This article was first published by Foreign Policy.
With the Afghan government having recently passed its hundredth day in office, it is natural that there be some stocktaking. Reality is setting in after a honeymoon period of high expectations. Certainly, the new government got off to a promising start, sounding the right notes substantively and stylistically in addressing the issue of corruption and the country’s economic challenges. The government undertook bold initiatives in trying to refashion relations with several neighboring countries and the international community. After drag-out negotiations, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah seemed determined to make their national unity government work despite still unresolved issues.
Afghans’ confidence in their government has rapidly eroded. The long delays in naming members of a cabinet and filling other high positions have exposed familiar ethnic fault lines and the pull of political obligations incurred by electoral alliance building. Failure to address unemployment and inaction on other pressing issues has cast doubt on Ghani’s reputation as a decisive leader and administrator. And the Taliban’s gains in key provincial districts and the high profile attacks in Kabul have called into question the government’s ability to deal with the country’s worsening security.
The public’s growing impatience and frustration with Ghani’s performance notwithstanding, most Afghans feel they have little choice but to give the new government more time and space to succeed. They seem to acknowledge that for all its shortcomings to date, the fledgling Kabul government remains the best and perhaps last hope that the country can avoid falling into the political abyss of civil war.
Similarly, the international community shows no sign of wanting to turn its back on Kabul. However disappointed donor countries and international agencies are with a government that appears immobilized, there is wide appreciation that without their continued backing the regime would almost certainly collapse. The December London Conference was attended by 59 countries that affirmed their support for Afghanistan’s security and unity, and their confidence in Ghani. Undaunted by his problems at home, the Afghan president was able to impress the participants with a clear vision for the country and the steps he plans to take realize his goals. Unlike his predecessor, Ghani left no doubt at the conference about his embrace of the full international community and gratitude for its assistance.
The Ghani government had earlier bought itself important time with Afghanistan’s principal aid benefactor, the United States, and for now has quieted those critics in the U.S. Congress and media pressing for a total pullout. Ghani not only signed the long delayed bilateral strategic agreement, but quietly lifted a ban on night raids by U.S. and Afghan Special Forces. Washington’s commitment of trainers and advisors through 2016 carries the promise of financial aid to last well into the future. A subsequent decision by President Obama to broaden the scope of U.S. military engagement and his increase in troop levels planned in 2015 may have signaled a new flexibility and perhaps a willingness to reconsider the timeline his administration has set for a full U.S. military exit.
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