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A U.S. Ambassador Reflects on Afghanistan

A U.S. Ambassador Reflects on Afghanistan

There is no short way out. Any success will be very slow in coming.

Reform of Governance

There are still efforts at reform. Technical competence in several ministries is said to be improving. The Independent Administration Reform and Civil Service Commission is a continuing bright light. Against enormous counter pressures it continues to grind away at merit promotions and hiring. Jobs continue to be properly advertised, testing administered and the most qualified hired. The response is often staggering. Eighty thousand applicants applied for 800 positions in one case. The ranks of teachers are being pruned of so called “ghost teachers,” those for whom pay is drawn but no teacher exists. A complaints division within the Civil Service Commission is actually able to provide redress in some situations.

However, it is important to understand that this work is a matter of slowly and continuously taking small steps of reform against many strong elements of resistance. If it continues it will eventually make an extraordinarily important change in Afghanistan’s political culture. But this will take years. The effort could be set back or destroyed if the political deal making of the election deal out as spoils too many of the positions the Commission has painfully managed to fence off for merit promotion.

Some other important elements of reform are worth noting. The International Monetary Fund has reported "noticeable progress" in fiscal management and financial sector reform. The World Bank has praised Afghan governmental efforts to improve conditions for doing business in Afghanistan.

Other elements of reform, of which I was more hopeful last year, have slowed. The Anti-Corruption Justice Center has lost its luster. Prosecutions have not continued, President Ghani’s backing for aggressive investigation has come into question, and a recent report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan was quite scathing. Many other bureaucratic actions are touted as reform. Some of them may be so, such as the commission Ghani chairs on contracts, changes in tax collection, subnational governance or improvements in budgeting. Whatever the reality, the pace of reform has not made much of a public impression as far as one can judge from wide ranging conversations.

Summing up

There is no simple bottom line for Afghanistan. There is no short way out. The costs are large, but, at less than one percent of our defense budget, they are sustainable. The Afghans are still fighting and doing most of the dying. There are few American casualties. Reform is happening in some areas but overall it is more an aspiration than a reality. Any success will be very slow in coming. The shear length of the struggle will cause many to argue that it is time to quit. Against this must be set the fact that the threat of attack on the homeland from the al Qaeda that took us there still exists and has grown with the development to the Islamic State, which, after defeats in Iraq and Syria, has every reason to seek revenge against the United States. At least for now, when Ambassador Khalilzad's efforts at starting negotiations are just beginning and while there is still a presidential election to get through and evaluate, it would be premature to give up on this agonizingly long struggle.

Ronald E. Neumann was US Ambassador to Afghanistan 2005-2007 and returns regularly.

Image: Afghan president Ashraf Ghani delivers a speech during the United Nations conference on Afghanistan on November 28, 2018 at the UN Office in Geneva, Switzerland. Fabrice COFFRINI/Pool via REUTERS.