Why There Is Real Hope for Afghanistan

Strong presidential candidates and an election largely free of violence suggest a less dire future than many predict.

Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, left, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. 
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
April 10, 2014, 5 p.m.

Acon­ver­sa­tion with Ashraf Gh­ani is not just a tour of Afgh­anistan’s ho­ri­zons; it takes in the whole world. Re­spec­ted in­ter­na­tion­ally for his in­tel­lect (he’s among the top 100 “glob­al thinkers,” says For­eign Policy magazine), the former World Bank tech­no­crat cas­u­ally spices his talk of his coun­try’s fu­ture with learned al­lu­sions to polit­ics in oth­er na­tions, ob­serving of Afgh­anistan’s dif­fi­cult re­la­tions with Pakistan: “We are reach­ing the point they are go­ing to be either like Franco-Ger­man re­la­tions in the first half of the 20th cen­tury, or in the second half.” Gh­ani says the next Afghan pres­id­ent must tackle the per­cep­tion of en­dem­ic cor­rup­tion — “be­cause per­cep­tion is nine-tenths of real­ity” — and des­pite his fer­vent com­mit­ment to the bi­lat­er­al se­cur­ity agree­ment he him­self ne­go­ti­ated, he is frank in lay­ing some of the blame on the United States. Asked in an in­ter­view last year about Ham­id Kar­zai’s de­cision to ac­cept CIA money and what it said about the way the Afghan gov­ern­ment con­ducts it­self, Gh­ani re­tor­ted: “What does it say about the way the Amer­ic­an gov­ern­ment con­ducts it­self?”

A peek in­to Gh­ani’s think­ing is also a glimpse of Afgh­anistan’s fu­ture — and it may look bright­er than many skep­tics have been say­ing. Though the fi­nal vote tally will not be known for weeks, Gh­ani is emer­ging as one of the two highest-polling can­did­ates in Afgh­anistan’s elec­tion this week along with his chief rival, Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah, who has no less im­press­ive a lead­er­ship résumé. A former close friend of le­gendary Afghan free­dom fight­er and U.S. ally Ahmad Shah Ma­soud — whose face still ad­orns build­ings all over Ka­bul — Ab­dul­lah is a med­ic­al doc­tor of mixed Pash­tun and Tajik her­it­age who has a repu­ta­tion for tough­ness and in­teg­rity.

Both men have been deeply in­volved from the start in re­build­ing their coun­try. Ab­dul­lah served as the first post-Taliban for­eign min­is­ter, and Gh­ani was fin­ance min­is­ter. “They were the two people prin­cip­ally re­spons­ible for en­ga­ging the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity from 2002,” James Dob­bins, Pres­id­ent Obama’s spe­cial rep­res­ent­at­ive for Afgh­anistan and Pakistan, told Na­tion­al Journ­al, though he ad­ded that the U.S. gov­ern­ment doesn’t en­dorse any can­did­ate. “They car­ried the full bur­den of in­tro­du­cing Afgh­anistan to the world and the world to Afgh­anistan.”

The ap­par­ent pop­ular­ity of Gh­ani and Ab­dul­lah, along with that of an­oth­er re­spec­ted former for­eign min­is­ter, Za­lmai Ras­soul, com­bined with a huge voter turnout marred by sur­pris­ingly little vi­ol­ence, may well be the most hope­ful de­vel­op­ment in Afgh­anistan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Both can­did­ates want quick ap­prov­al of the BSA. If either can form a mul­ti­eth­nic gov­ern­ment, and the Afghan se­cur­ity forces can con­tin­ue to hold the cen­ter against the Taliban, then they could re­quire less rather than more in­ter­na­tion­al as­sist­ance in the years to come.

Des­pite sus­pi­cions of fraud, a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who is deeply in­volved in Afghan re­la­tions says the elec­tion was “head and shoulders” more suc­cess­ful than pre­vi­ous elec­tions in oth­er troubled spots like Haiti, Bos­nia, and Kosovo. “Not just in ad­min­is­tra­tion and pre­par­a­tion [of the vote] but the in qual­ity of the turnout, the in­tens­ity of the me­dia cov­er­age, the level of in­terest by the con­stitu­en­cies, the can­did­ates’ travel around the coun­tries, the par­ti­cip­a­tion in ral­lies,” the of­fi­cial says. It was also a dis­tinct im­prove­ment over the fraud-marred vote in 2009, when Kar­zai was ac­cused of steal­ing the elec­tion from Ab­dul­lah.

The re­l­at­ive lack of vi­ol­ence un­der­scored a pos­it­ive trend that has been largely drowned out by the hor­ror stor­ies of re­cent at­tacks, in­clud­ing the slaughter of nine people in a posh hotel in Ka­bul and the shoot­ing of two AP journ­al­ists, one fatally, by a po­lice of­ficer. Des­pite that, a num­ber of ex­perts say, the Afghan se­cur­ity forces are ac­tu­ally be­gin­ning to con­geal as an ef­fect­ive force, and the Taliban has failed to mount tra­di­tion­al at­tacks, hav­ing to re­sort to one-off acts of ter­ror. And those forces are Ab­dul­lah’s pride and joy; it was he who first laid out plans for a new Afghan army in Janu­ary 2002 to then-De­fense Sec­ret­ary Don­ald Rums­feld and his deputy, Paul Wolfow­itz. But, dis­trac­ted by their am­bi­tions for Ir­aq and un­happy about the idea of “na­tion-build­ing” in Afgh­anistan, they de­murred at first. It re­quired the sur­prise re­turn of the Taliban to fi­nally pro­voke Wash­ing­ton to act.

If the bi­lat­er­al se­cur­ity agree­ment is signed, the new gov­ern­ment may have enough fire­power to hold off the Taliban with a re­sid­ual in­ter­na­tion­al force left be­hind after Amer­ica’s planned with­draw­al at the end of the year. Still, Gh­ani is wor­ried about the ef­fects of what he called the Amer­ic­an-gen­er­ated “se­cur­ity-de­vel­op­ment­al com­plex” in Afgh­anistan and oth­er coun­tries the U.S. has oc­cu­pied — a de­lib­er­ately iron­ic echo of Dwight Eis­en­hower’s fam­ous warn­ing against a “mil­it­ary-in­dus­tri­al com­plex.” “Every place ex­cept Ja­pan and Ger­many where the U.S. has en­gaged in se­cur­ity as­sist­ance, the mil­it­ary has taken charge,” he says. Gh­ani, however, notes that Afgh­anistan does not have a tra­di­tion of mil­it­ary coups: Even the Taliban, in 1992, turned things over to politi­cians.

Like Ab­dul­lah, Gh­ani has made an im­press­ive trans­ition from schol­ar to politi­cian. In the last elec­tion, Gh­ani got only 3 per­cent of the vote; this time around, he traveled to every province over three years and pressed the flesh. Per­haps no po­ten­tial pres­id­ent has been bet­ter schooled in find­ing a way to piece Afgh­anistan’s im­pen­et­rably com­plex eth­nic makeup in­to a polit­ic­al whole. Gh­ani’s Ph.D. from Columbia Uni­versity fo­cused on ex­plain­ing 300 years of Afghan his­tory in which, he says, “every­body is re­lated to every­body.” Ab­dul­lah, who has a longer lin­eage of fight­ing in­side Afgh­anistan, sees him­self as a more le­git­im­ate heir to the pres­id­ency.

Who­ever be­comes pres­id­ent will still face a pleth­ora of huge prob­lems. Gh­ani, in the in­ter­view last year, sketched out the most wor­ri­some scen­ario: that no con­sensus among the “polit­ic­al elites” will be reached in the post-Kar­zai era, lead­ing to chaos, and pos­sibly even a coup. The key ques­tion after the elec­tion res­ults, he said, will be: “How does the loser ac­know­ledge the win­ner? The le­git­im­acy of the next elec­tion is go­ing to come from the loser.”

Gh­ani him­self, or Ab­dul­lah, could be the one who puts that pro­pos­i­tion to the test.

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