The Afghan government has nearly a full slate of ministers. On April 18 parliament approved the 16 ministerial candidates put forward by President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah. Only the Ministry of Defense remains open.
Now it is time for the Afghan government to develop a compelling national vision and strategy for a peaceful and prosperous future.
Whether the new government, formed after 6 months of internal wrangling, can succeed remains an open question. Afghanistan’s economy remains on shaky ground. Efforts to battle corruption and dismantle kleptocracy have begun but major political reform is needed. Time is critical. Donor flight after international troops depart at the end of 2016 could doom Afghanistan to another civil war.
The war between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban has been growing in intensity and lethality. Reports of peace talks earlier this year remain unfounded. Hopes for progress in Afghan-Pakistan relations after President Ghani’s November visit have begun to give way to cynicism and charges of appeasement. Violence against women remains high; justice is often absent.
Islamic State reportedly claimed responsibility for a murderous bombing in Jalalabad that killed 33 civilians and wounded 125. The extent of IS presence is uncertain, but Afghanistan and Iran have pledged cooperation against the group. A new major terrorist threat in Afghanistan would be devastating for Afghans and highly damaging to the government. The Afghan Taliban now claims al Qaeda is no longer present in Afghanistan. IS might provide a common enemy to the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban.
Ghani and Abdullah can increase the likelihood of success by taking one simple but critically important step: direct the Cabinet to develop a credible and compelling national strategy.
This strategy should integrate five key elements: 1) political reform and governance, 2) contain and reduce the Taliban threat, 3) a dignified and responsible peace process, 4) regional diplomacy, 5) greater economic self-reliance.
The Afghan government has never had a strategy to win the war. This sad state of affairs is partly the fault of former President Karzai who could never bring himself to believe that his own people were fighting his government, and partly the fault of the Obama Administration who never insisted on a common strategy as a an entry-requirement for massively scaling-up and sustaining our assistance.
To the extent a common approach exists, it has mainly centered on the military. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), with the help of International Security Assistance Forces – Afghanistan (ISAF), has a military campaign plan. In the absence of a national strategy to guide and direct it and other elements of national power toward a successful outcome, however, the ANSF are simply fighting and dying in the hope of winning. This must change.
Armed with a national vision and strategy, the President and Chief Executive can use it as a basis for holding their officials accountable for results, and for extending international support. President Ghani, when urging President Obama to reconsider his withdrawal timeline, rightly noted the need for the Afghan government to show credible progress. This strategy can provide a very important part of that argument, and should be sufficient for U.S. and coalition partners to keep an open mind.
The potential strength of the National Unity Government can be realized if diversity and significant common purpose become mutually reinforcing. Assessing the state of the war and developing a strategy to bring it to a favorable and durable conclusion may bring out the best in the Afghan Government — and give people a vision and game-plan they can rally behind.
Christopher D. Kolenda is the President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps Not-for-Profit organizations maximize their impact in conflict zones. He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to the Department of Defense senior leadership and to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan. See his two books on applied combat leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.