Just weeks before the upcoming donor conference in Brussels on 5 October 2016, the two leaders of Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG) erupted into a fierce, public argument. Chief Executive Abdullah accused President Ghani of unilateralism and called him “unfit” for his office; the president hit back implying that the rival camp was merely trying to block government reforms. The core of the argument, however, was a last minute push by the Abdullah camp to put the full implementation of the 2014 NUG agreement back on the agenda, in the face of discussions on its possible imminent ‘expiry.’ In this first dispatch, of two, AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili, Lenny Linke and Martine van Bijlert revisit how the verbal sparring unfolded and how the various sides tried to defuse it. Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah shake hands before the press conference in which they announced the agreement reached on 12 July 2014 with the help of US State Secretary John Kerry. Photo credit: Pajhwok.
In an upcoming second dispatch, AAN’s Martine van Bijlert will dissect the speech that started the scuffle, explore the political context that led up to the fall-out and consider where we may go from here.
How it began
The recent public crisis between CEO Abdullah and President Ghani kicked off on 11 August 2016 when, during a gathering to celebrate International Youth Day, Abdullah publicly criticised the president. He criticised the president’s unilateralism, raising issues such as appointments made and merits awarded without consulting him. He in particular blamed Ghani for not making time to meet with him one-on-one to discuss “fundamental issues,” leading into his most stinging comment that a person who “does not have the patience for a discussion, also is not fit for the presidency.” He then defended his participation in the NUG and discussed the challenges facing the country and how they had, in his view, stopped the government from implementing the NUG agreement. He stressed the need for elections, electoral reform and a Loya Jirga that would decide on whether to turn his position into an executive prime ministerial position. Towards the end of his speech he said that, despite his patience and prudence, the time to be deceived by mere words was over and that he hoped these issues could be addressed in his upcoming meeting with the president and that “common sense” and “an understanding of the realities” would prevail. (Full video, in Dari, here. Highlights here.)
President Ghani responded in kind, publicly, during another Youth Day celebration on 12 August 2016, hitting back that: “I too do not trust those who do not trust me because of their negative interests … [because] whenever I take action against corruption, part of a faction which has taken hundred of millions [not clear whether this referred to dollars or Afghanis] raises its voice to say that the president monopolises all power.” (1) His public reaction was followed by a terse palace statement that stressed the importance of unity and described Abdullah’s remarks as not in line with “the norms and spirit of governance.” The statement did not refer to Abdullah as “Chief Executive,” addressing him instead as mohtaram Dr Abdullah Abdullah, a generic prefix that means “esteemed.” The statement described the National Unity Government as having patiently worked for almost two years “under the leadership of the president.” The statement ended by saying that the National Unity Government would continue to move ahead “as a whole” and would soon conduct “serious and effective discussions about his [Abdullah’s] remarks.”
So although both sides made sure their grievances were loudly heard, neither side gave an indication of wanting to irreparably damage or destroy the partnership. They were, however, playing a risky game, given the precarious security situation in several parts of the country, the political tensions over issues such as the terrorist attack on the 23 July 2016 Enlightenment Movement demonstration in Kabul and the reburial of former king Habibullah II, aka Habibullah Kalakani, and the expectations of the donors and the public that the government would focus on presenting a unified, professional and well-prepared stance at the upcoming Brussels conference.
Abdullah’s speech was speedily endorsed by several prominent supporters who at the same time sought to emphasise what, according to them, the main points of the speech had been, most prominently acting Balkh Governor Atta Muhammad Nur, who had come to Kabul in preparation for an upcoming political congress of Jamiat-e Islami (he heads the party’s executive council) and former NDS head Amrullah Saleh, a former Jamiati who now heads his own movement, the Green Trend. Nur said Abdullah had “categorically voiced the people’s demands and ideals” and called on the president and his team to pay due attention to the fact that the National Unity Government was the outcome of a political agreement between two sides and that all decisions should thus be taken jointly.
Saleh announced his “firm support” for Abdullah’s demands which according to him consisted of the “implementation of real reforms, respect for the political agreement and the implementation of all its clauses, amendment of the constitution, reform of the electoral system, the distribution of electronic ID cards and an end to the personalisation of the government’s system and agencies.” He echoed Abdullah’s criticism of the president’s attempts to concentrate all political power in his own hand, adding that “the real problem is that one faction thinks they won the elections; [but] they did not win the election. There was huge fraud in the elections. What legitimises the government is the signing of the political agreement. … [But] they try to consolidate their personal power and the price that they are willing to pay is to damage the national unity of Afghanistan. They have concentrated authorities in one point, they treat the ministers unequally and their definition of meritocracy is imbued with prejudices and factionalism.”
On 13 August 2016 Abdullah met with a large number of senior allies to show that his stance was widely supported (see here and here). Apart from Atta and Saleh, these included his deputies in the NUG Muhammad Khan and Muhammad Muhaqeq, Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani (also acting head of Jamiat party), former defence minister Bismillah Muhammadi, minister of justice Abdul Basir Anwar, head of the commission for overseeing the implementation of the political agreement Muhammad Nateqi and Nangarhar MP Mirwais Yasini. They expressed support for the position of the CEO and “insisted on the unconditional implementation of the political agreement.”
The president, in response, cancelled the one-on-one meeting Abdullah had referred to in his 11 August speech and that had been scheduled for 13 August 2016 before the tensions arose (details here, in Dari). The tit-for-tat and abrupt cancellation of the meeting alarmed western diplomats and resulted in a steady stream of visitors and invitations in an attempt to advise and defuse. The US ambassador for instance invited Abdullah for a closed-door meeting and the following day, on 14 August 2016, the UN and the EU special representatives as well as the Indian ambassador went to meet Abdullah in his office in the Sapedar Palace, where he, according to the statements released by his office, again “emphasised his position on the implementation of the political agreement.”
On 14 August 2016, Abdullah sought to further mobilise his allies in an address to a large gathering of political leaders who had backed him in the 2014 presidential elections. He apologised for failing to fulfil the promises made to them over the last two years, defended his decision to accept the NUG arrangement as “a way to rescue Afghanistan from crisis” and justified his recent public criticism: “What I said on Thursday was not driven by sentiments, emotions, anger or personal demands, and it was not an exaggeration, but rather [reflected] the reality that exists. The people have to know where the problems lie.” He then sought to portray a tough stance, announcing that he would change his ways and show “a new face” – because the people “can no longer bear the situation” – while reiterating his demand that the NUG political agreement be implemented in full.
During the gathering, governor Atta, according to his own Facebook page, raised the issue of what Abdullah would do if his new attitude would not lead to the desired results when he asked: “What is your red line and what is the deadline? If your rival [i.e. president Ghani] crosses this line, what will we do next?” If the issue was indeed raised, it did not appear to have been answered.
Abdullah’s escalation was followed by several mediatory attempts to de-escalate. High Peace Council Chairman Pir Ahmad Gailani offered to mediate (but was not taken up on the offer), while the US government, through Elizabeth Trudeau, Director of the Department of State’s Press Office, sought to downplay the affair in a 15 August press briefing saying: “I would say we’ve seen the comments. We believe the Government of National Unity has made significant progress in Afghanistan. We believe that that’s the path forward and we continue to support it.” (2) On 19 August US State Secretary Kerry called both leaders to stress “the importance to move forward with political and economic reforms.”
The opposition weighs in
The various opposition movements that have sprung up since 2015 and that regularly criticise the NUG, or openly call it illegitimate, unsurprisingly, weighed in as well. Among the most outspoken was the New National Front of Afghanistan, led by former minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi. He reiterated the front’s position on 12 August 2016, mildly at first, and then more explicitly on 25 August, when it said in a statement that:
The National Front believes the legitimacy crisis in Afghanistan is very deep. The best way to address this crisis is fresh presidential elections. … In the short run, the National Front proposes the end of the National Unity Government and the formation of a participatory and broad-based government whose members enjoy professionalism and political weight. … The National Unity Government formula, whether its leaders are at loggerheads or in unison, is not a good formula for governance. As it completes its two years, it is time for Afghanistan to have a new start, let the failed experience be history and [let us] start experiencing a new government that enjoys both professionalism and public support.
Former President Hamed Karzai, in an interview with Radio Azadi, as usual, emphasised the need for a Loya Jirga: “If a Loya Jirga is not convened, it will cause problems for our country and increase discontent. … I am sure that the traditional Loya Jirga will not only approve and renew the legitimacy of the system but will also find a way out of the existing problems. This is in the interest of the country and of our two brothers who lead the government and of the people of Afghanistan.”
Sayyaf’s Council for Protection and Stability, on the other hand, was rather silent. Its spokesman told AAN it would clarify its stance in a press conference. When on 30 August 2016 the press conference was finally held, spokesman Massud Tarashtwal said, “we believe Afghanistan is greater and more important than both the president and the chief executive. Therefore, the Council for Protection and Stability sees Afghanistan as the content and the rifts between the two honourables as form and we are never ready to sacrifice the content for form. Our stance is the stance of the people of Afghanistan and [we want them] not to keep the nation in frustration anymore.”
A string of meetings
When talks between the two sides restarted, rather than speaking with Abdullah himself, President Ghani first met individually with a few of Abdullah’s prominent supporters, including former water and power minister Ismail Khan, Rabbani and Atta (who, according to his Facebook page said that “Abdullah and his allies would not back down on this issue even one inch”). It was then agreed that the two leaders would have three rounds of meetings. One where Abdullah would lay out his demands, a second where the president would respond and a third where the two would seek to reach an agreement on the main issues.
During this meeting Abdullah presented a list of demands that was immediately leaked to the press and printed in Mandegar newspaper. His demands focused, first of all, on the full implementation of the political agreement, which included “purposeful and honest” participation and representation; joint decision making and effective cooperation; the delegation of duties to the post of executive prime minister and non-interference in his affairs; full participation of the chief executive in the process of proposing and approving appointments on different levels and equitable participation in the appointments process of high ranking government officials; the establishment of a commission towards amending the Constitution; expediting the process of electoral reform; address the “time-wasting” that has prevented the start of the e-tazkera distribution; a timeline for the implementation of the political agreement.
Other demands addressed how the president managed the government and called for an end to the creation of parallel government institutions [under the president] and (3) the over-centralisation of decision making and micromanagement; an end to the executive authorities of [presidential] advisers; an end to discrimination in decision-makings and the double-standard in the treatment of ministers, ambassadors and directors of independent bodies; an end to the arbitrary and extra-legal activities and decision-making of bodies associated with the Secretariat of the National Security Council and sub-bodies of the president’s office; an end to unilateral decisions [by the president] on issues such as foreign policy, the removal of Taleban names from the sanctions list and the granting of medals, and a complete review of the appointments of the last few months.
The meeting was described as “cordial” in a palace statement that further said that the president would now “review the chief executive’s demands during upcoming meetings.”
On 22 August 2016 the worst seemed to be over when Abdullah participated in the cabinet meeting – even though he had earlier vowed he would not do so until his “disagreements” with the president were settled. But this meeting was an important one, as the cabinet was set to approve the new electoral law (a draft had already been discussed on 20 August 2016, see this palace statement). On 22 August the electoral law was indeed approved, but only “in principle.”
Omid Maisam, a deputy spokesman for the chief executive, told AAN that Abdullah had participated “for the sake of the supreme interest of the country,” but Abdullah probably also wanted to make sure he could not be blamed for further delays in a process that he was now insisting on. The draft law itself – which included a shift to single-member-constituencies and the merging of the two electoral commissions – has hit some obstacles, as Vice President Danesh, who was the main point of contact for the reform from the side of the president, and others, opposed the changes (see forthcoming AAN analysis).
On 23 August 2016, Mujib Rahimi, the spokesman for the chief executive, sought to ratchet up the heat again, telling a meeting with media figures that Abdullah would have all options on the table when meeting Ghani again: “This time the stance is very clear: full implementation of the agreement. Otherwise, we have all other options on the table which, if the meetings fail to yield results, we will put into effect, after consultation with our allies and the people.” He did not specify what these options were.
The second meeting took place on 25 August 2016 was meant as an opportunity for the president to respond to Abdullah’s demands, and to present his own stance, but instead the two men reportedly discussed confidence-building measures. The CEO’s office released a statement, again describing the atmosphere as “cordial” and saying that “the president had expressed his views” and “both leaders agreed to discuss the effective conduct of affairs within the framework of the political agreement in joint meetings next week.” Abdullah, keen to keep his promise that from now on he would consult the members of his team, briefed Muhaqeq, Atta, Rabbani, Yasini, Saleh and others in his office.
After the third meeting on 28 August 2016, the CEO’s office released a statement saying the two leaders had reached agreements on the electoral system, the distribution of electronic ID cards, the establishment of a commission to amend to the constitution and the appointment of new members to the committee to oversee the implementation of the political agreement. (The current 11-member commission, headed by Muhammad Nateqi, was entirely appointed by the chief executive, as the president had at the time refused to introduce his members.) The details, according to the statement would be officially announced in the following week.
An additional meeting focusing on ‘practical issues’ took place on 31 August 2016. A statement on the CEO’s Facebook page describes it as having focused and agreed on exactly everything Abdullah had demanded. (4) It is however important to note that the palace, since its first statement on 17 August 2016, has not yet provided any reading of how all the meetings went and what kind of agreements may have been reached. (5)
On 3 September 2016, in a meeting with the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, where they discussed the political developments, the electoral reform process and the meetings between the NUG leaders, Abdullah seemed to announce the end of the rift when he said, “we adhere to reforms, working together with a new spirit and joint commitment.” And on 5 September 2016, in his opening remarks at the weekly meeting of the council of ministers, Abdullah painted an optimistic picture of the remaining three years of the National Unity Government’s term, when he said they were “witnessing an improvement to the situation … with a clarity for the next three years [in terms of] working and planning. … [Although] we foundered on our two year commitments and we should be able to explain to the people why we have had these failures, the next three years will be the three years in which the main foundation of Afghanistan will be developed.”
(1) This has become the common reaction by the president and his supporters to complaints by the Abdullah camp. The president said something similar again on 2 September 2016 during the inauguration of a new township when he said that “those who are making noise, are no longer able to make billions of dollars, I do not concentrate on their noise.” He added that government is not a milking cow that everybody can use for their personal interest.
(2) The spokesperson struggled to avoid saying that the US government was concerned (edited for clarity):
QUESTION: Thank you. As you know nowadays there’s conflicts or rifts between Dr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah [and it] has become quite bad. Do you have any comment about it? And also, do you think that the U.S. needs to send some delegation to Afghanistan to solve their problem in this sensitive time? It’s a big problem.
MS TRUDEAU: So we’ve seen Chief Executive Abdullah’s public remarks regarding President Ghani and the Government of National Unity. We remain supportive of a government of national unity, and we encourage both President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah to work together to pursue these common goals.
QUESTION: Hold on a second. This was one of – what Secretary Kerry points to as a big achievement, not just of his but for the Administration as a whole, engineering this kind of president and chief executive agreement. Is there a concern in this building [the State Department] that that is unraveling?
MS TRUDEAU: No. We – there’s not. We still think that there’s work to be done, but there has been concrete and significant progress in Afghanistan since the Government of National Unity. We do remain in touch with the Afghan Government and we will remain in touch as they move forward.
QUESTION: Yeah, I know. But you’re – really, there’s no concern at all that the progress is in danger?
MS TRUDEAU: I wouldn’t say that at all, Matt. I would say we’ve seen the comments. We believe the Government of National Unity has made significant progress in Afghanistan. We believe that that’s the path forward and we continue to support it.
QUESTION: These are the comments where he basically threatens to pull out of the government?
MS TRUDEAU: Yeah. We’ve seen those.
QUESTION: And you’re not concerned about it?
MS TRUDEAU: We remain in close touch with them on these particular comments as well as the future of the government.
QUESTION: So you are concerned that there might be a problem?
MS TRUDEAU: I’m not going to characterise it as concern, Matt. What I’m going to say is we think that there’s a lot of work to be done, but we believe a lot of progress has been made.
(3) The “creation of parallel government institutions” refers to the criticism that the president has monopolised all substantive executive discussions and decisions by establishing a slew of inter-ministerial committees and councils, often under his own chairmanship.
(4) The statement said the meeting had focused on “appointments based on the political agreement, principles of consultation, national participation, fair representation, meritocracy, honesty and commitment to the National Unity Government’s reform programmes, avoiding double standards and full participation of the chief executive in the proposing of individuals fit for senior government posts. While emphasising the implementation of the agreement articles, cooperation, differentiation of responsibilities and authorities of the president and the chief executive and strengthening of the pillars of the National Unity Government, agreements were reached.”
(5) The only indication that something may be moving was an announcement by Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh on 5 September 2016 that the electoral decree would be finalised “in the next few hours.” This looked like an attempt to still issue the decree before the parliament returns from its summer recess (scheduled to end on 6 September 2016).
The president also introduced National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar to a committee that is tasked to review the e-tazkera process. Abdullah introduced former NDS head Amrullah Saleh and his senior adviser Mustafa Mastur (who is also deputy finance minister). But, so far, there have been no public decisions or decrees yet related to what is supposed to be a more rigorous implementation of the political agreement.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020