KABUL — Mohammad Mohaqiq thinks he’s owed a lot for throwing his support behind Afghanistan’s U.S.-brokered coalition government. The influential former warlord-turned-politician expects nothing less than a fifth of all Cabinet ministries and governorships for his ethnic group.
“Twenty to 22 percent,” declared Mohaqiq in an interview at his opulent, heavily guarded house, “should go to those from the Hazara community,”
But President Ashraf Ghani and his close aides have vowed to fill government positions based on skills and competence — not ethnic or regional quotas.
The divide speaks to a clash of cultures and perspectives emerging within the two-week-old government as it embarks on the difficult task of forging a new bureaucracy in the weeks ahead. At stake is the future of this fragile nation, beset by economic woes and insecurity, as most foreign troops leave its soil by year’s end and the Taliban Islamist insurgency remains a potent threat.
Ghani, an American-educated technocrat who cites Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson as his influences, wants to enact reforms and create a modern government run by experienced civil servants accountable to the people. But he has to contend with the high expectations of dozens of powerful individuals under him, some with nefarious pasts, who helped him attain the presidency. They are steeped in the traditional ways of Afghan politics, driven by ethnicity, patronage and enormous egos.
Many Afghans question whether Ghani can effectively work with Abdullah Abdullah, his political rival who is now his partner in the power-sharing government.
“This is the honeymoon period. The hard part will be when Ghani starts replacing ministers,” said a senior Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol. “He’s going to have to overlay Abdullah’s patronage network into a reform-minded agenda, and there’s going to be a natural rub. Ghani wants competent and qualified ministers and officials. Abdullah is more about the old school Afghan network.”
The pair, diplomats and analysts said, will need to rein in the demands and ambitions of the outsized personalities in their respective camps in order to prevent the sort of divisiveness and corruption that have plagued the country in the past.
“The problem in our system is not the leaders themselves, it’s their entourages,” said Haroon Mir, a political analyst. “There will be potential for conflict.”
The unity government was sworn in Sept. 29 after months of political acrimony that threatened ethnic rifts and violence. Both Ghani and Abdullah claimed they won the elections to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who came to power after the U.S.-led intervention following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, which ousted the Taliban. The two men were eventually persuaded by Washington to form a partnership, with Abdullah holding the title of chief executive in the Ghani administration, equivalent to prime minister.
The pair had worked together before as ministers in Karzai’s Cabinet. But Abdullah’s formative experience was as an official in the Northern Alliance in the 1990s, when it pursued armed conflict with the Taliban government then in Kabul. Ghani spent 18 years living and working in Baltimore and Washington.
Abdullah nearly boycotted the inauguration ceremony after a squabble over office space and whether he would speak at the event; he eventually did, after U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham helped settle the dispute.
Since taking office in the country’s first democratic transfer of power, Ghani has sent a clear message of reforming the old order. He’s been working long hours, said Western diplomats. He signed two security pacts allowing roughly 12,000 U.S. and NATO troops to remain after 2014 to train and advise Afghan forces and stage counterterrorism operations. He also reopened an investigation into a fraud scandal at Kabul Bank, which collapsed in 2010 after nearly $1 billion disappeared, mostly deposits by foreign donors.
But while they support both these actions, members of Abdullah’s circle in interviews expressed unhappiness with some of Ghani’s political appointments, underscoring the mistrust and lingering bitterness over the elections. They said that they weren’t consulted and that several positions, including national security adviser and a deputy minister of foreign affairs, were given to Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, and the one to which Ghani belongs.
“Ghani says, ‘I am a nationalist and I do not belong to a specific tribe,’ but he’s acting based on ethnicity,” said Mowlana Farid, an ethnic Tajik politician close to Abdullah, who is of mixed Tajik and Pashtun ethnicity. “These kinds of appointments show he’s acting individually. No firing and hiring should take place without the agreement of both teams.”
“He is acting as if he was the elected winner of the elections,” he added.
Ghani’s allies say that he has appointed people solely based on their qualifications and that as president he has no obligation to get the other camp’s approval.
“He can choose anyone as an adviser,” said Daoud Sultanzoi, a former presidential candidate who now supports Ghani. “Why should he consult Abdullah? This is ludicrous.”
“Unfortunately, there’s a clash of interests between the national interest and the personal interests of a few,” he added. “Ego is a big game here.”
A key challenge facing Ghani is how to deal with such people while not allowing the government to become gridlocked — or disintegrate into infighting.
Take the case of Attah Mohammed Noor, a former militia leader and the powerful governor of Balkh Province, who is a supporter of Abdullah. In the summer, he vowed to stage a civil uprising if Ghani became president. Now, tensions could arise if Ghani decides to replace Noor, who has grown immensely wealthy from his control of the province.
“The real test will come when Ghani has to fire one of these officials and who he wants to replace him with,” said the senior Western official. “Attah is a great example of where Ghani has to be careful in his reformist agenda. He wants to replace that guy for a host of reasons. But how much do you push before the whole thing is in danger of coming off the rails?”
Today’s Afghanistan, diplomats and analyst say, is in a transitional period similar to Egypt’s after the 2011 Arab Spring revolts and Iraq’s after the departure of the U.S. military. Ghani, they say, can learn lessons from both nations, whose governments eventually crumbled.
Then there is Abdurrashid Dostum, Ghani’s first vice president. Like Mohaqiq, Abdullah’s deputy, he is a notorious former warlord accused of committing numerous human rights abuses. Under Afghanistan’s constitution, if Ghani goes abroad on official business, Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, will be in charge of running the nation.
Even within Abdullah’s camp, there is concern over the warlords — and ethnic quotas. In interviews, both Pashtun and Tajik members of his team said they would not allow Hazaras to get a fifth of the ministries and governorships, especially if they are not qualified. But Western diplomats expect that a good portion will need to be divided up along ethnic and regional lines to prevent tensions.
When asked what would happen if his demands were not met, Mohaqiq waved his hand and confidently declared that “it will be solved.” But he also warned there could be a chance that the unity government could become divided if compromises over positions are not reached.
“At the moment we are a single team. We are jointly working for Afghanistan,” said Mohaqiq cryptically. “But it’s unpredictable what will happen.”