Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

The Unity Government’s First Six Months: Where is the governance?

Thomas Ruttig 9 min

After six months of Afghan Unity Government – what has been achieved? President Ghani, some say, has been ruling with a ‘two-man government’ (him and Hanif Atmar, head of the National Security Council), leading many to feel left out. ‘Strategic silence’ has become a somewhat mocking term for Ghani’s style of government – or is he simply keeping the cards close to his chest? In this critique of the ‘Ghani way of ruling,’ AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks at how some tasks were tackled and summarises how much remains to be done.

President Ghani cut a good figure interacting with Afghans, here visiting wounded ANA soldiers. Regarding important state affairs, many say, he is taking too much time and not enough advise from his environment. Photo: The president's official Facebook page

Finally spring has come to Kabul. Almost over night, the temperature must have risen by 15 degrees. The almond trees in the gardens started blossoming and one could literally watch the roses pushing out. Suddenly, the gloomy weeks were over – however, the main question in the air remained: whither the government? Has it finally come out of the starting blocks of what this author called, in October last year, the “better governance marathon” or is it running in some other stadium?

Almost six months into its five-year tenure, ten per cent of it already over, there is still only one third of a cabinet. A new list of another 16 nominees has just been drawn up, they will be officially introduced to the parliament on Wednesday, 1 April – however, it is not sure how many of them (and when) the parliament will approve in this round. There are also almost no new provincial governors, no clarity on electoral reform (the commission that is to work out the framework for reform has just been appointed) and no date for the parliamentary and districts council elections. New positions, involving special presidential advisors (like Omar Zakhilwal for Economy) or even specialised councils (there was the idea of a High Economic Council) and possibly other ‘clusters’ that were controversially debated in the first days of the National Unity Government (as they were perceived as potentially superseding the cabinet) remained widely unimplemented.

The parliamentary and district council elections

The IEC has admitted what everyone knew – that the constitutional election date (60 to 30 days before the start of the work term of the new parliament, which is 22 June) cannot be kept. However, there still appears to be no clarity on what to do when the current Wolesi Jirga’s term ends. Parliamentary and district council elections are tentatively planned for October this year, but some think it is already too late for that, too. Then maybe spring, but how? Parliamentary and district council elections simultaneously? The rather assertive IECC said they believe the 2014 election has proven that simultaneous elections are not a good idea – but they may, in saying so, be avoiding the real issues that plagued last year’s elections, as well as their own role in it (for details see earlier AAN dispatches, here and here).

And what if both elections are indeed held separately? Will this push the loya jirga further back – the one that Ghani and Abdullah promised to hold within two years to decide whether the latter becomes a full-fledged prime minister or the CEO position is abandoned again? Constitutionally, a loya jirga must include representatives of the elected district councils, which has never been the case so far (hence Karzai’s constructs of ‘advisory’ and ‘traditional’ loya jirgas; see here and here). And then the question still remains: reforms first, elections after – or the other way around? And how much reform? Will the composition of the IEC and IECC, who the Abdullah camp accused of having rigged the election in their disfavour, be drastically changed, as they demand? Or, as some argue, will Ghani be reluctant to change the institutions through which he became president? Regardless of when all these elections and jirgas and reforms might happen, there is a real risk of the whole process becoming a protracted distraction again, with parts of the government bogged down in policy negotiations and electoral campaigning.

A ‘two-man government’ or a government of many?

The government itself if often described – by both Afghans and expats – as a ‘two-man government.’ This refers not to the president and the CEO, but rather to President Ashraf Ghani and Hanif Atmar, the head of the National Security Council, and, as one interlocutor put it, “the Minister for Everything.” CEO Dr Abdullah is much less visible than the president, despite him chairing the council of ministers’  meetings (of which, admittedly, the importance is not fully clear). A few recent ‘serious’ interventions, including his visit to India and his participation in preparatory talks for the Taleban talks in Islamabad, have however helped tone down criticism in the ranks of his own camp, including by acting Balkh governor Atta Nur. Diplomats describe the CEO as calm and apparently satisfied, which seems to suggest that, despite the criticism, the division of responsibilities seems to be working for him. Maybe, he prefers to be the pillion rider and is happy that he doesn’t have to deal with the responsibilities and level of exposure that Ghani has at his neck.

First Vice President Dostum, meanwhile, has been reported to feel side-lined (having been given minor responsibilities such as the Olympic Committee) and to have complained that he wasn’t “Ronaldo – you can’t just throw a football at me” (in this NYT article). Dostum later denied that this was the case, but mainly on tone, not on substance.

The question, however, is whether it is really true that just two people are running the show, as there are also indications to the contrary. A number of young, educated people, and among them quite a number of women, seem to have been tasked to get a grip on key issues like finances and procurements. There is also a new vetting team to draw up short-lists for cabinet candidates, run by Sardar Muhammad Roshan, a Logari, from the same political party as Atmar (Rights and Justice Party). Dostum’s Jombesh – which as a party obviously does not only consist of the General – plays an important role in the vetting team. And then there are other core team members with special tasks, called “roving envoys.” It is not yet clear whether these initiatives will consolidate into actual workable and accountable systems, but with the new faces and new approaches, there is at least potential for change.

Transparency issues

Meanwhile, the term “strategic silence” is making the rounds. The president first introduced it in connection with the still unresolved abduction of 31 Hazara bus passengers in Zabul and the operations launched to release them, arguing that he needs to keep some cards close to his chest. It has since then become a somewhat mocking term for his style of government, particularly among his political opponents who criticise him for being autocratic and un-transparent.

But also players in Ghani’s former presidential campaign, and not just minor ones, feel they are being kept out of the loop (and I am not just talking about the ‘strongmen’ who want to see their investments rewarded in the form of lucrative positions). They accuse him of micro-management and over-centralisation. An example that is often cited is the fact that hundreds of prosecutors were called to the palace for tests, which were described as “humiliating.” And according to the New York Times, “Mr. Ghani is bringing billions of dollars in procurement deals under his direct purview, denying ministries the opportunity to contract their own goods and services.” Some of his supporters say that whereas he emphasised teamwork before the election, he dropped it afterwards. They complain that they have been used to gain power, but are now excluded from playing a part in running the country.

The same goes for some of his demonstrative exercises of inclusiveness and transparency, which are increasingly viewed as a form of occupational therapy, in which segments of society – civil society, youth and women’s groups, smaller political parties – are being kept happy (by being invited) and busy (by being asked to submit proposals in writing). On the other hand, with so many political actors and interests, it is difficult to envisage a management style that would not be criticised.

Finally, there has also been indications of some odd top-down centralism when it comes to political parties. President Ghani has told visiting party leaders that, according to him, there are too many political parties and that it would be better to have “four” (it is unclear what this particular figure is based on). Oddly enough, many of the party leaders who were present at the meeting, seemed to agree – although most of them presumably have no plans to leave the field or merge with other parties. More worryingly, a member of Ghani’s entourage indicated that if the existing parties don’t merge voluntarily, they would set up the desired four. Since then there have been moves by the Justice Ministry (responsible for registering and de-registering of political parties) to remove those parties from the register that lack the required 22 provincial offices. This is formally in accordance with the law (1) but could be interpreted as a move to already start reducing the number of registered parties by administrative means.

Peace negotiations – through the HPC or the NSC?

As reported earlier, Ghani’s push for direct talks with the Taleban reflects the president’s philosophy that peace is an essential requirement to kick-start the economy. As Afghanistan’s economy continues to be unsustainable and dependent on Western aid, the costs of the security sector should be reduced by ending the war with the Taleban ­– or, at least, improving the security situation by persuading significant numbers to leave the battlefield. In trying to make strides, Ghani has taken considerable risks, particularly when trying to improve relations with Pakistan, and has faced sharp criticism from his detractors. However, as Barney Rubin recently argued, Ghani does deserve support on this – even though there is still more than enough reason to mistrust Pakistan, after its more than a decade-long policy of supporting the Taleban while denying it against everyone’s better knowledge (see my last dispatch on this here).

In order to facilitate a breakthrough, Ghani is said to plan to reorganise the High Peace Council (HPC), which has not been overly successful, while at the same time he has also strengthened the NSC’s role in the ‘peace moves.’ Contenders to replace the over-burdened HPC chairman, the younger Rabbani (who is now also foreign minister and has been interim head of Jamiat for over three years, as well), are positioning themselves. The different strands of the Gailani family are having high hopes, again, but there are also rumours that a relative of Ghani may get the post. (Contrary to expectations, Ghani has gathered large numbers of staff from his own tribe or province of origin, Logar, in both the wider palace and his small core team. There are also efforts to set up a pro-Ghani political party; the documents that are circulating, are undersigned by another Ahmadzai).

A third power centre

In the meantime, opponents are gathering around Ghani’s predecessor. Although former president Karzai recently had photos posted on Twitter showing him moving around flowerpots in his garden in preparation for Nawruz like a pensioner, this image is misleading. Some of those who were excluded by Ghani, like MPs and former ministers who were told they will not be considered for the new cabinet, as well as others were dismissed from their jobs in key institutions like the Office of Administrative Affairs, are gathering at Karzai’s daily lunches, which he continues to give, like in the old days at the palace. Karzai’s core group, with his former chief of staff Karim Khorram, former NSC chairman Rangeen Dadfar Spanta and former presidential spokesman Aimal Faizy, remains active. They have direct links to influential media outlets, using them to criticise the government and spread vitriol, not least on the peace issue, accusing Ghani of a sell-out to Pakistan.

In these circles, too, there is talk of a setting up political party – even though Karzai always disliked this form of organisation. At the same time, the Hezb-e Ensejam, led by Karzai’s former OAA chief Sadeq Modaber and long seen as a possible “place holder” for a “Karzai party”, has recently started raising its profile, at least on social media. After the party was set up years ago, it did not really become active, beyond channelling people close to it into OAA positions, but the time to use it may now have come.

The emerging third power centre around Karzai has kept its connections with veteran and now disgruntled mujahedin leaders – most prominently Ismail Khan, but also the parts of Hezb-e Islami who did not join the Abdullah camp – who complain that the mujahedin did not get their deserved share in power, while (former) ‘communists’ (like NSC head Atmar and Interior Minister Ulumi) have in their view become too strong. (2)

What now?

Immediately after Ghani’s inauguration we wrote that the new president’s schedule and actions suggested 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.”

In January, after 104 days without a government we saw “the mood souring“, but mainly among those who had voted for Ghani and for reforms and change. By now, this mood has spread deeply within his own coalition. And although some of the criticism may be motivated by feelings of having been left out in the distribution of positions, some of it is valid. The presidential and NUG teams are still very narrow and barely visible. Meanwhile, the many urgent issues the government must deal with – particularly the ailing economy that lacks sufficient domestic revenues – are left unaddressed. The focus on getting peace talks with the Taleban started, although important, will not help the economy in any short run.

Now that new cabinet nominees have finally been introduced, there is hope that the taking of that hurdle might make a difference – although no-one is overly optimistic. Many hope that Ghani’s and Abdullah’s current visit to the US will bring a new impulse.


(1) The political parties law imposes criteria that do not really correspond with the countries conditions, in particular the demand to have party offices in at least 22 provinces. The position of the ministry, however, is that because“our security forces control all provincial centres” there should be no problem to open offices anywhere.

(2) Over all of this towers Ustad Sayyaf, who has installed himself over the past decade as the supremo Jihadi leader and authority on all things Islamic, even though – as a Wahhabi – he traditionally does not represent mainstream Islam in Afghanistan. Recent research, including by AAN (forthcoming), has however found indications of an increase in influence of both Wahhabi/Salafi ideas (see for example here, p 26) and of radical, pan-Islamist groups like Hezb ut-Tahrir.

Before Nawruz (on 1 Hamal/21 March), there were sermons and posters in several mosques, condemning the Nawruz celebration as un-Islamic because of its Zoroastrian and/or Iranian origins. Some clergymen expressed the same opinion in several radio programmes. The government pushed back, announcing an official 3-days Nawruz programme, while using the opportunity to add “Farmers’ Day” as another official holiday on 2 Hamal (which had existed before and was already celebrated massively in some areas without government sanction).


Cabinet CEO Ghani Governance Karzai parliamentary elections peace negotiations president Unity Government