Project Description

Copyright: Defense in Depth, Council on Foreign Relations, March 26, 2015. With Janine Davidson.

If there is one thing we have learned from the painful experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that success in such missions requires political as much as military solutions. This is why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore worked together just before leaving office to jointly publish their interagency 2009 U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide. In contrast to the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency: FM 3-24 (arguably the most famous doctrine ever released, published by General David Petraeus in 2006), this little handbook was aimed squarely at policymakers.

One of the authors’ most important warnings, based on lessons so painfully re-learned in Iraq and Afghanistan,  was that operational success ultimately began and ended with the efforts and the will of the host government: “Much will hinge on the degree to which policy makers consider the affected government to be receptive to assistance, advice and reform; it is folly to intervene unless there is a reasonable likelihood of cooperation.”

Unfortunately, the failed U.S. relationships with former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai proved the wisdom of this warning. After the sacrifice of thousands of U.S. service members and extraordinary material cost, neither of these leaders proved cooperative partners. Both overtly rejected U.S. guidance regarding political reconciliation and corruption, exacerbating the political fissures in their states, perpetuating their underdevelopment, and feeding the same conflicts that the United States sought to address.

Enter Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s new brainy, cheerful, Western-educated president. Born in Afghanistan, he received his PhD from Columbia University and has spent his career as a scholar and a World Bank official, focused on the problems of state building and economic development. What was he doing for these past thirteen years? In part writing Fixing Failed States, a book which has become a must-read for today’s generation of aid workers and military officers serving abroad. This he did after serving briefly as Afghanistan’s Finance Minister (2002-2004) and then co-founding with Clare Lockhart the Institute for State Effectiveness.

Listening to his many speeches and interviews in meeting after meeting during this week’s trip to DC and New York, it is clear that these decades of study and practice have prepared him superbly for this moment. He exudes confidence and brilliance, referencing a dizzying array of facts, statistics, history, and theory, as he lays out his strategy for “fixing” Afghanistan.

Since taking office, this professorial statesman has hit the ground running, applying his formula to all elements of Afghanistan’s bureaucracy and society. Although Ghani must contend daily with the Taliban (2014 was the deadliest year on record for Afghan civilians), he is also keenly aware that an end to violence will only come with systemicchanges to the country. Although there have been significant gains in the past decade, still 36 percent of Afghans struggle below the poverty line and more than one million youth are unemployed (out of a total population of only 30 million). A whopping 60 percent of Afghans are under thirty years of age. Currently, the criminal production and distribution of opium poppy remains more appealing (and stable!) than any “licit” sectors of the economy. This environment seems tailor-made for terrorist recruiting.

Accordingly, Ghani has poured significant effort into government reform and economic planning. Since taking office, he has requested the retirement of sixty-two Afghan generals (none had been involuntarily retired by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, over the past thirteen years). He fully civilianized Afghanistan’s Department of the Interior, dismissed essentially the entire staff of the corrupt customs office, and established special lines of communication to act on the findings of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). In a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), he outlined a prosperous future for Afghanistan as a “transit country,” linking Europe and Southeast Asia via rail, pipeline, and fiber optic, exporting his nation’s considerable mineral wealth in the process.

Of course, developing this sort of infrastructure will require a high level of security. This is one reason for Ghani’s visit to the United States, during which President Obama officially announced that U.S. force levels in Afghanistan will remain at 9,800 through the end of 2015. The Pentagon also announced plans to fund the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) at a level of 352,000 troops through 2017.

At every stop on his visit, Ghani—in stark contrast to former Afghan President Karzai—again and again expressed his gratitude for the hard work and sacrifice of U.S. service members. In an emotional speech at the Pentagon, he addressed a girl whose father is currently deployed to Afghanistan:

…I have greetings to you from three million young Afghan girls who are attending school today. Fourteen years ago, there were exactly none. So each one of them wants to entertain the hopes that you do and your dad is making this possible. So do thank your dad. And remember, he is there to make a difference.

Of course, as James West observed earlier this week, Ghani still faces immense political and military challenges. He must maintain a fragile unity government with once (and likely future) rival, Abdullah Abdullah. He must still fill basic cabinet positions. He must take ground in Afghanistan’s savage war with the Taliban, contending with a fierce fighting season as hostilities ramp up in the spring. He must also pursue his reformist agenda within the bounds of what is feasible. As Ghani wryly observed to his CFR audience,“If we imprisoned everyone for corruption all at once, there would be nobody left.”

Nonetheless, Ghani is the real deal. His effort this week to build bridges with his number one partner, the United States, along with his demonstrated competence, and, importantly, his gratitude for U.S. lives lost and dollars spent, should go a long way to restore some confidence and hope in America’s continued mission in Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani is a partner with whom the United States can work closely to consolidate the gains made through thirteen years of war and to help set Afghanistan on the right course. By announcing an extension of the U.S. troop commitment, President Obama seems to recognize that this man–and his country–are worth the continued investment. Even as the hard work continues, a little hope has been restored.