the soldiers left (the last Canadians left in March 2014) so did the support jobs for Afghans. Unemployment jumped from 40 per cent to 55 per cent. Economic growth fell from 12 per cent in 2012 to 1.6 per cent in 2015.

Lt.-Gen. Frank Leidenberger, the German chief of staff at the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan called Resolute Support, says, “We shouldn’t raise expectations for 2016. It’ll be a difficult year but the security forces continue to improve, and they will make it.” His American colleague at headquarters, Col. Michael Lawhorn, adds, “There isn’t a military solution to this. There can only be a political solution.”

There are three things that could alter the troubling realities: improved security, better government and a new investment in the country, both by its people and the international community. Ghani speaks optimistically about what can be done, but this is a make-or-break year for Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, Kabul, January 30, 2015. President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani (Ahmadzai) leaves his office in the presidential palace to walk to the mosque for his Friday prayer. (Joel van Houdt)
President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani (Ahmadzai) leaves his office in the presidential palace to walk to the mosque for his Friday prayer. (Joel van Houdt)

There are so many insurgents running around Afghanistan that keeping them at bay is like playing whack-a-mole. The Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, the Islamic State offshoot that calls itself the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Haqqani gang (extremists who mostly manage the suicide-bombing missions) and remnants of al-Qaeda are all vying for power.

While security is a significant issue due to suicide bombings and kidnappings, one would be hard pressed to suggest Kabul has become an armed camp. There is a considerable police presence but the traffic is as heavy and chaotic as ever. The streets are stuffed with people. Children are making their way to school. Sidewalk kiosks are selling their wares as usual.

But in about 25 per cent of the country, the Taliban are the government. On a weekly basis they challenge in another 25 per cent, but it means they show up and shoot at the police and leave. The Afghan National Army is still in training; they are learning and getting better as a fighting force, but so are the insurgents.

Related: Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai speaks with Maclean’s in 2014

Most of the fighting is in the Pashtun areas where about 20 per cent of the population are pro-government, about 20 per cent are pro-Taliban and the remaining 60 per cent are sitting on the fence. “They don’t trust the government yet. That’s why this requires a political solution,” says Lawhorn.

Islamic State first showed itself when about 50 people from the Middle East arrived in Nangarhar province in December 2014 and took over a few villages. But most people claim they didn’t stay. Today it is made up of disaffected Pakistani Taliban, a few Uzbeks and Tajiks from the north with no support from the Afghan people. “It’s not going well for them,” says Leidenberger. “The people hate them, so do the Taliban.” President Ghani admits, “they’re here, but,” he says with the glee of a schoolboy, “we’re beating the hell out of them.” Indeed, the military reported a partial rousting of ISIS, also referred to by the Arabic acronym Daesh, on Feb. 23. “Daesh are not face-to-face fighters,” Ghani says. “They are face-to-Facebook fighters. They want theatre violence, for the sake of violence to break the heart and will of people.”

The Taliban like to claim they have 53 per cent of the country, but their calculations do not add up. There are about 400 districts, some of them as small as 50 families. The Taliban pick these smaller places where there are no army or police; they arrive, bully the locals, raise their flag, take a photo of it and send it to the media claiming they have captured another area. They can’t hold the territory, so the next day the Afghanistan flag goes back up.

That is not the case, however, in Helmand province, where one single district produces 50 per cent of the world’s opium and funds the Taliban, which explains why more than one-third of the fighting in the entire country is in Helmand.

The attrition rate of the army is also critical. At 3,000 a month, it is serious, but, says Leidenberger, “It’s not because they don’t want to fight, it’s due to not being paid on time or at all and not getting leave.” This is mostly about commanders, he says. Some are well trained. But others are old mujahedeen commanders with many linkages to the ruling class. “We know what we have to fix in 2016 and, most important, we know that Afghans want to make those improvements.”

The Resolute Support generals agree that this is a regional problem. “If there’s no central authority solving it, it’ll become a worldwide problem,” says Leidenberger. The fear being that Afghanistan would become an incubator again for terrorists—most notably ISIS/ISKP—that would create a base for attacks in Europe and the West.

Ghani’s priorities on the way to the presidential palace were peace, stability, inclusion and justice. It’s fair to say they are eluding him. “I put a lot of political capital on the table to change the method of seeking peace [and stability],” he says. “I don’t believe the failure was our part.”

He knows the country’s neighbours need to be involved and were instrumental in starting the new quadrilateral peace process—meetings with representatives from China, Pakistan, the U.S. and Afghanistan that he hopes “will act on lessons learned and chart a path to peace.” They met four times in the first eight weeks of 2016 and recently announced the Taliban “and other parties” have been invited to send representatives to the next meeting in Pakistan in March. That meeting will be a serious test of Ghani’s determination to turn the tide in 2016. But already the Taliban appear to have backed out.

As for justice, he claims the current chief justice is an exemplar of commitment to the rule of law, and 120 judges have been changed in every single province. He also nominated the first woman to the Supreme Court and was rebuked when the parliament voted against her. In fact, 20 female members of parliament failed to turn up to vote that day. “I’m not pleased with the women MPs on that file. I had the commitment and the courage to nominate a woman and they couldn’t even turn up to vote,” he says.

On inclusion, he boasts there are 68 women in the parliament out of 249 seats; three women have been appointed ambassadors, “and there will be more,” he says. While “there are some exceptional women leaders who have emerged,” he admits the issue of violence against women is a national disgrace.

When asked about being the third-most corrupt country in the world, he says, “Corruption has become a system here. We’re not in denial. It’s in the daylight now. We’re tackling it.” In fact, Ghani’s new procurement law is beginning to cut into the most obvious corruption: supplies to the military. But it’ll take more than a procurement law to right this wrong.

Ghani is an utterly charming and articulate scholar and has perfectly reasonable excuses for the lack of progress. But the fact is that he isn’t getting things done as quickly as the international community, and his own constituents feel they need to be done.

Canada has played a significant role in governance. The embassy and the ambassador, Deborah Lyons, have been singled out on a number of critical files. For example, Canada was appointed as chair of the oversight and coordination board to monitor and influence how international donor money is spent. While it’s a rotating committee among embassies, Canada was asked to extend its tenure.

Her committee managed to get the Afghan ministers of finance, defence and the interior, as well as the National Security Council, to see the board as a key oversight and advocacy mechanism, critical to advancing the professionalization of the Afghan security forces and ensuring that the defence and interior ministries are getting intense scrutiny. It was seen as a big win for Canada.

Related: An interview with Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan Deborah Lyons

Canada is also the go-to embassy for Afghan women. Although the embassy is bivouacked behind a security wall so complex that the entrance looks more like a military installation, once inside the flags and familiar uniforms (and a canteen with poutine) make it clear the True North is here. “It’s great that I can refer to the 50-50 cabinet composition [in Ottawa] and to an Afghan-Canadian, Maryam Monsef, who was elected as a member of Parliament and then made a cabinet minister—that’s a first in the world,” says Lyons.

She says she’s determined if not optimistic that 2016 will be better than 2015. “It’s a struggle. But there are indicators of progress: a vibrant media, the admission of corruption. “I think we’re on the right road now, we just have to go faster down that road.”

There’s always a lot of political propaganda in a post-conflict zone, and in Afghanistan today there are rumours galore. The chattering classes report plots and subplots in soap opera proportions: that Mullah Omar was actually poisoned by the current Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor . . . and by the way, no one has seen him lately, do you suppose he’s dead as well? The unity government is anything but united. Ghani and chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah don’t speak to each other; a mediator is required to pass messages between them. But Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, reports they were at the same dinner party she was and were chatting amicably.

More gossip: Ghani, who wrote a new law about procurement to stop the rampant corruption, gave the gas contract for the military to his cousin Ajmal Ghani. Maj.-Gen. Gordon Davis, of Resolute Support’s combined security transition command, says flatly, “That’s an urban myth. We contract the fuel. We have no contract with Ghani’s cousin.”

Lyons says 2015 produced a lot of negative narratives, as well as a lot of problems. But she thinks it’s levelling out now: the government surpassed its own goal in revenue collection. There have been improvements in tax collection. The security forces ended the year with a stalemate and the downfall in the economy seems to have levelled out.

Samar says the international community left before the job was completed, and that’s what boosted the insurgency, increased unemployment and knocked out the economy. Her point is well taken: the famous Serena Hotel is almost empty, the private sector money has vanished and young people are putting their bets on smugglers to get them into Europe.

Many say the trouble with Ghani is that he talks a good game but that actually implementing what he says is a big challenge. Samar says she doesn’t think the government will fail. “The young people—60 per cent of the country is under the age of 25—don’t want to go backwards, everyone has memories of the brutality around the Taliban and the international community cannot allow this place to fail.” But she also says change needs to come rapidly. “Even some of my staff at the human rights commission, which is considered to be the most successful commission in this country, are looking for ways to leave.”

This year, the international community will be called upon to pledge financial support at a July conference in Warsaw. It’s important that the Afghan government makes the case for that support, as that meeting will decide how Canada, which contributes $110 million yearly and is No. 7 on the list of donors, will honour its legacy as well as its support of the Afghan people.

Lyons’s message, like almost everyone who works in Afghanistan, is clear: “The Afghan people have to come together and decide that this is their country, not their region or ethnic group. They have to realize there is a magnificent window of opportunity right now. Are they going to transform this country or revert back? My guess is they can do it.”