KABUL — On a recent evening, aides to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani invited several foreign journalists to his palace for an “informal conversation.” The journalists arrived to find a lavish picnic supper set up on the lawn. Soon after the guests sat down, the president unexpectedly strolled up and joined them.
Ghani’s government is grappling with relentless poverty and insurgent violence, and the president faces unprecedented internal dissent and public attack. He is accused of being an autocratic micromanager and a remote academic with no feel for the common man. On that evening, though, he seemed confident, sympathetic and utterly unperturbed.
Holding forth on the Afghan economy, he rattled off head-spinning statistics about irrigation and living standards. Asked how he could appear relaxed with so many crises swirling around him, Ghani waved the subject away. What upsets him, he confided, are meetings that don’t start on time. “Crises,” he added with a serene smile, “make me calm.”
Ghani’s performance seemed intended to both dazzle and disarm his small audience, something he has failed to achieve with the Afghan public. At 67, with a history of health problems, he spends 18-hour days on the job, reaching for the sky with long-term regional development schemes and digging deep into the state bureaucracy to root out corruption.
Yet these superhuman efforts, popular with foreign donors, have generated little domestic goodwill. They are resented by officials whose authority he has stripped away and ex-militia leaders who expected the old patronage system to keep making them rich. Meanwhile, disillusionment is deepening among ordinary Afghans as the government has failed to bring jobs or security.
“President Ghani is a victim of his own vision,” said Timor Sharan, who represents the nonprofit International Crisis Group in Afghanistan. “His reform agenda created high expectations, but people need to see tangible results. He thought he could sacrifice himself for the future, but if he fails, it will have a terrible historic impact on our country.”
Even such constructive critics say Ghani has been his own worst enemy. They describe him as intellectually arrogant, impatient with underlings and too busy to indulge in the tea-drinking chats with elders and ethnic strongmen that enabled his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, to hold together a divided society emerging from decades of brutal conflict and ideological whiplash.
A startling recent outburst by Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s normally polite partner in the national unity government forged by U.S. officials after fraud-plagued elections in 2014, signaled that such frustrations are reaching a critical mass. Abdullah complained that Ghani had no time to discuss issues with him and that someone so impatient “does not deserve to be president.”
The two men have since held a series of private patch-up meetings, and both are under pressure to keep their uneasy marriage together — at least until a conference in Brussels in October, at which about 100 governments and international agencies will hear Ghani present his vision and track record on reform before signaling the extent of their commitment to the country’s future.
But the apparent detente has not fooled the sharks circling Kabul’s drifting and damaged regime. They include former warlords who see an opportunity to extract concessions, plus an assortment of embittered bureaucrats, tribal rivals and supporters of Karzai, who spread constant unflattering stories, rumors and conspiracy theories about Ghani and his aides.
One persistent complaint is that Ghani has hamstrung government agencies and ministers by taking centralized oversight to absurd extremes. Officials told stories of the president reviewing costs for meat and rice at a girls school and personally interviewing hundreds of candidates for low-level administrative posts.
“He is interfering with appointments at low levels, and he humiliates people who object to his decisions,” said one ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. “He appoints ministers but he doesn’t give them authority to do their jobs. He is trying to stop corruption selectively. This is not the right way to bring reform.”
The other accusation is that Ghani has surrounded himself with advisers from his Pashtun ethnic group and clan, while shutting out those from other backgrounds. Both of his vice presidents are from ethnic minorities, but several of his closest confidants, such as the national security adviser, Hanif Atmar, are fellow Ghilzai Pashtuns. He has also alienated influential Durrani Pashtuns, whose tribe ruled the country for centuries.
The response from Ghani’s camp is that such charges are inaccurate or motivated by sour grapes. His advisers acknowledge that he has not devoted enough effort to public explanation and political schmoozing. But they insist that he is scrupulous about vetting appointments on merit alone and that delving into the minutiae of hiring and spending is the only way to root out corruption.
“This is just an excuse for ministers to hide their weakness. They know how to steal more than how to spend,” said Finance Minister Eklil Ahmad Hakimi. Under the procurement commission created and chaired by the president, Hakimi said, only expenses over $300,000 must be reviewed by the panel. Last year, after it uncovered rigging in defense fuel contracting, Ghani fired 17 officials and canceled an $800 million contract.
Ghani has shown no signs of softening his draconian reform policies or temperamental personality, but since the blowup with Abdullah he has taken more time to reach out to groups he once ignored and respond to public tragedies. After insurgents attacked an American-run university in Kabul last week, leaving 13 dead, he visited victims and toured the campus the next day.
At the dinner with journalists, Ghani spoke passionately of wanting to help the country’s poorest families, and explained how building dams could generate enough electricity to create several million jobs in agriculture. “The poor must be the owners of Afghanistan,” he declared in what he hinted would be a theme of his speech in Brussels.
Abdullah has said he is still committed to cooperating with Ghani to ensure the survival of their national unity government. But its tenuous legitimacy has made both men vulnerable to threats from former warlords, who could easily bring down Ghani’s crusade to bring technocratic rule to a traditional society based on dealmaking and informal consensus.
Some observers say the tension between Ghani’s need to strengthen political stability and his centralized drive to build a modern state is fast coming to a head. They suggest that the president, who authored a scholarly book called “Fixing Failed States,” needs to learn from Karzai’s laissez-faire leadership style. Otherwise, they warn, he may lose on both counts.
“The president wants to leap into the future, but he is ignoring the bombs in his path,” said Wahid Majrooh, a spokesman at the Public Health Ministry. “He has some good experts around him, but hedoesn’t have enough support. This is a one-man show. If he succeeds, it will be a miracle that transforms the country and maybe the entire region. If he fails, he will fail alone.”