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Comment: Afghan president strives to put house in order

April 16, 2015

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With rising civilian and security forces casualties and worsening security environment in much of the country, Mr Ghani is coming under growing pressure from the hawks. — Reuters/file
With rising civilian and security forces casualties and worsening security environment in much of the country, Mr Ghani is coming under growing pressure from the hawks. — Reuters/file

Traffic in the Afghan capital is chaotic. With traffic lights either non-existent or out of order, meandering through traffic jams can be nerve-wrecking.

Everyone at the wheels seems to be in a rush, therefore unless one is super-alert and a master at the wheels there is a good chance of either getting hit or bumping into another vehicle.

Forgive the shabbily-uniformed traffic cops, for they do try to direct and give some sense to the chaos, but then no-one seems to listen. No-one seems to care.

Kabul’s chaotic traffic in some ways resembles Afghanistan’s chaotic journey to the present day National Unity Government, now known by its acronym NUG.

At the top is the former World Banker, President Ashraf Ghani, trying to put some order to a system and a country worn out and torn apart by decades of war, terrorism, corruption and a record poppy crop.

He is moving from the past as best and as fast as he can. He fired 67 army generals in one go and sent 40 diplomats packing in order to bring a new, educated lot into the system.

He is taking steps to introduce reforms to make his country socially, politically and economically viable.

These are huge challenges considering a nearly non-existent formal economy, a bad security situation turning worse, given the state of Afghanistan’s fledgling military of nearly 200,000 beset with high desertion and mounting casualties and a coalition partner who seems often to pull in the opposite direction.

Economy is bad. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in its quarterly report cited a paper prepared by the Afghan government for the London Conference in December, 2014, acknowledging an economic and fiscal crisis.

“The effects of the (US-led Coalition) withdrawal have been and will continue to be severe, creating sizeable fiscal gap in the Afghan economy,” the government paper said.

SIGAR also referred in the report to a wire service quoting the head of the Afghan treasury as saying that his country lacked cash to pay salaries to its civil servants, teachers and other employees, and needed immediate help from donors.

Security too is bad. Afghan government officials acknowledge that the security environment in 20 of the 36 provinces is not good with varying degrees from extremely bad to moderately bad.

What is more worrying is that there are new flashpoints in provinces in the north and west of the country which hitherto had remained peaceful.

This, say Afghan officials, is partly due to the relocation of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, driven out by the Pakistani military from its previous sanctuary in North Waziristan.

The United States continues to fund the Afghan National Security Forces but poor training and a high rate of desertion, some say between 25 to 30 per cent, have had their toll with high casualty rate.

Military hardware is another major problem. The Afghan Chief of Army Staff, Sher Muhammad Karimi, told the Internal Security and Defence Commission of the Wolesi Jirga on Tuesday that the Afghan National Army had only four Mi-35 attack helicopters, two of them deployed for Kandahar and Helmand Region and two for the capital city of Kabul and the Northern Zone.

So poor is the air attack capability of the Afghan forces, he said, that the military had to install a machinegun on a Mi-17 transport helicopter.

Read: Afghanistan's enemy is Pakistan's enemy, says army chief

Not an insurmountable problem, despite growing cynicism with the state of affairs. Everything else, insist Afghan leaders, will be alright if the country’s security situation stabilises. And for this, they look into just one direction – towards Pakistan in the east.

Pakistan’s Army Chief, Gen Raheel Sharif’s visit to Kabul in February and his declaration that “Afghanistan’s enemy is Pakistan’s enemy” had rekindled hopes of a turnaround in Pak-Afghan relations haunted by decades of suspicion and hostility.

The hopes are fading -- and quickly. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recorded an eight per cent increase in civilian casualties in the first three months of the current year over the same period last year.

With the commencement of the so-called spring offensive and rising civilian and security forces casualties, Afghan political leaders and analysts wonder if Islamabad indeed has changed its policy and or is using its leverage to rein in the Afghan Taliban.

Gen Raheel, they say privately, during his meetings with President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah had promised to deliver all shades of the Afghan Taliban resistance to the negotiating table as early as the first week of March.

President Ghani suggested four possible avenues for talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. These talks, it was suggested, could either be held in the UAE, Islamabad, Kabul or Beijing.

It has been more than a month since the promised talks were to take off. Instead, there is radio silence. The Afghan leadership is waiting and watching how the spring offensive unfolds.

As one senior figure in the Ashraf Ghani administration put it, “the President has put at stake his political future by taking a paradigm shift in relations with Pakistan. He has taken huge political risk at the expense of accusations at home of a sell-out to Pakistan”.

With rising civilian and security forces casualties and worsening security environment in much of the country, Mr Ghani is coming under growing pressure from the hawks.

So far, he has resisted publicly chastising Pakistan for what the Afghans perceive as reneging or backtracking on its pledges but the bonhomie and the good-neighbourly feelings between the two countries that has seen a surge in the past few months may not last long. Kabul may not wait very long.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2015

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