AFGHANISTAN NEWS AND VIEWS: The Man Who Thought He Could Fix Afghanistan

November 9, 2017

To get something done in Afghanistan, you need to know Scott Guggenheim. But even the ultimate fixer isn’t sure anyone can solve the country’s problems.

By May Jeong, November/December 2017, for Politico

Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

On November 9, 2016, Scott Guggenheim, a longtime American adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, rose early with the sun, got into an armored vehicle and headed across Kabul’s fortified Green Zone to the U.S. Embassy. Afghanistan is 8½ hours ahead of the East Coast of the United States, and the American expatriates, Afghan elites and others who had managed to scare up invitations had gathered in the basement of the embassy—a city block-sized, blast-resistant compound as charmless as it is spotless—to watch the results of the American presidential election. The basement was dominated by State Department employees, who are officially barred from political activism while living abroad but tend to support Democrats; some, anticipating a Hillary Clinton victory, were even calling the occasion a party. On the wall hung a Donald Trump piñata.

By midmorning Kabul time, however, Trump had taken a commanding lead, and the mood in the embassy basement began to shift. Ties came undone, breakfast Danishes were anxiously devoured, and under the red, white and blue bunting, a stunned silence settled in. The cover band that had been playing earlier packed up its instruments. Some of the diplomats were typing furiously on their BlackBerrys. Others stepped outside to smoke, leaving behind a more Trump-friendly crowd of uniformed soldiers and veterans who had returned to Afghanistan as private contractors.

Guggenheim recalls thinking of the election outcome: “For Afghanistan, it’s not such a bad thing. But for the United States, it’s a disaster.” Depressed, he returned to bed. A few days later, he saw Ghani at the Gul Khanna, the presidential office. “Will you give me a passport?” Guggenheim asked him, jokingly. Ghani told him he would.

Guggenheim is not a household name, but anyone who knows anything about international development, or Ghani, or the makings of the modern Afghan state will have heard of him, or have worked with him, and might be a little surprised that he didn’t have an Afghan passport already. His title is modest—senior adviser—but his imprimatur is on many major government policies that have come out of the Gul Khanna. If Ghani, a former academic whose lifelong passion has been studying how to fix broken countries, is Afghanistan’s development expert in chief, then Guggenheim is his American alter ego—Ghani’s Ghani.

Guggenheim recalls thinking of the election outcome: “For Afghanistan, it’s not such a bad thing. But for the United States, it’s a disaster.”

Guggenheim has been serving the Afghan state off and on for as long as the United States has occupied it, so long that when he speaks of Afghanistan, he often slips into the collective possessive pronoun—our country, our people—and refers just as reflexively to “you Americans.” He has worked with Ghani since 2002, but the two men have actually known each other for 36 years, long enough that, even though Ghani now holds the highest office in Afghanistan, Guggenheim still refers to him by his first name.

Over that time, amid Afghan politics’ literal palace intrigue and Hobbesian infighting, Guggenheim has somehow become one of the most powerful people in the country. He often functions as a connector—between Kabul and Washington, between Washington and its many allies, and sometimes even among the various branches of the American and Afghan governments. Whatever the Trump administration decided to do on Afghanistan after the inauguration, Guggenheim would play a major role implementing the Afghan side of the bargain.

Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

A week after the election, Guggenheim, who is 62 years old, arrived for an interview in the garden of my house in the diplomatic quarter of Kabul. He was disheveled and shiny with sweat from the unseasonably warm autumn we were having, a fleece jacket pulled over a crumpled suit, the wardrobe a metaphor for a man who had spent most of his career as a globe-trotting anthropologist before landing, unexpectedly, at the beating heart of a political culture he had previously known nothing about. Born and raised in New York and also educated in Florida and Baltimore, Guggenheim worked in Mexico, where he picked up Spanish, and Indonesia, where he built his career and his personal life. (His wife is the Indonesian human rights activist Kamala Chandrakirana.)

He has been called “the brain of Dr. Ghani,” but in interviews in the months after the election, he was at constant pains to deflect attention. His business card contains just his name and a Gmail address. This is deliberate. “Ashraf likes having someone who has no political or economic ambition,” Guggenheim told me. He sees his role not as a consigliere but as a kind of a fixer for Ghani, the executor to the president’s blue-skied vision. “Ashraf has a pretty clear agenda. I always thought my job was to help him realize it,” Guggenheim said.

Now, for reasons of friendship, expertise and circumstance, this American liaison has become uniquely essential at this moment in Afghan history—even as he talks increasingly of leaving.

The Afghan state is as much an American experiment as anything else. The U.S. military leads efforts on the war, just as the U.S. government spearheads reconciliation efforts, and the entire venture wouldn’t be possible without foreign donors, who have funded around 70 percent of the Afghan government’s budget since the 2001 invasion. The promise of the early years, of Afghanistan as a modern society that would catch up to regional success stories like India or Iran, never progressed beyond the struggle for basic services such as access to justice and health. Ghani’s takeover from the paranoid and ineffectual Hamid Karzai in 2014 saw a difficult yet peaceful transition of power, the first in modern Afghan history. In the following years, Guggenheim soon observed, however, that the biggest barrier to this goal was not so much the Taliban, or Western apathy, but the vicious jockeying among Kabul elites that threatened to capsize whatever reform Ghani had set out to accomplish.

Into this tenuous situation came another potentially complicating variable: the Trump presidency.

Afghan elites watched the U.S. election keenly, trying to game out what fate awaited them. Since taking office, Trump has offered a reenergized, if still shapeless, American military agenda in Afghanistan, which Guggenheim believed would free up the Afghan government to focus on internal reforms. Theirs was a race against time, to see how long they could cling on before things ran out—money, goodwill, patience, interest. Guggenheim believed not all was lost, but the rising insecurity and political infighting around him gave him the occasional pause.


Two weeks after the garden meeting, on a morning in November, I rode with Guggenheim to the Arg-e-Shahi, Afghanistan’s presidential palace. It was 9:30 a.m., and Guggenheim had already been working for hours. “I think he goes from meeting to meeting and sends emails in between meetings,” his colleague, Tara Moayed, told me. His work style hasn’t changed since his days in Indonesia, where he built development projects that began from communities and grew into nationwide initiatives. Guggenheim has long been known in development circles for pioneering the kind of bottom-up approach that rejects the older, headquarters-oriented style of proffering aid. He was the guy you called when you needed a job done that few would say yes to because it was too complicated, too impossible-seeming, too whatever. “I doubt if there is a government office in Jakarta that doesn’t know Scott,” James Gilling, an Australian development official who worked with Guggenheim from 2012 to 2014, told me. “I mean, he is probably a genius, right?”

That morning, Guggenheim was returning from an appointment with ambassadors from four Nordic countries, with whom he had been discussing the mass deportation of Afghan refugees. More than 10,000 were set to be expelled from Europe, and Guggenheim had been tasked with “taking advantage of their moral principles” to delay the returns, as he wryly told me. Guggenheim had spent the first half of his career as an international development expert, advising countries on how best to run their governments. The essential service he provides to Ghani’s government was turning this experience on its head: He is, among other things, Afghanistan’s informal ambassador to the world of foreign donors who fund most of the country’s budget.

“Ghani was a serious young man, starting to organize his thoughts around an enduring obsession over state formation into a 1982 thesis, one that would later inspire a 2008 book called Fixing Failed States.”

Guggenheim first met Ghani in 1981, when Guggenheim, who was living in Brooklyn while working on an anthropology dissertation for Johns Hopkins, was urged by a former professor to seek out Ghani, who was working on his own thesis at Columbia. Ghani was a serious young man, starting to organize his thoughts around an enduring obsession over state formation into a 1982 thesis, one that would later inspire a 2008 bookcalled Fixing Failed States, which would again find new form as a campaign manifesto during the 2014 presidential election, and yet againas the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework, a document that outlined how Afghanistan was going to go from 70 percent dependence on foreign aid to between 40 and 50 percent. The two men ended up talking for two hours at the Hungarian Pastry Shop several blocks from campus before moving over to Ghani’s graduate student housing, where Guggenheim met his wife and children. “I was impressed,” Guggenheim told me. “Here was a guy who really understood big theory, someone who had read the original texts.” Later, when the anthropologist Sidney Mintz asked Guggenheim for recommendations for a teaching position, Guggenheim suggested Ghani. “He got the job in time to sit in on my Ph.D. exam,” Guggenheim said. “He asked all the hard questions.”


Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

Ghani and Guggenheim were both working at the World Bank when, in 2001, U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Guggenheim was in Indonesia running a World Bank-funded community development project. That November, he was climbing a mountain in East Java when his mobile phone rang. “It’s me, Ashraf,” said the voice on the other end. The U.S.-led NATO coalition was setting up a new Afghan government in Kabul to replace the recently ousted Taliban. Ghani would be named finance minister. “I want you up here in January,” Ghani told Guggenheim.

Guggenheim said yes—partly out of personal loyalty and partly out of intellectual curiosity. As an academic, Ghani had obsessed over the question of how to get the state to better serve the public. Afghanistan, emerging from decades of civil war and misrule, offered a country-sized laboratory. As for Guggenheim, he had watched other countries work through seemingly intractable problems and wanted to try his hand at the most impossible-seeming of them all. After a lifetime spent far from the center of power, here was a chance to end his career at the top, where decisions that affected the poor he had set out to help were being made. For both men, Afghanistan was a chance to implement some of the theories they had discussed during countless conversations at weddings, backyard swims and garden parties across decades. The George W. Bush administration had gone to war in 2001 promising to improve the lives of Afghans but spent most of its tenure hunting down Al Qaeda and inciting further violence. That original promise had faded from the minds of many, but Guggenheim remained its most formidable proponent. “Remember, the goal is still poverty,” he told me.

“For both men, Afghanistan was a chance to implement some of the theories they had discussed during countless conversations at weddings, backyard swims and garden parties across decades.”

In January 2002, Guggenheim landed at the Kabul airport, its runway still cluttered with unexploded ordnance. “Welcome to Afghanistan,” said Ghani, meeting him on the pockmarked tarmac. The drive from the airport to the United Nations office, the only suitable lodging for visiting foreigners at the time, was a post-apocalyptic tableau of artillery shells and burned-out tanks. It reminded Guggenheim of Weekend, the Jean-Luc Godard film famous for its seven-minute shot of a traffic jam, replete with destroyed vehicles and dead bodies, the thin membrane of civility peeling off right before the viewer’s eyes. Guggenheim fell asleep that first night in a U.N. guest room heated by burning sawdust. For three months, he slept on a thick mat on the floor, read by the light of kerosene lamps, attended meetings in parkas and helped Ghani put up the scaffolding of a state.

Guggenheim had arrived in Afghanistan knowing little beyond what he had read in “The Man Who Would Be King,” the 1888 Rudyard Kipling story about two British adventurers who appoint themselves rulers of an Afghan province. His first job was to set up what would become the National Solidarity Program, which grants money to communities to build wells, roads or hospitals and is still cited as a rare success story in Afghanistan, a nation more often held up as a poster child for failed development projects.

Guggenheim spent 12 years flying in and out of the country while working for the World Bank, visiting to check up on his programs or to assist Ghani with whatever his old friend needed doing. Then, in June 2014, Afghanistan held a bitterly contested election—the first democratic transition of power in its history. The new president was Ashraf Ghani.

Ghani inherited not just a fast-fracturing state, but also a set of impending, and existentially imperiling, deadlines: 2014 was the year NATO troops were scheduled to pull out, and foreign donors began slashing funding. One of the first calls Ghani made after becoming president was to Guggenheim, who had since returned to Indonesia. Guggenheim—who generally insists on wearing colorful Indonesian shirts even in official meetings—got three suits made and arrived back in Kabul in October.


That November morning, Guggenheim’s car inched through Kabul traffic and arrived at the first of many checkpoints surrounding the Green Zone, a cordoned-off area of downtown Kabul that is home to NATO headquarters, embassies, news bureaus and other foreign outposts. The gated community had been carved out of the city without the city in mind, and the resulting interminable traffic is, for Afghans, a daily reminder of the second-class status they endure in their own country. While we waited to be let into the palace grounds, a convoy carrying the U.S. ambassador drove by, coming from the embassy a mile away—an imposing structure that Guggenheim derisively called “Fort America.”

The original Arg-e-Shahi was built by Abdur Rahman Khan, the “Iron Emir” of Afghanistan, in 1880, after the Second Anglo-Afghan War destroyed the previous royal residence. Each invading army added another building, and today, its catholic architectural styles reflect the sedimentary layers of outside influences that have shaped—or failed to shape—the country. Once inside the security perimeter, we headed for Kot-e Baghcha, “the house of the small garden,” the building where Guggenheim was then living. We passed through an archway adorned with floral discs that harkened back to the time of Alexander the Great. This, Guggenheim explained, was the Afghanistan he had fallen for—a country with a real presence of history. “Somewhere up here is where they strung up Najibullah,” he added. Afghanistan’s last Soviet-backed president, Mohammad Najibullah, was overthrown and spent four years in seclusion before being castrated and dragged to death behind a Taliban truck in 1996, his body put on display hanging from a noose of piano wire, with imported cigarettes and rolled-up dollar bills stuffed in his mouth.

For most of its existence, the palace compound has been the center of not just the country’s political life but its social life too. President Hamid Karzai, after taking up residence in the Arg, used the building similarly, hosting group dinners for as many as 700 supplicants and opening up the royal mosque to anyone who wanted to join him for Friday prayers. Ghani, whose solitary disposition is legendary, preferred to dine with his wife at home. The only people living on the 80-acre grounds when I visited, aside from Ghani and his wife, were Guggenheim and two of his colleagues.

Ghani, as president, keeps a small kitchen cabinet of perhaps two dozen people, with Guggenheim as its nucleus. (When Ghani was looking around to assemble his team in 2001, then-World Bank President James Wolfensohn told him, “What you need is $100 million and one Scott Guggenheim.”) The two old friends maintain a routine of regular email correspondence and hold frequent in-person meetings. Guggenheim’s portfolio, in White House terms, would be split between the president’s chief of staff and the national security adviser. Ghani is known for barking out orders that his staff does not understand, which Guggenheim then translates. When he is not doing that, Guggenheim makes rounds of embassies, persuading foreign governments to fund the Afghan state directly. The current model, he argues, creates parallel structures of power, which in turn undermines the overall project, which has always been legitimacy through autonomous rule. The very presence of donors, and their dollars, was the thing that Guggenheim had been hired to render unnecessary. Ghani gave him sweeping authority to do things like restructure the budget to reflect actual needs instead of interests; figure out how to collect taxes; or come up with strategies for fighting corruption. Making Afghanistan fend for itself was a generational endeavor; Guggenheim’s mission was to start a process that would outlive any of us.

Above all, though, Guggenheim saw his most essential duty as keeping Ghani accountable. Ghani, who often gives the impression that he is suffering fools, was not an easy man to approach, let alone steer. Guggenheim was among the few who could reliably access the president, and among the even fewer who actually advised, instead of capitulating.

When Ghani was looking around to assemble his team in 2001, then-World Bank President James Wolfensohn told him, “What you need is $100 million and one Scott Guggenheim.”

Guggenheim’s unparalleled access to the president has occasionally been a source of discord among Ghani’s other staff members. “He draws a lot of criticism because it is more like there is an individual who is doing things rather than the system doing things,” a finance ministry colleague told me. “They say, ‘Oh, there is this American guy who is running around the palace, there is a Scott that does things.’” Afghans who have never met Guggenheim but have heard the name Scott are sometimes surprised to learn that he is one man instead of an acronym for an entire office.

In a country rife with well-earned paranoia about foreign—and particularly American—influence, Guggenheim is easy fodder for conspiracy theories; during a protest in Kabul on June 2, posters appeared with his face and text in Dari that read Ghani ba ehsara-e en shakhs meraqsad: “Ghani dances on the order of this man.” If anything, Guggenheim’s sympathies run far closer to Afghanistan than the United States. He sees Afghanistan as a victim of modernizing struggles. “What the British achieved was turning one of the oldest civilizations into warring tribes,” he told me. “What the Americans did was empowering the mujahedeen without thinking through the consequences. In the second round, the Americans brought back warlords. How do you lose a popularity contest against the Taliban? They found a way.”

A decade and a half of American occupation, Guggenheim continued, produced “democratic institutions with the outward appearance of a democracy, but all about patronage,” he told me. “Is the Parliament of Afghanistan really representative of the country, or is it a bunch of warlords dividing up national rent? This is what American foreign policy in Afghanistan has created. The institutions they built up are deeply corrupt. They do have elections, but in terms of power structure, it is a deeply flawed version of democracy.” Meanwhile, Guggenheim said, the U.S. government’s ambitions for the country’s reconstruction had steadily diminished to a single narrow question: “What will take us to the end of the administration without a major blowout? It was never about how do we stabilize Afghanistan. It was about making it to the next election.”

Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

As the 2016 U.S. election approached, Afghanistan’s diplomats in Washington kept in touch with both the Republican and the Democratic parties, dispatching observers to both conventions. A Clinton presidency would mean “another four years of Holbrooke and his legacy,” Guggenheim told me last November, referring to the late Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat who, until his death in 2010, was President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Guggenheim did not care much for the former president’s policy in Afghanistan. “Obama didn’t have a clear policy,” he told me. “His policy was to get out.”

Trump, for Afghanistan, represented an unknown quantity. What little he had said about Afghanistan was unspecific and contradictory: He had called Afghanistan “a complete waste,” a nonsense war that America needed to leave so as to “rebuild the USA,” but he had also pledged that he would “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” an Arab creation that was nonetheless finding fertile ground in Afghanistan’s chaos. Clinton’s policies, which many Ghani supporters considered a failure, were regrettable, but also predictable; they offered something to plan around. So when Clinton lost, the future seemed a mystery.


Ghani first spoke with Trump on December 3, 2016. Their phone conversation was brief; Ghani sat in his usual chair and took his own notes. According to Guggenheim and others who spoke with Ghani afterward, Trump first brought up counterterrorism, and then Ghani raised the issue of mining. Trump wanted to know how the Afghan state could generate more income. He asked about its lithium reserve. He wanted to know why the mining sector hadn’t been developed, how American businesses could invest in Afghanistan, and why Afghanistan was giving away mining rights to Chinese companies when America had companies, too.

Beyond that, however, Trump’s interests in Afghanistan were as hard to fathom as they had ever been. So, in early December, a month and a half before Trump’s inauguration, Guggenheim visited Washington to figure out what was going on.

“It was surreal,” Guggenheim told me after the trip. He made the rounds of the usual Republican foreign policy stalwarts, but Trump and his inner circle did not have many contacts in that world, so the stalwarts did not know much. “I want you to know, Donald Trump and I are not friends,” Senator John McCain told Guggenheim when they met, and the Arizona Republican spent the rest of the conversation distractedly fielding phone calls about new nominations, Guggenheim told me. (McCain did not recall the comment, according to his spokeswoman, Julie Tarallo.)

Those officials who remained were in acting positions and were expected to leave once Trump was in power. The South Asia desk at the National Security Council, Guggenheim told me, referred him to an intelligence officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He met Rob Williams of ODNI at Sette, an Italian restaurant on D.C.’s 14th Street. The intelligence community, which traditionally plays an active role during the transition, had been cut out of the process by a president who did not trust spies; Williams confessed to knowing little and asked Guggenheim questions instead. “They kept asking, ‘What do you think their views on Afghanistan are going to be?’” Guggenheim told me. “And I kept saying, ‘I traveled halfway around the world to find out! Isn’t this your job?’” After four days, Guggenheim left Washington thinking, “I don’t know anything, and they don’t know anything either.”

Clinton’s policies, which many Ghani supporters considered a failure, were regrettable, but also predictable; they offered something to plan around. So when Clinton lost, the future seemed a mystery.

Soon after the call between Trump and Ghani became public, the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C., began receiving the first of many inquiries from potential investors. They wanted to know how they might do business in Afghanistan. The embassy dug up decade-old maps by the U.S. Geological Survey marking mineral deposits across the country.

The State Department, the traditional bastion of Afghan policy, was soon to be gutted, and many of the relevant officials were already on their way out. By December, Guggenheim intuited that there was nobody there to talk with who had any real authority.

In the absence of civilian leadership, the generals stepped in. On February 9, three weeks after Trump’s inauguration, General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, requested a troop increase. The Department of Defense and the National Security Council—which by late February were being led by retired General James Mattis and Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, both of whom had served in Afghanistan—began putting together the new government’s Afghanistan policy.

In April, McMaster traveled to Kabul to meet with Ghani and his team. The night after McMaster flew out, Guggenheim stopped by the Gul Khanna, where he found Ghani in a good mood. McMaster, Ghani told Guggenheim, “asked all the right questions. We have a counterpart who really gets strategy.” He wanted to discuss long-term planning—an improvement, Ghani told Guggenheim, over Obama, who had campaigned on the promise of bringing troops home. In practice that meant “not fighting a 16-year war, but a one-year war 16 times over,” Guggenheim said.

McMaster was also good at calling out whoppers. “Our side would try some standard bullshit on how we have great plans to fix everything,” Guggenheim said, “and McMaster would say, ‘I heard all this in 2012. Tell me what’s new.’” 

For the Afghan government, McMaster’s arrival marked an inflection point in otherwise uncertain times. His 18-month tenure in Afghanistan put him well ahead of most American policymakers, who, even after the United States’ decade and a half in the country, did not know basics facts about Afghanistan—that the afghani is a unit of currency, not the people, or that the country’s official languages are Farsi and Pashto, not Arabic. His arrival also marked an unmistakable shift in who would be leading the Afghanistan portfolio. Under Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been deeply engaged, but with a seemingly uninterested Rex Tillerson leading the State Department, the generals took over almost completely. That was just fine with Ghani, who had been suspicious of the State Department ever since it facilitated an agreement in which he had to share power with his campaign rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who became the country’s first chief executive officer.

The security situation, however, was disintegrating at an alarming rate. Soon there might not even be a state to reform or build up or fight over. On May 31, a truck bomb at an entrance to the Green Zone in Kabul killed more than 150, the largest bombing since the beginning of the Afghanistan War in 2001 and the first ever to penetrate the Green Zone. The explosion left a 13-foot crater and shattered windows of the nearby Arg. Later that week, presidential guards shot at demonstrators who had gathered to protest the government’s inability to protect its citizens, killing as many as seven. At a funeral the next day, a suicide bomber blew himself up among the mourners, killing 20. The message from the insurgents was clear: By striking what had long been considered an impenetrable fortress of security, they were signaling that nowhere would be safe.

H.R. McMaster, Ghani told Guggenheim, “asked all the right questions. We have a counterpart who really gets strategy.”

This news alarmed McMaster, and also Mattis, who had personally assured Ghani in Dubai in mid-May that the United States was renewing its commitment to Afghanistan. Both generals wanted more troops, but Trump was skeptical, and privately fumed about his lack of options. Steve Bannon, Trump’s since departed chief strategist, pushed for his own solution, bringing in two businessmen—private security company Blackwater Worldwide founder Erik Prince and Steve Feinberg, who owns majority shares of the private contracting firm DynCorp, among others—who pitched Trump on their plans for privatizing the war. As his aides argued for months over Afghanistan, Trump reportedly threatened to fire Nicholson, whom he still hadn’t met, and whom he seemed to blame for not winning the war there.

Then on July 28, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who lost a son to the war in Afghanistan, replaced Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff, and the Washington debate shifted decisively in favor of the generals. The final blow to the Bannon camp came on August 18, when Prince was barred from joining discussions at Camp David. Shortly after, Trump signed off on a strategy much like what the generals had been pushing for all along: more troops, no deadline for withdrawal, effective immediately.

The following Monday, August 21, in a nationally televised speech at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, Trump announced his war plan. He did not mention the Taliban, the main reason for remaining at war, by name until halfway into the speech; referred to an Afghan “prime minister” who does not exist; and delivered what Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin ripped as “an incoherent wish list unmoored in political reality or principle.” The president called the enemy in Afghanistan “nothing but thugs, and criminals, and predators, and—that’s right—losers,” and promised the American public that “in the end we will win” against every designated foreign terrorist organization active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He did not explain in detail what winning might look like, sowing confusion among Washington’s foreign policy elites. “Is our goal to destroy all of them?” former State Department official John Dempsey asked. “How many are a direct threat to Americans? Are they Al Qaeda-like organizations trying to launch attacks in New York or just five guys and a donkey? How are we going to determine we’ve killed any terrorists? We will never know. And shouldn’t we be focusing on building up Afghan institutions to be able to handle this themselves anyway?”

But the speech was met with great praise by both Ghani’s and Abdullah’s factions of the Afghan government, which often blames Pakistan for most of its ills. “Of course, yes, we are happy. The main thing to be happy about is the pressure on Pakistan. We have been waiting for this,” Arg spokesperson Najibullah Azad told me. “It is what we needed,” echoed Abdullah’s spokesperson, Javed Faisel. “It will boost confidence as there is commitment for a long-term support of Afghanistan. It will boost morale of the ordinary Afghans and those soldiers fighting in front lines. And most importantly, there is a clear understanding of the problem now. In his speech, we found out that the problem was very well identified, which is the support of Pakistan for the Taliban.” After Trump’s speech, Abdullah and Ghani, whose animus toward each other is famous, were seen hugging, united in their relief at the prospect of continued American support.

Guggenheim thought the same, despite his usual skepticism. America’s extended presence, he said, would free Ghani’s team to carry out some of the long-term reform plans it had wanted to work on. “Since the Obama government prioritized the unity government, they always pushed for restraint on anything that would threaten that unity,” Guggenheim explained. After Trump came to power, and the generals took over, the Afghan military had proposed to double the size of its special forces, which would require thousands more American trainers. Guggenheim said this would not have been possible under Obama who was reluctant to be seen expanding the American presence in Afghanistan. “President Obama had publicly made a commitment to withdraw American forces. We had to gain his confidence literally a month at a time,” Ghani said in a statement.

After Trump’s speech, Abdullah and Ghani, whose animus toward each other is famous, were seen hugging, united in their relief at the prospect of continued American support.

There was also no denying the ancillary benefits of the new approach: Ghani could consolidate his power against a growing political opposition without being weighed down by the need to build consensus, as the now-neutered State Department has urged. Ghani planned to first go after the Interior Ministry, which is dominated by his political adversaries, to clean up corruption. It would also strengthen Ghani’s hand.

What was noticeably absent in Trump’s speech, however, was just what those additional troops would mean. “What he didn’t say was if you buy more ammunition, you also need to buy more body bags,” John Nagl, a retired Army officer and counterinsurgency expert, told me. Few who have studied or served in Afghanistan expect the new infusion of troops—only a few thousand—to turn the war’s downward trajectory around.


The Trump ramp-up was likely to benefit Ghani, but over the course of our conversations, Guggenheim’s longstanding doubts about the fate of the whole Afghan project seemed to be deepening. For some time now, he had been thinking hard about whether to stay or go. Many of the reforms he had been pushing for hadn’t materialized. Guggenheim had signed on to Ghani’s state-building project because he saw it as an opportunity to wrestle with big questions of democratic governance. But he spent the better part of the year complaining to me about a seemingly simple administrative issue—his attempts to get Ghani to hire a secretary who could manage the president’s schedule better. Guggenheim told me he considered this, and a few other asks, a goodwill gesture that would demonstrate to him how serious Ghani was about solving the bigger problems of his presidency—which were, in brief, delivering on the promise of a modern state he had run his campaign on. A vote for Ghani was meant to be a vote for progress, for reform, for equality, for human rights, and a sense of Afghanistan joining the rest of the world. Instead, Ghani’s tenure has been marred by rising insecurity, elite infighting and the constant threat of a coup from his political rivals.

In recent months, the worsening situation in the country was beginning to affect their decades-long friendship. Guggenheim expressed frustration that Ghani couldn’t even make small fixes, like hiring the secretary. (In a later conversation with Politico Magazine, he downplayed the importance of the issue.) Watching his otherwise no-nonsense friend give in to the undertow of Kabul politics, Guggenheim seemed to be asking himself whether democracy and reform were contradictory objectives. “There is tension between being authoritarian and being democratic,” Guggenheim told me. “There is chaos in government. It is deeply fragmented. The Kabuli elites are so polarized that getting the reform agenda through has been almost impossible. The temptation to be a strong authoritarian leader who says you cannot challenge authority is very strong. Why doesn’t he take that route?”

If that happened, Guggenheim speculated, the United States would keep funding this more authoritarian version of the Afghan state, just as it had done with autocratic regimes like those of Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet and Arab dictators before the Arab Spring. Afghanistan had no tradition of a Western-style democracy; the Taliban’s Manichean rule was the closest any regime had ever come to realizing its ambitions in Afghanistan. The only way to carry out the reform agenda, it seemed, was through a similar use of force, which would negate the spirit of the reforms.

“What you are doing is doomed,” Guggenheim said. But isn’t that the story of life? And so, you do it anyway.”

His sardonic wit made it easy to miss, but Guggenheim had always struck me as an optimist as long as I had known him. In recent times, though, the very thing that had drawn Guggenheim to Afghanistan in the beginning—the impossibility of the project—was now thwarting him. He had good days and bad days, but overall, he seemed to be losing faith in his ideals and his ability to implement them. It wasn’t clear whether this was because the aid system was broken, which it was; or because Ghani had modeled his vision for Afghanistan after Western versions of capitalism and democracy, which were coming undone; or because of the simple fact that “he has never manned a big organization or a big project before.”

Around then, the death threats that had become a regular fixture of daily life in Kabul had increased in frequency and specificity, and the posters with Guggenheim’s face on them now loomed larger in his mind. “I don’t really like living in Kabul, because I live under a lock and key and with a death threat, so that is not my best place,” he told me. “But I am willing to do it as long as that agenda is there. It is a fucked-over country with people I sort of like. If it is just spinning wheels, I would rather go live in my little apartment down in Brooklyn.” When I reached him in July, Guggenheim sounded defeated by events. “It’s the hardest place I’ve ever worked in,” he said. “The chances of success are middling at best.” Back in November 2016, on one of the first occasions I spoke to him, I had asked Guggenheim why he bothered at all. “What I’d like to see is countries with deep historical legacies, that are struggling, pull it off,” he said then. “Some sense that they will finally get their act together and they are going to be democratic and there is going to be basic freedoms. Kids can go to a movie theater and not worry about being blown up, that sort of thing. I’m still a deep idealist on those scores.”

“What you are doing is doomed,” he said. “But isn’t that the story of life? And so, you do it anyway.”

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Screen&Discuss Event at Community Church of Boston: New Immigrant and Refugee Visions

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What was emphasized during the discussion is that it is up to those that believe in the US as a nation of immigrants, to counter the lies and misinformation that is permeating the current dialogue about new immigrants and refugees in the US. It is incumbent on all of us to speak out against xenophobia and hatred toward the newest members of our communities.

1 Comment

  1. Ted Hitchcock

    That map hugely understates current Taliban control and presence. It reflects almost no Taliban control the southwest, the Taliban heartland, where everyone acknowledges that they control vast swaths of Helmand and Kandahar.

    The map was first issued almost two years ago (12/11/15) by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) based on its analysis of “conditions in 200 of 409 districts”. Since then, it has been reissued several times, virtually unchanged, despite widespread, well documented Taliban gains, and widespread losses by ISIS.


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