Rifts leave Afghan unity government weak in face of Taliban and ISIL

Some MPs fear the government that was put together in a US-brokered deal may be on the verge of collapse, report Fazelminallah Qazizai and Chris Sands

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani speaks during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on November 1, 2014. Shah Marai/AFP Photo
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KABUL // When hundreds of shopkeepers gathered for a protest in Kabul over tax increases, a picture of the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, watched over them from a nearby building.

The demonstration in the capital’s Pashtunistan Square may have seemed like a relatively minor issue in a country at war, but it was just one indication that all is not well with the national unity government.

Barely six months after a US-brokered deal put together a new administration, the problems are piling up – causing anger in the corridors of power and on the streets.

Amid rumours of rifts between the president and his chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, a full cabinet has still not been formed. Meanwhile, efforts to improve relations with Pakistan have so far yielded no tangible results in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Security has also continued to deteriorate and the government has made the controversial decision to openly back Saudi Arabia’s position in the conflict in Yemen at the expense of Afghanistan’s neighbour Iran.

The shopkeepers’ peaceful demonstration on April 6 led to stores across the city closing for the day in a very public display of discontent. The protesters complained that a substantial increase in sales tax on their businesses was little more than officially sanctioned corruption. Many said they already paid high rents despite the fact the economy was in decline.

"We don't have good business now," said one shopkeeper, Abdul Hameed, who The National that the sales tax should be reduced. "If our demands are not met then all of these people will have to steal and turn to crime."

Mr Ghani was sworn in as president last September following a bitter election campaign that threatened to push the country into civil war. In the end, mediation from the United States ensured that Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power went ahead in the form of a national unity government that included Mr Ghani’s main rival, Mr Abdullah.

The deal saw both camps agree to work together, dividing positions up among an unlikely mix of technocrats, former communists and ex-mujaheddin.

From the very beginning many Afghans were concerned that the alliance could never work, but there was also relief that chaos had been averted. Now some politicians fear the government will do well to last much longer.

Helai Ershad represents Afghanistan’s nomadic Kuchi community in parliament and is a supporter of Mr Ghani. A sceptic of the national unity formula from the start, she believes the president was wrong to compromise when people had risked their “own blood” by supporting him in the election. She predicted the government would probably survive but that the country would face increased suffering.

“The problems we have now will increase to a high level for another five years, until our next election,” she said. “Our ministers will be chosen by one side and our deputy ministers by another side, which is a big problem. Our security will get worse and we will not be able to walk on the streets as we do now. We will not have the economy we have now and, finally, we will not have a responsible government.”

One of the defining aspects of Mr Ghani’s tenure has been his attempt to improve relations with Pakistan, which is widely thought to harbour the Taliban’s leadership and has long been viewed with suspicion in Afghanistan. While the president appears to regard this as the best way to achieve peace, he has been criticised for cosying up to an untrustworthy neighbour.

His recent decision to give vocal backing to the military campaign of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has also caused some controversy. Ms Ershad, however, said it should be seen in a similar vein as the rapprochement with Pakistan and supports both decisions.

But not everyone in parliament agrees. Ghulam Hussein Naseri, who represents Maidan Wardak province and is a supporter of Mr Abdullah, said the government ignored the constitution by failing to consult MPs on the Yemen issue. He added that Pakistan had not shown it is sincere about helping Afghanistan.

According to Mr Naseri, divisions over these issues are symptomatic of bigger problems within the administration. He told The National there are "very serious" differences between the two camps, including over ministerial appointments, that have left the government "not too far from collapse".

These differences came to light earlier this month when the nominee for minister of defence, General Afzal Ludin, withdrew his candidacy, citing “disunity between my countrymen”. His background as a senior official during the communist era is known to have angered former mujaheddin supporters of Mr Abdullah.

Shukria Barakzai, who was appointed by Mr Ghani to be the chair of a commission responsible for overseeing electoral reform, is also reported by Afghan media to have been removed from her role due to internal discord. High-level positions in the police and local government remain vacant across the country. The parliament approved 16 cabinet nominees on Saturday after months of delays, but the defence minister post remains vacant.

These vacancies have weakened the government further and left security forces struggling in the run up to the Taliban’s annual spring offensive – expected to be announced soon – and amid signs that ISIL is trying to gain a foothold in the country.

Adding to the insecurity, residents of Kabul have told The National that warlords and militiamen have grown in confidence under the new administration, acting with impunity under a government unwilling or unable to stop them.

In February a pharmacy store owner, Sayed Mohammed, was shot dead in a suburb of Kabul after he attempted to intervene on behalf of an elderly man involved in a land dispute. His brother, Haji Jan Mohammed Ahmadi, named the gunmen as Commander Qand and Commander Tela and said they were notorious locally for having links with powerful political figures associated with a former mujaheddin leader.

“The government hasn’t done anything for us yet but we hope it will give all sides their rights,” he said. “We have nothing in our hands – no power and no money. The only thing we have is a government and a system and we hope it will give us justice.”