Afghan insurgency battle marred by political dysfunction


KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — When the spokesman for an Afghan government ministry was asked why he wasn’t answering his phone, he said he was on strike as he hadn’t been paid for nine months.

One official responsible for monitoring corruption resigned after a year, saying he was being ordered to bend the rules for the associates of senior politicians.

Some officials have resorted to social media to embarrass the government of President Ashraf Ghani. The former head of Afghanistan’s spy agency, Rahmatullah Nabil, announced his resignation via a Facebook post in December. Weeks earlier, an official in Helmand warned on the social networking site that Taliban militants were poised to overrun part of the province. He said that he had failed to get a response when he tried to contact authorities through conventional channels.

Afghanistan’s government is in disarray. Following bitterly fought and inconclusive presidential elections in 2014, Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah are sharing power under a deal brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But the country’s so-called unity government is proving anything but unified.

Under the deal, Abdullah’s role as chief executive was to segue into a prime ministerial role, a first for the young democracy. The smooth transition of power from former President Hamid Karzai to Ghani was hailed as a sign of Afghanistan’s acceptance of the international community’s democratic project that followed the U.S. invasion and toppling of the Taliban.

While some predict the government could collapse due to widespread corruption and administrative incompetence, officials and diplomats say there is simply no alternative.

“There is no plan B, they have to make it work,” said a European diplomat in the Afghan capital, Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The national unity government agreement expires in October, when parliamentary elections are due to take place, though many observers believe the vote will be postponed until next spring because promised electoral reforms have not been implemented.

The head of the United Nations’ assistance mission in Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, recently told the U.N. Security Council that “for 2016, survival will be an achievement for the national unity government.”

The government is facing a contracting economy, an intensifying insurgency by the Taliban and other militant groups, and a deeply polarized political environment, Haysom said. It also needs to secure international financial support and make progress toward a sustainable peace agreement.

“Survival cannot mean inaction, or merely ‘treading water.’ It means active engagement in confronting these challenges,” Haysom said.

That, however, seems unlikely. After almost two years, Ghani and Abdullah have been unable to set aside their rivalries. The bitterness between the two men stems from a belief in Abdullah’s camp that the election was stolen from Abdullah, and gifted to Ghani — an anthropologist who lived in the U.S. for three decades — as someone Washington could more easily do business with. The two are also seen as pandering to different constituencies: in Ghani’s case, the majority ethnic Pashtoons, and in Abdullah’s, the Tajiks.

Ghani and Abdullah recently cleared their diaries for a full-day meeting to iron out their differences, but gave up after only two hours, Afghan and foreign officials said.

As the war with the Taliban enters its 15th year, the most important men in government — the ministers of defense and interior, and the chief of the intelligence agency — are all acting in their posts as they have not yet been confirmed by parliament. There has been a spate of ministerial resignations, including last month the minister of mines and petroleum, Daud Saba. A cabinet reshuffle is expected shortly, and it is anticipated five more ministers will lose their jobs over accusations of “incompetence” by the presidential palace.

Ghani and Abdullah have split the government into two camps while they bicker over each other’s nominees to top government jobs. The result, said analyst Haroun Mir, is political paralysis.

“Not all ministers are equal in the eyes of the two leaders, and not all of the ministers are accountable to both leaders,” Mir said.

Ghani trusts few of those around him to do their jobs as he wants them done, officials said. “Only those who enjoy great confidence of the president have relative freedom of action,” Mir added. He said the president’s propensity for micromanagement “has seriously stifled the new administration to the point of creating administrative paralysis.”

Such political inertia could not come at a worse time. Unemployment stands at 25 percent, the peace process with the Taliban is at a standstill and the U.N. is expecting the conflict this year to be as deadly as in 2015, when more than 11,000 people were killed or wounded.

Afghanistan also consistently rates among the most corrupt countries in the world. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan’s Reconstruction, John Sopko said last month that it poses an existential threat to the Afghan state. In a speech at the University of Pittsburgh, he said Ghani’s “national jihad” on corruption has failed to make any impact.

“Since corruption is embedded in the state, it is difficult to root out without destroying the state in the process,” Sopko said.

In an attempt to pressure the unity government to deliver on its economic and security promises, a group of warlords and lawmakers last year established the first opposition party since 2001, the Afghanistan Protection and Stability Council.

Few believe the party, made up largely of men with reputations for extreme religious views and accused of human rights abuses, has much credibility. Yet its existence signals that an acceptance of the democratic process is slowly taking root in Afghanistan.

“People are not satisfied with the current government and its leaders, some even hate this government because neither of the leaders have fulfilled the promises they made,” said Ishaq Gailani, leader of the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan and a former lawmaker. But, he added, “you can’t implement democracy in Afghanistan overnight, you need more time.”


Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this story.