Listening to the Minister of Finance of Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 4/16/2007 · 5 comments

H.E. Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi
The images are blurry because I am an amateur.

This morning, in a rare fit of intrepidity, I left the suburban enclaves of Virginia and ventured into the DC to hear His Excellency Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, the Minister of Finance of Afghanistan, discuss the financial and economic challenges his country faces. The sparsely-attended talk was at the Brookings Institution (coincidentally right next door to the Uzbek Embassy), and I learned some valuable things. Just not necessarily from him.

For one, my opinion of reporters and the media in general was lowered another notch. ITAR-TASS, Time Magazine, and NPR each had correspondents present, but none of them asked particularly interesting questions (like the ITAR reporter asking, “If the opium went away tomorrow, what would Afghanistan look like?”), and even then their questions could have been answered through basic research and preparation, like reading the most recent reports from The World Bank and The IMF. Mr. Ahadi himself looked a bit bored (maybe relieved) while answering, as if he fully realized these were things people could read on their own and he wasn’t necessary for answering them. I dearly wanted to ask about the government’s position on legalizing or legitimating parts of the opium trade, but I wasn’t called on, and the actual reporters who asked questions about opium did not ask meaningful ones. In fact, the only really good question was asked by a non-reporter, a representative of USAID, who inquired about portions of the budget spent per capita, which is a good indicator of how deep government services reach.

For another, my opinion of Brookings took a hit. I was denied access to Mr. Ahadi after the talk (only “credentialed journalists” were allowed to talk to him). I did strike up a brief conversation with a nice lady there, but since I have zero people skills I neglected to introduce myself by name (though I mentioned, and I forgot to ask hers. So, if you are her and you remember some chubby kid with thick glasses and messy hair fumbling with his recorder and losing his scarf, please say hi! Brookings’ refusal to allow a blogger back access was a bit disappointing, but I did not press the issue as much as I could have, nor did I raise any kind of fuss—a meek “okay, then” seemed enough at the time.

Regardless, I did record the session, and once I have a chance to clean it up a bit I might either post it or a transcript.

But what of Mr. Ahadi? The majority of his remarks was a laundry list of the considerable progress Afghanistan has made since 2002. While much of it was unremarkable to anyone who has read the IFI reports, he did say some interesting things. In particular, I like how Mr. Ahadi drew a distinction between state building, which is establishing the functions, duties, and finances of the apparatus of the state, and nation-building, which could be seen as further economic and political development. In the first phase, Mr. Ahadi said, a strong, perhaps occasionally brutal, central authority is needed, while in the second, dissent and perhaps occasional violence must be tolerated. The deep complexity of Afghanistan is that both are being attempted at once, with the added difficulties of creating nationalism, stemming a pervasive drug industry, and the Taliban.

The theme of complexity crept up again and again, and while I appreciate that it is indeed terrifically complex to build a country from scratch inside a war zone, after 30 minutes or so it almost began to sound like an excuse. This should not in any way diminish what has been accomplished in Afghanistan, however: despite my own dismay at the recent downswing of events, the level of progress has been remarkable, especially when considering that they started at zero.

My ears perked up at two statements. The first was a complaint that not enough money was being channeled through the government. This was the primary complaint, and primary policy suggestion, in the article I wrote on the subject. As such, it was nice to hear that Mr. Ahadi and I are in agreement. Related to this was the problem that security receives nearly four times the money economic development does. This might be necessary, as development without security is void, but it is problematic in the long-term if underinvestment continues, especially in education.

Gulbuddin HekmatyarThe second was Mr. Ahadi’s declaration that there are no warlords in Afghanistan. When I heard it, I was visibly taken aback (I then felt a flush of embarrassment as the CSPAN camera was focusing on my section of the crowd). No warlords? I suppose Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who as recently as January was bragging about how he helped Osama bin Laden escape through Tora Bora, doesn’t count? Or the other mass murderers—Ismail Khan, Rashi Dostum, and others—who have donned civilian garb and joined the government, don’t count either?

Mr. Ahadi said he meant it in terms of control: there are no Big Man-type rulers who control a swath of territory in open defiance of the central government. That is certainly true to an extent. Besides which, what of the drug smugglers? They exercise tight control over their producers. And when entire provinces are for the time being uncontrollable, I’m not certain chaos is an improvement. Anyway, for a big chunk of Afghanistan’s history, the Warlords weren’t autonomous governors. They were guerilla commanders, often hiding out in Pakistan and making quick strikes into Afghanistan to disrupt and destroy Soviet efforts.

Ahh, Pakistan. Guess who Mr. Ahadi did not mention by name? Pakistan. He did mention “unspecified international support” for the “insurgency,” as he called it (I don’t recall him ever saying the word “Taliban,” though others did). Was using “insurgency” an attempt to draw a parallel to Iraq? Probably not. But why the refusal to mention Pakistan’s recalcitrance on the issue of its uncontrolled border regions? This goes hand in hand with his mild prickliness on opium (though for good reason: opium still supplies about 30% of the total economy, which is good progress from when it was 50%, but it’s still unbelievably bad). They were two subjects he seemed eager to avoid.

As a side note, I was fascinated by how Mr. Ahadi unconsciously described Afghanistan as a proxy war. There is the “international community,” which is mostly the United States, against those unspecified international supporters of the Taliban. In other words, it is one group of international actors supporting action against another group supported by international actors. I don’t know if there is something more profound there, but it is an intriguing way to consider the country.

Seen in that light, it’s useful to compare Mr. Ahadi’s talk with Carl Robichaud’s account of an address UN ambassador Zahir Tanin gave at NYU. Mr. Tanin was explicit about Pakistan’s role in the Taliban’s insurgency (there I go), and he was sympathetic, but not optimistic of a legalization program for the opium. Oh, and Robichaud got to ask a question (about the United National Front, which has caused some concern among the domestic press).

It is difficult to be very critical of Mr. Ahadi’s remarks, however, or his performance during Q&A. He was there to discuss the economy, and he did that quite well. It is impossible to address anything in Afghanistan without mentioning security, however, and in this area he is not an expert. But he doesn’t need to be: as far as his performance as Finance Minister goes, I would call it exemplary. Under incredibly difficult circumstances, with dim chances for success, Mr. Ahadi has pushed Afghanistan’s economy along to a truly incredible state: where people can look at the country, and see hope.

When Ahmed Shah Massoud was murdered on September 9, 2001, Hamid Karzai said of his homeland, “What a profoundly unlucky country.” Slowly, painfully slowly, that is changing. I share Mr. Ahadi’s optimism that with effective policy and a long-term outlook, the Taliban can be waited out (especially if those unspecified international actors in Pakistan are either discouraged or destroyed). I am probably wrong to be so relentlessly negative in my discussions of NATO and U.S. policy: though I get deeply frustrated at the lack of attention, and the incredibly slow pace of change, I’m not sure it is fair to expect more. Mr. Ahadi convinced me of it.

Update: I’m on CSPAN. Haw. No, really—I’m that chubby kid with the bald spot and the black glasses, on the left. And H.E. Ahadi’s remarks are here in full. I’m sure there are things I missed in my feverish note taking.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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chicago dyke April 16, 2007 at 5:29 pm

i had a totally different experience at my last brookings talk. they were helpful, friendly, and i got to ask several questions. it was an econ talk, but the people speaking were “just as important.” so i guess it’s all in the set up. be more confident next time, don’t take no for an answer.

Bonnie Boyd April 16, 2007 at 5:29 pm

Dear Joshua,
Thanks for the reporting on the presentation by HE Mr. Ahadi. I have to agree with his and your point about funneling aid through the government, in order to legitimize it. At the same time, the legendary corruption in the country has made it difficult for the international community to acquiesce in that state/nation-building method.

There is a further reason: troops fighting insurgents are in a structurally losing battle for local public opinion. As Paul Collier writes, the politics of grievance tends to support insurgency (civilians get killed by troops, notwithstanding that said civilians are hiding insurgents by choice, under no choice, or not at all). Aid directly from the states whose military are engaged is part of the PR for the troops–and also a hassle-mitigator and hostility mitigator on the ground.

Poor pay for civil service in Afghanistan undoubtedly assists in institutionalizing government corruption. Toward the last, Mr. Ahadi said that Afghanistan was going to increase civil service wages, that wages also made up 60% or so of the national budget already. In short, Afghanistan needs more aid, period–from donors who will funnel into the state and donors who will fund through their own mechanisms alone, as Mr. Ahadi was quite anxious to point out.

Laurence April 17, 2007 at 6:25 am

Thank you for this interesting post. I think even Brookings knows about Registan, btw…

Safrang April 17, 2007 at 2:04 pm

As a side note to BBoyd’s comment about about channeling aid in Afghanistan, there is also a third mechanism for aid deliver (apart from Afghan government and US/Donor countries in tandem with their military) – that is, through local and international non-government organizations. And as far as I can tell, the government of Afghanistan’s biggest grievance is directed at this group. Once again the issue is corruption and lack of capacity in the Afghan government. By preferring to channel aid through the NGOs the donors do not so much want to undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government as much as they want to make sure the money gets to those who deserve it and does not end up in pockets of corrupt officials. Take the highly successful model of the National Solidarity Program for instance. Everybody wants to sell it as their own success story- while in reality, the success is an outcome of cooperation and partnership between Donors (Governments, World Bank), Afghan Government’s MRRD, and Local and International NGOs. With their long experience in aid delivery, relief projects, and even infrastructure reconstruction (during the money years that the Afghan government did not exist even in name) the NGOs remain indispensable to the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. Instead of undermining them, the Afghan government would do far better to embrace them as a partner in the effort and work out better models for such partnership that curb any instances of corruption.

Safrang April 18, 2007 at 6:04 pm

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