Ghani’s challenges

Published April 2, 2016

AFGHAN President Ashraf Ghani is a man under pressure. While the famously temperamental technocrat-turned-politician has tried to project an air of confidence as president, occasional frustration — and possibly fear — makes itself apparent.

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Ghani railed against fellow Afghans who are choosing to flee to Europe and argued that for Afghanistan to be a country, its countrymen should not abandon it.

As the BBC itself noted, Mr Ghani’s comments are likely to further erode his already plummeting popularity: Afghans are unlikely to be impressed by a leader who is looking for scapegoats instead of addressing growing political problems.

While the Taliban insurgency and attempts to restart peace talks have dominated the news, the problems in Afghanistan are increasingly complex.

Last month, the outgoing UN envoy in Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, identified five issues threatening the very survival of the Afghan state: a fragile economy, with low growth and high unemployment; the intensifying Taliban insurgency; fractious elites; pressures on foreign aid; an uncertain reconciliation process.

Perhaps the one factor that is in the immediate control of the Afghan politicians is the political process.

Indeed, had the national unity government demonstrated even a modicum of efficiency and competence, the Afghan state could have pushed through some necessary political and administrative reforms.

Instead, the struggle for dominance between rival camps led by President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah has all but brought governance to a halt.

The situation has escalated to the point that it is unclear if a September deadline for parliamentary elections and a constitutional assembly to ratify changes in the political structure matters anymore — the government could collapse before that deadline.

Perhaps, though, the growing speculation about state collapse will force the Afghan leadership to make the necessary adjustments before it is too late.

While the national unity government is deeply flawed, the problem was not completely of the Afghans’ making.

The US — having made errors over and over again in Afghanistan over the last decade — somehow thought that the way to salvage a flawed election and demonstrate that Afghanistan is headed in the right direction was to force an alliance that no one inside Afghanistan wanted.

So just when Afghanistan needed a strong, unified political leadership to deal with the economic and security threats and handle external relations adroitly, it was given a weak, fractious leadership to try and fix the country’s problems.

If the background is dismal, the future need not be. Much will depend on how Mr Ghani navigates the months ahead. Progress on reconciliation paired with resolving some intra-administration tensions would send a message of political rejuvenation.

That could create the space for dealing with the more intractable economic and security problems of Afghanistan. First, however, Mr Ghani must resist the temptation to lash out — there is simply too much at stake for raw emotion at this point.

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2016

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