Interview with Sibghatullah Ghaznawi, Former Deputy Minister of Municipal Affairs, Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; Associate Research Scholar, Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University
Before the Taliban seized Afghanistan in August 2021, Sibghatullah (Sibghat) Ghaznawi served as the Deputy Minister of Municipalities in the country’s Local Governance Department, Local Stability Department Director on Afghanistan’s National Security Council (NSC), Director of the Citizens Charter Program in Urban Areas, and Director of Coordination for Provincial Programs. He received a Master’s Degree in Democracy and Governance at Georgetown University through the Fulbright Program from 2014-2016.
SUPPORTING HUMAN RIGHTS, DEMOCRACY, AND GOVERNANCE
As a senior Afghan government official prior to the Taliban takeover, Ghaznawi dedicated his life to identifying and solving key issues affecting democratization, governance, development, and human rights in Afghanistan. While serving as Deputy Minister of Municipalities in the country’s Local Governance Department, he initiated and implemented urban governance policies and worked with the Election Commission and national experts to implement articles of the constitution to help with local democratization. He also secured funds and developed plans to conduct constitutionally mandated municipal elections in five major urban areas, something that had not been done for 16 years since the ratification of the constitution. Although the funds and plans were made available, the President at the time stalled efforts to move forward with the election. As Director of the Citizens Charter Program in Afghanistan’s urban areas, he established more than 900 community councils comprised of 200 households each in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Herat. This urban environment allowed the councils and Ghaznawi’s team to maintain strong programmatic oversight, ensuring more effective implementation of grant-based projects. Over half of each council was purposely comprised of women representatives, and additional funding was allocated specifically toward women-identified initiatives. To this day, several third-party monitors report a higher than anticipated impact from these councils and attribute the success to the increase in women’s representation.
Ghaznawi stated that he had two major breakthroughs while serving on Afghanistan’s National Security Council as Local Stability Department Director – the first after observing a gulf between the Afghan military and civilians most affected by the insurgency. “[In rural conflict areas], life is lost, property is lost, and happiness is lost,” Ghaznawi said, so as director he established councils of community elders and other influential people in each district. These councils served as mechanisms to connect civilians with district authorities to address grievances related to the conflict.
Second, he pioneered a study whose conclusions linked excessive military casualties to training and leadership failures. Not only did the training lack focus on relevant exercises and skills, but major corruption hindered soldiers’ access to the needed ammunition amounts required for comprehensive training. According to Ghaznawi, casualties would have been ten times lower if trainees received the correct amount of ammunition. Critically, his study also identified that senior military officials never personally saw combat – establishing a disconnect between leadership and on-the-ground realities, as soldiers were left to fend for themselves individually rather than work cohesively as a unit under centralized leadership. His findings generated backlash from Afghan military entities at the time, but provided groundbreaking evidence on why military casualties were excessively high in Afghanistan.
While Ghaznawi’s experience gave him first-hand exposure to the positive impact international development efforts had on Afghanistan’s widespread progress, he also witnessed some notable opportunities for improvement. As the Director of Coordination for Provincial Programs, he observed that several development initiatives lacked awareness of one another, leading to redundancies and wasted resources. As a result, he spent his time attempting to prevent duplication and improve coordination with USAID, UNDP, and other development organizations across the country. Ghaznawi also witnessed a lack of international understanding of local governance and institutions, negatively affecting program implementation. He shared an instance when one senior official from a U.S.-based agency was unaware that mayors in Afghanistan are appointed from Kabul, not locally elected, and their organization had been implementing programs based on incorrect premises for over six months. In addition to incorrectly identifying the right representatives and pursuing projects that did not fit well into the national system of resource allocations, well-intentioned programming did not account for all the necessary resources to see projects through. Overall, while Ghaznawi’s experience highlighted the many benefits of international development efforts in Afghanistan, it also demonstrated potential root causes of the lack of progress toward certain goals.
TRANSLATING THESE EXPERIENCES TO AFGHANISTAN UNDER THE TALIBAN
Ghaznawi’s deep understanding of municipal dynamics in Afghanistan, coupled with expertise on the successes and failures of development programs and local stability led him to Columbia’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies to further explore a series of key, related questions: What drives the severe disconnect between local and national government in Afghanistan? Why do international development programs funded by the UN, USAID, and others sometimes fail to deliver genuine impact? How can the international community continue to engage with Afghanistan to build an enabling environment for human rights? Ghaznawi emphasized urgency in answering these questions, especially for women and girls’ rights. “Ten years sitting in DC, New York, or London doesn’t seem that long,” he said. “But this isn’t something we should be waiting on. For a 7-year-old girl in Afghanistan, those ten years can be the difference between getting an education and not.”
Ghaznawi’s goal while at Columbia is to develop recommendations for helping Afghanistan improve human rights and governance despite the Taliban. His message is clear: the international community cannot disengage with Afghanistan. “Disengaging with the regime has never worked. We need to find mechanisms to influence Taliban policies, especially before their system matures,” he said. “We need to have a pragmatic and practical approach to talking to the regime; talking more bluntly and forcefully. Referencing human rights and women’s rights articles in the Sharia, for instance. People are losing opportunities, losing lifetimes.”
NEXT STEPS FOR THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY
While his research is still underway, Ghaznawi shared initial recommendations for international engagement with Afghanistan going forward.
1) First, he underscored the importance of improving international understanding of Afghan civil society. This would help development organizations more effectively leverage the country’s unique structural and institutional strengths to pursue opportunities. During his time in Afghanistan, Ghaznawi noticed the portions of civil society that received international funds were those who had a significant online presence or media attention. However, certain customary elements of civil society, including councils of religious scholars (Ulama councils) and traders associations, who did not have access to or leverage online resources were almost completely overlooked. Without the international community’s input or intervention, the Taliban have embedded themselves within communities and are using customary civil society to spread influence and appease any unrest. “The international community needs to educate themselves on the systems of communication and debates taking place within Sunni clergy and within the Sunni community,” Ghaznawi said. The Ulama give voices to people and have the power to link different civic entities within the country. “In July 2023, a Taliban spokesperson announced that they are directed by their supreme leader to establish Ulama councils across the country. According to the spokesperson, they will be advising local administrations on governance and rule of law. So, what can the international community do? Perhaps engage with the Ulama councils and make them more aware of human and women’s rights.” The international community should also consider the influence of trade associations and farmers to raise their voice on human rights issues.
2) Second, we must focus on unifying the Afghan diaspora to bridge divisions that currently exist along political and ethnic lines. The Afghan diaspora needs to agree on short- and long-term agendas. For example, right now they can work together to encourage Muslim scholars of different countries to develop education models in line with Sharia teachings, because the Taliban have promised for the last two years that they would resume education for women according to Sharia. These models can then be pushed through international and local organizations who can help implement educational programs for women. Once these models exist, the UN and international community should put pressure and hold the current authorities accountable for implementation. Ultimately, this can help to present ideas for centering human rights in policy in language that the Taliban understands.
3) Third, if given the opportunity, the international community should be willing to support any human rights related objectives in Afghanistan. This may be controversial as there is great hesitancy to work with the current regime, but the positive impact to implement programs, especially those helping girls and women, should be pursued whenever possible. As plans begin to develop, the international community should get involved and ask the current regime to provide specific plans and information on implementation. As necessary, organizations can then help to develop benchmarks to further facilitate a program’s successful fruition.
Ghaznawi concluded by expressing his gratitude for this opportunity to work alongside scholars at Columbia. “I am immensely appreciative to be a part of Columbia University and the Saltzman Institute around people who don’t judge ideas and provide a supportive environment to develop these plans and shape them into something that’s implementable.” He looks forward to hosting events on this topic and continuing discussions and research.