The Washington Diplomat / October 2016
By Larry Luxner
The longest war in U.S. history is being waged in a country whose ambassador is the youngest in Washington. Put another way, American troops have been fighting in Afghanistan for 15 years this month — nearly half the life of its 32-year-old envoy here, Hamdullah Mohib.
Yet as the Pentagon’s involvement in the country winds down with the pending departure of President Obama from the White House, the violence shows no sign of abating. If anything, it’s getting worse.
Afghan forces have struggled to repel Taliban offensives in provinces throughout the country, including Helmand and Uruzgan, both large opium-producing areas. The capital of Kabul has not been spared either.
On Sept. 5, suicide bombers detonated two blasts in a shopping area near Afghanistan’s highly guarded Defense Ministry, killing at least 35 and wounding more than 140 — marking the latest outburst of bloodshed in a land long accustomed to ethnic strife and instability. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the twin attacks, which were followed by a protracted gun battle in the city.
Barely two weeks before, three gunmen converged on Kabul’s prestigious American University of Afghanistan — where Mohib once worked — slaughtering 16 people and injuring nearly 40. Taliban militants are not the only ones threatening the nation’s security. In late July, two suicide bombers believed to be associated with the Islamic State blew themselves up during a peaceful demonstration by ethnic Hazaras, killing nearly 100 and injuring 260 in Kabul’s deadliest attack since 2001.
“I saw the devastation and talked with staff members and students,” said Mohib, who arrived in Kabul for a 10-day visit immediately after the Aug. 24 university assault. “Their determination to rebuild their school and keep the university open is nothing short of inspiring. I can assure you that the cowards who attacked this vulnerable target did not succeed in their attempt to stop our youth from getting a world-class education.”
Even so, the latest string of assaults has succeeded in frightening the residents of Kabul — until recently a relative island of calm in this Texas-size nation of 32 million. “The situation is really alarming. The city was under a semi-state of siege for 12 hours, and that caused a big psychological shock,” Kabul-based analyst Bashir Bezhan told the Washington Post on Sept. 7. He added that with the country’s political leadership riven by internal disputes, ordinary Afghans are in “a huge state of dismay” and no longer trust their own government.
That government, led by “visionary technocrat” and “theorist-in-chief” Ashraf Ghani, as the New Yorker called Afghanistan’s president in a lengthy feature, named Mohib to his current post just over a year ago. In an interview with the Washington Diplomat, the ambassador — formerly Ghani’s deputy chief of staff — said misconceptions about his country abound, usually about basic things like schools and hospitals “that for us is common knowledge.” He also lamented that most Americans have no idea how much progress Afghanistan has made in everything from women’s rights to literacy to even internet access.
“Most of the news we hear is about the security situation. They don’t consider what else is going on,” Mohib told us. “We’ve come a long way. Afghanistan has made a successful political transition. That is the biggest test any democracy has to pass: the transfer of power from one democratically elected president to another. And that happened as smoothly as possible.”
After passing that first test in 2014, he said, “we also had the security transition, which means Afghan security forces took full control as we moved into a combat role against the insurgency. Then there was a third transition, the economic transition that many people underestimated.”
As the U.S. military withdrew most of its forces from Afghanistan, funding and employment shriveled. Mohib says between 200,000 and 400,000 people lost their jobs throughout the country, in everything from construction to food service.
“To put that into an American context, that would be equivalent to 8 million people,” he said. “It pushed our unemployment rate to 40 percent. But in one year, we managed to enact programs like Jobs for Peace to bridge this period. In any case, we’re on our way to becoming a self-reliant country, as planned.”
On Oct. 5, Mohib’s government will get to show off its accomplishments when it and the European Union jointly host the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan — a one-day meeting at which Ghani and his chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, plan to lay out the country’s future by describing their Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework (ANPDF) and to showcase their track record on reforms. Officials from no less than 70 countries and 30 international organizations and agencies will be there. The purpose: to get donor nations to fund development projects to the tune of about $3 billion a year, which is roughly how much is being spent now.
“We never mention a figure, but it’s expected to remain at current levels,” Mohib said. “We hope to see the international community endorse Afghanistan’s plan and continue their commitment to peace and state-building. Afghanistan has presented a credible reform strategy, and at Brussels we’ll present what we’ve been able to achieve.”
The conference, following up from a similar 2014 event in London, is the civilian counterpart to the Warsaw NATO Summit in July, which saw the bloc’s 28 member states commit to supporting Afghanistan’s security needs until 2020.
Also in July, President Obama announced he would leave 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan until the end of his term next January — far more than the 5,500 he had earlier hoped would be needed, but a lot less than the 40,000 troops deployed there when he took office on Jan. 20, 2009.
That’s still too many for some who say that nation-building efforts are bound to fail in Afghanistan’s tribal-based culture, which has seen perpetual conflict, from the Mongol invasions to the Soviet occupation. For others, it’s not nearly enough to sustain the progress the country has made at the cost of American lives and taxpayer money.
Others don’t seem to care one way or another. This election season, as voters battle over issues like immigration and taxes, America’s longest — and largely forgotten — war no longer commands the attention it once did. After a steady diet of suicide bombings and other negative headlines, many Americans are ambivalent about the fate of Afghanistan.
Mohib is working to change that — and counter the perception that U.S. sacrifices in his homeland have been in vain.
“What Americans see in Afghanistan and what we see is very different. We see an Afghanistan full of opportunities, where we can build on the achievements of the past decade and a half,” said Mohib, whose wife Lael is an American convert to Islam. She also worked at the American University of Afghanistan and wrote a New York Times op-ed about the attack (see her profile in the July 2016 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Sitting in Mohib’s wood-paneled office, lined with books and decorated with a framed portrait of Sharbat Gula — who as a young Afghan refugee girl stared from the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic, touching the souls of millions in what eventually became the world’s most famous photograph— it’s hard to imagine that the ambassador was once himself a refugee.
But he was. And not once, but twice. The first time, his family fled to Pakistan to escape the Soviet troops who had invaded Afghanistan in 1980, three years before Mohib was born. The family found refuge in Pakistan once again, when civil war broke out back home. They returned, but soon after the Taliban began its campaign of Islamist extremist violence, his parents sent the teenager to England for his own safety.
“I was 16, and it was my family’s decision,” Mohib recalled. “Other boys my age started disappearing, and my family was worried something would happen to me too, so they sent me away. It was difficult to be on my own in a strange country. I was lucky, though. I had the drive to get an education and managed to build a good life for myself, but there was always this burning desire to return and contribute to the reconstruction of my own country. There’s no place like home, no matter how comfortable you are.”
As a computer engineering student at Brunel University, Mohib established Great Britain’s first Afghan student association, which eventually grew to 850 members. That’s also about the time he first crossed paths with Ghani, an aspiring politician and former finance minister who had come to London to promote his book, “Fixing Failed States.”
“We invited him to speak to our members. It was very different than what we had heard other Afghan officials saying,” Mohib told The Diplomat. “He clicked because this is what we had wanted. We grew up in a war, so we wanted anything that would give us a way out of that war.”
We asked the ambassador what was the most striking image he remembers from his early years.
“As a child, you don’t always understand everything,” he replied. “But the one moment I have never been able to forget is this: Outside our house where we lived in Pakistan, there was a group of mujahideen [fighters] who had returned from their time in Afghanistan. In the evening, they were shooting in the air with AK-47s, writing their names with bullets in the dark. We had people outside our doors who were hungry and waiting to be fed. And for me, even as a child, I wondered how people could afford bullets when they could not afford bread.”
Afghanistan still suffers from extreme poverty, with 39 percent of its people living below the global poverty line of $1.35 a day; for almost half the year, 60 percent can afford only two meals a day of tea and bread, President Ghani said in a Sept. 4 speech to delegates planning the upcoming conference in Brussels.
“Ending poverty across Afghanistan is the first responsibility of our government,” he declared. “But we cannot end poverty if we cannot tackle the violence, criminality and terrorism that creates and recreates both fear and desperation. These are the stakes of the reforms that our government has sworn to carry out.”
According to a slick, 18-page color brochure titled Afghanistan: A Transformation in Progress and handed out by Mohib’s PR people, the country’s annual per-capita income reached only $680 in 2014 — though that’s five times what it was 13 years earlier. Other achievements trumpeted by the Ghani administration: a GDP of $20.8 billion in 2014, up from $7 billion in 2006; a drop in infant mortality from 95 per 1,000 live births in 2000 to 70 in 2013, and an increase in life expectancy from 55 in 2001 to 60 in 2012. Today, 57 percent of Afghans have access to basic health services, up from only 9 percent in 2002. And under the Taliban regime in 2001, the country had less than 900,000 students, all of them boys. Today, that number has increased 10-fold, with girls comprising nearly 40 percent of those students.
“We have about 7 million high school graduates today, and 135 universities and institutes of higher learning in Afghanistan, public and private,” Mohib said. “That’s probably not what most Americans hear. It’s not the kind of news that makes headlines.”
In fact, the desire to make a difference back home was what led Mohib to return.
“My first job was at the American University, where I worked as director of IT, connecting AU in Kabul to the AU in Bishkek,” he said, referring to Kyrgyzstan’s capital. “In the U.K., I was working for Intel, and I lived 75 miles from London. But working in Afghanistan, I could see and feel my contribution making an impact right away. If we built a new library management system and students had access to journals online, that immediately made their lives better. That feeling is not just mine. Every Afghan I have met has felt the same way.”
Mohib says he was working at the American University of Afghanistan, which today has 1,500 students, long before anyone had graduated from that institution.
“I know what a difficult job it is to build a university from scratch,” he recalled of those early years. “Even finding faculty and people who were brave enough to go to Afghanistan was a challenge. There was no internet at that point — no Skype with families — and we even had to import most of the books.”
In 2009, Mohib joined Ghani’s presidential campaign as head of communications and social media, but the candidate came in fourth place out of five candidates; Hamid Karzai went on to win another five-year term. Ghani tried again in 2014 and won this time, promptly naming Mohib his deputy chief of staff. Only a year later, he became Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States.
In Washington, the young diplomat heads a staff of 15; Afghanistan also has consulates in New York and Los Angeles.
“Surprisingly, Afghanistan has many friends in D.C. I’ve been amazed by how much interest and knowledge there is in Afghanistan,” the ambassador said, noting the city’s large concentrations of experts and think tanks. “Many members of Congress have visited Afghanistan and they know what’s at stake. But that is not necessarily the case everywhere. Most Americans have never met an Afghan.”
Mohib said he’s enlisting the help of not only the Afghan diaspora in the United States, estimated at about 300,000 people, but also Americans who served in Afghanistan in either a military or civilian capacity to build people-to-people relationships. “That’s a big force that knows Afghanistan and has a connection to our country,” he said. “The vast majority of people who served there that I met feel they left a piece of themselves there. They want to see that the time they spent in Afghanistan was not a waste.”
Yet U.S. officials are often frustrated when discussing the war, which has killed more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers, injured 20,000 and cost American taxpayers in excess of $1 trillion since 2001, when President George W. Bush ordered troops there in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Despite the massive investment, Afghan security forces often continue to rely on U.S. special forces and warplanes to beat back Taliban insurgents. With so much blood and treasure having been spent in the country, Obama decided to leave 8,400 U.S. troops there — even though he pledged to end the war when he was elected.
In the face of a determined enemy, however, experts say the security situation remains precarious — and the gains Afghanistan has made are fragile. But the ambassador insists that the progress his country has achieved is “irreversible.”
Asked if those 8,400 U.S. soldiers will be enough to help Afghanistan sustain its war effort against the Taliban, Mohib replied: “We never talk about specific numbers…. [T]his was more of an American decision. This is an appropriate number for the time being. As the situation evolves, we will re-evaluate this.”
Mohib added: “The Afghan security forces are only 12 years old, but we have been able to build capabilities to fight, to take the lead in combat roles from international security forces. In 2015, the first year we were fully in the lead, the Taliban tried to test us. This doesn’t mean the war has ended, but we feel we have the upper hand. We’re getting to a stage where we will be able to protect the entire territory of Afghanistan.”
Meanwhile, officials in Kabul are fighting to jumpstart the economy by launching reforms and creating opportunities for Afghans, including legions of young people. (A staggering 75 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 35.)
On July 29, after 12 years of free-market reforms needed to meet the standards for accession, Afghanistan became the 164th and newest member of the World Trade Organization. WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo called the achievement “an endorsement of the extensive program of domestic reforms Afghanistan has undertaken to accelerate economic growth.”
Yet as long as terrorist attacks and sectarian violence continue, that achievement may mean little.
“Even if WTO membership opens up new markets and supply chains for Afghanistan, few will want to engage it on economic levels if the country is too unstable to sustain such transactions. The biggest issue therefore is security,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told Germany’s DW.
To keep the country safe, experts say confronting its notorious legacy of corruption is key. Members of the police and armed forces — who struggle with poor pay and low morale — are regularly accused of making deals with the Taliban, abandoning checkpoints and demanding the type of daily bribes that have eroded Afghans’ confidence in government.
President Ghani was elected in part on his vow to tackle the country’s endemic graft, endless bureaucracy and widespread inefficiency.
“Ending corruption is not a single event, it’s a process,” said Mohib. “Our government is extremely determined to end corruption, and we’re doing everything we can, at every level. A big part of corruption in Afghanistan was government procurement, which also accounts for 10 to 20 percent of our GDP. We want to make sure government contracts are issued based on transparency so that we’re spending our money and donor money efficiently. The government established a National Procurement Council which evaluates all government contracts. It also takes away the fragmentation in government procurement so we can spend that money more effectively. Buying local products integrates the local population,” Mohib said, noting that reforms to the customs system slashed corruption and boosted revenues by 19 percent last year.
The ambassador exhibits the type of wonky policy nuance for which his boss, Ghani, is renowned.
George Packer’s extensive profile of the president in the New Yorker called him “a visionary technocrat who thinks 20 years ahead, with a deep understanding of what has destroyed his country and what might yet save it.” At the same time, it said that he “has few admirers in the State Department, and in Kabul the elite don’t hide their contempt. They call Ghani an arrogant micromanager and say that he has no close friends, no feel for politics — that he is the leader of a country that exists only in his own mind.” Mohib disagrees.
“I obviously think very highly of President Ghani,” said the ambassador. “He is an exceptional leader, has a vision of faith that is unprecedented and has been able to implement a big chunk of what he promised. The things he did as minister of finance, we’re benefitting from today — for example, putting in a licensing regime for the telecom sector. The criticism you see was coming from a very distinct set of people who lost vastly because of his reform efforts.”
Quoting World Bank statistics, Mohib said that from 2007 to 2012 — a period when large sums of money flowed into Afghanistan — the ratio of Afghans living in poverty rose from 29.7 to 31.6 percent, even though it should have fallen by 4.4 percent.
“It was an inequality ruled by a group that benefitted from corruption in the Afghan government, to put it mildly. They suffered from President Ghani’s reform efforts right from the beginning,” he said, adding that, “President Ghani is not trying to be popular today. He’s trying to be effective. And to be effective, he has to make a lot of difficult decisions, and many prominent people will get hurt in the process, because he promised he would leave us an Afghanistan we could build on.”
Mohib said he is in “constant contact” with the president and flies back to Kabul every three months for consultations.
Like every other ambassador in Washington, Mohib says he is watching the U.S. elections very closely, but declined to say what impact a November victory by Donald Trump might have on his country and efforts to dislodge both the Taliban and the Islamic State.
“Afghanistan’s relationship with the United States is built on mutual interests and threats,” he insisted. “We have a bilateral security agreement in place that defines our relationship, so from where we look at it, no matter who takes office, our relationship would be defined by parameters in the agreement.”
Asked if he had anything to tell the American people directly, Mohib thought for a few seconds.
“As someone who has been a refugee at times, and knowing that the world today again faces another huge refugee situation, I must say that even in the best of circumstances, nobody wants to be a refugee,” said the ambassador, who has two children of his own. “My generation grew up in wartime. We were born in a war, and that has given us the drive to end this conflict and bring peace and stability to our country. We don’t take what we have for granted, because we have seen the worst.”