Afghanistan government in crisis amid political standoff

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s long-running political crisis took a new turn on Friday when key allies of Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah threatened to withdraw their support for the government unless President Ashraf Ghani meets key demands just weeks before a U.S.-brokered power-sharing agreement between the two men is due to expire.

The deal, negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, followed the fractious 2014 elections in which both men claimed victory, and resulted in a unity government of the two Afghan leaders, in which Abdullah reluctantly accepted the secondary role.

As the deal nears its conclusion next month, Abdullah’s supporters say he will no longer tolerate being marginalized by a president he hasn’t met one-on-one for three months.

Abdullahs’ own frustration boiled over publicly on Thursday when he said Ghani was not fit to be president. On Friday, one of his high-profile supporters telephoned media to put the case that Ghani risked losing the cooperation of Abdullah and his backers unless he introduced reforms contained in a two-year timeline in the national unity government agreement.

The NUG was originally expected to expire next month — a date set on the assumption that a number of other steps, including electoral reforms, parliamentary elections and a constitutional change to establish Abdullah as the prime minister, would render the unity government obsolete. Few of those steps have been taken and Ghani, backed by Kerry, has insisted the NUG has no expiration date.

Amrullah Saleh, a former head of the national intelligence agency who now leads the grassroots Green Trend party, told The Associated Press that Abdullah’s allies are standing firm on their demands. They are seeking sweeping reforms and want Ghani to stop “micro-managing” the government and “consolidating personal power,” Saleh said.

He said his camp also accused Ghani of side-lining Abdullah from the decision-making process. “If President Ghani thinks that he (Abdullah) will continue to tolerate this, he will not,” Saleh said.

The relationship between Ghani and Abdullah has been tense since they formed the unity government, with each vetoing the other’s Cabinet choices. Delays in appointments became excuses for non-compliance with the terms of the NUG agreement.

Javid Faisal, Abdullah’s deputy spokesman, said that while the two had appeared at meetings together, they had not had face-to-face meetings for three months.

Saleh said Ghani’s “indifference” to Abdullah is no longer “acceptable.” He warned that if Abdullah’s camp pulls out of the government, the “consequences would not be good for the country.”

Afghanistan is battling the Taliban, with the insurgency — now in its 15th year — intensifying in the southern province of Helmand in recent weeks.

The military is in the midst of a major offensive, with U.S. back-up, against the Islamic State group in the eastern province of Nangarhar along the Pakistani border. The government has failed to create jobs and attract investment that could kickstart the moribund economy. Ghani has also been forced to deal with potentially destabilizing accusations of discrimination from the minority Hazaras, a largely impoverished Shiite community.

Abdullah’s supporters include regional warlords and powerbrokers like Ismail Khan, formerly governor of western Herat province, Atta Muhammad Noor, governor of the northern Balkh province, and others who led forces against the Soviet invasion and the Taliban’s brutal five-year rule. Many are members of the Jamiat-e-Islami political party, though Saleh said they represented a wider base. “We are an anti-Taliban constituency that supported Dr Abdullah during the presidential elections,” Saleh said.

A number of his backers have formed an opposition party called the Afghanistan Protection and Stability Council, under the leadership of former militia commander Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, who said its aim was to pressure the government on electoral reform, as well as improvements to the economy and security.

Meanwhile, former president Hamid Karzai meets regularly with his own supporters, and though he denies accusations that he is undermining Ghani’s leadership, he is vocal in his criticisms. Many observers in Kabul have been waiting for Ghani’s opponents to reveal their intentions ahead of the expiry of the NUG.

In an indication of his own frustrations — as well as the pressure he faces to stand up to Ghani— Abdullah said Thursday, in comments that were televised, that the government was “paralyzed” because Ghani delivers lectures instead of listening to ministers. “If someone does not have patience, they do not have the right to be president,” he said.

His words do not just indicate weariness with his own marginalization from the business of government, which has been public knowledge for months, but point to rising demands from his backers who have been agitating against Ghani’s unilateral control of government.

Ghani’s office issued a statement Friday in reaction to Abdullah’s speech, saying the NUG had made “remarkable achievements.” It said Abdullah’s remarks were against the “spirit of governance.”

Saleh said: “Ghani needs to understand that this is not his country, that rule by a clique is not possible. We have shown a lot of restraint but we hope to achieve the full implementation of the NUG political agreement.”