Ashraf Ghani swore in as the President of Afghanistan on 28 September 2014. In his first presidential speech, he attempted to indicate he had a fine understanding of challenges in Afghanistan. I, however, argue he has an academic knowledge of the problems; he either turns a blind eye to the realities of the country or is yet to fully grasp the realities. His behavior is paradoxically influenced both by his academic thinking and the realities of the Afghan society. His visions are very comprehensive at best, and impractical in general.
The root of all problems, poverty, is a top priority on his agenda. That’s a challenge everyone is aware of. To alleviate poverty he proposed moving from an aid-dependent and importing economy into a productive and exporting one. The idea sounds interesting, but Afghanistan has always depended on foreign aid in the history of its existence. Adding to the initial academic thinking, most probably with Amartya Sen’s definition of poverty in mind, he emphasized improving capability of Afghan citizens as another factor to alleviate poverty. Capability approach posits that the conditions should be provided in order to improve the capacity of individuals to get out of poverty cycle. Those conditions include better education, health services, employment opportunities, redistribution of resources and opportunities fairly, and providing the right political and economic conditions. Both ideas are very theoretical and need a lot of work to be contextualized to become policies and interventions for change in the Afghan society.
Second, in the Afghan context where almost everyone believes in powerful authority, emphasize on the responsibility aspect of power more than the authority component can rather be a sign of weakness than strength. I tend to think that he also believes more in the authority aspect of power or he would not have such long negotiations with Dr. Abdollah on power-sharing in the unity government. I found it deceptive of him to beat around the bush and emphasize the responsibility of citizens rather than forceful, authoritative change. I believe lay people always stand behind slightly harsh, frank truths rather than deceptive politics. He said the government will not be one of imposing power on vassals but one of serving the citizens. Great idea, but unfortunately not practical in the Afghan context.
At the same time, for the two months prior to the establishment of the unity government, every media reported on the power-sharing agreement signed between him and Dr. Abdullah. As known from the agreement, Dr. Abdullah would appoint half the ministers, half top security officials, and half top independent commissioner, the question is whether Abdullah shares the same governing methods as Ghani or not. Or whether his first deputy General Dostum actually believes in what Ghani proclaims to be serving the citizens, not imposing power!? For ordinary people, the government is the means of force. It is not uncommon to see police vehicles racing on streets. People are as frightened from the police as they are from any other armed men. Changing that perception in and of itself requires a decade-long process.
Third, he attempted to redefine security. The general perception is that security is the absence of insurgency, suicide bombings, armed conflicts, and crime. His definition of security included human and social security. Concepts that go beyond the absence of war and include peace, shelter, food and sanitation, health and education, employment, and other social services. Ensuring human and social security is the comprehensive task of the entire government, which requires multi-sectoral interventions. The initial step, again, is to make government officials understand the concept, and then design policies, and plan interventions.
Fourth, he confessed to the widespread corruption in the country, and promised to “not tolerate corruption.” As examples of corruption, he mentioned interruption of MPs at the routine activities of government organizations and recommendations for appointments of government employees. He said both the one who bribes and the who bribed will be punished. President Ghazni promised to ensure transparency and accountability better than expected by the international community and requested the international community to ensure transparency from their end too. The reality of corruption, however, is that if citizens want to pay their electricity bills on time, they have to pay a bribe to pay their bills. Electricity officials intentionally delay filing taxes to find an excuse to receive some bribe. At the high government level, sharing ‘the power’ (including revenue generating ministries) means sharing the channels through which top government officials can become millionaires. President Ghani might have forgotten that bribery is so widespread that government ministers as well as entry-level employees of government are involved in it. Paying bribe is the usual way to get a job done through government bureaucracy. Curbing corruption of this level is by no means an overnight task. Confessing those realities would be the first step to action. Otherwise, Afghanistan does not lack politicians who promise big and forget what they had said the next morning.
Fifth, knowingly or unknowingly, he committed himself to changing the basic fabric of the society, which is discrimination based ethnicity, religion, and gender to name a few. Let’s not forget that ethnic disparity is a reality that made him the president. He said there was no second or third class citizen, and that everyone was first class. Really!? Afghanistan is divided along ethnic lines, and he is appointed as the president because he is a Pashtun. Or else kings and beggars know that Abdullah had won by the clean vote count. Getting over ethnic superiority should be his own first homework, only then he can commit himself to changing it.
He also mentioned focusing on youth and women. Afghanistan is a patriarchal society in which the older man in the family has always said the first and the last word. In practice, President Ashraf Ghani kisses Sebghatullah Mojadeddi’s hand in a gesture of his respect to the authority of the elder. Bringing up young men at the level of authority will be acceptable only if he behaves as an elder and maintains the patriarchal structure of the society. But if the young behaves as the opponent to the elder, and wishes to change the structure of the society, the chances of him lasting long is feeble.
Finally, giving authority to women is only a wishful dream in Afghanistan. In villages, it is impossible to put a brick on a brick without the agreement of the village elder, let alone toppling him, and replacing him with a young woman. There will be a few women at the decision-making level and a few at the parliament, but to have, let’s say, 25% of government positions filled with female employees is another issue. There aren’t enough trained female workers to fill even 10% of government positions. In high government positions or parliament, you will only find women ‘who are manly’, and that’s a compliment. Only patriarchal women with the interest of the patriarchy in mind will reach those levels. In terms of gender equity, Ashraf Ghani’s most sinful act was changing his wife’s name from Rula to Bibi Gul to respect the patriarchal Afghan society in which a woman is welcomed into her husband’s house with her name changed. Welcome to Afghanistan, Rula.
His visions are very idealistic and academic and need to be contextualized to become policies and interventions for change. His behavior is contradictory to the progressive thinking he wishes to put in practice as the president of the country. The biggest question now is ‘how’. How will he ensure security (social security of citizens), fight corruption and the widespread networked power, empower youths and women, and change the import- and aid- dependent economy into an exporting and productive economy to alleviate poverty in the country?