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Topic: Abdullah Abdullah

Ashraf Ghani’s Good Week

Count me as among those who were skeptical about whether Ashraf Ghani–or for that matter any other mortal–would have what it takes to confront Afghanistan’s monumental problems. He’s been in office little more than a week so it’s too early to pass any judgment on his new administration, but in those few short days he has shown himself to be a bundle of energy who is making all the right moves to distinguish his presidency from that of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

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Count me as among those who were skeptical about whether Ashraf Ghani–or for that matter any other mortal–would have what it takes to confront Afghanistan’s monumental problems. He’s been in office little more than a week so it’s too early to pass any judgment on his new administration, but in those few short days he has shown himself to be a bundle of energy who is making all the right moves to distinguish his presidency from that of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

Ghani began by signing the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. that allows American troops to remain in Afghanistan after this year. Karzai had negotiated the accord but in a typical example of his maddening inaction, he refused to sign it, thus casting into doubt the future of the U.S. military mission. Ghani removed all doubt with a decisive stroke of his pen.

Ghani then reopened the investigation into the Bank of Kabul, a Ponzi scheme which collapsed in 2010 with an estimated $1 billion in losses. Some of its employees and owners have gone to jail but there is a widespread perception that many of the powerbrokers who benefitted from the bank’s crooked machinations have not been brought to justice. The fact that Ghani has reopened the investigation creates the potential to deliver justice and, most important of all, to undo the perception that rampant corruption will be tolerated by the government as it was in Karzai’s day. It is hard to overstate the importance of this issue: Governmental corruption has been the Taliban’s best recruiter.

When Prime Minister David Cameron visited Kabul, Ghani stood with him and delivered a moving tribute to British and other soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan–quite a contrast to the anti-American and anti-Western tirades Karzai had become known for.

Ghani also ventured out of his palace to visit Camp Commando where the Afghan National Army’s Special Operations Forces train. On his Twitter feed Ghani posted pictures of him bowing to the soldiers and hugging a wounded soldier. He wrote: “Today – I’ve visited our real heroes, the ANA. They’re paying sacrifices everyday for our protection. We salute them.” This might seem unexceptionable in an American context where we’re used to presidents paying tribute to the troops. But it was revolutionary in Afghanistan where Karzai refused to act like a wartime leader. He seldom if ever met with Afghan troops or voiced support for their sacrifice, preferring to issue calls for outreach to his “brothers” in the Taliban. The fact that Ghani is embracing the troops is a very welcome change.

Finally Ghani reversed Karzai’s order expelling New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg for having the temerity to report in August on a plot among some Afghan politicos affiliated with Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s rival for the presidency, to seize power regardless of the election outcome. The fact that Ghani has welcomed Rosenberg back is a positive sign that press freedom will be respected.

These are only small, symbolic steps, of course. Much remains to be done to tackle Afghanistan’s woes and Ghani will not have an easy time dealing either with warlords and other powerbrokers or with Abdullah who, as the price of giving up his challenge to the election results, was rewarded with the nebulous and extra-constitutional post of “chief executive.” But Ghani is off to a great start. If he continues making progress at this rate–and that of course is a big if–Afghanistan has the potential to take a decisive turn for the better.

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Afghanistan Heading Toward Meltdown

I spent the past week in Afghanistan to attend the Herat Security Dialogue, an opportunity to meet and debate with Iranians, Pakistanis, Taliban representatives, and senior Afghan government officials, all in Herat’s historic citadel.

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I spent the past week in Afghanistan to attend the Herat Security Dialogue, an opportunity to meet and debate with Iranians, Pakistanis, Taliban representatives, and senior Afghan government officials, all in Herat’s historic citadel.

I’ve been traveling back and forth to Afghanistan since 1997—I was in Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban first attacked the city—and also spent time in Jalalabad, Kabul, Ghazni, and Kandahar when the Taliban controlled those cities in the days before 9/11. I have returned several times since: to visit my wife who worked as a military contractor in Kabul, see Afghan friends, conduct interviews while writing my recent book chapter on U.S.-Taliban diplomacy, and now attend Afghanistan’s premier strategic forum. Because I’m not a guest of the U.S. Embassy or military in Afghanistan, I’ve been able to avoid their security bubble.

The progress I’ve seen over the past 17 years has been remarkable. Flying into Herat is to fly into a bustling and vibrant city; Kabul now has the beginnings of a real skyline. Anyone caught in Kabul traffic would not believe the quiet of the place 14 years ago when cars were scarce. In both Herat and Kabul—the two cities I visited this past week—kites dipped and darted by the dozens, a sport which the Taliban banned. Women in Herat were outspoken about their refusal to go back to the segregation and, indeed, isolation they felt under the Taliban’s s Islamic Emirate. I had the pleasure to sit on a panel with Habiba Sarobi, a former governor of Bamiyan and the first woman ever to serve as an Afghan governor. On Monday, Afghanistan witnessed its first peaceful transfer of power in its history (or at least the first time a living ruler retired peacefully).

Alas, while it may be hard to imagine Afghanistan returning to the totalitarianism of the Taliban or the violence of the civil war years, many Afghans appear to be preparing for the worst. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the power-sharing accord which convinced former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah to cease contesting his second wrong loss and acquiesce to Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration. Abdullah will become a de facto prime minister. On paper, this looks like hard-won, creative diplomacy. In reality, it’s a recipe for disaster. Diplomats love power-sharing coalitions, the broader the better. In reality, these never work. John Bolton and Samantha Power would probably not work well together; neither would Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders. Healthy governance requires a strong opposition, not a broad tent with no one outside. Big tents are less about governance and more about patronage, the polite way of saying bribery.

While Kerry’s agreement allowed the inauguration to go ahead, neither Abdullah nor Ghani has been able to agree on ministerial posts. Afghans said that there are well over a dozen candidates for each post. Analysts criticize former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for monopolizing the interior and defense ministry posts, but in Afghanistan there is a government with far more posts—and all key posts—vacant.

Nor are Afghans optimistic that filling these posts will resolve problems. Most of Karzai’s ministers—or at least their close family members—appear to have made millions during their tenures. They did so against the backdrop of seemingly endless international assistance. Those days are fast coming to an end, which means that new ministers will likely look to accumulate as much money as possible before international troops depart and, with them, international aid.

That brings us to Afghanistan’s illicit economy. International eradication efforts have failed. Opium production is booming, and is only going to get worse. As international assistance dries up, Afghans are not going to sit idle; they are going to harvest and manufacture poppies. The whole reason why NATO has sought to combat poppy cultivation is because opium production funds insurgency, terrorism, and violence. So it stands to reason that Afghanistan is going to become more violent, suffer greater insurgency, and export more terrorism.

Hamid Karzai was a flawed individual, and not always a good leader. How sad it is that Afghans will someday look back on his corrupt rule as “the good old days.”

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What Ashraf Ghani Needs from the U.S.

Hamid Karzai was no George Washington or Konrad Adenauer or Kemal Mustafa Ataturk or David Ben-Gurion. He was not, in short, a great nation builder who will be remembered fondly by generations of his countrymen. He had an opportunity to join the ranks of those great state builders but instead he will be remembered as a petty, paranoid, and mercurial leader who presided over massive corruption, governmental incapacity, and a growing insurgency. Not all this was his fault, to be sure, and not even George Washington could have transformed Afghanistan in a decade. But it’s fair to say that Karzai’s failures as a leader contributed to Afghanistan’s problems during his watch.

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Hamid Karzai was no George Washington or Konrad Adenauer or Kemal Mustafa Ataturk or David Ben-Gurion. He was not, in short, a great nation builder who will be remembered fondly by generations of his countrymen. He had an opportunity to join the ranks of those great state builders but instead he will be remembered as a petty, paranoid, and mercurial leader who presided over massive corruption, governmental incapacity, and a growing insurgency. Not all this was his fault, to be sure, and not even George Washington could have transformed Afghanistan in a decade. But it’s fair to say that Karzai’s failures as a leader contributed to Afghanistan’s problems during his watch.

In the end, nothing became Karzai better than the manner in which he left office–which is to say voluntarily. He did not try to hang on to power indefinitely as many feared he would. Nor did he try to install one of his brothers as his successor. On Monday he presided over the first peaceful transition of power from one elected leader to another in Afghanistan’s long history.

Now the problems that Karzai couldn’t handle are being handed to Ashraf Ghani. Ghani is a very smart man who has a long history of being an effective governmental analyst and reformer, including his stint as Afghanistan’s finance minister. If anyone is qualified to tackle Afghanistan’s problems, he is–even though his problems are in many ways greater than Karzai’s already because, in addition to everything else, Ghani has to deal with his defeated challenger Abdullah Abdullah. As the price of giving up his fight to contest the election results, Abdullah was promised a vague and extra-constitutional role as “chief executive” of the new government. Simply getting along with Abdullah will be a Herculean challenge for Ghani, in addition to trying to make the government more effective and more honest.

It would greatly help Ghani if President Obama were to rethink his dangerous pledge to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2017. The Afghan security forces are simply not ready to go it alone against the still dangerous Taliban insurgency and they will not be ready by 2017 either. Simply removing the air cover that U.S. forces have provided to their Afghan allies–something that is scheduled to happen by the end of this year–will vastly increase the danger from the Taliban. Indeed just in recent days Afghan troops required “NATO air support” to retake a town in Ghazni province that had fallen into Taliban hands.

With a continuing U.S. troop presence, Ghani has a chance to manage Afghanistan’s problems. Without it, the outlook is hopelessly bleak.

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A Close Call, and a Warning, in Afghanistan

New details are emerging on the election crisis in Afghanistan and they are pretty harrowing. The New York Times, for example, is reporting that followers of Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate who apparently finished second in the second rounding of voting, were so upset about supposed voter fraud that they “were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace.” The Times goes on to note that “local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them.”

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New details are emerging on the election crisis in Afghanistan and they are pretty harrowing. The New York Times, for example, is reporting that followers of Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate who apparently finished second in the second rounding of voting, were so upset about supposed voter fraud that they “were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace.” The Times goes on to note that “local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them.”

If this had happened, it would have been a catastrophe of the first order. If Abdullah’s followers had resorted to force, it would have reignited the civil war that wrecked the country in the 1990s and provided an opening for the Taliban to seize power. Western aid would have been cut off and Afghanistan would have been on its own.

This dire outcome was only narrowly avoided by a timely phone call from President Obama to Abdullah and by Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparent success in defusing the crisis by negotiating a compromise that calls for all of the ballots to be recounted and for whoever loses the election to assume a new post as “chief executive” (i.e., prime minister) of the government led by the winning presidential candidate. The UN’s top representative in Kabul called it “not just a top-notch diplomatic achievement [but] close to a miracle.”

But the only reason that miracle occurred is that, with 30,000 troops still in Afghanistan and a commitment to keep 10,000 more after this year, the U.S. retains significant leverage to influence Afghan politics.

Imagine if this crisis had happened not in this presidential election but in the next one–in 2019. This is not much of a stretch since both this presidential election and the previous one, in 2009, were marred by accusations of fraud that threatened the foundation of Afghanistan’s fragile democracy. We can hope that no such crisis will occur next time around, but the reality is that the odds of such an imbroglio are high. Stable institutions in a country like Afghanistan, which has been wracked by nonstop conflict since 1979, take decades, not years, to develop.

It is, therefore, deeply unfortunate, and highly irresponsible, that President Obama has unilaterally pledged to give up America’s leverage in Afghanistan by removing our remaining troops by 2017. If he carries out this plan, and if it is not reversed by his successor (which will be hard to do: it’s always easier to maintain a troop commitment than to start a new one), the U.S. will have essentially no leverage on the conduct and aftermath of the 2019 election. In fact the U.S. would be consigning itself to the kind of spectator role it has assumed in Iraq since the pullout of U.S. troops at the end of 2011–and we know how that’s turned out.

It is imperative that Obama correct his blunder in pledging to remove troops by 2017. He should immediately announce that, should Afghanistan’s feuding politicos work out their difference and set up a government with widespread legitimacy that desired U.S. troops to continue serving in their country after 2017, he would accede to their request–or at least allow his successor to make the call. If the president doesn’t do that, he will be casting Afghanistan’s future into serious doubt.

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Kerry’s Afghanistan Breakthrough

It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

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It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

This is probably a bluff, but it’s a dangerous one because it threatens to reopen the deep fissures that fractured Afghanistan in the 1990s when Abdullah’s Northern Alliance, composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities, fought a vicious civil war against the Taliban, whose ranks were (and are) made up of Pashtuns from the south and east. Ghani, who according to preliminary results won 56 percent of the vote, compared to Abdullah’s 44 percent, isn’t backing down either. He sees himself as the rightful next president of Afghanistan.

Enter Kerry. He flew into Kabul and in 12 hours of nonstop talks managed to get Abdullah and Ghani, both closeted in separate rooms of the U.S. Embassy along with their advisers, to agree on an internationally supervised procedure to audit all 8 million votes cast–a suspiciously high number, given that only 7 million or so voted in the first round of balloting.

If the process goes off as planned, and if it results in the seating of a government that is seen as legitimate (both admittedly big ifs), Kerry will have achieved a major diplomatic victory–one that could prevent Afghanistan from sliding back into chaos. It will in fact be only his latest triumph in Afghanistan where he has had more luck than most American officials, even when he was still only a senator, in dealing with the difficult Hamid Karzai.

Why does Kerry seem more successful in Afghanistan than elsewhere–for example, in the Middle East, where he devoted so much energy to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” only to see another round of fighting break out between Israel and Hamas? Or in Ukraine where he has had little luck in getting the Russians to end their aggression by proxy?

The answers are pretty obvious but bear repeating. In Afghanistan Kerry has two advantages that he does not enjoy when negotiating with Iran or the Palestinian Authority or Russia: He has overwhelming American military force at his back and he has the luxury of dealing with actors who may have some differences but fundamentally share similar goals and outlooks.

Although their numbers are much reduced (and will fall further by the end of the year) the U.S. military still has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, backed up by ample air power, making them the most formidable military force in the country. That gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.

Moreover, while Abdullah and Ghani bitterly disagree about which of them should be president, they are both widely seen as technocrats who want a democratic, Western-oriented, non-Taliban future for the country. That makes it possible, if not easy, for them to bridge their differences in the same way that union and corporate negotiators can do if led along by a skillful mediator.

Alas few if any of those preconditions exist elsewhere in the world, which makes it all the more mysterious that Kerry wants to expend so much energy on what are almost sure to be fruitless negotiations with adversaries who have no reason to reach agreement. He would be better advised to focus his efforts on mediating other disputes between relatively reasonable rivals, e.g., South Korea and Japan, rather than wasting his breathe trying to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear program or the Palestinians to give up their dream of eradicating the Jewish state.

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Abdullah Jumps the Gun on Vote Fraud

The legend of the 1960 election is that Democratic bosses robbed Richard Nixon of critical votes in Texas and Illinois, giving those states to John F. Kennedy and thus ensuring his election. Nixon then refused to challenge the validity of the outcome–what was then the closest presidential election in U.S. history–because to do so would harm the national interest. Whether it happened exactly like that or not (and there is good cause for doubt as David Greenberg points out) the principle that Nixon claimed to be espousing was a good one: putting the nation’s interests above one’s own political ambitions.

That is a lesson that Abdullah Abdullah should keep in mind in Afghanistan. Abdullah was the front-runner in the first round of presidential voting, but even before all the ballots in the second round have been counted he is claiming fraud. This is an understandable but shortsighted reaction to early leaks which suggested that Abdullah was running a million votes behind Ashraf Ghani who had finished second in the initial round of balloting. Instead of waiting for a final vote count Abdullah has launched a preemptive strike. As the New York Times notes:

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The legend of the 1960 election is that Democratic bosses robbed Richard Nixon of critical votes in Texas and Illinois, giving those states to John F. Kennedy and thus ensuring his election. Nixon then refused to challenge the validity of the outcome–what was then the closest presidential election in U.S. history–because to do so would harm the national interest. Whether it happened exactly like that or not (and there is good cause for doubt as David Greenberg points out) the principle that Nixon claimed to be espousing was a good one: putting the nation’s interests above one’s own political ambitions.

That is a lesson that Abdullah Abdullah should keep in mind in Afghanistan. Abdullah was the front-runner in the first round of presidential voting, but even before all the ballots in the second round have been counted he is claiming fraud. This is an understandable but shortsighted reaction to early leaks which suggested that Abdullah was running a million votes behind Ashraf Ghani who had finished second in the initial round of balloting. Instead of waiting for a final vote count Abdullah has launched a preemptive strike. As the New York Times notes:

Rejecting the process laid out under Afghan electoral law, he called on the election commission to halt all vote-counting and immediately investigate any inflated ballot totals — steps that are designed to come after partial vote results are announced in the next few weeks. Mr. Abdullah also withdrew his election observers from the vote-counting and suspended his cooperation with the Independent Election Commission, which his campaign accuses of bias.

There has, in fact, been no evidence of widespread vote fraud yet presented. Perhaps fraud did occur on a large scale. If that’s the case Afghanistan has procedures for dealing with such a contingency–and the addition of international observers can help to ensure transparency.

But what Abdullah is doing is not constructive. He is unfairly throwing into doubt the legitimacy of the election and, should he lose, undermining the ability of Ghani to govern. That is not in Afghanistan’s interests–and ultimately not in Abdullah’s interests either if he wants to be seen as an elder statesman rather than a grasping politician.

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