KABUL, Afghanistan – He attends international conferences, meets diplomats, recently opened a roadblock, and gives patriotic speeches vowing to defend his country from the Taliban.
But the control exercised by President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani over the future of his endangered country and his own has become a subject of debate among politicians, analysts and citizens. Or rather, the question has been largely resolved: not much.
From most perspectives, Mr. Ghani – well qualified for his work and deeply recognized, with Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Colombia, the World Bank and the United Nations in his midst – is completely isolated. A serious author with a first-rate intellect, he relies on the advice of a handful, unwilling to even watch TV news, say those who know him, and is quickly losing allies.
It creates problems for a country where an Islamist insurgency lasts has the upper hand militarily, where nearly half the population faces hunger at crisis levels, according to the United Nations, where the overwhelming balance of government money comes from abroad and where the weak governance and widespread corruption are endemic.
Meanwhile, the Americans are preparing to withdraw their last troops, a prospect that should lead to the medium-term collapse of the Afghan forces they now support.
“He is in a desperate situation,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former head of the country’s intelligence services. “We are getting weaker. Security is weak, everything is weakening and the Taliban are taking advantage. “
The United States has regularly distanced itself from Mr. Ghani, 71, and often worked around him to deal with the Taliban and regional brokers. The Afghan warlords, powerful centers of alternative power, openly condemn or flout it.
The country’s parliament has twice rejected its budget and is suspicious of it. His main opponents, the Taliban, refuse to consider a deal with Mr. Ghani. His tenure, weak from the start – the turnout was around 18.7% in his heavily contested victory in 2019, according to the Afghan Independent Election Commission – appears to have declined.
Most American officials have lost patience with him. Many are fed up with what they see as his stubbornness in refusing to make concessions to opponents, or his patronizing style. “Walking Dead Man” is the term some members of civil society use to describe his political position.
A recent letter to him Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was so harsh that even Afghans who criticized Mr. Ghani found him insulting.
In language more likely to be used with an unruly schoolboy than a head of state, the letter repeated the phrase “I urge you” three times. “I must also make it clear to you, Mr. President,” continued Mr. Blinken, “that as our political process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any options.” The unspoken subtext was clear: your influence is minimal.
“As an Afghan, you feel a sense of humiliation,” said Hekmat Khalil Karzai, head of an Afghan think tank and cousin of former president Hamid Karzai. “But I also think Ghani deserves it,” Mr. Karzai said. “He’s dealing with the kiss of death from his own closest partner.”
The Biden administration is banking on multinational talks, tentatively scheduled for later this month in Istanbul, to establish a plan for moving forward. At the heart of the US proposal is a temporary government to hold power until an election can take place.
In this interim body, the Taliban and the current government would share power, according to a leak project. Such a setup could force Mr. Ghani to resign, which he has repeatedly refused to consider.
Mr. Ghani has proposed a counter-proposal he plans to publish soon, which calls for a ceasefire, a temporary “peace government” whose potential composition remains unclear, and then snap elections in which he promises to do not show up.
The US plan and Mr. Ghani’s could be non-starting, as the Taliban have never said they will accept an election, nor have they indicated that they will accept any government plan or be content with it. ‘a sharing of power.
“From what we see, they want absolute power, and they are waiting to take power by force,” Ghani’s national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib said in an interview.
While Mr. Ghani steadily loses political capital in Kabul and with international partners, the country’s military position is deteriorating. Every day brings news of members of the security forces who have been blown up or shot down.
“They cannot continue to do this,” said a senior Western diplomat in Kabul, commenting on the regular attrition. “The consequences for the government and the credibility and legitimacy it enjoys are not lasting.”
Visions of September 1996, when the Taliban entered Kabul virtually unopposed and began to establish their harsh rule, haunt the capital.
Deep within the grounds of the Presidential Palace, an 83-acre park-like campus protected by seven security levels, Mr. Ghani’s inner circle of close associates is small and shrinking. He sacked his respected Home Secretary, an army general, after a military helicopter was shot down by one of the country’s many militias last month. Its attorney general, who had a rare reputation for integrity, resigned. He kicked out his short-lived finance minister.
A former senior official argued that he was cut off from reality and what was happening on the ground.
Mr. Mohib, however, rejected this assessment. “This criticism comes from a political elite who thinks they have been marginalized,” he said.
Some former officials described Mr. Ghani as being forced to micromanage, including getting involved in the details of military matters and personnel decisions, even at the level of the local police chief. “He likes it because he feels the only one,” said Karzai, that is to say the only one competent to make serious decisions.
Mr. Mohib called the accusation of micromanagement “a huge exaggeration”, saying the president had not attended a security meeting “for weeks”, adding that “he is aware of the strategic situation” .
Mr. Ghani’s communications office did not accept a request for an interview with the president. A senior assistant did not respond to an interview request.
The consequences of Mr. Ghani’s isolation appear to be unfolding in real time. The president has a powerful vision for the country, but selling it and making it work politically is not his strong suit, and it shows in the country’s divisions, the senior Western diplomat in Kabul said. This is not good for Afghan unity, argued the diplomat.
These divisions echo from Kabul to troubled parts of the country, where independent militias and other longtime intermediaries have rearmed or are preparing to do so.
In the center of the country, low-intensity fighting between government forces and the militia of a minority Shiite warlord has been brewing for months, fueled by the downing of an Afghan forces helicopter in March. Mr. Ghani and his staff played an active role in managing the conflict, much to the dismay of the Afghan military.
“This is what we wanted to avoid. We are already exhausted, ”said a senior Afghan security official. “And here you want to start another war?”
Upcoming talks in Turkey may well end like recent ones in Moscow and Dushanbe, Tajikistan – with bland statements lamenting violence and hoping for peace. The American idea – to substitute new talks in a new location for old talks in Qatar that went nowhere – is not necessarily a winning bet. Indeed, the first signs are not promising, with Mr. Ghani once again rejecting preliminary US proposals, and the Taliban aggressively mocking ideas currently on the table.
“If the United States pulls out and there is no political agreement, then we are in serious trouble,” said the senior Afghan security official.
“Militarily, we don’t have much hope,” he said. “If we don’t get something, the Taliban will work. It will be an uphill battle.
Fahim Abed contributed reporting.