KABUL — A simmering crisis over the survival of Afghanistan’s two-man National Unity Government has burst into the open, revealing a deep split between President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah as a political deadline for their tenuous power-sharing agreement looms with the government’s two-year anniversary next month.
Abdullah, who was Ghani’s top electoral rival, was named chief executive under an emergency deal brokered by U.S. officials after the fraud-plagued 2014 election, and the partnership has often been tense. On Thursday, Abdullah complained that the president barely has “an hour or two” to meet him alone for months at a time. Referring to Ghani sarcastically as “your excellency,” he suggested that someone with so little patience for discussion is “not fit for the presidency.”
The unexpectedly harsh comments flooded social media after Abdullah made them at a televised meeting. His outburst came amid weeks of mounting pressure for political change from a variety of opponents, including former president Hamid Karzai, as well as widening public concern about the legitimacy and responsiveness of the troubled administration.
Although the president’s term of office is five years, the agreement between Ghani and Abdullah called for political steps to be taken by the government’s two-year anniversary on Sept. 29, culminating in a national conference that would decide whether to amend the constitution and elevate Abdullah’s position to executive prime minister.
None of those steps has been taken, due to a combination of delays in government appointments, disputes over electoral reforms and official preoccupation with two higher priorities: battling an aggressive Taliban insurgency and salvaging the economy after the shutdown of a 15-year wartime boom in foreign aid and construction.
As the deadline approaches, an assortment of powerful opponents have intensified their attacks, some demanding favors and others calling for a new governing arrangement. Karzai, who left office reluctantly after 14 years and remains an influential figure, wants to convene a traditional meeting of elders and leave the nation’s future up to them, possibly under his guidance.
Foreign diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador P. Michael McKinley, have been meeting with numerous critics and urging them not to destabilize the government, however imperfect, stressing that the country cannot afford a new phase of upheaval and that there is no realistic alternative to the current government.
The United States has an especially important stake in defusing the crisis, with billions of dollars in U.S. aid spent and 2,300 American lives lost in a 15-year effort to defeat the Taliban and build democracy here. A government collapse in Kabul could also damage Democratic prospects in the November presidential election.
Officials from both the Ghani and Abdullah camps have tried to tamp down the criticism, insisting that their uneasy partnership has improved and that they are moving ahead with an ambitious agenda of reforms and development, including establishing a new anti-corruption agency and creating hundreds of miles of utility corridors.
In an interview Tuesday with The Washington Post, Abdullah played down his differences with Ghani, calling it an “unfortunate perception that we fight every day.” He said the public has “legitimate concerns about our future stability” but that other critics have been using the coming deadline as an opportunity to apply pressure for their own interests.
“We will pass through September head-on, and there will be a legitimate process within the mandate of the people, but we have to be realistic,” he said, adding that electoral reforms and elections would come in time. If the “worst case” should arise, he said, meaning a government collapse, “everyone will lose except the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”
Ghani’s office issued a statement Friday night saying that Abdullah’s comments “have not been in conformity with the principles and spirit of governance” and declaring that the unity government “will continue as a collective.” Nader Nadery, a senior aide to Ghani, said in a recent interview that the public was more concerned about security and economic recovery than political deadlines. “We have been fighting a war for survival, and it has used up huge amounts of time and energy,” he said.
But Afghans are already impatient with the government, which promised reforms that are just beginning to take hold and projects that have yet to bring jobs and money, while the two leaders have wrangled endlessly over job appointments that left ministries leaderless and allowed election reforms to bog down in ethnic disputes.
“There have been too many delays with too few results. These two years will haunt the government for the next three,” said Haroun Mir, an analyst in Kabul. “People don’t expect them to fix the economy and security overnight, but they can’t tolerate the corruption and the unfulfilled promises. People are tired, they are leaving and they are losing heart.”
Of the two partners in the government, Abdullah is more vulnerable to outside pressure. Unlike the president, his position is temporary and its status will probably remain unclear after September. He is also beholden to regional groups that backed his campaign and are frustrated that he has not wrested more influence for them with the government.
Attah Mohammed Noor, the longtime governor of Balkh province and a leader of the Jamiat party, complained last week that Ghani had snubbed Jamiat and monopolized decisions. “We want to avoid a crisis. If the government fulfills its promises, we will cooperate. If not, after September we may withdraw our support,” Noor said. “We must be given our rights.” Noor, who controls thousands of former fighters, threatened to cause mayhem in Kabul unless Abdullah was named the election winner in 2014.
On Friday, another Jamiat leader, former national intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, said his party strongly supported Abdullah and his comments Thursday and warned that if Ghani does not meet his demands, “it would lead to complete paralysis.”
Other critics have not asked for favors but say the growing sense of crisis has to be assuaged. Most agree that Karzai’s idea of an elder gathering would undermine democratic progress. Some suggest that local and parliamentary elections be announced for next year; others have urged expanding the cabinet to add political diversity.
“This whole catastrophe can be avoided if they allow more people to participate,” said Anwar al-Ahady, a former cabinet minister. “The government has failed miserably, but nobody wants chaos. We want to see an orderly change, either from the inside or through elections. If people get mobilized to demonstrate, the government could collapse. We have to find a way to solve this, and there is very little time.”