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28 March 2019, Gateway House

Afghanistan: Development against the odds

The people of Afghanistan, torn by war, ethnic strife and geoeconomic contestation for their country’s rich natural resources, have paid by forsaking the assurances of daily life. But President Ashraf Ghani has shown them that normalcy can return and it is possible to hold regular elections. The author, a guest of the President and First Lady, travelled through the country in October 2018 to record her impressions of a resilient people who have reason to hope for a different future 

former Visiting Fellow

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The recent talks between the United States and the Taliban for peace in Afghanistan[1] is yet another controversial attempt at ending America’s 17-year-old war in that country. [2]

The issue at stake was finding a formula to include the Taliban in a coalition government. But nowhere was the elected Afghan government included in this scenario.[3] This was the same elected government which has, since 2014, lost more than 45,000[4] of its security personnel in the fight against the Taliban; a government led by President Ashraf Ghani, who has, against all odds, given Afghans the hope that normal life – and regular elections – are possible. He has reminded them that Afghanistan can have its development – and its dreams, transcending the stereotypical depiction of a country, set amidst heaps of rubble, where women wear burqas with holes for eyes to peer out of and terrorists stay embedded in the steep mountains.

Yet, one is hard put to see a single glimpse in the international media of present-day Kabul, which I witnessed during a stay in October 2018 – a city of busy streets with beautiful girls with their sliding headscarves which do not cover, as much as suggest, a subtle modesty; and the campus of Kabul University where young people go about their business under the shade of ancient trees.

Behind the smokescreen of terror, burqas, perpetual ethnic strife and religious conflict, lies another reality: that of a scramble for resources, such as lithium and natural gas[5], available in Central Asia, of which Afghanistan is a part, and into which it is also a gateway.

The businessmen concerned are already making headway in this, with Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, a global security corporation[6], actively campaigning in Kabul to privatise America’s war[7] against the Taliban in Afghanistan and to invest in its rich resources. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani did not receive him, but Prince was in close contact with the warlords and the opposition to the president, offering them support in the country’s forthcoming elections.

The projected coalition government, including the Taliban, can be expected to be more malleable to demands such as those of Blackwater.

I travelled to Afghanistan to visit my long-time friends, Ashraf Ghani, now the president of the country, and the first lady, Rula[8]. On a sunny October day, I heard Ghani speaking in Mazar-i- Sharif, the fourth largest city in Afghanistan[9], bordering the resource-rich lands of Central Asia. In a series of meetings, he addressed different groups – university students, teachers and professors, midwives and doctors, entrepreneurs (both male and female); embracing each member of the groups individually, males physically, females graciously, with a slight bowing of the head. His message to them was clear: they were Afghans living in a territory, historically definable as Afghanistan, encompassing ethnically and religiously diverse populations of Uzbeks, Pastuns, Tajiks, Shia and Sunni.[10] Their duty was to add value to it through their trade, productivity and creativity.

This exhortation was in line with the government’s economic policy, which does not prioritise resource extraction, but developing an IT sector.[11] Over the past decade, 100 young people were trained in IT in Germany; they are now back in Afghanistan, teaching in various universitities.

Two models of governance

I was not seeing an Afghanistan fraying; a society fragmented by religious and ethnic groups in a state of perpetual conflict, open to manipulation by global actors, including Blackwater. I saw clearly an Afghanistan where two ways of governing or ordering of the global economy were vying to have the upper hand: the first was the free-tradist plunder model. It was premised on the priorities of making way for West-based corporations to invest in rich resources, with hand-picked, weak governments unquestioningly implementing market rules, set out by the IMF, and making sure that the law was put in the service of securing foreign investors. This model favours ethnic diversity or ethnic divisions, open to manipulation from outside and open to serve weak governments. The most effective application of this model is in Iraq, where the country has been divided into three, following the Allied invasion, and is in the throes of a civil war among different ethnic and religous groups.

In Afghanistan, the Americans were not very happy when Ashraf Ghani was elected president in 2014. Even before he was elected, the media, while praising Ghani’s technocratic credentials, quoted an American diplomat saying, “He has been more than willing to give us the back of his hand.”[12]  That is, Ghani was not likely to bend to anybody’s wishes. Following Ghani’s election, John Kerry, then secretary of state, therefore flew to Kabul to ensure that a new office of chief executive officer[13] was introduced to limit the powers of the elected president. So today, in public buildings in Afghanistan, one comes across a peculiar situation: the portrait of Ashraf Ghani, the country’ s elected head of state, accompanied by that of Abdallah Abdallah, the non-elected chief executive![14]

The issue at stake under this governance model, therefore, is a denial of the possibility of popular politics in Afghanistan, politics that might impede realisation of the objectives of the Occupation: mainly to keep an eye on Afghanistan‘s resources and to have Afghanistan as a base from which to secure Central Asia from Russian incursions.

The second way of governing the global economy I witnessed in Afghanistan has barely taken root. It is one whose priority is the creation of a national economy with business networks having a regional and global outreach. Afghanistan is attempting to establish trade and investment links with surrounding regions in Central Asia, India and beyond, to the larger global economy through bilateral or multilateral agreements.[15] With İndia, Ghani drew attention to the prospect of close links with the IT sector.[16] This model allows the government to lead the way in extending its influence over a historically defined territory, to make policy responsive to domestic territorial demand. This did not rule out negotiations with foreign investors when their demands did not conflict with domestic priorities.

The Afghan domestic scene

Yet, the scene at Mazar-i-Sharif last October revealed the highly politicised character of the Afghan domestic scene. For instance, the president’s speech to members of the business community revealed tensions between the government and local businesses, some of them possibly having links with the arms and opium trade,[17] favoured by warlords of the Northern Alliance.

Being in Mazar-i-Sharif and listening to Ashraf Ghani lay out his vision of regional outreach made me think of the vibrant trading history of the region. Indian, Armenian and other merchants, dealing in goods from markets in northern India, Kandahar and Multan, had traversed westwards to Persia and north to central Asia, reaching Astrakhan in Russia. This Middle Eurasian trade boomed in the early 18th century. It was first interrupted by Russia, closing its internal markets to Indian merchants from the 1760s onwards, then by the British sidelining the activities of regional merchants to make room for the East India Company in the 1830s.[18] What little was left of inter-regional flows was finally cut off by the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the war in Afghanistan in 1977, the country’s fragmentation, and the rise of warlords.

Is recapturing the region’s old commercial vibrancy part of Ashraf Ghani’s dream for Afghanıstan? He responded to the question like the historian he is of the region:[19] when he retires his wish is to have an institute for the study of the interwoven historical cultures of the region.

The voice of Afghans on the street

Talking to the people after speaking to their elected president is to realise that the fighting that takes so many lives on a daily, weekly basis is not their fight. Large numbers of people went to the polls to vote in parliamentary elections,[20] notwithstanding the efforts on the part of the Opposition – the Northern Alliance, the Taliban – to block them.[21] Such a scenario is likely to be replayed in the presidential elections in June 2019. I think that then too, the people’s will shall prevail, they will go to the polls against all odds to elect their president.

Violence does not speak to the wishes or demands of ordinary Afghans. The youth, as any youth in a global economy, want to enjoy access to iPhones, they look eagerly at store windows, displaying furniture, clothes, jeans, all mostly imported from Turkey.[22] Their overriding demand is for a return to normalcy.

This is where Rula, the first lady, plays a very important part. I observed her addressing different groups of Afghan women, such as those in business or in training for the army. She has an unassuming presence, she represents an honest, silent facilitator to whom people come for all manner of assistance, such as moving things along through bureaucracy. She tells them openly what she can and what she cannot do for them. She makes no false promises, but lends an ear to their grievances.

The Afghan people, for whom a life of regular routine is a luxury, are victims of ongoing Russian and western ambitions in the heart of Eurasia. These ambitions are dramatically represented by the American and European military presence in Kabul,[23] with soldiers in full gear, housed in windowless concrete blocks, monuments to terror which imperial power both perpetuates – and of which it is itself a target.

In contrast to the American-European military zone of concrete at the entrance of the presidential compound, the Afghan government buildings and the president’s residence are located in the midst of Central Asian-style gardens. As if resisting victimhood by the imperial presence, Ashraf and Rula Ghani live an entirely normal life in a simple building, dating back to the 1930s . This structure, together with two palaces which are used for state purposes, has been recently renovated.[24] İn the compound is also a new building of national archives where experts are using brand new equipment, recently arrived from Germany, to restore manuscripts,[25] official documents, newspapers, and films, recounting the history of Afghanistan in the 20th century. This is part of an effort to make Afghanistan whole again.

The president works often through the night with his coterie of young ministers and advisors, most of whom are in their early 30s, if not younger, and form part of the effort to rebuild the state’s human resources.

And yet, the ‘Other’ Afghanistan is all too present. A grim reminder of this reality was a chandelier missing in one of the elegant palaces on the grounds of the presidential compound: the enormous, floor-length chandelier was shattered to pieces by the impact of a bomb which exploded nearby in 2017.[26]

I had only a distant sense of this ‘Other’ through the heavy security we travelled with both in Kabul and outside it, with one fact remaining a mystery to me: in all the regions of ongoing civil wars I visited, including Lebanon, even when the bombs were going off right in their neighbourhoods, people went about their daily chores in the best way possible. Ashraf and Rula Ghani’s way of living, including keeping strict mealtimes, seemed to be very much in tune with this mood.

Statistics tell us the Afghan government controls only half the country’s territory.[27] Beyond the maps and figures, it is important to ask which half, and how. We saw briefly what the half that was not under government control might have looked like during our visit to Mazar-i-Sharif, where the governor was only recently appointed by the government,[28] and the region had been under the control of the Northern Alliance. The portrait of Ahmed Shah Masood, a deceased hero of the Northern Alliance, alongside President Ghani’s, graced the walls of the governor’s palace. Almost everything in the palace building was gilded or painted in gold, possibly speaking of the aspirations of its former resident, a warlord,[29] and testimony to the ‘other’ economy – of opium and the arms trade.

A similarly ostentatious presence is also evident in Kabul, going by its plush suburbs.

This raises all manner of questions about the Opposition, the Northern Alliance, associated warlords, the Taliban and their entanglements with the American presence. This is not a world Ashraf Ghani has in mind for Afghanistan. And it is also not a world the young Afghans I met aspired to. Defying marginalisation as war victims, they want to be part of the larger world, enjoy access to its opportunities and possibilities and have a say in its makings. The achievements of the Afghan cricket team serve as example. Though currently comprised of players without a homebase, the team won a cricket test match for the first time in March 2019 in India.[30] This confirms that the Afghans can do it.

Huricihan Islamoglu is a former Visiting Fellow at Gateway House. 

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] Department Press Briefing, March 12, 2019, <>

[2] ‘The US war in Afghanistan’,<>

[3] Department Press Briefing – March 12, 2019, <>

[4] Fareed Zakaria’s Conversation With President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani During World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting (2019) In Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2019 <>

[5] USGS Projects in Afghanistan, <>

[6] House Hearing, 110 Congress, From the U.S. Government Printing Office, October 2, 2007


[7]Tolo news, ‘ SPECIAL INTERVIEW: Erik Prince Discusses Privatization Of War’,  September 27 2018,


[8] Office of the first Lady, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, <>

[9] CIA, ‘Near East Asia South Review’, March 1 1985, <>

[10]  Brown University, Asia appendix, <>

[11] Ministry of Industry and Commerce, Afghanistan’s National Export strategy, <>

[12]  The New York Times, ‘For Obama, Ghani Offers Hope of a Less Fractious Relationship’, March 22 2015, <>

[13] Afghanistan Analysts Network, ’Elections 2014 (39): Has Kerry saved the day?’, Kate Clark, July 14 2014,


[14] Office of the Chief Executive, <>

[15] Export gov, ‘Afghan Country commercial Guide’, October 10 2018, <>

[16] Export gov, ‘Afghan Country commercial Guide’, October 10 2018, <>

[17] CIA, ‘Intelligence memorandum Afghanistan Opium production and trade’, April 1972, <>

[18] Oxford research encyclopedia, ‘Transregional Trade in Early Modern Eurasia’, October 2017, <>

[19] Columbia University, ‘Production and domination’, Ashraf Ghani, 1982, <>

[20] RFERL, ‘Voting Ends In Afghanistan’s Parliamentary Elections Marred By Violence, Delays’, 21 October, 2018, <>

[21] UNAMA, ‘2018 elections violence – Taliban campaign to disrupt parliamentary elections and its impact on civilians’, 6 November 2018 <>

[22]  WITS, Afghanistan 2016 Import partner share, <>

[23] Brookings, ‘The case for continued US involvement in Afghanistan’, <>

[24]  Tolo News, ‘Renovation of Darul aman palace to resume in Spring’, 7 February 2018 <>

[25] Federal foreign office, ‘Germany and Afghanistan: Bilateral Relations’ <>

[26]  Tolo News, ‘Tolo news 6 pm news’ 31 May, 2017, <>

[27]  SIGAR report ‘Quarterly report to the United States Congress’, 15 May 2018, <>

[28]  Tolo news, ‘Rahgozar Expected To Take Over As Balkh Governor’, 22 March 2018, <>

[29] Cmabridge Core, ‘Warlords, Strongman Governors, and the State in Afghanistan’, February 2014, <>

[30] ESPN, ‘Rahmat Shah, Ihsanullah see Afghanistan through to historic maiden Test win’, 18 March 2019, <>

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