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Topic: Ashraf Ghani

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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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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