Alphen, Netherlands. 1 October. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. The swearing in of President Ashraf Ghani as Afghanistan’s head of state this week is an important moment. It is the first peaceful, democratic hand-over of power in Afghanistan’s history. No-one should under-estimate the importance of the moment or the achievement for Afghanistan and democracy in a country deeply divided by ethnicity, power and traditions and which is too often consumed from within by elite corruption and a criminal economy. Equally, President Ghani faces immense challenges. He came to power in a disputed election and will need to provide leadership Afghanistan has never known at a particularly dangerous moment. Is he up to it?
President Ghani and I have engaged on several occasions at meetings over the years. He is without doubt a brilliant man who always impresses and who has an unrivalled understanding of his country and its challenges. The very nature of our engagement at such events was itself fascinating. My approach was to look at the challenge of Afghanistan from an unashamedly Western viewpoint. This is because having looked at Western strategy in Afghanistan and written several big reports on the challenges posed I thought it important to be clear; Western powers were not in Afghanistan out of an act of charity whatever the rhetoric to the contrary. It was pure, naked national interest that drove the Western powers into Afghanistan and it is the self-same interests which has driven most of them out.
Ghani’s response to me showed his strengths and his weaknesses. In our exchanges I was always careful to bow to his knowledge of Afghanistan and simply listen. His love for and his deep knowledge of his country is something to behold. However, he also suffers from the weakness of conceit shared by many brilliant people. A very clear weakness evident on several occasions (and not just to me) was his occasionally dismissive belief that he knew about the interests, strategy and policy of my country far better than me. He was wrong.
Part of his ‘certainty’ was the natural defensiveness of anyone who is part of the Washington ‘thinktocracy’. To survive in DC think-tanks one must know everything, all of the time and never be wrong about anything. However, too often the Ghani lecture (for that is what it was) was not so much an analysis of Western interests as a wish list of his ideas for a permanent Afghanistan-centric Western interest. This led him to believe that Afghanistan and by extension Ghani himself were and are far more central to the national security of Western powers than was ever the case.
This juxtaposition between leader and thinker, informed and inspired leadership and wishful thinking is probably the place where Ghani’s presidency will succeed or fail. If he approaches his task as an elevated Washington think-tanker he will fail. Indeed, as President Ghani he needs to be able to look down upon ideas from the heights of power and great responsibility rather than up at power via a simple exchange of ideas without great responsibility, which is where I live.
Furthermore, to succeed Ghani will need to achieve and reconcile two almost contradictory missions both of which concern the ‘normalisation’ of Afghanistan as a state. On the one hand, President Ghani must build on the very genuine sense of nationhood that most Afghans feel irrespective of ethnicity if he is to create a state called Afghanistan that is more than a giant security complex. On the other hand, President Ghani must deal with the consequences of ‘success’ that ‘normalisation’ entails, i.e. the more normal Afghanistan becomes the less interested the US and indeed other allies will be in Afghanistan and by extension him.
With this week’s signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US and the exemption of American forces from prosecution under Afghan law the security effort to buttress the new Afghan state and Ghani’s presidency has been physically reinforced. The Agreement means some 9800 US personnel can in principle stay in Afghanistan in a training and mentoring capacity until at least 2024. This is important. However, for Ghani to be legitimate in the eyes of Afghans Kabul cannot again become synonymous with force or a protected canton of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Indeed, if that happens Kabul will again be seen simply as a Western-imposed distant elite ‘legitimised’ by American, i.e. foreign power. This is something the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and the many fellow-travellers amongst the tribal and clan leaders will exploit, particularly in the Pashtun lands and quite possibly with the assistance of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence. If that happens Afghanistan will be cast back not moved forward.
Therefore, the true test of President Ghani will be the emergence of some form of civil society across Afghanistan itself buttressed by the just rule of law. It will see an Afghanistan further established on an economy that moves steadily away from the cultivation and exploitation of hard narcotics and which is properly re-integrated into the wider regional economy. To achieve the demilitarisation and decriminalisation of Afghanistan President Ghani will need to stamp down hard on corruption in Kabul and the regional capitals and reach out to Afghanistan’s powerful and troublesome neighbours. Above all he will need to lead a real government of national unity in close partnership with Afghanistan’s new ‘Chief Executive’ and presidential rival Abdullah Abdullah. Such a strategy will be at least as important as reliance on his many contacts in elite Washington.
Here is my concern. My reading of President Ghani is that on occasions he too often allows an elevated ego to cloud a masterful intellect. Indeed, he has an insecurity about him at times which renders him susceptible to the charms of those who ‘agree’ with him out of self-interest. The President will need to realize that he cannot be an expert on all things and have the strength to seek wise counsel even if he is an if not the acknowledged expert on how to build a broken state.
President Ashraf Ghani is no Gandhi. However, Ghani has it in him to be a truly great Afghan leader if he allows himself to rise to the status of his elevated office (as indeed he can) and yet retain the openness of mind to listen. There is one thing of which I am sure; President Ashraf Ghani will certainly imbue the Presidency of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with the respect and dignity that the Afghan people need and deserve.
As Gandhi also said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.
Good luck, Mr President.