After a successful trip to Washington and New York where the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reset the tone vis a vis the Afghan/U.S. relationship, he returned to Kabul to get on with the business of governing and tackle the myriad problems facing his country.
One of the most pressing issues for the Afghan government is to complete the staffing of the ministries in the hope of strengthening the country's institutions. Although Mr. Ghani presented the lower house of the Afghan parliament, the Wolosy Jirga, with a list containing the nominees for 16 posts that are still vacant before his trip to Washington last month , the Wolosy Jirga has just begun the confirmation process.
The Wolosy Jirga members are directly elected by the people they represent in all corners of the country. They are mostly powerful warlords who have forced their way in by very questionable means. Elections in Afghanistan are fraught with blatant fraud. Therefore, this branch of the Afghan government is as dysfunctional and corrupt as the others, the executive and judiciary.
Some parliamentarians have asked for outright bribes from the cabinet nominees in exchange for their confirmation vote. According to reports from Kabul, some members of Wolosy Jirga are asking for sums upward of $500,000, hefty by any measure. The payment of any such sums will have to be made up from illegal sources once the nominee is confirmed and has assumed responsibility for his or her ministry. Thus the culture of corruption and impunity continues unabated in a vicious cycle.
The first wave of nominees introduced four months after Mr. Ghani's inauguration sailed through the Wolosy Jirga partly because most nominees were politically well-connected to the various parties with militias including the Northern Alliance, Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah's party. This is a good opportunity for the Government of National Unity (GNU) to put a stop to this brazen predatory practice. Mr. Ghani and his partner Mr. Abdullah need to show the Afghans and the world that they are serious about tackling corruption as promised.
On his return to Kabul, Mr. Ghani issued a decree establishing the Electoral Reform Commission in an attempt to begin the arduous journey of reforming the Afghan institution. He appointed a woman, Shukria Barakzai, to head the commission. The office of Chief Executive Abdullah has denounced this move as unilateral by the President and contrary to the previous agreements which led to the formation of the GNU.
Abdullah's spokesman has stated that during the last presidential elections Barakzai was one of Ghani's supporters and as such not acceptable. Abdullah claims that he was not consulted, fearing that President Ghani is trying to marginalize him. As a result of this tug of war the commission has not yet begun its work to reform the elections process needed for the next round of parliamentary elections and beyond.
Even more troubling is the withdrawal of Afzal Ludin as the nominee to head the ministry of defense due to disagreements between the President and the Chief Executive. As the fighting season begins with the arrival of spring and the melting of snow, it is crucial that the Afghan National Army has solid leadership. According to reports Mr. Abdullah has objected to Ludin's nomination by Mr. Ghani which forced Mr. Ludin to step aside. If these are indications of more disagreements to come, not only governing Afghanistan would be difficult, but the very survival of the National Unity Government will be in question.
Another organizational task for Mr. Ghani is to appoint governors and police chiefs in many provinces that he had summarily dismissed last year. People say that President Ghani is good at firing people, some on the spot, but not so apt at hiring. Finding the right person for a job is a huge problem in a country that has a very shallow pool of competent technocrats and other civil servants, especially people untainted by past and present illicit activities. Many expatriates from Europe and the US returned to Afghanistan after the US intervention in 2001 to participate in the rebuilding of the country. But many became a part of the corrupt machine (the Afghan government).
Some good and honest ones like the late Mayor Haidar Hamidi of Kandahar were killed, and yet others were not given a chance and disillusioned, they returned to Europe or the U.S. The agency responsible for the provincial government is the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG). It has been paralyzed without a leader. My contacts tell me that a number of governors including that of the important province of Kandahar are waiting to be replaced and, demoralized, are buying time without accomplishing much. If the Afghan government wishes to combat the Taliban and get support from rank and file Afghans, it is imperative that they provide basic services to the people. This would be almost impossible to achieve in the absence of bureaucrats.
In the past 14 years, the Afghan government preoccupied itself with immediate regional issues rather than world affairs. These issues include matters crucial for the future of Afghanistan including Pakistan, which is a strong link to the Taliban. After his return to Kabul, President Ghani changed that posture by formally supporting the intervention of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. He has been criticized for abandoning Afghanistan's traditional neutrality in favor of a Saudi led coalition against the Iranian supported Houthi insurgency in Yemen. Mr. Ghani desperately wants to engage the Taliban in the hope of stopping the fighting. Pakistan, which is a party to the coalition with the Saudis and Egypt, holds the master key. The Saudis have supported the Taliban with funding and political recognition and as such have sway over them. Mr. Ghani's motivation here is to curry favor with both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. Mr. Ghani went ahead with this endorsement at the expense of Afghanistan's other neighbor, Iran, which is not a player in this calculus.