No Free Meals
What difference in approach is Ashraf Ghani bringing to Afghanistan?
US President Obama is increasingly caught between leaving a lasting legacy and doing right by the people of Afghanistan. First, he cannot ignore the dwindling public support for overseas wars at home. Two thousand US military deaths and over a trillion dollars in aid later, the engine of Afghan democracy still sputters. Obama knows that for the Democrats to win in 2016, Afghanistan cannot
become another Iraq. With the sluggish US economy, he also knows that unconditional aid cannot lead to diminishing returns. Obama’s challenge, then, is to figure out how America can exit Afghanistan without it descending into chaos.
Considering Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s request, and the regional rise of ISIS, President Obama decided to slow the US military drawdown from Afghanistan. In March 2015, he announced that 9800 American troops would stay back until the end of the year. With over a dozen Taliban commanders having defected to ISIS, America realizes that Afghan forces alone cannot contain the pan-terrorist entity. Halting the ISIS advance through southern Afghanistan will require all US counter-terrorism tools, especially the Kandahar Air Base, for drone strikes. Obama, however, is still committed to leaving only 1000 US troops behind after 2016.
On March 24, 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced an $800 million “New Development Partnership” for Afghanistan. Along with structural aid, this funding will enable Afghan security forces to maintain 352,000 trained personnel through 2016. The deal reinforces the view that America wants out but in a face-saving manner. The US still wants to shape Afghanistan’s future but from a distance and preferably at low cost. There is also speculation that America has accepted a Taliban redux in Kabul as inevitable. Its only hope is for regional stakeholders to step-up and manage the terrorist influence.
President Obama has now embraced the “no boots on the ground” mantra but this wasn’t always the case. Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign focused on blaming his predecessor, George W. Bush, for losing ground in Afghanistan because he hadn’t sent in enough troops. In a stump speech, Obama said, if elected, “we will focus our attention on Afghanistan” and end the war. In December 2009, as president, he authorized the Afghan surge with 30,000 more troop deployments. Unfortunately, his decision only affected the mortality rates, as according to CNS News, 74% of all US military deaths in Afghanistan happened after the surge.
In November 2013, White House press secretary Jay Carney announced: “The war in Afghanistan will end next year, as the president has promised.” The American public was overjoyed that troops would be coming home and taxpayer money would stay home. In Washington, however, the vibe suggested that America was sneaking out of its longest ever war, instead of prevailing. That said, there will never be a better time to leave. There is no Afghan better equipped to making Afghanistan happen than Ashraf Ghani. He talks money and sense, not firebrand nationalism. Most of all, he knows how to make friends.
Ashraf Ghani and America go way back. He lived there for twenty-four years, eleven of which were spent working at the World Bank. In contrast, his antagonistic predecessor, Hamid Karzai, spent seven years in India as a student and became fluent in Urdu and Hindi. On assuming office, Ghani promptly signed a bilateral security agreement with the US that Karzai regularly refused. This agreement, among other things, made drone strikes and night raids kosher again. Despite the severity of corruption and weak national governance in Afghanistan, Ghani gives the US hope of continued leverage in the country’s affairs after 2016.
America is confident that Ashraf Ghani won’t become another Nouri-Al-Maliki. Unlike the former Iraqi Prime Minister, Ghani’s demeanor suggests that he will cooperate across ethnic and sectarian lines. He reversed the anti-Pakistan policies of Karzai, thereby nudging the anti-India Taliban to consider dialogue over decimation. President Obama was also impressed with the improved cooperation in the Af-Pak region, praising Ghani’s "bold leadership in reaching out to Pakistan, which is critical to the pursuit of peace." Even the praise-shy General Pervez Musharraf proclaimed “Ashraf Ghani is a balanced man, I think he’s a great hope.”
With the White House’s blessings, Ashraf Ghani aims to steer Afghanistan away from its American co-dependency. In a marked foreign policy shift, outlined in his inaugural speech, Ghani wants to focus on Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors and the broader Islamic world. As long as Ghani is in charge, a bystander status suits the US just fine. His latest masterstroke was pulling in China to affect the Taliban insurgency. A month into his presidency, Ghani flew to Beijing to thank “a strategic partner in the very long term.” President Xi Jinping reciprocated by calling him “an old friend of the Chinese people.”
Ashraf Ghani’s plan worked out beautifully. China not only hosted the Taliban twice in recent months, but also pledged $327 million in economic aid to Afghanistan. Both Obama and Ghani are certain, however, that lasting peace cannot happen without Pakistan. The Pakistan Army has long been accused of playing a double-game that the US, despite being a major ally, has failed to dismantle. China, as Pakistan’s full-spectrum partner, has the kind of broadband sway neither Washington nor New Delhi have. During the Karzai years, any dialogue for cooperation between the two countries quickly turned into mutual blame-mongering.
China’s reasons for helping Afghanistan aren’t remotely altruistic. For starters, it has significant economic interests in the country and cannot afford a chaotic power vacuum. Chinese companies have contracts worth $4.4 billion to mine the Aynak copper fields and a $400 million plan to invest in Afghan oil. Security-wise, the Chinese worry about radicalized Uighers in Xinjiang, especially as ISIS has vowed to “liberate” the province. With China’s new role in Afghanistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is sure to follow. Russia has its own concerns about radicalism spilling over into Central Asia and thereby its satellite states.
It’s no secret that the Army runs Pakistan. Ahmed Rashid, a prominent Pakistani analyst, concurs: “The elected government remains in place, but has few powers and no longer rules the country." That said, America is very fond of Gen. Raheel Sharif, the incumbent chief. Sen. John McCain, Chairperson of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, calls him “a very superior individual.” Since last December’s Peshawar school massacre, his proactivity towards rooting out terrorism has ramped-up to a personal crusade. Gen. Sharif has also dispensed with whatever notions of a good or bad Taliban still remained in Pakistan’s policy vocabulary.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, neatly summed up America’s empire in Afghanistan with “You can’t just hold it by force alone.” Fortuitously for President Obama, the regional actors have enough at stake to care about Afghanistan’s future. Pakistan has its rising civilian casualties; China, its significant monetary investment and even India has $2 billion tied up in the country. Even as the US mistrusts Pakistan and China’s full intentions, the Indian presence and Ghani’s long ties with America will always keep it in the loop. After 2016, the US can hope for no better.
The writer is a freelance columnist and audio engineer based in Pakistan.