The clock is ticking for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is due to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington this week. While Afghanistan may be better positioned to tackle its manifold problems than at any time in the last decade, Ghani’s room for manoeuvre is shrinking.
Three factors have converged to create a moment of opportunity: a new Afghan government and president; a widely shared international interest in the country’s stability; and initial signs that the Afghan Taliban may be willing to enter into talks.
Last year’s flawed presidential elections resulted in a US-brokered deal between Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, to form a national unity government, with Abdullah appointed to a newly created post, chief executive officer.
Ghani lost no time in visiting China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The objective was to gain support both for an Afghan peace process, and to advance his goal of reducing dependency on foreign aid, promoting regional economic integration, with Afghanistan as a trade and transit hub.
The country’s neighbors, including Iran and Pakistan, and the international community as a whole, are supportive of the new government.
Relieved that the Karzai era is over, and bolstered by Ghani’s early signature of a bilateral security agreement, the United States has committed to provide significant financial support until 2017.
Ghani’s vision for Afghanistan as a self-reliant state under the rule of law with accountable institutions draws popular support. He has taken high profile steps to tackle corruption, remove incompetent officials, and cut costs.
But six months into his administration, little has changed for most Afghans. The economy is shrinking, government revenues are down and business confidence is low. Jobs are scarce, especially for the 400,000 young people coming on to the market each year. The effects of climate change are exacerbating hardships for the majority whose livelihoods depend upon agriculture. And the war rages on: last year saw more Afghan civilians, soldiers and police killed and injured than any other since 2001.
Dealing with these challenges, holding the unity government together, and sustaining public confidence, will be difficult. Strengthening institutional capacity and leadership will be critical. But so far, no provincial governors and only one third of the cabinet have been appointed.
No one doubts Ghani’s formidable intellect and technocratic competence. But many question whether he has the patience and inclination for teamwork that coalition government requires, and the political authority to roll back entrenched patronage networks.
Meanwhile, the former president, Hamid Karzai, continues to hold court in quasi–presidential fashion, serving as a focal point for the disaffected.
Perhaps Ghani’s greatest challenge, to which he has dedicated much of his energy, is bringing peace. After 36 years of conflict and upheaval, the population yearns for stability and normalcy. Indeed, economic revival and state viability depend on it.
Afghanistan simply cannot afford its vast security forces. Even discounting the $5 billion subsidy it receives from the United States and its European allies, Afghanistan spends a higher percentage of its budget on security than any other state. With Western politicians turning their attention to the ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria, long-term international support for Afghanistan is not guaranteed.
So, Ghani’s recent announcement that peace is closer than it has been for years, and Abdullah’s that the government is preparing for talks with the Taliban, were little short of sensational.
The withdrawal of foreign forces, the replacement of Karzai, whom the Taliban loathed, and external backing for talks — including from China — has opened a window of opportunity. Pakistan’s military, long-time sponsor of the Afghan Taliban, is said to be pressuring the movement’s leaders to engage.
This opportunity — so often dismissed by those favoring military approaches — must be seized. But realism is required. The Taliban are unlikely to suspend their ferocious campaign against Afghan security forces, and may even escalate attacks during talks.
The process will face spoilers on all sides. There are questions about whether Pakistan has really made a strategic shift, and whether those Taliban leaders that are serious about talks can bring the movement’s factions and fighters with them.
The danger is expecting too much, too soon. Patience and commitment to a long haul, in spite of inevitable setbacks, are essential.
The experience of peace processes around the world show that to avoid missteps and misunderstandings, careful preparation, skillful management, and expert facilitation are required.
The first priority should be to establish a structured, discreet, facilitated dialogue about the issues of contention. It should be supported by an inclusive process of outreach and consultation both with Afghan elites and the population as a whole.
Establishing a peace process is vital but that alone cannot deliver the Afghan leader’s vision for his country. Ghani will be warmly received in Washington this week. He will make a compelling case for sustained US support — but his immediate political challenges are closer to home.
A previous version of this article was originally published by Foreign Policy
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