Cover Story: Afghanistan

Big Dreams in an Impossible Job

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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Can Ashraf Ghani save Afghanistan? The new President in conversation with James Astill
It is always good to see old acquaintances do well—but rare that they take over countries. How, I ask Ashraf Ghani, in his first interview as Afghanistan’s new president, does that feel? “Humbling,” he says, settling down to talk in his cavernous, rather jaded, palace in Kabul. “It’s a position of enormous opportunity and enormous risk.”

He smiles, in his delicate, almost bird-like, manner, indicating a relish for both conditions. “The opportunity is to turn a weak state, dysfunctional governance and criminalised economy into a circle of citizenship rights, state effectiveness and people-centred governance and a charter of rights. But the risks are enormous. Criminal networks pose a major challenge to the functioning of our legal economy, we have no peace, and if we fail, our people could lose several generations.”

That is typical of the former anthropologist and World Bank executive. Ghani is erudite, forceful and acute—but sometimes so incongruously professorial, in a country ruled by violence for over three decades, as to test credulity. Even foreign development wonks, that ever-hopeful tribe, who invaded Afghanistan after America bombed the Taliban out of power in 2001, can seem unnerved by his technocratic verve and optimism. As a highly regarded finance minister in the government of warlords and technocrats formed immediately after the Taliban’s fall, Ghani would speak of turning Afghanistan into a regional insurance hub. Meanwhile, to the sound of gunfire and explosions down south, the ousted jihadists were emerging from their bases in Pakistan to start a new war— which, a decade later, now threatens to subsume Afghanistan’s nascent state.

Across most of the country, the government and its Western allies control the towns and, on a good day, the main roads. The insurgents more or less have the rest. Their leaders, probably including one-eyed Mullah Omar, are still based in and protected by Pakistan. But the foot-soldiers, undiminished by a conflict in which many thousands have died, increasingly represent local conflicts, rackets and tribal affiliations, symptoms of a collapsed state. Meanwhile Afghanistan’s NATO-led peacekeeping force—which only two years ago had 150,000, mostly American, troops in Afghanistan—is rushing for the exit. President Barack Obama wants his boys back home; Britain, the second biggest contributor, has effectively withdrawn already. By the end of this year, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as the peacekeepers are called, will be down to around 12,000 men. That is too few to bail out the fledgling Afghan army, which is currently suffering up to 1,000 casualties a month.

And this is not the only crisis demanding Ghani’s attention. Despite the estimated trillion-dollar cost of the international peacekeeping and reconstruction effort, Afghanistan remains the poorest country in Asia and one of the world’s most corrupt. Its economy is in crisis, ravaged by uncertainty over the insurgency and a fraught and protracted handover from his long-serving, Indian- educated predecessor, Hamid Karzai. Amid the gloom, there is only one conspicuous shard of light—which is that Ghani, chastened by years in the wilderness and hardened by the dog-fight that brought him to power, looks a much smarter, tougher politician than he once was. Though still high-minded and prone to wonkish jargon, Afghanistan’s new president is no Manmohan Singh.

As we sit down together in Kabul, Ashraf Ghani is fresh back from Pakistan, where he conducted the latest in a series of embassies, for which he has received high marks. Starting in Saudi Arabia, he confronted head-on a popular slur that he is too liberal and pro-Western to lead his conservative Muslim country. This was encouraged by his first act as president, which was to sign a security pact with America that Karzai had baulked at, and also by his decision to thank his wife, a Lebanese Christian, in his inauguration speech. In Afghan politics, this was a novel and risqué gesture—Karzai, true to the Pushtun tribal culture he shares with Ghani, scarcely mentioned his wife. Yet Ghani, chuckling lightly, suggests he had no time for the fuss it caused. Pushtun culture is often misunderstood, he suggests, noting that any woman aged over 60—his wife Rula’s age—has earned a right to be heard. Moreover, though liberal in some ways, “We are not radicals,” he says. “She’s lived in this society. She’s worked for four years with displaced people—she’s walked, ridden horses, ridden wagons, connected with the most vulnerable people in the society. People of Afghanistan like this. It is not a radical agenda.” Yet it was nonetheless politic that Ghani’s first diplomatic act as Afghanistan’s president was to perform Hajj and unveil his new ‘official’ forename, ‘Muhammad’.

He went next to China, where he offered President Xi Jinping not so much a deal, as compelling logic. If Xi would pressure Pakistan to stop succouring the Taliban, China would have a better opportunity to access the rich Afghan copper reserves it covets. It would also be merely consistent with China’s own fight against its homegrown jihadists. The Chinese president was understood to be impressed. And if there was a risk that this gambit would offend Pakistan—which is never hard for an Afghan leader—Ghani’s subsequent visit to Islamabad also went unexpectedly well.

Pakistan’s generals reviled Karzai as a stooge of America, to whom he owed his job, and India, where he was educated and whose own billion-dollar aid contribution to Afghanistan he welcomed. For his part, Karzai naturally resented Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban—who had murdered his father—and therefore aggravated matters by presuming to speak for Pakistan’s own 25 million Pushtuns. The result was a state of undeclared conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including occasional shooting matches along their mountainous and contested border, in which the Taliban have flourished.

Ghani wants to promote regional trade, not conflict. “The choice for us both is to become the Asian economic roundabout or to sink,” he says. “We both face major structural challenges that cannot be solved within a single boundary—within the confines of state action within one country. Without regional cooperation, we will suffer a lot.” For starters, I wonder, how about recognising the Durand Line, the 19th century northern frontier of British India which is—to the chagrin of Afghan leaders ever since—the de facto Pakistani-Afghan border?

Betraying a hint of his characteristic impatience, Ghani dismisses the question. “The bilateral basis of our relationship,” he says grandiloquently, “is being tackled through a systemic framework whereby we’re going to move gradually but systemically to delineate and then solve every one of our outstanding problems.” I wonder aloud what the Pakistanis made of that—how did they receive him? “As a partner and an Afghan nationalist, who’s secure in the sovereignty of his country,” he says, firmly.

That should reassure those Indian strategists who worry that New Delhi’s influence in Kabul has been reduced with Karzai’s exit. Ghani will be no pushover for Pakistan. But, in any event, they are worrying about the wrong thing. A relentless internationalist, he has an admirable ambition to end the transient alliances and petty jealousies that have dogged South Asian diplomacy. That means no playing off Pakistan against India, as Karzai was sometimes accused of doing. It also, says Ghani, whose duties include being Afghanistan’s commander- in-chief, means he will make no distinction in how he deals with Pakistan’s divergent political and military leadership. “I’m dealing with the state of Pakistan,” he says. “We do not take part in how our neighbouring states are structured.”

The President has enough domestic worries of his own—not least concerning the not-insignificant task of forming a government. In September, Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and champion of the powerful Tajik minority, ended a four-month stand-off over Afghanistan’s contested presidential elections by agreeing a power-sharing deal. It created for Abdullah the role of chief executive— effectively, prime minister—and there are signs are that this deal could hold. Ghani and Abdullah share a similar pro-Western outlook and ambition to modernise their country and, personally, Ghani insists, they get along well.

“The formation of the government of national unity was not an afterthought,” he claims. “The day I submitted my candidacy papers I said, ‘God willing we will win it.’ But winning it is not enough. I did not make say a single bad thing about Dr Abdullah during the election campaign, because I anticipated sitting down together with him. Because of this we have a very cordial relationship.”

All the same, there are signs of friction—not least in the two leaders’ failure to agree on the line-up of their cabinet. That is a staggering failure, especially given how urgently Afghanistan needs better administration. “The government is dysfunctional, we need fresh faces,” is Ghani’s verdict on the corrupt administration he inherited from Karzai. To force the pace, on 30 November he fired most of his ministers, leaving their deputies to run the government as caretakers. It is a deeply unsatisfying arrangement. Yet investors are still hopeful that Ghani can bring better times—“We expect things to improve a lot,” says Saad Mohseni, a media mogul—which is chiefly a sign of how badly the economy performed under Karzai.

Despite the violence, Afghanistan does show plenty of progress. After a decade of aid-fuelled growth, Kabul has been transformed. From the Taliban’s dusty, semi-derelict capital, a modern, Central Asian metropolis has emerged, replete with glass-walled hotels and traffic jams. In the regions, too, there is plenty of improvement. In Taliban times, only 3 per cent of Afghan girls were in school; now over a third are thought to be. Yet as Afghanistan has climbed off its painfully low base, and the insurgency has billowed, such advances have slowed significantly. The poverty-rate has been at a stand-still, at 36 per cent, for almost a decade. And in the uncertainty over Karzai’s exit, the economy tanked—it is expected to grow by 1.5 per cent this year, less than the population. This has in turn caused a steep drop in tax revenues and a fiscal crisis which Ghani, cap-in-hand, will need to secure yet more foreign aid to address.

Like the former World Banker that he is, he fizzes with plans to return the economy to growth and sanity to public finances. Promising a war against corruption, he has ordered a retrial of the main accused in Afghanistan’s biggest scam—the theft of almost a billion dollars from Kabul Bank. He is also reviewing public spending, which ballooned under Karzai even as administrative standards plummeted. “We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on services that are not delivered,” he says. In due course, he promises deeper reforms, to tax and customs, with the aim of boosting business, as well as the government’s revenues and its grip on the country.

This is essential—yet Ghani’s political imperative is to provide encouragement to poor and disenchanted Afghans. To that end he intends a massive liberalisation of the land registry, which would involve granting title deeds to millions of war-beggared and dispossessed people, in the process freeing them from the predations of the illegal economy. “The aim is, first, to remove the obstacles that bother the hell out of people—corruption, lawlessness, impunity. Then, second, to take positive steps to change lives,” he says. “Most of Kabul is informal, that is, illegal, and people in illegal circumstances are preyed upon. “Our aim is not only to clean the government but make people more independent of it.” In due course, he trusts, enterprise will prosper and Afghanistan will rediscover its historic place as a centre of regional trade. “Linking regional trade is the key opportunity,” he enthuses—“Linking Central Asia with South Asia.”

This is a compelling vision. Despite his technocratic language and background, Ghani is much more like Narendra Modi than Manmohan Singh. Yet the obstacles in his path are enormous. The Taliban probably cannot retake Kabul any time soon—not, at least, so long as America keeps paying the government’s security bills, including its entire $5.5 billion defence budget. But that is no guarantee of the stability worn-out Afghans crave. Ghani acknowledges the challenge. “I want to deliver; I don’t want to speak,” he says. “Afghans have heard too many things about big promises not followed by delivery.”

“They have given me a big deposit of trust, a loan. I can only pay back their loan in instalments.” It is desperately important, for Afghanistan and its region, that he succeeds. Yet Ghani, brilliant though he is, will have his work cut out. In one of the world’s most perilous and fragile countries, his job looks almost impossible.