Category Archives: Atlantic Council

In Afghanistan, President Ghani’s First Steps Will Be Critical

President Ashraf Ghani took over from President Hamid Karzai in Kabul today in an historic transition. A long dispute over the election result was resolved with a rare compromise that brought Dr. Ghani’s opponent, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, into government in a new position, as “chief executive,” that is shaped as a kind of prime ministership. The flood of commentary that preceded this inauguration was marked by extreme views, divided between those who saw the Afghan glass as half full and those who saw it emptying fast.

The mission for President Ghani will be to ensure that the glass remains unbroken. For Afghanistan’s sake and for the sake of its global and regional partners, who have invested heavily in this democratic transition, it is critical that Ghani leads in set up a governance system that works, is corruption-free, and lays the ground for stability and prosperity. He faces the task of doing so in the face of a Taliban insurgency that contests, or has displaced, state authority in disparate swaths of the country.

Ghani’s first challenge will be to ensure that government ministries are not treated as spoils for the winners. He will have to create, with Abdullah’s cooperation, a self-monitoring mechanism that will deter malfeasance and ethnic or tribal favoritism in sharing out the Afghan state’s own and borrowed or gifted resources.

The new president then will need to rebuild the confidence of his global partners by renewing ties that Karzai left to wither in the past year or two. Signing the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States likely will be on top of that list of promises he made. That will let a small US troop contingent stay in the country to train Afghan forces after the NATO-led combat force ends its mission within three months.

Ghani has the knowledge and experience of regional economics and politics that will let him revivify ties with Iran, Central Asia, Pakistan, and India. Rather than use India as a foil for Pakistan, he should work to catalyze an India-Pakistan partnership that would create a regional energy and open trade market with Afghanistan as a hub. He also could use Afghanistan’s deep cultural ties with Iran to help that country work out differences with the United States and Europe, and also resolve bilateral issues of drug smuggling and water-sharing across the Afghan-Iranian border.

His challenges abound, both at home and abroad. Besides the war, corruption and the illegal narcotics trade are pervasive, undermining the weak government machinery upon which Ghani will rely. Amid all this, Afghanistan has a largely young and heavily urbanized population that will need help in maintaining the progress that Afghan society has made in the past decade or so. Education, and especially of girls, has been a major achievement. Participation of women in the work force has grown. Health care has improved.

If Ghani can retain the progress made by persuading others to follow his personal example, and if he and Dr. Abdullah act visibly in concert to fight corruption and narcotics, they will be able to set Afghanistan on the right path. A path that Afghanistan’s friends would be better able and willing to support.

Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.

Nawaz on Pakistan’s Intelligence Director

NBC quotes South Asia Center Director Shuja Nawaz on Pakistan’s new intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar:

““Its good news that a professional soldier and not someone from the intel branch has been brought to the ISI,” said Shuja Nawaz of the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

“However, the ISI’s size is so large — larger than any other military command at his rank — that it cannot be controlled down to the lowest levels.”

While the military’s rank-and-file incur heavy losses in the militant-prone border areas, there have been instances of soldiers turning on their own. Assassination attempts in 2004 on a former president, retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf, involved military personnel, for example.

And earlier this month, a failed mutiny by navy personnel inspired by militant Islam almost led to a naval frigate being hijacked.

So Akhtar’s got a big job ahead of him, according to Nawaz.

“That’s going to his biggest operational challenge: Will he succeed in controlling this institution where his predecessors have failed?”

Nawaz: Pakistan on the Brink, Again

South Asia Center Director Shuja Nawaz writes for Foreign Policy on the mass protests in Pakistan demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Shar

With thousands of young Pakistanis besieging their capital to demand the ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan — a key element in the United States’ plan to withdraw from neighboring Afghanistan by the end of 2016 — is slipping into political anarchy. Only one year after the country’s first-ever democratic transfer of power, the elected government in Pakistan is at risk of another military takeover. Yet Washington is showing little sign that it is paying the situation the urgent attention it requires.

The youthful horde in Islamabad — led by former cricket player and current leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) party Imran Khan, and a religious teacher from Canada named Tahir ul Qadri –demands electoral reforms, and Sharif’s removal from office for corruption and alleged fraud in the May 2013 election, which gave him a huge plurality in the parliament. From its headquarters in Rawalpindi, adjacent to the capital, the powerful army waits, calculating its next moves.

Nawaz: Give Afghanistan a Little More Breathing Room

South Asia Center Director Shuja Nawaz is quoted by the Washington Examiner on President Obama’s Afghanistan withdrawal strategy: 

Shuja Nawaz, a native of Pakistan and the director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, said the biggest lesson the White House can take from the rapid disintegration of security in Iraq is that “the nature and speed of withdrawal from any country has repercussions.”

“The conditions have changed dramatically in the region” since Obama’s speech at West Point and “it may be time to rethink some marginal changes in that draw-down strategy that will allow Afghanistan a little more breathing room to get its political and military act together,” he told theWashington Examiner.

Nawaz on Presidential Elections in Afghanistan

ABC News quotes South Asia Center Director Shuja Nawaz on Secretary John Kerry’s visit to Afghanistan to discuss the country’s runoff presidential election:

Even if the candidates agree in principle to a power-sharing agreement, they won’t be able to put it into practice until the new president is inaugurated, meaning there could be continued uncertainty until that point, said Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“The candidates may agree in principle on the division of ministries, for instance, but the relationship between the two candidates is going to be left up in the air until the final result is announced and agreed upon,” he said.

Nawaz: No “Breakthrough Proposals” Expected in India-Pakistan Talks

The National Journal quotes South Asia Center Director Shuja Nawaz on upcoming peace talks between India and Pakistan:

“A discussion of tactical weapons and replenishment of stocks of older missiles will probably come up,” Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, said in response to emailed questions. “A potential source of progress might be retirement of older missiles by both sides. That may help reduce overall numbers.”

However, he said, he does “not expect any breakthrough proposals.”


Sharif and Modi each “face a huge challenge from entrenched interests at home: the military in Pakistan and the bureaucracy in India,” Nawaz said. But, he added, “they both have an opportunity to show their leadership by being bold and bringing along civil society and businesses to bolster their efforts at creating détente, followed by entente.”

Kerry’s Visit to Kabul Will Be Critical to Defusing Afghanistan’s Election Crisis

Zalmay Khalilzad, David Sedney Analyze Hopes for Resolving a Dangerous Dispute

This weekend’s visit
to Afghanistan by Secretary of State John Kerry will be a critical opportunity to defuse the dispute over Afghanistan’s presidential election that threatens the country’s stability, two former US top officials said. Kerry is to travel to Kabul as presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani dispute the still-incomplete results of last week’s voting – a crisis that if left unresolved could lead to ethnic splintering and civil war, according to former diplomats Zalmay Khalilzad and David Sedney.

Abdullah, the former foreign minister and a candidate heavily supported by ethnic Tajiks of Afghanistan’s northeast, rejected the preliminary vote count announced Monday by Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission, which showed him trailing former finance minister Ghani by twelve percentage points. In the election’s first round of voting, Abdullah led Ghani by fourteen percentage points, and he accuses President Hamid Karzai of having helped tilt the second round of voting in Ghani’s favor. Karzai, like Ghani, is a member of the Pashtun ethnic group, the country’s largest.

Abdullah lost confidence in the formal election process when the election commission included 7,000 disputed ballots in the preliminary announcement of results, Khalilzad and Sedney said at a forum hosted by the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. The ensuing distrust in Abdullah’s camp of the Ghani campaign, the Karzai government, and the electoral commissions caused his supporters to respond with protests and demands for the formation of a parallel government. Still, Khalilzad noted, Abdullah has reiterated the importance of Afghan national unity and has urged his supporters to remain patient as he waits to hold formal talks with Kerry, who press reports say will arrive in Kabul on Friday.

A Basis for Hope: The Political Maturity of Ghani and Abdullah

Alongside the formal negotiations with election officials, an informal track of communication between the two political campaigns should be maintained as part of calming the conflict, Khalilzad said. He urged the elaboration of political formulas to keep the loser of the election engaged in the political process.

Sedney identified the Obama administration’s involvement in resolving the dispute as a vital demonstration of continued international support to the Afghan people. Abdullah’s campaign is facing tremendous internal political pressure to harden his stance, as “the margin of fraud is larger than the margin of error.” Sedney reminded the audience that “disentangling the web of conflict is something that only Afghans can do.” However, like Khalilzad, Sedney said Abdullah and Ghani share a broad congruence on the major political issues facing Afghanistan. Both candidates are politically mature and committed to a progressive vision for Afghanistan. Responding to fears that a compromise will not be reached, Khalilzad stressed that “both candidates do not believe in the philosophy of winner take all,” and reminded the audience that no political position is more important than the future stability of the country itself.

Sedney rejected the suggestion that Karzai is trying to use the dispute to extend his term in office. While it is known that Karzai wants a political role in Afghanistan’s future, Karzai “does not want to be president anymore,” Sedney said. If the crisis is not resolved and Karzai stays in office, Sedney argued, it will cost him the biggest accomplishment of his twelve-year term in office: Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic and peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another.

Highlights of the discussion included these:

  • On the insurgency: Both speakers were concerned that the Taliban and other armed rebel groups may take advantage of the political crisis in Kabul by escalating their summer offensive. If the two candidates fail to reach a compromise and ethnic divisions begin to resurface across the political spectrum, the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan will perceive the continuation of armed conflict as the best way forward, Sedney said. It is in the Taliban’s interest to see political divisions in Kabul that could weaken the Afghan National Security Forces.

  • On Afghanistan’s political future: Although his view of the Obama administration’s policy in Afghanistan is generally favorable, Khalilzad said, he hopes that the United States and the future government of Afghanistan will reassess the decision to withdraw all US combat forces by 2016. Sedney criticized the tendency of US governments to heavily engage foreign policy issues only when they erupt in crises. “When the crisis is resolved, the US must stay involved,” he said. Sedney stressed that “power-sharing” formulas of the past — with their distribution of senior government positions to the heads of competing factions — are not the solution to Afghanistan’s political problem. Instead, the country needs a government that provides “inclusive, progressive, performing, young, and uncorrupt” leadership, he said.

  • On Afghanistan’s broad progress: Khalilzad noted the development of Afghanistan’s education system, the growth of civil society, the recognition of women’s rights, the increase in Afghanistan’s connectivity with the world, and the operational successes of the Afghan National Security Forces. These, he said, are indicators of a relatively successful coalition effort in Afghanistan during the past twelve years. Referring to the political fatigue that characterizes the views of America’s political class towards Afghanistan, Sedney stressed that the “American people and American leadership cannot make good decisions on Afghanistan because they don’t know the facts” of this progress.