The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Afghanistan must do to get billions more in aid

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, left, talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while watching a cricket match between their countries in Islamabad on Nov. 15. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

In less than two weeks, Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, will head to London to meet with international donors. At the conference, scheduled for Dec. 4, he will seek billions of dollars to develop Afghanistan in a new era, as U.S. and international combat troops are preparing to withdraw by year's end. Afghanistan is facing a fiscal crisis; it recently ran out of money to pay salaries of civil servants.

Here’s what the donors will factor into their decisions.

Shaping a new political order

Ghani has missed his own 45-day deadline for naming a cabinet, raising concerns of potential bureaucratic gridlock. In the local media and within the diplomatic community, many wonder if Ghani is getting along with his former rival, Abdullah Abdullah — who now holds the post of chief executive, similar to being prime minister – and whether they can agree on who should get cabinet posts.

A Western ambassador, in a briefing with journalists this week, said he expects the cabinet to be mostly formed by the time Ghani arrives for the London conference. Donors will closely watch the makeup of the Afghan government for signs of whether it remains a body formed of nepotism and patronage, as it was for 13 years under Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

“If you want to convince people that this is a country that’s going to be different in the future, you’ve got to convince them that you’ve got a government that can deliver that,” said the ambassador, who spoke on condition of anonymity  to freely discuss Ghani and his government.

Containing the Taliban

Security remains a concern. In recent days, the Taliban insurgency has stepped up attacks in Kabul. They nearly assassinated the police chief and an outspoken women’s rights activist, as well as targeted compounds where many foreigners live. Donors will want to see whether Ghani has a plan to contain the insurgency, either by fighting it effectively or engaging in peace talks.

Since taking office, Ghani has repeatedly called upon the Taliban to join a national peace dialogue. And he’s actively engaging Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other international partners to support such a peace initiative. But the Taliban have rejected Ghani’s offers.

Improving the status of women

They will also be looking to see whether under Ghani, the position of women in Afghan society will improve. How many women will be in his cabinet? How does he plan to expand and fortify women’s rights in a conservative nation where many women remain oppressed?

Human rights activists are urging the British government to make safeguarding women’s rights a prominent theme at the London conference, and to send a clear message to Ghani. The Western-educated Ghani has signaled that he intends to give women prominent roles in government. He has publicly praised his Lebanese-Christian wife, Rula, which few Afghans expected. She has set up an office inside the presidential palace, and is working on women’s and refugee issues.

In contrast, Karzai never appeared in public with his wife while in office.

Fighting corruption

Most important for the donors, as well as potential private investors, is how Ghani will tackle Afghanistan’s legacy of corruption. In an extensive survey of Afghanistan released this week by the Asia Foundation, 62.4 percent of Afghans said corruption remains a major problem in their daily lives, up sharply from 55.7 percent last year. More than half of Afghans who had contact with the judiciary system in the past year said they were forced to pay a bribe, gift or perform a favor to get results.

In this matter, Ghani is off to a good start in trying to rebuild confidence in Afghanistan’s government and its institutions, Western diplomats and analysts say.

One of his first acts upon taking office was to reopen a court case into the theft of nearly $1 billion from Kabul Bank, which led to the bank’s collapse in 2010. The case involved influential figures, including one of Karzai’s brothers. So far, only about a third of the stolen money has been recovered.

“It was symbolically important,” said the Western ambassador, referring to the reopening of the case.

Last week, an Afghan judge tripled the jail sentences of two former directors of the bank to 15 years, the latest sign that Ghani’s government is taking the matter seriously. But it could take years for the government to track and retrieve the missing money, western diplomats and analysts say.

Some donors are hoping that Ghani will soon tackle the massive amounts of graft currently unfolding within the national, provincial and local governments. One of the biggest targets is along Afghan’s borders, where tens of millions of dollars in customs revenue is being stolen, said diplomats.

Ghani, when he was finance minister under Karzai, was looking into ways to clean up the corruption, by possibly creating a separate customs agency and improving the record-keeping systems at customs posts, the Western ambassador said. The question now is when Ghani will set his ideas in motion.

“It’s an issue he’s given quite a bit of personal time to,” the ambassador said.