Ashraf Ghani was an American mistake with a high price for Afghans
Following U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan, on August 31, a group of US-based organizations — including the Quincy Institute — called for a Congressional inquiry into “the deeper issues that plagued the whole 20 years of America’s war effort and which were at the heart of the rapid collapse of the U.S.-supported government in Afghanistan.”
This call for a congressional investigation follows requests from Republican lawmakers demanding answers from Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland regarding reports that Afghanistan’s former president fled the country with more than $169 million. The lawmakers note:
It is unclear how President Ghani obtained such a large sum of cash, but the amount and nature of his flight from Afghanistan raises the specter that President Ghani illegally and corruptly embezzled these funds from U.S. assistance intended for the Afghan people’s welfare and defense…It is imperative that corrupt foreign government officials not be permitted to personally enrich themselves with U.S. taxpayer money intended to safeguard the welfare and security of the Afghan people.
U.S. withdrawal has intensified these calls for accountability. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is testifying this week before the House and Senate. But Congressional investigations should be the first step in a complete overhaul of U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan, one that places accountability at the center of its future efforts — particularly as the U.S. will ostensibly remain an indispensable donor for the Afghans.
During the last seven years, Washington gave legitimacy to the unconstitutional governments led by Ashraf Ghani, with an agreement initially brokered by former Secretary of State John Kerry. In the last two electionsWashington played a crucial role in backing Ghani, with former principal deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) and acting SRAP Jarret Blanc, noting that “Every Afghan presidential election has been brokered or mediated by U.S. diplomats, though Washington seems to ride in later and later each time.”
Ghani spent his formative years in the United States as both a student and professor. His children still live in the States; in fact his son is a top aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren and his daughter-in-law worked for now-Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. But more often than not, U.S. support for Ghani came at the cost of accountability, leading to laxed oversight of Ghani and his administration’s misdoings. Despite the massive leverage that Washington had over the regime due to critical U.S. assistance — funding the majority of the government’s budget — it failed to hold Ghani and his administration to task.
Ironically, Ghani was often at odds with the basic principles and values the United States were trying to promote in Afghanistan, including democracy, human rights, and a free press. His government and the strongmen linked to him pursued abuses with impunity. The targeted killing in November 2020 of my brother Yama Siawash, who was a prominent journalist and a staunch critic of Ghani and his strongmen, highlights this impunity.
Yama was consistently threatened by Ghani’s supporters as he engaged in heated debates with senior officials on live television, seeking to hold his government to account through his journalism. The car bomb, which killed my brother, occurred in a vehicle owned by the Afghan government and was parked in the government’s parking lot in Kabul’s green zone, a heavily-surveilled premises with footage accessible to the U.S. government via the American army’s surveillance blimps. Following the attack, Ghani’s people showed no interest in conducting a genuine investigation despite the plethora of CCTV footage available there at the time.
On National Journalists Day, Ghani fled the stage without responding when a local reporter questioned him about Yama’s assassination and the increased targeted killing of journalists. By avoiding a response to the journalist’s question, the president demonstrated his lack of interest in holding his government and other strongmen to account for targeted violence. For this reason, my family and I submitted a complaint to the United Nations to investigate Yama’s killing.
American engagement in Afghanistan does not end with withdrawal. Following the U.S. exit, a much-needed assessment of its foreign policy in Afghanistan is required. It can start by launching an investigation into the large sums of American taxpayer dollars Ghani allegedly embezzled as he fled the country (which he denies). Subsequent actions should include cooperating with the United Nations to work towards justice for victims in Afghanistan. This can be done through sharing the information Washington currently has access to via its surveillance blimp in the green zone to assist with investigating Yama’s killing and others.
Should the U.S. and the international community continue to fund 80 percent of Kabul’s budget, Washington as a key actor must ensure that any future policy in Afghanistan is based on the lessons learned in the last two decades, with diplomatic engagement hinged on accountability.