KABUL — An ominous rumble of discontent is sweeping Afghanistan, driven by a mixture of anxiety, anger, frustration and political opportunism.
In the past two months, an assortment of new opposition groups has emerged, some with noble-sounding names and reformist agendas, led by an improbable collection of tribal leaders, ethnic militia bosses, disaffected public appointees and young professionals. Even an old communist general has joined the fray with a new, pointedly non-leftist party called the “Homeland Movement.”
Their demands include individual grievances, and several of the more controversial leaders have grabbed most of the attention. But their broader message is remarkably similar: The government of President Ashraf Ghani has failed to protect the public and provide jobs. The president has overreached his executive powers and excluded diverse points of view. He must act now, produce meaningful reforms and legitimize his fractured, teetering government — or else.
The object of this barrage is a cerebral, single-minded man of 68 who spends 18-hour days reading policy reports, holding team meetings, addressing conferences and huddling with aides, seemingly determined to power through the latest crisis as his troubled government nears three years in office. Ghani’s aides insist that the real impetus behind much of the opposition is a combination of anxiety among traditional leaders who are losing power in a modernizing state, and a broader opposition to reform from those who have long benefited from systemic public corruption.
“The old guard is desperate to stick to the status quo, with the entrenched patronage networks that always decided who got what. Now a new educated generation has emerged, and the president is empowering people on the basis of merit,” said one recent Ghani appointee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It is very risky for the president to take this stand,” he added, noting that many such leaders gained power through armed conflicts. “The old guard’s survival is at stake, and they know if they lose they will become irrelevant.”
Yet after months of growing criticism and short-lived protests, some resolved by individual deals or government appointments, the unrest has galvanized an extraordinary cross section of Afghan society. Some observers fear that a cumulative sense of disillusionment could ignite unexpectedly — perhaps after an especially deadly terrorist attack — and spread.
If there is a common theme, it might best be summed up as “We feel left out.” Once-rival ethnic Uzbek and Tajik leaders from the north have joined forces with senior Hazara leaders from the capital, demanding that Ghani fire his top security aides and provide more patronage to their parties. Tribal elders from Ghani’s ethnic Pashtun group have held protest gatherings in eastern Nangahar and southern Kandahar provinces, complaining that he has neglected their regions while listening only to a small group of advisers from his own clan.
Some members of the younger, educated generation — the group Ghani had been counting on the most — have also joined the opposition. Urban and liberal Hazara activists, previously organized as the “Enlightenment” movement to demand an electrification corridor through their impoverished heartland, were left embittered and adrift after a terrorist bombing killed 80 of their supporters at a peaceful rally in Kabul a year ago.
Now, they have found common cause with a movement called “Uprising for Change,” a mix of civic activists and academics that arose spontaneously after a devastating truck bomb exploded in the capital on May 31, killing 150 people and injuring 400 others. The attack was followed by protests and funeral bombings that left an additional 28 people dead. Enraged, people demonstrated for weeks, putting up tents on city streets and delivering anti-government speeches.
“We are different from the warlords. We want hospitals and medicines; they want the Ministry of Health. We want roads and light; they want the Ministry of Public Works,” said Daoud Naji, an Enlightenment leader in Kabul. He said he has become disillusioned as Ghani’s government has failed to bring jobs, curb corruption and develop democratic institutions. “We do not believe in violence, but we are turning from good boys into bad boys,” Naji said. “We will run, shout, break windows and break the law, until they listen to us.”
Ghani’s aides say that he is well aware of the trouble swirling outside his palace and in far-flung provinces but that he does not view it as a reason to panic or change course. He has responded directly to some demands for change, replacing the defense and interior ministers after devastating insurgent attacks, and appointing officials from ethnic minorities to important posts. He has also held televised public meetings, inviting groups to express their concerns and offering them explanations or solutions.
Meanwhile, the aides said, the president is determined to stay focused on the financial, justice and administrative reform agenda that has brought him kudos from Afghanistan’s foreign backers — which pay for 70 percent of the national budget — and from groups such as the International Monetary Fund.
But most Afghans have seen little benefit from the reforms. Unemployment is close to 40 percent, and street corners are crammed with day laborers. High-profile efforts to prosecute corrupt officials have proceeded slowly, and powerful figures with murky fortunes have built mansions and shopping malls. Street crime and insurgency have infected daily life with the constant fear of violence; last year, more than 11,000 civilians were killed or injured in war-related incidents.
Even longtime supporters say Ghani underestimated the short-term political costs of his long-term agenda, failing to reassure the public or win over influential people who have now turned against him. They also said his democratic rhetoric has been undercut by his dictatorial tendencies; Ghani has been unwilling to trust more than a handful of aides and has concentrated administrative power in a few commissions and individuals. Half a dozen senior officials have recently broken with the government or heavily criticized it.
Perhaps most important, the national unity government, the result of an uneasy power-sharing agreement brokered in 2014 by the United States between Ghani and his top electoral rival, Abdullah Abdullah, has been riven by personal disputes, unable to legitimize itself and repeatedly delaying plans for overdue parliamentary elections. A date has been set for next July, and observers say the polls are crucial to restoring public confidence. But many Afghans doubt that the vote can be held fairly or safely.
Meanwhile, with Ghani and the government at their most unpopular point, there are predictions that the president may not survive until his term ends in just over two years. Some opponents have called for an interim government, others for a traditional gathering of elders, to determine what happens next. One group of former militia leaders has made vague threats to overrun the capital.
“The situation is very serious. We have not reached that point, but if current trends don’t reverse, if the government keeps putting cotton in its ears, things could explode,” said Umar Daudzai, a former senior official. “If the people rise up and say you can’t protect us and you can’t lead us, it will be difficult to stop. If we don’t hold elections and people lose confidence, the culture of warlordism could come back, and then the country will enter dark territory.”