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Advisor to Ashraf Ghani Mohammad Qayoumi & Karl Eikenberry Discuss Afghanistan’s Future

January 17, 2018

By Editor

Recently, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Asia Foundation trustee, Karl Eikenberry, joined Mohammad Qayoumi, chief advisor to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, for a conversation in San Francisco on security, the economy, education, and the coming parliamentary and presidential elections. An engineer by training, Qayoumi left his post as president of San Jose State University in 2014 to return to Afghanistan as Ghani’s advisor on infrastructure and technology. This is an edited version of their discussion.

Eikenberry: It’s clear that Afghanistan’s economy at the height of the surge back in 2012 and 2013 was a war-time economy that wasn’t sustainable. We all knew there would be a transition period until there would be a new normal for Afghanistan. Today, there’s a sense of normalcy and planning. Can you talk about this?

Qayoumi: For the 14 years prior to the current government led by Ashraf Ghani, the money in Afghanistan was part of the consumptive economy and not focused on actually building a thriving economy. In 2014, imports were 21 times the exports, we had hardly any connection with our neighboring countries, and a major population had been displaced. For example, for a country that has all the resources to create cement, we were importing sand and gravel. When President Ghani took office in 2014, part of his campaign manifesto was to figure out how to build a self-reliant economy so that Afghanistan can get away from aid dependency. To do this, the country is now seriously exploring what it should be growing, extracting, trading, and manufacturing.

Eikenberry: What do you see as the country’s greatest assets?

Qayoumi: Rather than saying how poor we are and how we need the world’s help, we’re instead looking closely at the assets of the country. Our natural resources are strong and bring enormous hydro, wind, and solar energy potential. Yet we still import the bulk of our electricity. Our location is another asset: Afghanistan has historically served as a land bridge, being part of the Silk Road network. Also, Afghanistan, situated between Central and South Asia, provides the connection both north-south and east-west. Within his first year, President Ghani visited all of the neighboring countries to begin discussions on trade. Over 20 agreements have already been signed with Uzbekistan alone—the two countries seek to triple annual trade to over $1.0 billion—which means that a good amount of Afghanistan’s trade can, instead of going through Pakistan, now go through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and China. The extraction potential is also significant: the total present valuation of Afghanistan’s minerals, oil, and gas reserves is about $722 billion.

Eikenberry: At the same time that Afghanistan is examining its assets and resources, there are significant challenges. According to The Asia Foundation’s annual 2017 Survey of the Afghan People, about 70 percent of Afghans at some point during the year have feared for their safety. Broadly, we can say that since 2014, the Taliban has gained more influence in the rural areas, and tragically, has been able to threaten the bigger cities with terrorist attacks. What are your views on the security situation?

Qayoumi: In 2014, we had more than 100,000 U.S. forces, and today there are fewer than 10,000. 2014 was basically an existential year for the country because the Taliban and Daesh were trying to do a repeat of Syria, to take a part of the country and run their own government. First of all, that did not come to fruition. All of the fighting since 2015 has been done by Afghan security forces, with foreign forces playing only a supporting role.

One aspect that doesn’t get much play in the media is that security isn’t just a Taliban or a Daesh issue. Afghanistan is fighting with 21 different global terrorist organizations operating along its eastern and some on its western borders. Despite this, those organizations have not been able to hold any particular territory. Afghanistan is also making great strides in rebuilding its air force—I was there this year when the first set of black hawk helicopters arrived, and this is going to play a big role in the country’s ability to provide security.

As far as the countryside goes, Afghan soldiers have been winning the wars there, especially in terms of the number of casualties inflicted on the Daesh and the Taliban. But we’re also seeing the tactics of war changing to more of an urban guerilla warfare, which has largely become a tragedy across the world. Afghanistan is also challenged with a weak central government, and then on top of it, there is so much corruption, especially in the police area. The drug trade is a main source of corruption and insecurity. In fact, it’s a regional network allowing this to happen. Unless that’s broken, it will be hard to address security in a regional way.

Eikenberry: 57 percent of survey respondents said they still believe in democracy. While that number has gone down over the years, it’s still encouraging given the immense challenges since 2002 in democracy-building. That said, the country is now facing a set of electoral challenges, with parliamentary election due next summer. The Parliament is several years overdue being elected. How do you assess these challenges?

Qayoumi: Where we have seen the most reform is on the judiciary side. In the past year and a half, the new attorney general and chief justice have replaced over 100 judges, including some women judges—bringing the total women judges above that of some of our neighboring countries. Secondly, one of the things that gives me more confidence is that Afghanistan has a truly free press. In fact, it’s so free that it’s irresponsible. Kabul itself has more than 100 media sources. I also see a thriving civil society. These two things give me hope for a successful path toward democracy.

In terms of elections, the government has made the commitment that parliamentary elections will happen by next summer, and that presidential elections will happen in 2019 without delays. We will certainly have challenges along the way, but the commitments have been strong, and the government is examining ways to make sure the elections are transparent. For example, they are looking at issuing electronic ID cards, although the question over whether people’s ethnicity should be listed or not has unfortunately delayed this process.

Eikenberry: To many people’s surprise, about five months ago President Trump announced a new Afghanistan policy that takes the troop level up to over 13,000, emphasizes greater accountability in the Afghan government, a sense of shared responsibility to fight corruption, and a focus on making sure development assistance is being used most effectively. How is that policy being perceived in Afghanistan?

Qayoumi: Overall people were relieved, and welcomed the new policy of the current U.S. administration. I believe a number of things changed Trump’s policy toward Afghanistan from when he was a candidate. One is that so many senior officials and cabinet members in U.S. government know Afghanistan well. They had a far better understanding of the dynamics of the situation, and I think that influenced Trump’s decision quite a bit. That appreciation of how the war has moved was very helpful in shaping Trump’s decision in keeping the troops, but also making any kind of aid package more performance-based. This is actually something that President Ghani has welcomed.

Eikenberry: There are so many good news stories in Afghanistan that rarely get told. One of them is the story of education. In 2001/2002, under the Taliban, the average level of education for an Afghan citizen was 2.5 years. Today, it is 10.1 years. There were 1 million children going to school at that time; today there are 8.9 million, and 39 percent of those are women. What needs to be done as a next step?

Qayoumi: A lot has been done, it’s true, but a lot more needs to be done. We have 29 public universities and over 130 private universities. The number has increased, but the challenge now is ensuring the quality of that education, and especially making sure that the faculty themselves are qualified. The Ghani administration has changed legislation to provide more resources in education, and there are discussions with institutions like MIT EdX in the U.S. to bring their curriculum to universities in Afghanistan. There is also a moratorium on new universities in place until all the current universities are reviewed to meet the local accreditation system, and the ones that don’t meet that system will be closed. We’re also working with international partners to build a stronger vocational/technical education system. This year, 60 percent of vocational/technical applicants were women. That is very encouraging.

We are also assessing the whole K-12 system as the current curriculum is ineffective. To give you an idea, a first-grade student has about seven subjects and a 10th grade student has about 17, and the university entrance exam covers 28 different subjects. The president has been meeting with leaders in education, as there is very high interest in transforming the K-12 curriculum to be more effective, as well as bringing science, technology, the arts, and literature into the schooling system.

Eikenberry: As you know there have been challenges governing in Afghanistan. What’s the future of the presidency of Afghanistan?

Qayoumi: It was a faith in President Ghani and hope for the future that inspired me to return to Afghanistan. We are seeing a number of enthusiastic young Afghan leaders coming along, although not enough of them. People have been waiting for a long time for some of the things that are happening over the last couple of years in Afghanistan. For example, one hydroelectric dam that was in construction for decades is now finished. The current railroad project is actually part of the Berlin to Bombay initiative back in the 1850s and is now finally going to be built. Despite all of these difficulties, some of these projects are happening and the hope is that there will be enough of a change that many of these changes can become irreversible. People are beginning to see that despite the difficulties that they face, the hard life that they suffer, they see a glimmer of hope. I certainly hope this glimmer continues. Not just the people of Afghanistan, but the rest of the world cannot afford for Afghanistan to become a failed state, because unfortunately, if it fails, it will be on the basis of terrorism that could have direct impact on the west and that’s not good for anyone.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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