New president Ashraf Ghani has proven himself a man intent on not losing time – after so much of it had been lost in post-electoral counting, auditing and political wrangling since April 2014. As opposed to the habits of the Karzai era, the Afghan government did not go into hibernation over the recent Eid-e Qurban holidays. The new president issued a number of decrees, including on reforming key government structures in Kabul, and also appears to, so far, have successfully projected a public image of himself as someone who gets things done. The question is when he will start running into the first major obstacles. Thomas Ruttig (with contributions from Kate Clark and Martine van Bijlert) scrutinises the balance of his first two weeks in office. Ashraf Ghani with his vice-presidential candidates, Dostum (to his left) and Danesh (to his right) and other key supporters, including Atmar and Hamed Gailani. Photo c/o Pajhwok Afghan News
First changes to the government structure
One of Ghani’s first actions has been the dissolving of the Presidential Office (riasat-e daftar-e maqam-e riasat-e jumhuri-ye islami-ye afghanistan) into the Office of Administrative Affairs (OAA; Edara-ye Umur, in Dari) (decree in Dari here). In his inauguration address, (1) he called this office “a strategy and policymaker as well as a monitoring, decision-making and responsible institution.” This way Ghani gets rid of a double structure on the presidential side, creating a single unit that serves both the president and the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO). (2) The new body will, however, still need separate structures to serve the president and the CEO in their differing roles vis-à-vis the Cabinet. According to Ghani’s decree it is the task of the new head of the OAA to prepare the new structure.
This will need to be followed by another presidential decree, mentioned in the Ghani-Abdullah agreement, which will specify the “executive authorities” of the CEO (see text of agreement in annex to our dispatch here). After that, the executive authorities and the role and relationships of the two vice presidents and the two new deputy CEOs – both with each other and in relation to the OAA – remain to be clarified. As the Kabul daily Outlook Afghanistan recently put it: “What would be the roles of the First Vice President and the Second Vice President? Can General Dustum or Dr Danish, as vice president[s], ask a cabinet member for the implementation of a policy or [for information on] the progress of a program? If the answer is yes, how many report[s] [will] a minister have to prepare?” (See also our analysis on contradictions in the separation of authorities here.)
New head of the Office of Administrative Affairs
At the same time of the issuance of the decree, Ghani appointed the new OAA head: Abdul Salam Rahimi, a former deputy finance minister under Ghani. He replaces Abdul Karim Khorram (as the president’s chief of staff) and Sadeq Modaber (as the head of OAA). Rahimi has degrees in social sciences and management and founded a longstanding and respected Afghan NGO, the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (CHA) in 1987. In 2002 he was a member of the 21-member commission that prepared the Emergency Loya Jirga. This jirga, based on the decisions of the 2001 international Afghanistan conference in Bonn, set up the Afghan transitional authority that was to prepare the first elections. The ELJ commission brought together representatives from across the country and sought courageously, and ultimately unsuccessfully, to limit undemocratic warlord influence in the jirga (for more details, see here). (3) After leaving government in 2004, Rahimi set up the non-profit Saba Media Group, a widespread network of television and radio stations.
As the head of the new, larger Office of Administrative Affairs, he will be even more influential than its previous heads (4) who had great behind-the-scenes clout, but never much public visibility.
The appointment seems to exemplify Ghani’s declared resolve to set up government structures run by well-educated professionals without clear-cut, political waseta (patronage), that finally work and do not just busy themselves with intrigue. People working in the Karzai presidential office had regularly reported an atmosphere of distrust and competition that led to paralysis and left very few people with direct access to the president. This may well be an improvement and may be an example of what the administration may look like if the trend continues.
On the other hand, the logic of coalition building, the inbuilt averseness to dismantle the old patronage networks and the need to reward supporters, will probably complicate aspirations to have largely merit-based appointments.
Much will depend on whether both sides will put forward fresh and well-educated people for “their side” of the administration. Both Ghani and Abdullah are said to have asked for lists of young specialists that can be introduced for government service, but this also happened under Karzai – to little effect at that time. Those compiling the lists still include many of the leaders and politicians who enjoyed positions or influence in the Karzai system, allowing them retain a degree of influence over who makes it into positions in the new government and who does not. Of course, it is difficult for Ghani and Abdullah – who both have been part of the Karzai system, however critical they may have been at times – to curb those people’s influence in favour of a more professional government in one go.
As stated in our earlier reporting: “Appointments will be key to everything.” It thus remains to be seen whether Ghani and Abdullah will be able to make the administration leaner, more efficient and a better servant to the needs of the people. (Ghani uses the word khedmatgar, someone who serves, in his decree.) One indicator to judge which way the balance between coalition building and effectiveness might tip is how many ‘advisor-ministers’ (wuzara-mushawerin; see OAA chart here) will be kept on. Under Karzai, there were dozens (probably more, the exact number was never known), mainly former ministers and governors whom the former president did not want to drop completely, kept on his payroll.
Other early appointments
Other early appointments include:
Dr Abdullah and his presidential running mates, Muhammad Khan and Muhammad Mohaqqeq, were officially appointed to the new position of quasi-prime ministerial CEO and his – also new – two deputies. Ghani took the oaths of all three immediately after he signed his first decree establishing the positions, after his own swearing-in, on 30 September 2014.
Ahmad Zia Massud was appointed the president’s High Representative for Reform and Governance on the same day – another new position. Massud had been First Vice President under Karzai from 2004 to 2009 and, in this position, responsible for economic policies. He had originally been promised a CEO-like position under Ghani and had stepped back to make the National Unity Government agreement possible.
Hanif Atmar was appointed as Chairman of the National Security Council (NSC; the decree is here). He is a former minister of rural development (2002-06), education (2006-08) and interior (2008-10) and, like Rahimi, another former NGO worker who was centrally involved in Ghani’s campaign. He replaces Rangin Dadfar Spanta. His appointment appears to have been brought forward so that he could sign the BSA. (Apparently the, now acting, defence minister Bismillah Khan, as a previous member of Karzai’s cabinet, did not want to sign it.)
Furthermore, a new legal advisor to the president was appointed, Abdul Ali Muhammadi. he has not held political offices so far but was a lecturer at Khatm-ul-Nabi’in University in Kabul which had been established by former Shia mujahedin leader Asef Mohseni. He is the author of a book, “The Constitutional Law of Afghanistan Islamic Republic.”
The next step important step will be the appointment of the cabinet ministers. All current ministers and heads of independent commissions have been declared acting by another decree. There are rumours in Kabul that the new cabinet will not include any of the old ministers. In this light, the appointment of finance minister (now acting, as all ministers) Omar Zakhilwal – who is popular among donor governments – to presidential advisor for economic affairs does not necessarily look like a promotion.
In terms of getting his appointments through, Ghani will have to gauge the degree of willingness of the parliament to cooperate. During the Karzai years, the parliament was often side-lined, ignored, circumvented and manipulated. This history of strained relations with the executive has often led to obstructionism and opportunistic deal-making. The fact that Ghani demanded from MPs in his inauguration speech to no longer meddle with appointments (“Our demand from the esteemed National Assembly representatives is not to ask for personal meetings with the leadership and management of the ministries.”), a remark followed by applause, signalled that he does not intend to shy away from confrontation, which may not have gone down well with all MPs. On the other hand, he indicated that he wants to have more accountabilities of the cabinet vis-à-vis parliament when he said: “Every minister and ministry must have a clear one-year contract, based on which it must report to the National Assembly.” He also announced that he wants to speed up law-making by working out a “legislative agenda” for the National Assembly.
Another detail to watch will be whether there will be, again, a ‘state minister for parliamentary affairs’, a post established under Karzai by decree, responsible for executive-legislative relations. This minister met the particular ire of parliament in the past, as they never approved this additional position and considered the minister as a tool of executive interfering in their affairs (see for example here).
Prior to the national unity government deal, it has been discussed to have a three months hands-off period for key positions in the security sector, but it was not included in the deal’s final text. Those positions are particularly important for the Abdullah camp whose followers still occupy a number of key positions there, including minister of defence and several deputy heads of the National Directorate for Security. Atmar’s appointment as NSC chairman might indicate that this idea has been fully or partly dropped.
Decree on governors
In a decree issued on 6 October 2014, Ghani made all governors acting in their positions, “until the new governors have been appointed,” banning them from hiring or firing staff. This could indicate there might be some important changes, which would be a change from the Karzai time when governors rarely ever lost their jobs, and instead were just shifted to new provinces, (even if performing badly).
Balkh governor Atta Muhammad, who had been one of the strongest critics of alleged electoral mass fraud and who had used strong language against Ghani at several occasions (including not recognising him as the elected president), has now paid his respects to the new president. This may indicate that he is interested in staying on in his gubernatorial position in Mazar-e Sharif, from where he controls much of the region’s business. Mazar is also a key stronghold of his and Abdullah’s, with Jamiat-e Islami on the political side and (the officially defunct) Shura-ye Nazar commander network on the military side. But there are also others interested in the Mazar governorship including Atta’s old rival, the current Paktia governor Juma Khan Hamdard who supported Ghani during the campaign, together with a group of Hezb-e Islami heavyweights. For Karzai, Hamdard was a key northern (Pashtun) ally and one of the governors whom Karzai moved around despite poor performance, which in his case included his forces shooting protesters in Jawzjan and allegations of corruption and the funding of northern Hezb-e Islami insurgents.
Ghani fulfilled one campaign promise very early on. On 1 October, he issued a decree reopening the Kabul Bank case . A day later, the government’s Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) published a report on the Kabul Bank under the telling title “Unfinished Business”. The collapse of what had been the largest Afghan private bank in 2010 was caused by almost one billion dollars having been given out in illegal loans, in what the MEC described as a ‘Ponzi scheme’. The scandal “shook the foundation of Afghanistan’s banking system,” said AAN colleague Martine van Bijlert in a recent interview, illustrating the vulnerability of Afghanistan’s “poorly regulated and corrupted” economy and putting “donor money flows at risk.” However, prosecutions were redirected to focus only on the regulators and the bank management, leaving aside high-ranking politicians and well-connected businessmen, including the brothers of the president and former first vice-president who were among the main shareholders in the bank (more AAN reporting here, here, here and here; an outstanding media report here).
Ghani’s decree, as Martine added in her interview, “is of course an important symbolic act. It signals that [Ghani] intends to keep his campaign promises of cleaning up the government and tackling corruption. But the scope of the decree is still relatively limited. He basically asks the institutions to do what they were supposed to do anyway, but haven’t done yet.”
The Attorney General, as a result, ordered the arrest of 19 individuals – whose names have not been publicised – and on 7 October, the first two arrests were apparently made. The attorney’s office needs to show, too, that it is active, as Ghani has also spoken about the need to reform it and was critical in his inaugural speech.
In his speech, Ghani also picked another fight – with the judiciary – which provoked the first push-back of his tenure. He had referred to “accusations of corruption in the judiciary system” and had “kindly request[ed] the Supreme Court to review all employees of the courts based on a system of punishment and rewards.” The rebuff came promptly in a Supreme Court statement that called his remark “misinformed.” This is obviously a poor defence, as the corruption in the judiciary is well-documented and much complained-about. A report published by the widely respected Afghan NGO Integrity Watch in May 2014 estimated that Afghan citizens have had to pay almost two billion dollars in total to get access to government services in 2014 (the amount has doubled from 2010) and that the “judiciary and police are seen as most corruption [sic] institutions while [the] Ministry of Education is 3rd in the row.” Ghani’s comments show not only that he is aware of the systemic faults in the Afghan government, but also that he is ready to pick a fight. The reaction also shows, as could be expected, that addressing this will not be an easy endeavour, as political influence, jobs and resources are at stake.
Another of Ghani’s Eid-time decrees concerned the interior ministry. It prohibits the use of “any kind of influence, connections [waseta] and personal relations” in promotions or transfers of higher-ranking personnel. This makes sense and is astonishing at the same time: the first because this has been possibly the underlying problem with the MoI over the past decade, particularly the buying and selling of potentially lucrative positions, for example, on borders and in opium growing areas and smuggling routes; (5) the latter because, as the decree makes explicit, this is nothing more than an order to follow existing law which has been systematically ignored.
Relevant visits, meetings and decisions
Since inauguration day, Ghani has heaped praise on the country’s armed forces and has visited army units, as well as soldiers wounded while fighting the insurgency. He phoned all provincial police chiefs and army corps commanders, visited schools and made a stop at Pul-e Charkhi prison on Wednesday night (8 October), where he ordered the review of all pending cases. Some of these case have been pending for years – the so-called “be-sarnewesht” (those without fate) prisoners. In his inauguration address, he also quoted Abu Bakr, as first caliph of Islam the immediate follower of the Prophet Muhammad, from first speech when he took an oath: “People, I have been elected as your leader, but I am not better than you.” All of this attracted much attention in the Afghan media.
Another popular, although controversial move was allowing the execution to go ahead of five men who had been convicted of armed robbery and rape (although the exact conviction awkwardly was for zina, sex outside marriage) as well a notorious leader of an abduction racket north of Kabul. The orders had been signed by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, just before he handed over the presidency. In allowing the execution to go ahead, Ghani heeded popular sentiment which seemed largely behind the executions in the belief they would act as a deterrence to other rapists and criminals. He did not bow to pressure from, largely international, human rights organisations who raised concerns over the fact that the men had not received a fair trial (see for example here).
Also of interest is that Ghani has been meeting representative of political parties that had been largely snubbed and side-lined under the previous administration. In a deliberate contrast to his predecessor who had repeatedly voiced his distrust of political parties, Ghani said that “we need to move from quarrelling with the parties to strengthening the parties.” He said this in a meeting with representatives of Hezb-e Haq o Edalat (Rights and Justice Party), which is the party new NSC chairman Atmar belongs to. The party had been set up as a reformist force in 2011 and was a key Ghani supporter during his presidential campaign.
The new president has also made a point of meeting delegations of civil society representatives, youth, women. Participants in such meetings told AAN that Ghani emphasised he was not interested in protocol meetings and had urged the visitors to come up with concrete proposals on governance and other issues. The official presidential website (Dari/Pashto) lists a large number of such meetings. Some participants were critical, however, saying the new president tended more to speaking himself and did not allow sufficient room for the visitors to express themselves.
Ghani further suggested in one of his meetings with civil society actors that there should be a public competition for the job of Kabul mayor, a position that has long been linked to ineffectiveness and corruption, despite half a dozen changes in this position over the past years. (The position is also object of desire to conflicting political forces, and the incumbent actually has received some praise for his work.) According to a participant in this meeting, Ghani suggested that civil society nominate a number of candidates who would then compete in a public debate, based on a questionnaire provided by himself. The job would be given to the best performer. This is somewhat contradictory to Ghani and Abdullah who have “committed to holding district council elections as early as possible” (see text of agreement in annex to our dispatch here), which according to existing law would include elections for the district councils (in the rural areas) and the mayors (in the urban areas).
There is a certain sense of elation, at least in Kabul, with many people feeling that finally something may change. AAN has even heard rumours that, since Ghani took over, the nan, the local flatbread, is said to have gained its correct size. This was accompanied by stories that the new president – Harun al-Rashid style, as portrayed in the ‘1001 Nights’ stories – has been himself personally checking that bakers sell loaves of the prescribed weight. (For decades, bakers have been regulating their income in the face of fluctuating flour prices by keeping the price stable but adjusting the size of the nan, ie if the price of flour goes up, the size of the nan goes down. Flour prices did rise during the election crisis and may now have gone down – ie there may be an actual basis to the size of the nans story – or this may just be a reflection of popular hopes for the future.)
But legend-building aside, the new president’s post-inauguration schedule and actions, so far, suggest a commitment to his reformist election agenda. The question is now whether he will be able to build a team that shares his commitment, particularly in the context of a complicated unity government agreement, and how he will fare when he starts running into the first sustained signs of resistance.
(1) Quoted from the full transcript, as translated by BBC Monitoring, via National Afghanistan TV, Kabul, in Dari and Pashto, 29 September 2014. All quotes from that speech that follow in this text are taken from the same source.
(2) The Office of Administrative Affairs goes back to the monarchy, with the King’s secretariat (dar-ul-tahrir-e shahi) and the court ministry (wezarat-e darbar-e saltanati) responsible for everything from protocol to issuing laws and decrees. From then on, the OAA increasingly became the key policy institution for the Afghan executive, assuming its current name under the mujahedin government in 1992. In 2005, under Karzai, the OAA also became the secretariat for the cabinet (or Council of Ministers, both were synonyms then; under the Abdullah-Ghani agreement, they are two separate institutions) and was described as an instrument of the president for the coordination between the executive, legislative and judiciary; it also had an auditing function (taftish). For more background about OAA’s history, in Dari, see here).
(3) This author worked with the ELJ commission, deputed from UNAMA.
(4) Muhammad Yusef Etebar (2001-04), Faruq Wardak (2004-08, now education minister) and Najibullah Sadeq Modaber (2008-14).
(5) For reporting on previous attempts at reform in the police and Ministry of Interior and, see:
• M. Shaw, ‘Drug Trafficking and the Development of Organized Crime in Post-Taliban Afghanistan’, Chapter 7 in D. Buddenberg and William A. Byrd (eds)., Afghanistan’s Drug Industry: Structure, Functioning, Dynamics, and Implications for Counter-Narcotics Policy (Washington, DC: UNODC and World Bank, 2006), pp. 189–200.
• Andrew Wilder, ‘Cops or Robbers? The Struggle to Reform the Afghan National Police’ (Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, 2007.
• International Crisis Group ‘Reforming Afghanistan’s Police’ (Asia Report N°138) 30 August 2007
• Stephen Carter and Kate Clark, ‘No Shortcut to Stability: Justice, Politics and Insurgency in Afghanistan,’ December 2010 Chatham House looks at police and other aspects of the justice system.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020