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Asia

Is the Afghan unity government falling apart?

US Secretary of State Kerry recently visited Kabul in an effort to keep the country's rulers working together. The government's internal rifts are growing, while opposition groups demanding the president's resignation.

On Saturday, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kabul, where he expressed hope that the Afghan unity government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, would hold though the end of its term. The unity government has been dealing with internal strife since its formation in 2014, and calls for the Afghan leaders to step down have intensified in the recent months due to rising corruption, unemployment and violence in the country.

Kerry, who helped broker a power-sharing deal between Ghani and Abdullah in 2014, is aware of the discord within the unity government. He stressed its need to overcome "factional divisions" in dealing with the Taliban insurgency and tackling corruption.

"We need to make certain that the government of national unity is doing everything possible to be unified and to deliver to the people of Afghanistan," Kerry told Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani.

The secretary of state's conversations with the Afghan leaders focused on security, governance and economic development in the war-torn country.

A shaky foundation

Former President Hamid Karzai handed over power to Ghani and Abdullah in September 2014. Afghanistan's election commission had named Ghani the country's president shortly after he struck a power-sharing deal with his electoral rival Abdullah that ended a months-long dispute over electoral fraud.

The agreement paved the way for the establishment of a national unity government, in which Abdullah filled the newly created position of chief executive officer, a post akin to prime minister.

The appointment of a new president in Afghanistan was crucial in arranging a continued foreign troop presence beyond NATO's combat mandate, slated to end at the start of 2015. President Barack Obama extended the mission last year, after Taliban violence increased across the country.

As many experts predicted, the unity government never functioned smoothly, with the two leaders disagreeing on a number of issues. Meanwhile, the Taliban have gained strength, and President Ghani has not succeeded in convincing them to come to the negotiating table.

Growing public dissatisfaction

A nationwide survey published by The Asia Foundation in November showed that optimism among the Afghan population about the future of their country had declined to the lowest point in a decade - after steadily rising through 2014. Over 57 percent of those interviewed said the country is moving in the wrong direction - up from 40.4 percent last year. The opinion poll cites insecurity, unemployment and corruption as the main reasons behind the grim outlook.

"The polls show that the majority of Afghans are unhappy with the situation in Afghanistan and the government," said Mohammad Umer Daudzai, a former interior minister. "The people want to see a change in the way the country is being governed. They also want amendments in the Afghan constitution."

At the same time, the Afghan Taliban are determined to make things worse for the government. On Tuesday, the militants announced they were starting a "spring offensive" against Afghan and international troops. They already have several cities and districts under their control.

In an email announcement, the insurgents promised to "employ large-scale attacks on enemy positions across the country," including suicide bombings.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, from left, speaks as Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah listen during a joint press conference in Kabul. Afghanistan's two presidential candidates were set to a sign a power-sharing deal on national TV on Sunday, three months after a disputed runoff that threatened to plunge the country into turmoil and complicate the withdrawal of US and foreign troops (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

Kerry helped engineer the unity government that came to power in September 2014

An unclear agreement

A number of opposition politicians say the unity government will automatically lose its legitimacy in September for having failed so far to call a Loya Jirga (grand assembly) for endorsement.

But Kerry believes the power-sharing deal between Ghani and Abdullah was meant for the entire five-year term, and that there is no need for an approval from the Jirga.

"Let me make this very, very clear because I brokered the agreement," the US secretary of state told a joint news conference in Kabul on Saturday. "There is no end to this agreement at the end of two years, or in six months from now."

Infografik National mood Afghanistan ENG

"The constitution has elected a president," he continued. "The president has agreed to a unity government, and a political agreement was made between Abdullah and President Ghani for how they would go forward in a unity government. But it is our understanding that, that is a mandate for five years and there's no termination whatsoever in six months."

Opposition leaders have called for Ghani and Abdullah to step down, chiding the leaders for their failure to realize electoral reforms necessary to pave the way for parliamentary and district council elections.

According to Afghan expert Younus Fakor, the national unity agreement clearly states that the president will call a Loya Jirga within two years to determine the role of the chief executive. "If the government fails to do so, the agreement in effect will remain intact. This means that President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah will continue to govern the country as they have been doing since September 2014."

Patience running thin

Fakor, however, believes that the issue is not the agreement between the two leaders, but their track record so far in power. "The have failed to work together. This makes people speculate that Afghanistan is heading for early elections."

Taliban

The insurgents have announced the start of the annual 'fighting season'

"I believe John Kerry's Afghanistan visit was a reminder to Ghani and Abdullah that they needed to work together. Otherwise the unity government could lose support of the international community," he noted.

Former Interior Minister Daudzai believes that US support alone won't solve the problems for the unity government. "The government is facing such a crisis that it needs others to resolve it. But this will create more chaos in Afghanistan," Daudzai said.

Fakor stressed the need for the government to perform to win back dwindling public support. "The government must initiate reforms, fight corruption, and improve governance," he said. "Otherwise, it can't be saved."