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Afghanistan’s transitional hero has been named, but transition to what?

KABUL, Afghanistan — Meet the new man in charge of Afghanistan’s future. He is Dr. Ashraf Ghani, a native of Afghanistan whose education and work experience have made him a prominent international technocrat.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Meet the new man in charge of Afghanistan’s future. He is Dr. Ashraf Ghani, a native of Afghanistan whose education and work experience have made him a prominent international technocrat. He has just accepted the post of chairman of the commission on transition, a body that has yet to be announced in the Afghan media.

“I am not sure whether congratulations are in order, or condolences,” joked Ghani, in a recent interview in his spacious Kabul home.

He is already being referred to as “Mr. Inteqal” — the word in Dari and Pashto for “transition.”

One of Ghani’s first official duties will be to prepare Afghanistan’s position for the NATO summit in Lisbon later this month, an event that will be key to boosting flagging support in the alliance for a war that has become increasingly unpopular in Europe and America.

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Michele Flournoy, U.S. under secretary of defense for policy, has acknowledged in public statements that NATO members are under pressure to demonstrate progress to their domestic constituencies by the Lisbon gathering, scheduled to begin Nov. 19.

“The long pole in the tent here is growing Afghan capacity in the security forces,” she told American Forces Press Service. “[This] must be addressed if we’re going to be in a position to transition to greater Afghan lead for security.”

There’s that word again.

But exactly what the end state of this transition is has been left deliberately vague. Ghani’s own description is rather short on particulars.

“It is transition to full Afghan sovereignty,” he said. “It is Afghanistan standing on its own, but not alone.”

Poetic, perhaps, but the devil, as they say, is in the details.

Ashraf Ghani is by no means a new figure on Afghanistan’s political scene. As minister of finance from 2002 to 2004 he was credited with rebuilding Afghanistan’s monetary system, as well as designing the framework for much of the new state. A doctor of anthropology, who worked at the World Bank and was a serious contender for secretary general of the United Nations, he is highly respected in his native country.

“Obviously, Dr. Ashraf Ghani is one of the most capable Afghans,” said Haroon Mir, head of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies. “He is held in huge esteem here.”

That esteem, however, did not translate into political support when Ghani made a bid for the presidency last year. He garnered less than 3 percent of the total vote, although in the vastly troubled election process, no one can be very sure of actual numbers.

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At the time, Ghani was quite scathing in his criticism of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and told many, including this reporter, that he would “never, never” take a job in a Karzai administration.

But one year later, he is becoming the point man for transition.

The post will put him at the forefront of the international community’s plans to hasten its exit from Afghanistan by handing over primary responsibility for security to the country’s own forces.

The international community, particularly the United States, has made no secret of its desire to transfer authority to the Afghans as quickly as possible.

In the run-up to his West Point speech in December 2009, President Barack Obama was quite clear: “Our goal is to stabilize the population centers and then transition to Afghan forces,” he said, as quoted by Bob Woodward in his book, “Obama’s Wars.”

“This is not going to be the five-year time-frame that had originally come in,” he added, stressing that “transition” had to begin in advance of the July 2011 end date set for the start of a U.S. drawdown of forces.

But the United States might be overly optimistic about the ability of the Afghan forces to take over, said a man who should know — Andrei Avetisyan, Russia’s ambassador to Kabul.

“The international forces neglected the ANA [Afghan National Army] and ANP [Afghan National Police] for nine years,” he said. “[These forces] are not much better now than they were in 2001.”

The Soviet approach had been quite different, he pointed out. Afghan cadets were taken to the Soviet Union and placed in military academies, where they studied for four or five years. When they emerged, they were fully-formed officers.

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“You cannot make an officer in two weeks,” he said. “It’s not about teaching them to aim a gun. It’s about science.”

If NATO were to change its tactics and commit to an upgraded training program right now, it would still be five years before significant progress could be achieved, he said.

“There is still a lot more talking than doing,” said Avetissian.

So things could be a bit difficult for Mr. Inteqal.

Nor is it at all clear how much autonomy Ashraf Ghani will have in his new position. While he commands immense respect on the international scene, he will have one major stumbling block at home — his president.

“He needs a partner,” Haroon Mir said. “Karzai is not that partner. The president has control. He has full authority in our complicated system of government. He can facilitate things or he can block them.”

If Karzai chooses the latter, then Ghani might have a very short tenure.

“He quit before because of all these issues,” Mir said, referring to Ghani’s somewhat abrupt departure from Karzai’s government in 2004. “If Dr. Ghani does not have executive authority, then this will just be another commission.”

Perhaps. But for now it’s full steam ahead.

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Ghani has joined the chorus of approval for Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Petraeus is credited with the strategy of the surge, which has brought the number of U.S. troops in the country to over 100,000. The additional forces have been deployed primarily in the south, where they are actively and aggressively pursuing the insurgents.

By all accounts, the offensive has decimated the Taliban command and control structures in those areas. The push is on to take control of Kandahar, a major symbol for the Taliban and Afghanistan’s second largest city.

“Petraeus’ efforts have clearly changed the balance,” he said. There have been significant changes on the ground.”

Still, the future is not yet clear.

“The Soviets controlled the cities quite effectively,” Aveisyan pointed out. “But not the countryside. This did not give us victory.”

Ghani concedes that many things have yet to be determined.

“The shape of the peace cannot be determined now,” he said.

But far from everyone is even certain that peace is on the way. Recent reports in the media that the Taliban have been routed in the south, that peace talks are in full swing, or that the situation is steadily improving, are, in the minds of many long-time Afghan observers, a cleverly orchestrated campaign aimed at convincing domestic audiences that victory is still possible.

“Some of the internationals do not have the details on the ground and they assume that the stories of change and momentum are true,” said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank based in Kabul. “Others are true believers. They think that while things look bleak now, it will get better down the road. They see the signs everywhere. And then there are those who know that the upbeat picture is nonsense, but they see it as the only way out.”