Middle East & North Africa

On Crumbling Foundations: The Cost of Afghanistan’s Governance Failure

Late last month, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani stuck a fork in his National Unity Government’s (NUG) pursuit of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Vowing to take a more militant approach to the insurgent group whose virulence is at its most potent and whose most ruthless faction, the Haqqani Network, appears to be in the leading. The volte-face is a blow to the Obama administration’s stated preference for diplomatic solution to the civil war in which the United States has been a party for almost fifteen years. This decision is in large part motivated by the Afghan government’s deep-divisions and corruption that continue to cause headaches for and raise stark questions concerning the future of the U.S. mission.

A key source of Afghanistan’s governing limitations stems from the very process which brought it about. As Hamid Karzai’s tenure as the country’s president came to an end, the spring 2014 election for his replacement erupted into allegations of fraud and an ethnic divide between the nation’s Pashtun population represented by Ashraf Ghani and its non-Pashtun groups represented by Abdullah Abduallah. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kabul on three sensitive diplomatic missions to break the months-long impasse and to help establish the NUG in which an uneasy partnership between Ghani and Abdullah emerged.

In the ensuing years, the two leaders failed to find ways to work together. They could neither meld their ideas for the country’s future nor navigate around difficult political pressure in its name. Meetings in which their separate staffs meet are poorly attended and, reportedly, only cover issues of “minor” importance. Many accuse Ghani and Abdullah of prioritizing ethnic and political considerations ahead of national stability. The Defense Minister position remains vacant to this day even as insurgent groups violently flaunt the NUG’s authority. Kabul, a city trapped in a tangled thrush of terror attacks, lingers without a mayor.

A major source of political criticism for the NUG surrounds its apathetic approach to the electoral process. Parliamentary elections initially scheduled for last year are slated for October, though there is a real possibility for further delay. Erstwhile supporters including close military and political advisors are speaking out and forming their own opposition movements. The ministers of intelligence and interior resigned in protest. Secretary Kerry traveled to the country again in early April to diffuse this infighting and keep the government on track to free and fair elections. Progress on this front remains elusive.

This quarrelling stalled the government reforms many expected Ghani and Abdullah to execute. Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom in the World report noted a decline in Afghanistan’s position, placing the country in the “Not Free” category. It ranked 166th out of 168 countries evaluated in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruptions Perceptions Index, based on a public opinions survey. Perhaps most damning for stability and quality of Afghan institutions, it ranked 8th out of 178 countries on the Fund For Peace’s 2015 Fragile States Index.

In 2014, according to the Afghan Enterprise Survey, almost half of all business transactions suffered from incidence of bribery. In 2015, U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko informed American ambassador to Kabul, P. Michael McKinley, that “approximately half of the customs duties for [the] Afghan fiscal year…are believed to have been stolen.” SIGAR’s quarterly reports to Congress over the past several years tell consistently dour news that few in Washington want to acknowledge.

This disaffection can be felt by Afghans directly, who are even wondering if a return to Taliban rule might be better than the reality they currently face. The economy is in tatters with the national currency, the Afghani, falling 21 percent in value and unemployment rising to 25-40% across the country. Its powerful telecommunications industry, and the relatively free media attached to it, face increasing threats as both international funding and foreign consumers withdraw from the country. Violent competition over the country’s illicit economy, the ever-burgeoning opium trade (operated in some instances by government officials themselves), is on the rise as well.

President Ghani’s decision to dedicate more energy to prosecute the war against the Taliban is wrapped up in all of these forces. Giving up on the failing and politically costly diplomatic efforts and vowing to fight his domestic audience wants him to take on seems an effective way to silence his personal critics and keep the sinking government afloat. Unfortunately, the illegitimacy that sews the dissent Ghani hopes to reduce leaves him with an army unprepared to fight and a population divided over which side to take.

The lack of effective governance rots out the core of the Afghan National Security Forces. The Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA) received poor ratings in Transparency International’s survey mentioned above. Reports tell of security officials selling off U.S. and international military and construction materials and placing “ghost employees” on their payroll and pocketing the additional salaries. Many of these corrupt practices are fueled by inadequate pay, which also contributes to the attrition rate among soldiers annually. Couple this corruption with struggling recruitment levels, major literacy and drug-addiction challenges, serious allegations of human rights violations and ANSF’s limited capabilities after years of international training become clear.

American and international efforts to address these governance problems helped a country without any functioning institutions in 2001 make key gains, but current problems show the limits of that success. Some U.S. policies, unfortunately, resulted in counterproductive outcomes in Afghanistan. Flooding the local economy with billions of development, military, and contractor dollars created a national dependency on international funds for economic stability and enabled today’s commonplace graft. Washington undermined its support for international aid agreements prioritizing anti-corruption when it left garbage bags full of cash on President Karzai’s doorstep, leading one unnamed U.S. official to consider their own government “the biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan.” Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan and formerly the Senior Adviser to the Special Representative of the President for Afghanistan and Pakistan, detailed in the New Yorker how the use of aid to support military goals undermined the utility of development efforts. (Now, according to SIGAR, nation-wide insecurity leaves such projects severely lacking in accountability.) The train-and-assist mission to develop Afghanistan’s self-defense remains an incomplete effort. Commander of US troops in the country, Lieutenant General Mick Nicholson, acknowledges that it will take “years” more for the ANSF to prop itself up.

All of this should give the Obama administration pause when contemplating how to proceed in Afghanistan at a time when American security interests appear to be at considerable risk. Will expanding U.S. military engagement, something that is already underway apparently, create space in which a corrupt and divisive Afghan government can invigorate its moribund institutions into something respectable? Does Ghani’s new posturing suggest that he intends to defeat the Taliban outright, something the United States gave up on years ago? Would a more limited mission focused on countering the growth of ISIS and the resurgence of al Qaeda, along with support against imminent kinetic threats to regime stability even as its very legitimacy continues to sway in the wind, make sense? What sorts of responsibilities does the U.S. have to Afghanistan, to its society and people? Answers to all of these questions are critical to determining the utility of maintaining the current level of troops indefinitely and reengaging the Taliban directly.

Image: “John Kerry announces Afghan agreement July 2014” (Wikimedia Commons)


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