Things can only get better

Ashraf Ghani runs for Afghan Presidency on anti-corruption ticket

June 28, 2009

Afghanistan could become Obama’s Vietnam, if it isn’t already. Al Qaida, the Taliban and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse have never been in ruder health.

Drone bombing insurgents, much less civilians, will not win the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan, which has now spread to Pakistan, enabling the possibility of a nuclear-resourced Taliban. Former Pakistani SIS head, Lt-Gen Hameed Gul has been himself allegedly blacklisted as a terrorist by the UN for advocating dialogue with moderate elements of the Taliban and for stating the obvious. Gul was and is no angel. He masterminded US support for the Mujaheddin, who later became the Taliban, at a time when the US were primarily concerned with pissing off the Russians – but he is right to state that Afghans see any occupying force as a prime enemy, and thus that the US and Britain are as bad as the Russians in their eyes. Warlords expediently unite to repulse foreign occupiers. Invaders cannot and will not win a conventional war against guerillas in hostile terrain, fought against a backdrop of justifiable civilian outrage at ‘collateral damage,’ without huge attrition. Afghanistan could prove as costly to the US and its allies as it was to the end-of-empire Soviets. The only ‘winners’ are those who stand to gain from fanning the flames of Islamophobia and keeping the US committed to a bellicose policy.

Even if we acknowledge that US Middle East policy is modelled on the Keystone Cops, it is extraordinary that absolutely no lessons have been learned from history, or benchmarks taken from the Iraq farrago, where not only has the ’surge’ failed to establish peace or a democratic mandate – civilian casualties have largely returned to pre-surge levels – but the entire 8 year multi trillion dollar misadventure has left the country infinitely worse off whilst empowering clan-led militias. Some, such as the Mahdi Army, are bent on establishing a version of Shiite fundamentalism and general extortion along the way. Others are simply motivated by the opportunities of corruption on a grand scale in a failed state. Al Qaida, the Taleban and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse have never been in ruder health.

Afghanistan, arguably the epicentre of the original problem, has fallen off a cliff. Puppet President, Pashtun warlord Hameed Karzai, whose credentials stem largely from his Mujaheddin past and US links stemming from the anti-Soviet insurgency period, has a brother Ahmed Wali Karzai who allegedly controls the largest syndicate in a country which supplies 93% of the world’s heroin-grade opium – infinitely more damaging to the West than the export of Islamic fundamentalism. On his chaotic watch a violent variant of rule of law is enforced in Taleban-controlled districts and US bombs are directed at his enemies while corruption is endemic. According to the New York Times: “kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it.” (Bribes Corrode Afghans’ Trust in Government, New York Times, 1/01/08).

I’m no expert on Afghanistan, but I know a failing state, and I know a man who knows a lot about both. I have a high personal regard for Ashraf Ghani, Finance Minister of Afghanistan from 2001-4, founder of The Institute for State Effectiveness and co-author, with Clare Lockhart, of ‘Fixing Failed States. Dr Ghani, a previous candidate for the role of UN Secretary General is also a member of the UNDP Commission of the Legal Empowerment of the Poor. As Finance Minister he was widely credited with restoring the country’s pillaged treasury to some form of accountability before he fell out with Karzai. Though highly connected, he is anything but a warlord, which admittedly has a downside of reducing his chances of success unless he has strong international support (not based on military threats). He has also urged a pragmatic dialogue with moderate elements of the Taliban, and has been fiercely critical of the vast waste of aid money on consultants and NGOs, which has not endeared him to the Powers that Be. But he has everything to play for. Last November, before Dr Ghani entered the fray, a poll gave Karzai a 25% popularity rating. ‘Nobody’ with 22%, came second.

Transparency International rank the Karzai administration as the fifth most corrupt government in the world. Last year only 40 billion Afghanis (approximately USD 800 million), were reported as revenues. In March this year the Finance Ministy estimated that 2/3rd of the government’s annual revenues, amounting to USD 1.6 billion, were ‘lost’ to waste and corruption, indicating potential annual revenues of USD 2.4 billion USD. According to Ghani’s campaign team: “the Karzai government has repeatedly expressed its inability to increase the salaries of civil servants, teachers or address the needs of the disabled, widows, and other vulnerable segments of our society. Lack of financial resources and dependence on donors who are unwilling to support these expenditures has been used as an excuse.” Ghani’s economic platform is based upon the simple expedient of establishing fiscal propriety and using the $US 1.6 billion additional revenues currently lost through corruption and waste to provide salaries and services to the most vulnerable groups of Afghani society. The extremist Taliban elements, meanwhile, draw power from the fact that there is seemingly no alternative between fanatic relgious law upheld by voilence or corruption and criminality, again upheld by violence. Ghani represents a thinking middle path.

According to Dr Ghani: “Citizen awareness of the cost of corruption and mobilization against it has been critical to promoting good governance from the early 20th century United States to Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. We must address corruption as citizens.When citizens can count the cost of corruption on their wellbeing, and the loss of opportunities for their children and grandchildren, then they can transform their individual frustrations into a collective force for change.”

Bombing wedding parties in the name of the war on terror, propping up drug lords and radicalising a ferociously independent population by settling an army of occupation among them has proved a recipe for failure and misery for the past 35 years or more, not to mention several centuries. Afghanistan could become Obama’s Vietnam, if it isn’t already. Powerful people in the US and elsewhere would be delighted for that to happen, the same people, dare I say it, who convinced Bush to focus his misguided efforts on Iraq. While it is highly unlikely that the Afghan elections in August will be fair or democratic, Ashraf Ghani represents a better than outside chance of establishing a civil society and saving the US and Britain from another humiliating misadventure in the neo-colonial Great Game, which we shouldn’t be playing in the first place, to the detriment of world peace and the enrichment of arms dealers, drug dealers and fundamentalists of all stripes. He deserves a fair go. So does Afghanistan.