Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

The National Unity Government’s Elusive Cabinet

Martine van Bijlert 14 min

On day seventy-two of Afghanistan’s national unity government, the new cabinet still looks to be weeks away, with the country’s President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) locked in protracted discussions over who to appoint and how that should be decided. The composition of the cabinet will be a first, crucial test of what Afghanistan’s new government will look like, beyond its two leaders and their entourages, and whether it will be able to carry out any of its intended reforms. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a closer look at what might be holding up the discussions, where they may be going and how the government has fared so far.

Portraits of Ghani and Abdullah. Photo c/o Tolonews.It takes more than two to make a NUG. Abdullah and Ghani locked in protracted discussions on Afghanistan's new cabinet. Photo c/o Tolonews.

Delaying the cabinet announcement

The Afghan government attended the London conference without a new cabinet in place. Expectations had risen as the conference date approached and persistent rumours indicated that a list of names had (almost) been agreed. Instead, in a televised press conference on 30 November, President Ashraf Ghani, flanked by CEO Abdullah Abdullah, announced a delay in the announcement of the cabinet. They said they expected to “gradually introduce the new cabinet in the coming two to four weeks.” Almost a week later, during his closing remarks at the London conference, it became clear that the clock had yet to start ticking; Ghani said he and Abdullah intended to form the cabinet within two to four weeks of returning to Kabul.

The decision not to rush the introduction of the ministers and to attend the London conference without even the symbolic introduction of a few names, came as somewhat of a surprise – and a disappointment, particularly for donor governments who had been encouraging both leaders to push on with their discussions. The introduction of new faces ahead of the conference would have been a tangible sign of progress easily understood at home and in donor capitals. It would have been particularly welcome given the contentious and drawn-out election, the lingering uneasiness about whether a dual-headed government will actually work and the morphing of the ISAF mission into the new Mission Resolute Support. There had been an expectation that, as so often in the past, the approach of a high-level conference would inspire a last-minute flurry of decisiveness. Instead, the new government used the London conference as a platform to introduce its vision and present an image of a cordial Ghani-Abdullah partnership – both easier to produce than a cabinet.

Many Afghans, initially impressed by Ghani’s presentation of himself as a decisive leader, had expected him to keep his promise to introduce the new cabinet within 45-days – a promise made before the establishment of the National Unity Government, but repeatedly reiterated after its inauguration (see for instance here). On 30 November the deadline had already been missed by more than two weeks, so when all MPs were invited to the Palace for an unscheduled meeting, and a televised press conference was announced for later that evening, the moment seemed to have come. Instead, President Ghani, accompanied by CEO Abdullah, signed two laws and ratified two agreements, not related to the cabinet formation. (1) He briefly explained their importance to the public, and then announced the delay. The few journalists present were not given a chance to ask questions.

Cabinet negotiations

Ghani and Abdullah have, so far, taken great pains to present the image of a united leadership, particularly as they took the international stage together during the NATO summit in Brussels and the donor conference in London. In practice, however, they have not yet hashed out the details of how authorities should be divided between them. The delay in presenting a cabinet illustrates how the ambiguity over who gets to decide what, and based on which criteria, is likely to complicate any joint decision. It also means we still do not know how this government will work – or indeed whether it will work.

According to the National Unity Government deal signed on 21 September 2014 (full text can be found in the annex here), the authorities of the CEO, and his deputies, are to be specified by presidential decree – which has not yet been issued. One of the sticking points now appears to be that Abdullah wants his authorities clarified before he and Ghani finalise the choice of cabinet ministers.

The text of the NUG agreement itself is ambiguous on how the authorities to nominate, select and appoint should be shared, which is a reflection of the differing views both sides held on how the NUG should function (see reporting here). To ensure that an agreement was reached at all, language was chosen that could cover both interpretations. The agreement, for instance, refers to “parity in the selection of personnel between the President and the CEO at the level of head of key security and economic institutions and independent directorates.” This can be read as both sides having an equal say in the selection or, alternatively, as a division of the mentioned key posts between the two sides. For other positions, the National Unity Government agreement describes a hierarchy in which the CEO provides “advice and proposals to the President for appointment and dismissal of senior government officials and other government affairs.” The text also describes a “specific merit-based mechanism … with the full participation of the CEO … [that] can lead to equitable (barabarguna) representation from both parties.”

The differing views have led to drawn-out discussions on the meaning of ‘parity’ and the trade-off between the potentially conflicting demands of merit and power sharing – with the talks now largely boiled down to a hashing out of the relative weight of the various posts, whether they are political or technical (and what that means for who has the last say) and – ultimately – how the posts should be divided between the two sides.

Before London, the two sides settled on a 50-50 division for all ministerial posts (instead of for a limited set of political positions) with 13 ministries going to Ghani and 12 to Abdullah. Agreement on who gets which ministry was said to have been reached for 17 of the 25, but it looks like some of this may still change as the negotiations progress.

Obviously, not all agreements arrived at during the private wranglings between Ghani and Abdullah will go down well with their supporters. Some of the agreements will, as a consequence, probably need to be revisited and tweaked several times before they can be upheld. Any change will, in turn, shift the carefully negotiated balance and will probably need to be compensated, as the two sides take into account: the weight of the various ministries and the division of posts between the two sides (as well as among the main personalities within the camps); the ethnic, factional and gender composition of the cabinet (both have stressed the intention to include four women); the promise to introduce ‘fresh faces’, but also the pressure to reward old friends and placate grumbling supporters; as well as the score of compromises that both sides are likely to have diligently kept. Not to mention the discussions about the deputy ministerships (if one side gets the minister, should the other side get the first deputy? How to ensure that they can work together). It is a complex, multi-layered process, which makes it easy to understand why the negotiations are taking so long – and may continue to do so.

All in all, the cabinet negotiations will provide the first important litmus test of how well the two men will be able to negotiate the pitfalls and complexities of this combined government. And of how far they will get in their ambitions to start a new chapter for governance in Afghanistan, while faced with the patterns of entrenched patronage.

In the meantime: appointments and resignations

At the same time that Ghani and Abdullah confirmed the delay in forming the cabinet, they also announced the mass replacement of all ministers by their deputies. The ministers of the Karzai cabinet had been serving in an acting capacity since the president’s 1 October decree, which in particular stipulated they were no longer allowed to hire or fire until the new ministers were appointed (similar decrees were also given for governors and the head of the Supreme Court). The only acting ministers who were not replaced by their deputies were those whose presence was needed at the London conference – which were Foreign Affairs, Finance, Trade and Women’s Affairs – although it was said they would be replaced immediately after.

The decision to replace all acting ministers by their deputies was based on the Law of Acting Ministers, which limits the period that a ministry can be run by an acting minister to a maximum of two months. The move was clearly intended to signal a break with the Karzai government that had been severely criticised for regularly misusing the authority to appoint acting ministers as a way to bypass parliament and to keep allies in place who had been voted off or would probably not have received the parliamentary vote of confidence. (2) The replacement of the sitting ministers by their deputies also signals the likely end of the ministerial careers of  heavyweights such as Bismillah Khan, Omar Daudzai, Ismail Khan, Omar Zakhilwal and Faruq Wardak – unless the president changes his mind on appointing “all fresh faces.” The list of new acting ministers and heads of independent organs can be found below, in Annex 1. It includes the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG), but not the National Security Directorate (NDS) or the Attorney General’s Office.

The government has additionally announced that it will prioritise the replacement of senior officials in five insurgency-affected provinces: Kunduz, Badghis, Ghazni, Nangarhar and Helmand. In a first move, the Kunduz governor was indeed replaced. The incoming governor, Muhammad Omar Safi, has a degree from the University of Leicester and is a former UNAMA employee in Mazar-e Sharif. The ANA commander in Helmand has also been removed, possibly as part of the decision to retire fifteen army generals (also mentioned in Ghani’s press conference with US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel), but does not seem to have been replaced yet.

Without a new cabinet, the actual governing of the country has been left in limbo – and that after an already long period of inactivity under the Karzai government due to the prolonged election. It has not just been a question of morale and concerns among the senior leadership about their future. The fact that ministers and other senior officials have been banned from hiring or firing means that the expected clean-up of the government has, up till now, been almost non-existent, as all decisions have to be made at the highest level. Moreover, all changes have to be agreed by both sides and this does not always go smoothly – as was illustrated by the very public confusion surrounding last week’s ‘resignation’ of the Kabul police chief, Zahir Zahir. The ‘resignation’ was ordered by Ghani, blocked by Abdullah and ended in a lateral move in which Zahir was moved to another post within the ministry. (3)

There was also confusion surrounding the replacement of Attorney-General Mohamamd Ishaq Aloko, who, after attending his own farewell ceremony on 7 December 2014, reportedly returned to his office claiming that the order to replace him had been ambiguous.  Similarly, when AAN made a round of phone calls the morning after Ghani announced the replacement of all acting ministers, senior employees and spokespeople at the various ministries claimed not to know who was now in charge (despite the fact that there is always a clear hierarchy among the various deputies). In the course of the day, it became clear that the order had been unambiguous and precise; and that the confusion had probably been caused by some deputies who had hoped to claim the newly-opened ministerial spots for themselves.

Finally, in another possibly pre-emptive move, Central Bank governor Nurullah Delawari handed in his resignation on 6 December 2014. In a live interview on Tolo TV, in which the interviewer dredged up several old accusations against him, Delawari claimed he had resigned because he was already three years past the retirement age (while also hinting that interference from the ministry of finance had been a factor in his decision).  Delawari was head of the Central Bank from November 2004 to December 2007 (during which the Kabul Bank was first registered and investigated) and from November 2011 until this week’s resignation.

The dampening of expectations and initial grumbling

The inauguration of the new government initially led to a sense of optimism among many Afghans. This has been dampened as time passed, particularly with still no ministers appointed who could have started effecting the promised changes. What remains is a mix of hope and disappointment, as the new government, on the one hand, continues to present a sense of dynamism, albeit largely symbolically, and on the other hand, remains bogged down in its own complications.

Although the two camps have sought to minimise their public disagreements and are, for the moment, clearly banking on making the government work, there are of course grumblings at the margins. Members of the Ghani camp, for instance, complain that international players are giving undue attention to the post of CEO, while the Abdullah camp counters that too much consideration is being given to the president alone, while ignoring the ‘rest of the government.’

The government itself is perceived to be largely rudderless. Decisions at all levels are delayed, signatures withheld, and the initial stories of government employees too frightened to ask for bribes are being replaced by reports of continued blatant abuse of power. Cabinet meetings, in the meantime, seem to have been partly an exercise in finding out how this new structure with two heads is supposed to work, even as the ministers attending knew their chances of keeping their posts were very slim indeed.

The sense of an administration in limbo has been exacerbated by the relentless string of attacks that hit the country in the run-up to the London conference and that has significantly affected the general mood. Many Afghans were left feeling very unsafe and unprotected, particularly as there is a widespread belief that casualty figures are routinely and grossly downplayed. Although attacks that target foreigners tend to attract the greatest headlines, the numbers of Afghan casualties were, as usual, far greater, including the particularly gruesome suicide attack during a volleyball competition in Paktika, which is said to have killed more than 60 people. Some Afghans – including several MPs who had voted in favour of the signing of the BSA – have described the deterioration of the security situation (whether short-lived or sustained) as a direct failure on the part of the BSA to keep their country safe. MPs wondered out loud why they had let themselves rush through the ratification decision and several people aired elaborate conspiracy theories.

There has been some speculation among Afghans that an opposition of former Karzai loyalists may be emerging. National daily Hasht-e Sobh took the public criticism of Ghani’s position on Pakistan by Omar Duadzai, immediately after he had been replaced as acting Minister of Interior, as an indication that ‘former faces’ may be coalescing into an opposition movement. Earlier, Karzai’s previous chief of staff, Karim Khorram publicly criticised the signing of the BSA and linked it to the worsening security situation, while today former National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta wrote a stinging criticism of the US’s recent extradition of Latif ullah Mehsud to Pakistan from Afghan soil. Various interlocutors have noted, sometimes with concern, that Karzai is receiving disgruntled former officials, while others have expressed their own ambition to possibly play a role in a constructive opposition movement. Whatever shape such a movement may or may not take, Afghanistan will now have a reservoir of politicians without positions, but with opinions and interests. How that is handled, by all sides, including the politicians themselves, will be part of how this political transition turns out in the long run.

Finally, the parliament is starting to grumble. Misgivings that were first expressed immediately after Ghani replaced the acting ministers by their deputies, were repeated again in the session of 8 December 2014. MPs criticised the government for failing to introduce the new cabinet. According to them the maximum period in which a ministry can be run in an acting capacity cannot be extended by simply appointing new acting ministers. Wolesi Jirga speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi accused the government of humiliating the parliament. This is not irrelevant. So far, the assumption seem to be that the government should have no problem getting their proposed cabinet, once arrived at, through parliament – provided both camps encourage their supporters to vote on each other’s candidates as well. But an irate parliament that is trying to assert itself could complicate matters.

Where do we go from here?

All in all, it seems the government may well conclude its first hundred days without a cabinet (we are currently on day seventy-two) – not the decisive and dynamic image it had intended to project. The next upcoming deadlines are the announced period of two to four weeks, which takes us towards and beyond the new year, as well as the two-month limitation on having deputies acting as ministers, which brings us to the end of January 2015.

The new cabinet is the first real litmus test of how the national unity government will work and how it will relate to entrenched interests. The battles that are being fought, albeit very gingerly, are laying the foundation for how decisions will be made in the future and whose views and pressures will be taken into account. It will not be easy. Appointments in the Karzai government were usually fluid for a very long time, and were regularly revoked after they had been taken and sometimes even after they had been signed, based on the intractability of all the people that needed to be placated. Ghani has been clear he does not want to be caught in a similar bind. (4) But the room for maneuver is limited by the necessity to make this partnership work.

Ghani and Abdullah have just restarted discussions after their return from the international stage. The country and its friends are eagerly awaiting what they manage to come up with.


(1) President Ghani respectively signed the Access to Information and Population Registration laws. He also ratified the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) for NATO forces that had been signed earlier by National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar and passed by both houses of parliament.

Civil society representatives have, incidentally, asked for amendments to the Access to Information Law to reflect international practice, in particular with regard to its ambiguous references to “national security” and “national interests.”  

(2) Over the years, Karzai appointed several allies who had been rejected by parliament, or who were unlikely to secure the parliamentary vote, as acting ministers – sometimes for years on end. The Law on Acting Ministers, which was an attempt by parliament to curb this behaviour, was first adopted in December 2009, while the Wolesi Jirga was preparing to vote on the new cabinet after Karzai’s tumultuous re-election. After Karzai rejected the law, it was adopted again in June 2010, but that did not stop Karzai from again appointing acting ministers that had failed to get the parliament’s vote of confidence. In the end it took Karzai over two years after his inauguration in November 2009 to complete his cabinet. The details:

After Karzai’s inauguration in November 2009, he introduced an almost complete cabinet to parliament just before Christmas (no candidate was introduced for Water and Power, allowing Ismail Khan to continue in an acting capacity). Parliament rejected 17 of the 24 ministers in early January 2010. In a second round later that month, 10 out of 17 candidates were rejected, leaving a rump cabinet of 14 formally approved and 11 acting ministers. After that, the introductions stopped until in the summer of 2010. It was only after parliament held five weeks of ‘silent sessions’ in protest, after which that Karzai introduced candidates for 7 out of the now 13 pending posts. Two of them were rejected and immediately appointed as acting ministers (in part to soothe the growing criticism that they had been refused on ethnic grounds). The parliamentary elections further delayed the introduction of the remaining cabinet. In spring 2011, two months after the inauguration of the new parliament, Karzai introduced four ministerial candidates, presumably to test the waters – all of whom were rejected by the MPs. It was only in March 2012, almost two and a half years after Karzai’s inauguration and more than half a year after the composition of the Wolesi Jirga had finally been finalised, that the Karzai cabinet was finally completed, after the president’s final nine candidates were are all approved. Almost all of candidate minsters had been introduced before – and rejected (with the exception of Ismail Khan, whose post had simply not come up for a vote at all).

(3) Zahir’s resignation was announced on 30 November 2014, with the name of his successor (Abdul Rahman Rahimi) widely being circulated on social media, and then revoked the next day. The same spokesperson of the Kabul police who had initially said that “General Zahir Zahir told the Interior Ministry he no longer wanted to continue his job. The minister has accepted his resignation,” now told the media that “[b]ased on the request of high-ranking officials and in order to avoid disruption of security affairs, General Zahir was asked to continue his duties.” That evening, Zahir gave a live interview on Tolo TV indicating he had resigned because he was about to be fired. Two days later on 3 December, Abdul Rahman Rahimi, police chief in Balkh, who had already been mentioned as Zahir’s successor, was indeed appointed as Kabul police chief. Zahir was made head of CID.

Zahir’s case is extra salient as he was the police chief who tried to arrest Ahmed Zia Amarkhel, the head of the IEC secretariat, on election day. Zahir accused Amarkhel of, personally and illegally, attempting to transport additional ballot papers to Sarobi district. It was one of the incidents that was taken as proof by both sides that the other side was being supported by partisan officials: Abdullah’s supporters claimed Amarkhel had been caught red-handed while personally trying to facilitate mass ballot stuffing, while Ghani’s supporters portrayed the arrest as an attempt to interfere in the normal conduct of an election, citing it as proof of the partiality of the police.

(4) When asked in this BBC interview whether the ‘old faces’ demanding positions would not be a problem, Ghani said: “That’s their problem, not mine. It would be my problem if I accepted it. But the realities of Afghanistan are manageable …There is a balance between giving empowerment to the new generation and taking account of entrenched interests … I am after transformation, I am not after accommodation with entrenched interests.”


Annex 1: Names of the Acting Ministers and Heads of Independent Organs

Acting ministers that were kept (at least for the duration of the London conference):

Foreign Affairs: Zarar Ahmad Osmani (formerly known as Muqbel)

Finance: Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal

Commerce and Industry: Shaker Kargar

Women’s Affairs: Hosne Banu Ghazanfar

Update: on 11 December 2014 the president appointed Mohammad Mustafa Mastoor as acting finance minister, Seyyeda Muzghan as acting women’s affairs minister, Muzamil Shenwari as acting trade and commerce minister, and Atiqullah Atif as acting foreign minister.


Deputy ministers that were appointed acting ministers:

Defence: Enayatullah Nazari

Interior: Sattar General Ayub Salangi

Justice: Qanunwal Seyyed Yusef Halim

Education: Muhammad Asef Nang

Higher Education: Muhammad Osman Baburi

Information and Culture: Ghulam Nabi Farahi

Haj and Religious Endowments: Dr Al-Haq Abed

Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled: Wassel Nur Mohmand

Public Health: Ahmad Jan Naim

Refugees: Fazl Ahmad Azimi

Borders and Tribes: Dr Seyyed Ahmad Haqbin

Counter Narcotics: Harun Alrashid Shirzad

Economy: Hakem Khan Habibi

Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock: Salim Khan Kunduzi

Mines and Petroleum: Mir Ahmad Jawid Sadat

Transport: Ghulam Ali Rasukh

Rural Rehabilitation and Development: Tareq Osmani

Telecommunication and Information Technology: Hessamudin Hessam

Urban Development: Hamed Jalil

Water and Power: Ghulam Faruq Qarizadeh

Public Works: Nur Gul Mangal


Office of the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs: Dr Karim Baz

Independent Directorate of Local Governance: Abdul Matin Beg


Appointments Ghani Cabinet


Martine van Bijlert

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