To find a bright spot on Afghanistan’s political horizon, one must travel to the edge of the capital, follow a pitted road to a half-constructed building with no sign, and walk up four flights of stairs to a large office where an eager man in a new suit is still arranging the furniture.
“I’m fired up,” exclaims Nader Nadery, the recently named head of Afghanistan’s civil service commission. His goal, he says, is to turn a power centre of political favours into an institution that offers all candidates a fair chance, rather than finding sinecures for C-average nephews of legislators and ex-warlords.
Nadery, 42, a former human rights activist, says that if he succeeds in building a merit-based job system, it may help revive public confidence in Afghan democracy. Otherwise, he says, “I will be failing all those who believe in fighting for reforms, in the vision of a new generation, in the future of the country.”
At the moment, though, this promising appointment feels like a small, belated footnote in a long and gruelling war that is going badly on most fronts, leaving many Afghans fearing that the future they once hoped for is slipping away.
Halfway through a presidency that promised to bring reform and modernisation, the country is still struggling with the same problems that have plagued it through 16 years of flawed democratic rule, subsidised by billions in foreign aid: a determined Taliban insurgency, pervasive public corruption, desperate poverty and leaders consumed by political quarrels.
And while some Afghans are keenly awaiting supportive signals from the new administration in Washington, others have already lost faith in the international community, even questioning whether a new influx of foreign military and economic aid is what their country really needs.
“We’ve been hearing about reforms for 16 years, but we still see the same mindset, where the leaders try to manipulate everything,” says Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. “Things are far more polarised and dangerous now. If I had to choose between getting another 20,000 American troops or a real government commitment to reforms, I would choose the latter.”
The protracted conflict with the Taliban and other insurgents continues to dominate Afghans’ concerns about the future. The guerrillas’ persistence on the battlefield continues to force larger and better-equipped Afghan forces into tactical retreats, and their stealthy invasion of Kabul’s military hospital last month stunned the public and nearly got three security ministers impeached.
With spring fighting season about to begin and the prospect of peace talks virtually nil, Afghan and US military officials predict 2017 will be another year of hard combat, territorial setbacks and heavy casualties. Military morale has been undercut by corruption, and a devastating new report from the US Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction described officers selling food and supplies intended for troops.
The economy has been moribund since most Nato troops withdrew two years ago, taking away contracts and cottage industries that created a false sense of prosperity. The World Bank reported a dramatic drop in growth, just 1.6 per cent last year. The government has focused on long-term development projects, including dams and regional trade, but unemployment has soared to 40 per cent, with the capital full of beggars, addicts and returned refugees.
Already one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita income of $1800 (£1500), Afghanistan still has extremely low literacy rates and poor health. In the countryside, violence has scared off investors in mining, while the UN reports that opium production soared by 43 per cent in the past year, becoming a major source of financing for the insurgents.
“We are fighting on three fronts at once – terrorism, poverty and corruption – and they are all interconnected,” says Hanif Atmar, the national security adviser. “It is not easy, but we are making progress on all three, and those who paint a grim and hopeless picture are not right. We are struggling, but we are determined. It is no longer a matter of political will. It is a matter of capacity, and that will be increased.”
Asked what Afghanistan needs most from the United States, Atmar’s only specific request was for expanded air combat support, which he said would transform a war effort that Afghan forces are fighting virtually alone. “We appreciate your efforts to help rebuild our country,” he says, “but the more important thing is that we are partners fighting a common enemy.”
But it is not the international community that President Ashraf Ghani and his team most need to convince. The depth of domestic disillusionment is evident everywhere, from parliamentary debates to radio talk shows to corners where jobless men sit and wait. The feeling many Afghans express is intense frustration; a sense that democracy has failed to take root, that powerful people can still get away with anything, and that leaders who pledged to solve the nation’s problems have become consumed by their own.
Much of the criticism focuses on the president, who has never made himself popular in public and is notorious for flying off the handle in private. But the rap on the ex-World Bank official is changing. For the past two years, Ghani was accused of being too aloof and wonky, relying on a small circle of trusted technocrats rather than reaching out to other leaders in the large, ethnically diverse society.
Now, by making an effort to become more political as he eyes the 2019 election, Ghani has ended up acting less presidential, cutting deals with unsavoury ethnic bosses and offering senior posts to outside critics. This has sidelined Abdullah Abdullah, his embittered partner in the National Unity Government, which was brokered by the Obama administration after a fraud-plagued contest in 2014.
“This government is no longer about principles and reforms, it is about accommodation,” says Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, a former cabinet minister. “Ghani’s focus is now on re-election, and he is moving the pieces around the board, but the whole game could backfire. We need fresh elections, transparent ones, to build a democratic state, but I’m getting worried the next one will be as fraudulent as the last.”
With elections offering the promise of deliverance or the spectre of disaster, Afghans are torn between wanting to speed up the much-delayed electoral process and wanting to make sure it produces a credible result. Local and parliamentary elections were supposed to be held by November, but that seems unlikely. Experts are debating proposals to introduce electronic voter ID cards, ballots and result tabulations, but that could take many months.
Meanwhile, as the sense of disappointment deepens and the prospect of another violent spring looms, more and more Afghans are looking for an exit. Officials have sent dependents abroad, business executives are buying property in Turkey, and students exchange tips with cousins overseas on how to get visas to Germany or sneak into Canada.
Some, though, say they are committed to staying and pushing for reforms. Nadery, for one, says he is confident of Ghani’s support and invigorated by the strong demand from ordinary Afghans for a responsive, honest government.
“The public has high expectations, and Afghan troops are sacrificing their lives in battle, but if we can’t make our institutions serve the people, those sacrifices are in vain,” says Nadery. Already flooded with calls from prominent people seeking favours, he is “practicing various polite ways of saying no”.
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