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Ashraf Ghani talk at RUSI, 12 May 2016

May 23, 2016

Summary: Ashraf Ghani spoke at RUSI on the growing global challenges of political violence.  Reform of Afghanistan governance was difficult and corruption in Afghanistan was a “national shame”.  He was clearly frustrated by the lack of help from Pakistan with the Taliban: “our extended hand was not shaken”. 

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Ashraf Ghani centre stage, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles to the right

Ashraf Ghani was in London as part of the UK government-sponsored anti-corruption conference.  The day before, the UK media was full of Prime Minister David Cameron’s televised gaffe, where he was heard explaining to the Queen that he was hosting some “fantastically corrupt” countries, before highlighting Nigeria and Afghanistan.  Both the Afghan and Nigerian leaders appeared to have dealt gracefully with this broadly accurate critique.

Ashraf Ghani was at RUSI to give his thoughts on the “Fifth Wave of Political Violence”.  His biography shows him as a scholar of Political Science and Anthropology, working at the World Bank, advisor to former President Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan’s finance minister up until December 2004.  He was introduced by Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Ghani’s friend and former UK Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 – 2009.  He was interrupted three times (although one was technically a question in the Q and A at the end) by very vocal hecklers from the Hazara diaspora, criticising Mr Ghani for the recent government decision to route electricity power lines through the Salang Pass, north of Kabul rather than through the less-economically developed Hazara region of Bamyan province.  One heckler was escorted out, one got to pose her question and one had to be removed with a bit of force; one British Army officer I spoke to afterwards, closer than I was, reported seeing at least two sharp blows to the face by the Afghan presidential security detail.

Mr Ghani dealt with each interruption well, patiently and with good grace, particularly given that the decision over the electricity cables had not actually been made by him but by his predecessor.  It was clearly an issue he had already discussed at length with various Hazara interlocutors but he went through the issue again for the benefit of the audience but, most importantly, the hecklers.

Mr Ghani’s main talk was therefore a little overshadowed.  The presentation was mainly about the challenges of global terrorism, embodied by Islamic State: the fifth wave of political violence.  We have seen several other forms of political violence in the last 100 years:

  1. “Anarchist waves” in the early/mid 20th century
  2. Post-WWII waves of national liberation movements
  3. 1960s terrorism movements in Europe and US – Red Brigade
  4. 1980s and 1990s rise of suicide bombings in the Middle East
  5. Criminality linked to political violence

New forms of networking produced a new and distinctive form of mobilisation: “Face to Facebook”.  The violence is now global: Kabul, Brussels, Paris, London…

Political violence is well-financed with an absence of “rules of the game” and state actors sponsoring non-state actors, thriving on weak and failing states.

Counter insurgency literature shows us that Daesh/ISIS understand us better than we understand them – there is much innovation in communications, use of the media and networking.  The freedom of movement of global citizens is being attacked – bombs on aeroplanes, in cities and in public spaces.  European open borders are under threat and airport security procedures are increasing.  ISIS continue to refine their terror techniques by focusing on the “spectacle” and “theatre” of violence.

There need to be four levels of action to counter this: global, regional, national and Islamic but our action is currently reaction and our responses sporadic.

Who fights in Afghanistan?  Chinese, Chechens, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Pakistanis – all the rejects of the Arab world have been sent to Afghanistan.  Now there is no combat role for NATO but the Afghan national Army (ANA) has managed to deal with these attacks.  Mr Ghani recommended the book “Sleepwalkers” about the terrorist incident in Sarajevo in 1914 that led to the outbreak of the First World War.

Islam needs to regain the narrative – 70% of Afghans live below the poverty line and corruption is an enabler for terrorism.  Corruption in Afghanistan is a national shame – as is the mortality rate for women in childbirth.  The tragedy is made worse as Afghanistan is potentially one of the richest in the region – the “resource curse”.

But Daesh and security issues are taking up all the oxygen.  Al Qaeda is still a worry – what comes next from them?

Global fates are interlinked – we need cooperation and flexibility in a shifting world.

The Q and A session touched on Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan in which Mr Ghani’s frustration seemed clear.  He mentioned an ANA corps commander’s offer to visit Pakistan with a Pakistan army counterpart to point out the Taliban leadership house location in Quetta, his efforts to engage with Pakistan (“there is no good or bad terrorism”) and calling for mature state to state relations and “not teenage rage”.  Mr Ghani said that there was “an undeclared was against us” and added “our extended hand was not shaken”.

Ghani spoke more generally about his efforts in Afghanistan: chairing 53 meetings of the procurement council to ensure that contracts are increasingly compliant and corruption-free.  He had inherited the Kabul Bank scandal – but $250 million had now been recovered.  As part of the National Security Council he had managed now to retire over 90 generals on the grounds of age.  He was reviewing all donor-based projects.  He had cancelled some (this was unheard of) and released the money for other work.  He discussed the need to challenge and reform the culture of government ministries.  Each was run as a personal fiefdom of the Minister and the attitude was “we exist because we exist”.

Comment:

My sense is that Ashraf Ghani is about as good as you are going to get in an Afghan President for this generation.  He seems broadly corruption-free (I know that isn’t much to go on), has good business, economic and financial skills and has a modernising attitude that takes account societal and cultural norms.  He seems willing to challenge nepotism and corruption – although that road will be long.

The talk itself was overshadowed by more immediate Afghan government decisions.  Ashraf Ghani’s thoughts on political violence were interesting although perhaps nothing new.  It was clear to Ashraf Ghani that the terrorism facing Afghanistan was not coming from Afghans but from neighbours and near neighbours.  The insights into frustration with Pakistan and his efforts to reform government were interesting and note-worthy.

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