Divisions within Afghan government reach a new crisis point

Published November 17, 2016
AFGHAN parliamentarians have recently impeached seven cabinet members.
AFGHAN parliamentarians have recently impeached seven cabinet members.

KABUL: The scene this week in Afghanistan’s majestic new parliament was one of bickering and bedlam. Legislators shouted to be heard and argued over points of procedure. They were fired up and in no mood to stop.

By the end of four days, they had impeached seven cabinet ministers. The foreign minister was gone, and the finance minister had barely survived a vote of confidence. Technically, the process was about under-spent budgets, but ethnic politics and opportunism were at its core.

Once again, political melodrama has taken over the national conversation. The spectacle of renewed discord — in a government that underwent a wave of defections last spring — is dominating the news and shifting focus from pressing issues that include a spate of attacks by Taliban insurgents, record-high unemployment and a mass influx of returning refugees.

The revolt in parliament is only one symptom of the disarray. In recent weeks, several aides to President Ashraf Ghani have publicly criticised his administration, while opposition leaders are plotting to divide it from the outside. Long-promised elections are still far off, and public confidence is weakening.

The tensions have resurfaced just as the United States, a mainstay of Afghan defence and economic aid for years, has elected a new president with different priorities and no investment in Afghanistan’s success. Many Afghans fear President-elect Donald Trump may withdraw the 10,000 US troops that President Obama kept here to help Afghan security forces take over the anti-insurgent fight.

“Everyone in Afghanistan is worried about what Trump will do. We are so dependent on American aid, and the government needs to be sending a positive message to Washington. Instead, it is sending a message of political dysfunction,” said Haroun Mir, an analyst in Kabul.

Just six weeks ago, Ghani and his governing partner, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, managed to present a united front and an ambitious agenda at a crucial donors’ conference in Europe, even though the two men were on frosty personal terms and the legitimacy of their two-year-old arrangement was being widely questioned.

Since then Ghani and Abdullah have had numerous meetings, and aides say they now have a good working relationship. But defections by ethnic opposition leaders who once backed Abdullah have left his future in doubt, while others who joined Ghani’s team have publicly criticised him as autocratic.

First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former ethnic Uzbek warlord, accused the president of controlling too much power, then threatened to lead an uprising and accused members of Ghani’s National Security Council of plotting to kill him. The rift was mended through negotiations, but the northern strongman remains a political wild card.

The other powerful figure who could make or break the national unity government is Atta Mohammad Noor, an ethnic Tajik and wealthy northern governor from Abdullah’s Jamiat-i-Islami party. Noor bankrolled Abdullah’s run for president, but he recently has been negotiating with Ghani on his own, seeking a larger share of power for Jamiat.

AFGHAN President Ashraf Ghani (left) and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
AFGHAN President Ashraf Ghani (left) and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

“Governor Noor doesn’t want a job for himself. He wants the full implementation of the national unity agreement and our rights in it, which Dr Abdullah has not been able to get,” said an adviser to Noor. “That means 50 per cent of power, a bigger role in policy and appointments.”

While such manoeuvring goes on behind closed doors, another ethnic power play was televised live all week in parliament. The first group of three ministers scheduled to appear included two Tajiks, but after opposition legislators cried foul, the line-up was switched to one Pakhtun, one Hazara and one Tajik.

It was Ghani, a reformist technocrat and ethnic Pakhtun, who unwittingly triggered the melodrama when he warned that he might dismiss any minister who failed to spend 65pc of the budget. But legislators, seizing what analysts called an opportunity for influence and profit, turned his clean-up effort into something else.

“This is muscle flexing by politicians who see their fortunes dwindling under Ghani and are trying to squeeze as much patronage from the situation as they can,” said a Western expert in Kabul, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Noting that ministers regularly pay bribes to win or keep their jobs, he called the impeachment process a “gold mine”.

Aides to several impeached ministers said the hearings were biased, with few questions asked before votes were taken.

Mujib Mehrdad, an aide to the dismissed education minister, said that his boss tried to explain his under-spending but that the legislators “didn’t listen. That means they had another agenda. It’s not fair”.

Ghani’s response has been an awkward mix of conciliation and confrontation. He refused to let several ministers appear before parliament, then called a group of lawmakers to his palace late one night and asked them to delay the process. Finally, he referred the issue to the Supreme Court.

“We were not trying to start a fire in the jungle. Our main purpose was to benefit the country,” said Fawzia Koofi, a Tajik legislator. “But Ghani reacted very strongly. When we went to meet him, he left without saying goodbye. He takes everything too personally. He needs to have broad, welcoming shoulders, like a traditional leader.”

Aides to the president acknowledged he had been taken aback by the impeachment fever, but they said that the internal conflicts with Abdullah, Dostum and others had been resolved, and that Ghani has been reaching out to all political groups for support.

“Our democracy is in the process of maturing. This is a power struggle between branches of government, driven by political and financial interests, but it will not affect long-term issues,” said Nader Nadery, a senior adviser to Ghani. “This is not a major setback. It is a temporary distraction.”

Still, international observers said the growing political uncertainty, including a potentially nasty fight over refilling the cabinet and the shifting loyalties among powerful ethnic figures such as Dostum and Noor, could be a bigger worry.

“Things are changing every day. No one knows who is in or out, friend or enemy,” said the Western expert, who is not authorised to speak publicly. “That makes it more likely that Ghani will survive, but it could functionally bring the government to a standstill.”

—By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2016


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