As was expected the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, pushed the reset button putting the Afghan U.S. relationship on a different and much better path. This was a welcome relief both in Washington and Kabul. The relations between the two countries had precipitously deteriorated during the previous regime due to Hamid Karzai's belligerent posture and language towards the U.S., culminating in his refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). For the first time an Afghan President went out of his way to publicly acknowledge the United States sacrifices in terms of blood and treasure. In many forums, President Ghani rightfully thanked the American service women, men, and civilian personnel who served in Afghanistan and the taxpayers who have footed the bill for Afghanistan's stability and reconstruction since 2001.
In addition to expressing gratitude for the U.S. efforts in the White House and at the joint session of Congress, Mr. Ghani also talked at length about the problems plaguing Afghanistan and a pledge to solve them. In return, President Obama agreed to slow down the pace of American troop reduction in Afghanistan. The U.S. will maintain the current force level of about 10,000 through the end of 2015. Additionally John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, announced a much needed aid package valued at $800,000 called the "New Development Partnership." The development partnership is significant because it is linked to the progress of the reforms that Mr. Ghani enumerated. These reforms include the eradication of corruption, the establishment of the rule of law and justice and women's rights among others. The Washington establishment who had grown wary and tired of Karzai's acrimony was elated by what they heard from Mr. Ghani. Consequently, there is a renewed optimism that the new Afghan President and his Government of National Unity (GNU) will deliver on the promises made.
While President Ghani's démarche is a necessary and good first step, given the political climate and the track record of how slowly the GNU has moved in the past six months in office with regard to institution building and other issues, we need to be cautious.
To begin with, the cabinet of the GNU is not yet complete due to lingering political disagreements despite the brave face Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah, the Chief Executive, put on in Washington. The Afghan President submitted a list of 16 for the vacant cabinet posts before his departure for the US. But the Afghan Parliament has not yet acted on it. According to sources in Afghanistan, the tug of war for power between the two former presidential rivals is continuing. The Afghan constitution does not define a role for a chief executive post. Furthermore, Rashid Dostum, a powerful warlord from the north and the Afghan First Vice President, is unhappy because he feels marginalized by both Ghani and Abdullah. His support during the presidential elections was crucial for Ghani's triumph against Abdullah.
The former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, blamed the U.S. for ills plaguing Afghanistan. But in a sharp departure from his predecessor, Mr. Ghani has recognized and acknowledged the endemic corruption within the government. Understanding the problem is the first step to solving it, but eliminating corruption is a tall order in Afghanistan. To eradicate corruption, Mr. Ghani needs to clean house first. His entire administration has been divided between former warlords such as Dostum and even Abdullah from the Northern Alliance, etc. and their surrogates who feel entitled to owning a piece of the government in Kabul and the provinces. These people, responsible for the culture of impunity and corruption will not go away voluntarily. They are also a part of the GNU in a tenuous political alliance and to sideline them will probably result in the collapse of the government.
Tackling corruption cannot be accomplished in the absence of a robust rule of law which is almost nonexistent in Afghanistan. The Taliban have very successfully exploited this vacuum to extend their reach in many areas by setting up their own courts. The U.S. has spent millions of dollars in the past several years promoting the rule of law to no avail due to corrupt Afghan officials. Mr. Ghani in the past had referred to Mr. Dostum, now his First Vice President, as a "known killer." Dostum has been accused of committing mass murder and other excesses in the north. How a "known killer" can be trusted to work for the rule of law is a burning question in the minds of many Afghans.
Mr. Ghani boasted about appointing four women to cabinet posts which is commendable for putting women's rights on the agenda. But as Mr. Ghani was embarking on his trip to Washington last week, a mob lynched a 27 year old woman, Farkhunda, in plain daylight in the center of Kabul while police watched. Worst, the Interior Ministry spokesman said that her lynching was justified as she had insulted Islam. Although the government has vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice, this is not an isolated case and it requires a fundamental societal change which could take many decades.
President Ghani is an educated and competent man and as such is a welcome face in the leadership of Afghanistan. But he is also a part of a very dysfunctional, incompetent and corrupt machine ill-suited for producing the reforms he promised in Washington.