Afghan president comes under renewed criticism

Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, has spent much of the last two years fending off criticism of his presidency. On Thursday, the government's chief executive became the most high-profile official to openly speak against him.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

After an election that stretched on for more than 10 months, a US-brokered unity government gave Abdullah Abdullah the new position of Chief Executive

On Thursday, Abdullah Abdullah – the chief executive of Afghanistan’s national unity government – became the latest and most high-profile official to make deeply critical statements regarding Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president.

At a press conference in Kabul, Abdullah criticised the president for failing to consult or meet with him over the last three months.

"You don’t have time to meet with your Chief Executive face-to-face for at least one or two hours? How does your honour spend his time," Abdullah asked.

In the two years since the formation of the unity government, Ghani has repeatedly found himself the target of criticism from within his own administration and those who backed him during the 2014 presidential polls.

Abdullah’s statements, however, represent the most high-profile public swipe at the president so far.

From the outset, the unity government – created with the assistance of US Secretary of State John Kerry, in response to Abdullah’s accusations of widespread government-assisted fraud in the 2014 presidential election – has been plagued with disagreements between rival factions.

Divisions amongst the ranks

Though Abdullah – who was given the newly-created post of chief executive as part of a 2014 agreement signed by both men — said disputes are common in any government, he seemed to paint an image of the president as being unwilling to compromise.

"Someone who doesn’t have the patience for discussion also lacks the ability to rule," Abdullah said.

Over the last two years, pundits and sources close to the president have accused Ghani of repeatedly cutting off advisors and distancing himself from some of his most ardent advocates who had stood by him during the tumultuous election.

"Ministers are not given a chance to speak. [President Ghani] provides a one-hour lecture but he should listen to the ministers for 15 minutes," Abdullah said.

That statement seemed to echo a frequent complaint about Ghani, a former professor – namely that he is unwilling to take the views of even those he appointed into account.

According to an anonymous source within Abdullah’s camp, the chief executive’s comments were made in response to growing frustration within his own base.

Party pressure

"His supporters were frustrated with President Ghani’s policies," said the source.

Abdullah seemed to address this point during his speech when he said: "From the youth present today to our most honoured politicians, everyone is upset with me … Everyone says: 'Why didn't you step in here, Why didn't you step in there?'"

During his statements, Abdullah also raised the issue of electoral reform, which was one of the key conditions in the unity agreement.

"Election reform is a must, there is no alternative to it," Abdullah said regarding the stalemate he and Ghani have seemingly found themselves in over the issue.

Though parliamentary elections were slated to be held by the end of September, that date is likely to pass without a ballot.

More troubling for Abdullah, said the source, who was not authorised to speak to the media, was the pressure he was facing from Jamiat-e Islami, a powerful political party that counts many former jihadi leaders amongst its ranks.

The national unity government has been plagued with reports of discord within the administration and growing insecurity in the country as a whole.

Jamiat is strong in the north of Afghanistan, where much of Abdullah’s support also comes from.

According to a source within the party, Abdullah has been completely sidelined within Jamiat.

"This is all for Jamiat, he needs them."

Abdullah's decision to take aim at Ghani, said the source, is especially important because his inability to show progress within the unity government, coupled with reports of infighting, has cost him popular support.

This overture to the party, said the source, is especially crucial given their plans to hold leadership elections within the next two months.

"This is all an act for September. Abdullah is trying to win back the Jamiat leadership before he is completely sidelined by the upcoming election."

The source said Jamiat's top brass has excluded Abdullah from their leadership meetings for the past several months, in a sign of their frustration.

His efforts may be succeeding.

Abdullah's statements have won over at least one high-level member of Jamiat, Mohammad Atta Noor, the influential acting governor of Balkh Province and a staunch critic of Ghani.

Shortly after Abdullah's address, Noor sent out a statement showing support for the chief executive's comments.

"He clearly spoke regarding the demands and wishes of the people," he said.

In the end, however, the anonymous source said Abdullah's decision to go public with his criticism was "reactive [because] it’s impossible to work with Ghani."

Though Ghani and Abdullah – along with their respective camps – have had disagreements, most notably over appointments and electoral reform policies, Abdullah emphasised that he has tried to work with Ghani.

"The first person to sign [the statement] saying, Mr Mohammad Ashraf Ghani is the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was me."

In a statement sent to the media, the presidential palace said Abdullah's comments were "not in accordance with the spirit of governance" and that instead – at this time of great challenges – the nation and its leaders must come together in the spirit of unity and consensus.

Criticism from within

Abdullah's criticism are bad news for President Ghani, who has been on the receiving end of similar statements for much of the last two years.

In February, Ahmad Zia Massoud, Ghani’s special representative for reform and good governance, lambasted the administration’s willingness to negotiate with the Taliban.

As the first high-profile member of the nation’s Tajik minority to openly endorse Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, during the election, Massoud was seen as a major boost to Ghani’s campaign at a time when he was being questioned over a lack of big-name supporters from the Tajik community.

Citing political infighting inside Ghani’s inner circle and repeated resistance from members of Abdullah’s team, Massoud said the government had failed to lift the economy – which took a heavy blow as a result of the uncertainty of the 2014 presidential polls – or reverse the gains the Taliban have made on the battlefield.

According to a source familiar with the situation, the Taliban now control nearly 60 districts in the nation and at least 100 others are currently under threat of falling to the Taliban. 

Currently, the Afghan National Security Forces are trying to fend off the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand. The group hopes to take control of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, which they have surrounded from several directions.

For the last year, Haji Abdul Zaher Qadir – deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament – has continuously accused the government of not doing enough to battle forces claiming loyalty to DAESH.

Zaher, who hails from an influential family in the eastern province of Nangarhar, has assembled what he calls a "people’s uprising" of thousands of fighters who have been tasked with going head-to-head with DAESH and Taliban forces in the province.

Though he has been accused of forming a militia, Zaher said his forces are merely responding to the lack of government action against those claiming allegiance to the group.

Like Massoud, Zaher and his family were seen as having a major influence on Ghani’s ability to win votes.

The son and nephew of two notable Mujahideen leaders, Zaher holds considerable sway in the east of Afghanistan. The endorsement of Zaher and his family is seen as one of the reasons for the strong showing of support for the government throughout the eastern region.

Recently, however, Zaher has rebuked Ghani for not taking the threat of DAESH seriously early on.

"I made Ashraf Ghani, Ashraf Ghani didn’t make me," he said when asked about critical comments he made about the president last autumn.

Author: Ali M Latifi

TRTWorld and agencies