No Free Meals

What dif­fer­ence in ap­proach is Ashraf Ghani bring­ing to Afghanistan?

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Mubashir Noor

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.

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