Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ashraf Ghani

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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Obama, the Anti-Truman

There are three ways to read Barack Obama’s epic buck-passing from Sunday night’s interview on 60 Minutes. There is the literal reading: Obama, in trying to fend off blame for his administration’s failure regarding ISIS, said “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” referring to the intel community.

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There are three ways to read Barack Obama’s epic buck-passing from Sunday night’s interview on 60 Minutes. There is the literal reading: Obama, in trying to fend off blame for his administration’s failure regarding ISIS, said “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” referring to the intel community.

Then there is the classic Obama-is-disappointed-in-America-yet-again framing, which is not flattering to Obama but better than the truth. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post went this route. Here’s the Times: “President Obama acknowledged in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States had underestimated the rise of the Islamic State militant group.” And the Post: “The United States underestimated the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, President Obama said during an interview.”

If you’ve followed the events of the past year, you’ll notice that neither of those spin cycles is true and so there must be a third option. There is: the truth, which is that Barack Obama underestimated ISIS despite the intel community trying desperately to explain it to him since day one. And thus, tired of getting thrown under the bus, the intel community has pointed out to Eli Lake at the Daily Beast that what the president said is completely divorced from reality:

Nearly eight months ago, some of President Obama’s senior intelligence officials were already warning that ISIS was on the move. In the beginning of 2014, ISIS fighters had defeated Iraqi forces in Fallujah, leading much of the U.S. intelligence community to assess they would try to take more of Iraq. …

Reached by The Daily Beast after Obama’s interview aired, one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” the former official said.

Is the president reading his intelligence reports? He must be. The more likely explanation of the two is that Obama knows exactly what happened–he messed up, royally–and is blaming others because it’s unpalatable for him to admit that six years into his presidency, he’s older but no wiser.

The Times does carefully draw attention to this fact:

In citing Mr. Clapper, Mr. Obama made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself. Critics have repeatedly pointed to his comment last winter characterizing groups like the Islamic State as a “JV team” compared with the original Al Qaeda.

Right. Though “any misjudgment he may have made” actually refers to this particular misjudgment, which he’s blaming on others, that we know for sure he made.

Just as interesting is why he made that egregious mistake. Part of it, surely, is his utter lack of knowledge of world history and politics. But that’s not enough of a reason, especially considering the fact that the U.S. intel community has been trying to remedy that by laying it all out there for him. Knowledge has been accumulated and summarily dismissed by Obama as distinctly unimportant. What matters to him is his cloistered worldview and fealty to ideology.

Later in the interview, Obama said:

Now the good news is that the new [Iraqi] prime minister, Abadi, who I met with this week, so far at least has sent all the right signals. And that’s why it goes back to what I said before, Steve, we can’t do this for them. We cannot do this for them because it’s not just a military problem. It is a political problem. And if we make the mistake of simply sending U.S. troops back in, we can maintain peace for a while. But unless there is a change in how, not just Iraq, but countries like Syria and some of the other countries in the region, think about what political accommodation means. Think about what tolerance means.

One hopes the president isn’t holding his breath. Obama returns to this trope time and again: it’s a political solution that’s needed, not a military solution. But security, as always, must precede any political solution. And that doesn’t come about by telling the warring parties to “Think about what tolerance means.”

Here, for example, is the lede of the New York Times story on a truly momentous occasion out of Afghanistan: “Ashraf Ghani, the former World Bank technocrat and prominent intellectual, on Monday became the first modern leader of Afghanistan to take office in a peaceful transfer of power.”

It was far from inevitable. The election Ghani won produced a bitter accusation of fraud and a threat to plunge the country into what would essentially be a new civil war. What made the difference? As our Max Boot has written, the crucial distinction between Afghanistan and other such conflicts in which the U.S. played a role is the fact that when John Kerry flew in to broker a solution to the crisis, there were tens of thousands of American troops in the country. “That,” Max wrote, “gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.”

President Obama doesn’t like to face up to the fact that his obsession with getting out of Iraq played a role in undermining the very “political solution” he hoped for. Now ISIS is collapsing borders and beheading Westerners, and they surely can’t be expected to “Think about what tolerance means.” The president made policy based on what he wanted to be true, in all likelihood knowing full well it wasn’t. He continues to be the anti-Truman, passing blame around when he deserves the lion’s share of it.

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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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