Afghanistan -- Where Is It Headed?

Hundreds of businessmen, shop owners and traders protest against tax hikes in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, April, 6, 2015. Afg
Hundreds of businessmen, shop owners and traders protest against tax hikes in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, April, 6, 2015. Afghan traders shut their shops in the capital Kabul on Monday and marched through the streets to protest against taxes rises in a rare public protest against the policies of the new government of President Ashraf Ghani. Some said the rise in taxes has been about 600 percent, though there are no official statistics. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

In all the years of my second life in the land of my birth, Afghanistan, I have never felt so desperate, disillusioned and downright upset as I am feeling now. I returned from exile in the United States late in 2003, full of hope for the restoration of my country and ready to do my part. But now, after another decade of foreign soldiers and foreign aid, I see Afghanistan literally falling apart.

We are a country at war, but we have no Minister of Defense. Last week in Badakshan province, Pakistani Taliban killed at least 20 of our young Afghan soldiers, half of them found with their throats slit, some with their heads chopped off and placed on their chests. Two weeks earlier in the center of Kabul on a bright Thursday afternoon a bunch of young men hanging out at a religious shrine encountered a young woman by the name of Farkhunda and beat her to death, under the mistaken belief that she had burned a Quran. Four or five of the killers photographed in the act of murder have yet to be caught. This is the kind of country we live in, the kind of events that happen here from day to day. This is the kind of people we have become.

For seven months we have had a new, highly educated president, a very clever and knowledgeable man, well versed in both higher education and international finance, and working hard to find a way to save this country from the ruin it seems to be heading for. Corruption flourishes in the highest places. It is known that the Ministry of Defense, for one example, used its petrol purchase contracts to embezzle hundreds of millions dollars. As a sideline, government officials at the highest levels also helped found the private and now notorious Kabul Bank from which untold millions vanished without a trace or a single prosecution. Afghanistan is not the country we knew. The problem now is to set the country on a different course.

The question is: Can the new president do it? Can he save the country from falling apart?

The answer, if we continue on our present path, will be No.

Many causes combined to put us in this great trouble: foreign invasions, decades of war, great poverty, widespread illiteracy, religious extremism, ineffective leadership, subversive neighbors, and squandered foreign aid: the list goes on. What concerns us now is why our new president, who won standing ovations from the American Congress, has done so little to win applause at home. The government itself seems to be at a standstill, but propelled by the forces of inertia toward imminent disintegration.

To find out how we came to this particular predicament, we should go to Mr. John Kerry who rushed to resolve a fraudulent and disputed presidential election by persuading the contenders, Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, to squeeze themselves into a National Unity Government: the "NUG" we call it here, with Ghani as president and Abdullah as chief executive. We should also look behind the scenes to Mr. Karzai who although willing to peaceably surrender his presidency (a total of 13 years) still is the main player in the unbelievable tug of war within the NUG, the DIS-Unity government of seven Afghan presidents instead of one.

Seven? Yes, they are Dr. Ghani, Dr. Abdullah, two Deputies of Dr. Ghani, two Deputies of Dr. Abdullah, plus ex-president Mr. Hamid Karzai himself.

The Western world, mainly the United States and its NATO allies, concluded towards the end of Karzai's term that to maintain peace in Afghanistan, it was imperative to reach some kind of power-sharing agreement among the ex-warlords, the commanders of various Afghan ethnicities, and one or two legitimate candidates. The candidates themselves chose running mates of different ethnicities to balance their tickets. But that wasn't enough for the Americans. When Abdullah won the first round of voting (but not the required 50 percent) and Ghani recorded astonishing gains to take the runoff, Abdullah's angry followers cried foul, and the Americans feared the outbreak of civil war. That's when John Kerry rushed to Kabul and twisted arms to form the NUG. Afghans awoke to find that after voting for one man (in many cases risking their lives to do so) they got both guys. Why had we been asked to vote at all? On second thought, the NUG seemed an acceptable compromise between Ghani and Abdullah, two leaders for the price of one. It took a while longer to realize that we had not two but seven presidents, a rainbow of Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek: a unity government that can't seem to achieve unity on anything.

Many countries have coalition governments, but not like this. The Afghan model has no precedent in the country, nor even in any of the distinctive cultures it is supposed to unify. It has no history, no established structure or systems, no protocols, no clear or defined lines, not even, as far as we know, so much as a memorandum of understanding. Nor does there seem to be a comprehensive government policy or any provision to regulate the interventions of the one and only ex-president Mr. Hamid Karzai, who has more power and influence in this government than ever before. He still uses all the same facilities and services available to President Ghani, such as Army planes and a large contingent of Army personnel as body-guards, equipped with vehicles and weaponry, to escort him around the country. In Kabul City, people still call Karzai Mr. President while the new president is called Dr. Ghani.

The financial details of all these extravagant expenditures are not clear to the people of Afghanistan. Who is paying for all these presidents and all their very important presidential travels? Where is the money coming from? Where exactly is it going? Has any of it -- coming or going -- been approved by Afghanistan's Parliament?

Almost certainly not -- because the Unity government has no unity with Parliament either. In fact, the parliamentarians are mighty upset with the NUG because in spite of the money, time and effort some of them spent on both presidential candidates in the lead up to the election, a decision came down from the office of the president (whoever that might be): not to name any members of Parliament to the presidential Cabinet of Ministers.

So this country afflicted with both too many presidents and too little leadership of any kind enters its eighth month after the election without a full cabinet while a substantial portion of the Karzai government remains in place. The members of the Afghanistan Parliament, after refusing eighteen people nominated by all the presidents and approving only nine, left for their vacation. (I call it "vacation" because that is exactly what it is, although they would like to call it recess and visiting their constituency.) Like Dr. Abdullah's followers before them, the parliamentarians are really mad. And that is why, although we are a nation at war with jihadis who slaughter like medieval barbarians, our government still lacks a Minister of Defense.

Now you know why I feel the way I do? It's not only me, we all feel this way, but we don't know how to get a message through to the men in charge. We don't know which man (or men) is (or are) in charge. If we could get a message through, would he or they understand? If he or they did understand, could they agree on what to do? And could they do it?