Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan's President, Has Little Sway Over Its Future

KABUL, Afghanistan – He attends international conferences, meets with diplomats, recently inaugurated a dam and makes patriotic speeches promising to defend his country against the Taliban.

But how much control President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has over the future of his endangered country and his own has become a matter of debate among politicians, analysts and citizens. Or rather, the question is largely resolved: not much.

From most angles, Mr. Ghani – well qualified for the job and with Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Colombia, the World Bank, and the United Nations behind them – is deeply isolated. A serious writer with a top notch intellect, he relies on the advice of a handful who don’t even want to watch the television news, say those who know him, and is quick to lose allies.

This means trouble for a country in which a stubborn Islamist uprising has the military upper hand, in which, according to the United Nations, almost half of the population is exposed to hunger at crisis level, in which the overwhelming balance of government money comes from abroad and in which governance is weak and widespread corruption is endemic.

In the meantime, the Americans are preparing to withdraw their last remaining troops. In the medium term, this prospect is likely to lead to the collapse of the Afghan armed forces that they are now supporting.

“He is in a desperate situation,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former chief of the country’s intelligence services. “We’re getting weaker. Security is weak, everything is getting weaker and the Taliban are taking advantage. “

The United States has steadily distanced itself from Mr Ghani, 71, and has often worked around him to negotiate with the Taliban and regional energy brokers. Afghan warlords, powerful centers of alternative power, openly condemn or disregard him.

The country’s parliament twice rejected and distrusted his budget. Its main opponents, the Taliban, refuse to entertain the idea of ​​a deal with Mr Ghani. His mandate, which was weak from the start – according to the independent electoral commission of Afghanistan, the turnout in his hard-fought victory in 2019 was around 18.7 percent – seems to have shrunk.

American officials have largely lost patience with him. Many are fed up with what they see as his tenacity when refusing to compromise on adversaries or his condescending style. “Dead man leaves” is the term some members of civil society use to describe his political position.

A recent letter to him from Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken was so harsh that even Afghans who criticized Mr. Ghani found him insulting.

In a language more likely to be used by a stubborn student 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 the United States has not ruled out any option while our political process in Washington continues.” The unspoken caption was clear: your influence is minimal.

“As an Afghan you feel humiliated,” said Hekmat Khalil Karzai, head of an Afghan think tank and cousin of former President Hamid Karzai. “But I also think Ghani deserves it,” said Mr. Karzai. “He’s dealing with his closest partner’s kiss of death.”

The government of Biden is counting on multinational talks, which are expected to take place in Istanbul later this month, in order to draw up a plan for further development. At the heart of the US proposal is a temporary government that retains power until elections can be held.

In this provisional body, the Taliban and the current government would share power according to a leaked draft. Such a setup could require Mr Ghani to step down, a move he has repeatedly declined.

Mr Ghani has submitted a counter-proposal which he intends to publish soon. He calls for a ceasefire, a temporary “peace government” whose potential composition is still unclear, and early elections in which he promises not to run.

Both the American plan and Mr. Ghani’s plan could be non-starters, as the Taliban never said they would vote for elections, nor did they say they would follow a government plan or be satisfied with power-sharing.

“From what we see, they want absolute power and are waiting to take power by force,” said Hamdullah Mohib, Ghani’s national security advisor, in an interview.

While Mr Ghani is constantly losing political capital in Kabul and with international partners, the country’s military position is deteriorating. Every day brings news of security forces being blown up or gunned down.

“You can’t go on with that,” commented a high-ranking Western diplomat in Kabul on the constant wear and tear. “The toll on the government and the credibility and legitimacy it has are unsustainable.”

Visions from September 1996, when the Taliban invaded Kabul practically unhindered and built up their tough regime, haunt the capital.

Deep inside the Presidential Palace grounds, an 83-acre park-like campus protected by seven layers of security, Mr. Ghani’s inner circle of close helpers is small and shrinking. He fired his respected interior minister, an army general, after a military helicopter was shot down by one of the country’s many militias last month. His attorney general, who had a rare reputation for integrity, resigned. He pushed his short-term finance minister out.

A senior former official argued that he was cut off from reality and what was going on on the ground.

However, Mr Mohib has pushed this assessment back. “This criticism comes from a political elite that believes it has been marginalized,” he said.

Some former officials said Mr. Ghani was forced to practice micromanagement, including involvement in military matters and personnel decisions down to the level of the local police chief. “He likes it because he feels like the only one,” said Mr. Karzai, referring to the only one competent to make serious decisions.

Mr Mohib called the micromanagement allegation “a huge exaggeration”, saying that the president has not attended a security meeting “in weeks”, adding that “he is aware of the strategic picture”.

Mr. Ghani’s communications office disagreed with a request to interview the president. One executive did not respond to an interview request.

The consequences of Mr. Ghani’s isolation seem to be unfolding in real time. The president has a strong vision for the country, but selling it and making it work politically is not his forte, and it is showing up in the nation’s divisions, said the senior Western diplomat in Kabul. This is not good for Afghan unity, argued the diplomat.

These divisions are reflected from Kabul to the troubled regions of the country, where independent militias and other long-time power brokers have either armed themselves or are preparing to do so.

In the center of the country, a low-intensity battle between government troops and the militia of a Shiite minority warlord, fueled by the downing of an Afghan armed forces helicopter in March, has been smoldering for months. Mr Ghani and his staff have taken an active role in managing the conflict, to the horror of the Afghan military.

“We wanted to avoid that. We are already stretched, ”said a senior Afghan security official. “And this is where you want to start another war?”

The upcoming talks in Turkey could end like the recent ones in Moscow and Dushanbe, Tajikistan – with mild communiqués lamenting violence and hoping for peace. The American idea of ​​replacing the old conversations in Qatar that went nowhere with new conversations in a new locale isn’t exactly a winning bet. Indeed, the first signs are not promising as Mr Ghani again rejects preliminary American proposals and the Taliban are aggressively noncommittal to the ideas currently on the table.

“If the US pulls back and there is no political agreement, we will be in big trouble,” said the senior Afghan security official.

“Militarily we don’t have much hope,” he said. “If we don’t get anything, the Taliban will march. It’s going to be a tough fight. “

Fahim Abed contributed to the coverage.