"We cannot afford to be divided"
Exclusive interviews with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah
Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election, which ushered in new leadership for the first time since 2001, resulted in a three-month political deadlock. The stalemate was eventually solved by a political agreement in which both rivals joined hands to form a national-unity government. Ashraf Ghani became president and Abdullah Abdullah chief executive, a newly created post to be turned into a prime-minister position pending a revision of the constitution within two years. In December and January, several months after the formation of the new government, Mujib Mashal spent time with both leaders. He asked them about their relationship after such a bitter vote and the challenges facing Afghanistan in a crucial year of transition. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What sort of a culture of administration, of governance, are you up against? What legacy have you inherited?
AG: The legacy is mixed. On the one hand, we have an immensely engaged public that is demanding reform, that is asking for peace, that is asking for good governance, that is asking for jobs. This is unprecedented in our history. … This is one side of the legacy. The other is the legacy of a very difficult governance environment where overlapping authorities between ministries accounts for paralysis, where most ministries have been unable to spend their money. … It is not unique to Afghanistan. There are about 100 [such] countries. I was the first to, I think, identify and name those analytically; it’s called the expenditure constraint. Because of misalignment, because of lack of clarity regarding the rules of the game, there is a lot of waste of resources. Patronage has become the norm; people do not feel shy about pushing their relatives, their friends, their adherents regardless of qualification. And there are the two cancers. One is corruption. The majority of the Afghan public, in every single survey, is concerned about corruption and wants something done about it. And the other is narcotics. We have inherited [a] significant criminalized economy. And that criminality is the driver of instability. And of course the other part of the mixed legacy, on the one hand, is a deep desire of the people for peace and, on the other hand, until now, the absence of a mechanism to reach peace. We have become numb to loss of life. If you take the 1960s, if people were killed all across Afghanistan in a month this would have been an upheaval. Now we have become numb to numbers. … Part of the legacy, again, is a very, very deep sense of pain. Very deep. I think this is a society that has the symptoms of the post-conflict-disorder syndrome. We need collective therapy, the way South Africa engaged in it, the way Rwanda engaged in it.
Q: In terms of your daily routine, in dealing with the patronage, the kleptocracy, are you trying to deal with it gradually or do you have a zero-tolerance policy from the outset?
AG: The way I am dealing with it, in my routine, is that I don’t engage in patronage. I have seen members of Parliament, all of them, at least four times. … I am differentiating very clearly between issues where representatives are forced to seek patronage versus those issues of individual patronage. By that I mean if a developmental project is not moving, it shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the representatives — senators or members of the house — to knock on the doors of ministries continuously. That is my job. One part of the dialogue is really arising from a vacuum of management. There’s been a strong vacuum of management in terms of follow-up. There’s been a culture of shifting responsibility — the minute a project goes to contract, then the ministries wash their hands. This has brought a lot of people to have legitimate concerns. That part I hear very well and follow. I think this is voice, this is not patronage. But I don’t do individual appointments. I don’t engage the sons of people. I don’t engage their daughters. I don’t engage their kin.
Q: Is there an immediate political cost for that?
AG: That you need to evaluate. I have engaged in a course of action; its evaluation really depends on independent judgment. Of course there must be a cost. But what I am doing is to clearly differentiate — it is not because people do not have access to me. People do have access. But it is not for the purpose of individualized patronage. People didn’t elect me to do patronage. They elected me to bring fundamental change. What I have said across my speeches — we need a balance. I don’t want the reputation of [former Afghan leaders] King Amānullāh or Prince Daud. They did not judge the balance between continuity and transformation right. This has been the historic challenge of governing in Afghanistan. If you push too rapidly or too fast, without counting the political consensus that is necessary, you bring collapse. On the other hand, if you are too slow you can also bring collapse. So the art of governance is to judge the middle ground right. To be able to be goal oriented, but not to move all the pieces simultaneously, because its impossible to move all the pieces simultaneously, given the legacy I have described to you.
Q: Would you say that is the difference between your vision in 2009 versus your vision in 2014 — that there was more balance in 2014?
AG: There was a lot more balance because I saw all aspects of the country. There are two reasons for this. In 2009, there were a lot more opportunities than 2014. If you see the British transparency report, it says in Afghanistan corruption became the system. In 2002, when I became minister of finance, I had a green field and I moved very rapidly. You could build a system; corruption had not yet consolidated, and criminalization of the economy hadn’t taken place. And the international community was engaging in massive resources. And today, of course, we are dealing with an environment where we have completed the security transfer, [we have a] very small footprint of international community and a significant diminishment of resources. Just imagine the impact of 150,000 people, its economic impact. ISAF [the U.S.-led international force] suddenly became the largest economic player in 2010. But today we are dealing with a very different context. The other [reason is that] I had not yet toured the 34 provinces of the country. I have engaged since 2009 in an intensive examination of my country. There is not a province where I have not talked to 400 to 3,000 people. My mode of interaction is to listen. The hardest part about leadership is not vision, it is not management; it’s the capacity to listen, to listen systematically and discern where the public pulse is. It is this judgment.
Q: The criticism, sir, is that your mode of listening, the way you have listened, has been more as a scholar than a politician. Are you trying to change the culture of politics, or is President Ghani still the scholar now trying to rule as a politician?
AG: Well, people are entitled to their opinion. I did not win the election as a scholar. I won the election as a public politician. I have mastered the language of my people. Every note of that language was displayed during the campaign and it is displayed during my presidency. The tragedy of our foreign interlocutors is that because I speak English the way they do, they think I don’t speak Pashto or Dari. Just because they can’t, they should not transfer assumptions. You ask me about how the World Bank is run, I will describe to you in technical terms. But from that the wrong inference is made. My family has been in the same village for 600 years. … My formation is deeply national, in all its complexity: nomadic, settled and urban. You name it. And that is what gives me the ability. You have to have the patience to listen. The problem of most leaders is that they command or bark before they understand.
Q: The coalition that built around you during the election, its members came with certain expectations. How has that been to manage their expectations, but also shift to the mode of governance that you describe?
AG: First, the coalition that was built; I did not divvy up the government. I did not promise anybody anything. It was straightforward. It was transparent. They have been engaged — all our partners, all our key constituencies and stakeholders. But what I am seeking is the best. The cabinet that we proposed has political roots. It is not like countries where technocratic elite come with no political roots. This has been a very careful balance. The president of Afghanistan is limited in his choices. We have complex sets of identities within our unity, and that requires representation. It’s a political geometry you engage in that enables you to move forward. Politics, because institutions have not been yet rooted, requires constant work. And that means you need to reach out to people constantly. Not that you need to reach to them every year — they demand that you reach out to them every week. Political capital is like a cup of tea. If you have one cup, you use it or lose it. But if you have a pot, and a system to renew the pot, then renew the cup. You use it, you renew it. The art of the possible is to use your political capital judiciously, which means you have to be able to take risks. The public judges back the results; this was the right risk. But at the moment when you make the decision, you know that there are risks. Without courage to take those risks, then you suffer from stasis, and stasis again brings collapse. A situation without change is not sustainable.
We have an $8 billion [trade] deficit, which is met from foreign aid. If we don’t change this, we are going to starve when aid stops. It is not the job of the ordinary young man who is seeking a job to worry about this, but it is my responsibility. To change this, it is going to require pain and courage and enormous determination.
Q: And is that courage easier for you because you are focused on a transformation rather than political longevity?
AG: Look, I am 65. No ambition. I dislike wealth, I dislike conspicuous consumption. My life is incredibly simple. I have two children who each live an incredibly modest life, the life of the mind. I am dedicated to this country. And I have spent 40 years thinking about every aspect of this country from a national perspective and from a comparative perspective. Unlike all the predictions, I have become the most patient president that this country has probably witnessed. President Karzai had legendary patience, but I think I have surpassed him. Even he says I am too patient. But my patience is one of determination: to bring structural change, to focus on the basics, on the fundamentals that would change the rules of the game and the playing field. My actions are not random. It’s not to pick this piece, then that piece. It is to see the whole. I think what my background enables me is to see the whole: to have a very clear understanding of where we are, but simultaneously to be able to put a pathway to where we should go. And that is the constant shift.
Eight hours of the day, I have to deal with legacy issues. Or as I say it in Pashto, I am cursed at for eight hours a day. But the other eight hours — my day on average is 16 hours — is about building the future. We are living in a house that is burning. Every hour, some piece of the furniture is burning. So you have to put out fires. But simultaneously we are building next door the foundation of a very solid structure and every day taking a step so that foundation is created. Then you can move.
Q: With respect to your foreign policy, you moved with a sense of urgency that garnered some criticism that you were focused outwards. Was it directly related to your peace plan, the regional move? What was the sense of urgency?
AG: First of all, we were bankrupt. We have a $138 million deficit in the budget. The country had no resources. The BSA [bilateral security agreement] and SOFA [status of forces agreement with the United States] had not been signed. ISAF was ready to pack. The urgency came from establishing solid relations with each one of the five circles of our foreign policy. Foreign policy in Afghanistan is domestic policy; it is not foreign policy. Every tissue of our life in the current moment connects to one of these five circles. I had to … create the necessary partnerships to provide the platform for domestic things.
With [respect to] the region, we have come with the vision that I think is quite unique and pragmatic. We have courted every single one of our neighbors near and far. What we have offered is a shift from Afghanistan as a battleground to Afghanistan as an economic meeting ground, Afghanistan as a platform for cooperation. We have created the first platform of cooperation between China and the United States. We have produced a consensus in Brussels; we have produced a consensus in London. You know, I had to write the bulk of the paper for London conference [on Afghanistan]; other countries would have spent millions of dollars on consultants and then it wouldn’t have sounded right. You can see from the reaction that our agenda was genuine. It wasn’t a fake agenda. We are becoming again Central Asian the way we were. … All roads lead to Central Asia. We are assuming our ability to become the Asian roundabout. Regional economic cooperation is the key to prosperity.
Everybody is looking to our mines; I am looking to our location. Our location is going to produce sustainable jobs. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans will get engaged in middle-class occupations connecting East Asia, South Asia, West Asia, Central Asia. Mines have a curse of plenty attached to them, so I am incredibly careful … not to reproduce false growth. We are positioning ourselves for Asia’s tremendous transformation that is going to change the world. And then international organizations — the World Bank, the ADB [American Development Bank], the U.N. system, private investors — without my focus on these, I cannot do jobs, I cannot bring the money to pay the security sector or for building a road. The demands of our people are of a middle-class society, [yet] our resources are of one of the 10 poorest countries on earth. So to change the balance — and that’s again what the people elected me for: for my ability to translate — one of the key functions of this job is constant translation. I take the demand — of a nomad, of a settled, of a displaced, of a disabled — and turn them into an agenda of hope. But I need simultaneously to speak the language of the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank to move projects.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the trust building process between you and Dr. Abdullah?
AG: We had a very important base. During the transition government, Dr. Abdullah and I worked very closely when I was finance minister. He always helped me and I helped him; we worked very well together. Second, during the election, not once did I criticize him. Not once. And the reason was very simple: I had foreseen the need to form a government with him. The day I handed my nomination papers, I said, God willing we will win, but a winner-takes-all formula won’t work in Afghanistan. Third, we have established a focus on the agenda of transformation. Corruption bothers him as much as it bothers me. So the relationship we have established is based on mutual respect. Dr. Abdullah is a formidable coalition builder and coalition breaker. He has unbelievable strength, which I have always said in this regard. And knowing him, I know what he brings, and that is essential to Afghanistan’s success. So we work very well together. We will function in that regard. Political unity is absolutely critical to our agendas. There is a misperception that this unity was imposed on us. It’s not. It is a result of my work on the 600 years of history. Whenever the Afghan political class has had unity, we have done remarkable things. But when we’ve been divided — and that’s been most of our history — we have suffered like anything. We cannot afford to be divided.
On his decision to go against the advice of his advisers — who were urging him to declare his own government — and, instead, join President Ghani as CEO:
It was overwhelming in many ways. But at the same time … it is responsibility that drives you, not emotions. I wasn’t less emotional than my other colleagues. … But you have to control [your emotions]. I know that some of my colleagues were extremely upset with me. … I had weighed in and some of the things just come before your eyes: If I do this, what will happen? And having lived in this country, and having gone through difficult times at different ages, I wouldn’t forgive myself if I said I didn’t understand the conditions. … I knew that the situation would be beyond everybody’s control if I made a bad decision.
On threats of military force issued by his followers during the election drama if his demands weren’t met:
This is part of the context of the country. If democratic politics do not work in this country, what is the alternative? That fear, that concern amongst the people that we might not have our basic rights only through politics and through democratic politics. That has kept the situation, the circumstances [of so many people carrying arms], and it’s a risky situation. And I am pretty sure that, had the political leadership in Afghanistan increased the people’s belief in democracy and rule of law, we wouldn’t have been in this sort of situation at all. … Some people think that carrying arms or having a gun at home — people like this. I know thousands of these people, they don’t like it. But they don’t have that confidence in the system or the local circumstances. They don’t think the system [will] protect them or protect their rights. That is very unfortunate, that 13 years down the road, we are in this sort of situation.
On the national-unity government and his relationship with Ghani:
Sometimes I reiterate this to myself as well as President Ghani — that, look, there is a situation that if the two of us agree on something, that works in this country. If we don’t, it doesn’t work. This is, from one side, it is a liability. With a change of mood, somebody cannot agree on something and things don’t work. It’s a liability, it’s a vulnerability. From the other side, it’s an opportunity: Two forces have joined together, two leaders make a decision, the whole country supports [it] or [at least a] majority supports [it]. We shouldn’t lose sight of this situation. Because we might get different advice. We do. But if we lose sight of this situation for a single second, then the country will be in trouble.
There might be tendencies among political entities around President Ghani to tell him, ‘You are the president of the country. You shouldn’t compromise.’ … The country doesn’t have two presidents. I am the first one to understand this and believe in this — that there is one president, called Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. That’s it. That I have accepted, endorsed. … But at the same time, there is a national-unity government, and there is a partnership. That part also cannot be ignored. There are entities that are pushing for this: ‘Why do you need this? You are the commander in chief. You have the top authority in the country.’ There are. We should work [around those forces]. The fact that things are moving — to create this positive atmosphere, out of such a complex elections, the credit goes to both of us.
On election reform, which both Abdullah and Ghani committed to as part of the national-unity government:
That is the key … as far as the political agreement [that created the government] is concerned. This [election reform] is 90 percent for me, if not more. Twice, three times [elections marred by allegations of fraud have been] repeated. It shouldn’t repeat [again]. He [President Ghani] also believes in it. And my point to him was that, let’s assume five years down the road we complete our term but the people of Afghanistan trust the institutions, trust the electoral system and our institutions move toward self-reliance — that is a big achievement. That is on the top of my mind. When I complain about President Karzai, why he left us in a situation where things are so fragile — if we leave people with the same fragility, that will be a waste.