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No cabinet in sight

Gabriel DomínguezJanuary 8, 2015

It's been 100 days since Ashraf Ghani came to power in Afghanistan, but he still lacks a Cabinet. Experts argue the failure to form one is not only undermining his government's legitimacy, but also affecting the Afghans.

Wahl Afghanistan 2014 Ashraf Ghani
Image: W.Kohsar/AFP/GettyImages

Three months after a drawn-out and controversial election, analysts give Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's performance mixed marks. While they credit him for his work ethic and eagerness to make necessary changes, the former finance minister and World Bank economist is also under fire for failing to form a cabinet at a crucial time for the country.

Ghani came to power in September 2014, following a disputed poll overshadowed by fraud claims which only ended when he and his electoral rival Abdullah Abdullah signed a power-sharing deal to form a national unity government. The US-brokered agreement also created the position of chief executive officer, a post akin to prime minister, which was filled by Abdullah.

One of Ghani's first acts during his first 100 days in office was to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, which former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had refused to sign. The BSA not only ensured that US and NATO troops could remain in Afghanistan, but also removed a significant thorn in the US-Afghanistan relationship.

John Kerry & Ashraf Ghani & Abdullah Abdullah ARCHIV 12.07.2014
The US-brokered agreement between Ghani and Abdullah created the position of chief executive officerImage: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

A 'welcome change'

Furthermore, Ghani spent his first two months acting on a clear reform agenda. He not only announced plans for sweeping political changes, but also re-opened an investigation into the Kabul Bank scandal, all of which were well received. The president also spent a good deal of time traveling abroad seeking to convince key allies that he was serious about implementing these changes.

"All in all Ghani has in many respects established himself as a welcome change from his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. He has proven to be a tireless worker and extremely hands-on and done well managing, at least publically, the awkward power-sharing arrangement hatched with CEO Abdullah Abdullah," Jason Campbell, an international security expert at the US-based RAND Corporation, told DW.

The problem is that Ghani, while being decisive and reform-oriented, has so far acted alone. He has failed to agree on a cabinet with Abdullah. While this may have allowed Ghani to act with a great deal of flexibility and decisiveness in the short-term, analysts believe that the ensuing problems may quickly undermine the legitimacy of this government and the two men who are supposed to lead it.

No ministers

Moreover, experts are of the view that the political vacuum also threatens to hamper the fight against a resurgent insurgency. According to media reports, many Afghans are attributing the ongoing economic and security crisis to the fact that no ministers have been appointed to oversee these important ministries.

But the disagreement between Ghani and Abdullah is not limited to cabinet members. It also affects other key posts such as ambassadors, provincial governors, and provincial chiefs of police.

Thus far, only three new figures have been appointed to government - Ashraf Ghani as president, Abdullah Abdullah as "chief executive officer" and Hanif Atmar as national security advisor.

The rest of the sitting officials in government were appointed by President Hamid Karzai and are currently serving in an "acting" capacity, as Scott Smith, director of the Afghanistan program at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), points out.

Campbell argues that with a lame duck cabinet and weak institutions, the government's current ability to see major reforms through is significantly hindered.

The situation is reportedly made more complicated by micromanagement on Ghani's part. "There have been a few occasions where Ghani has abruptly dismissed officials deemed corrupt or ineffective, even at the district level, without an immediate replacement in mind," said Campbell.

But why is there still no cabinet? Overall, there are a number of factors that have contributed to the delay. Analyst Smith explains that the appointment of new ministers is subject to "tense and complex" negotiations between political rivals, as they try to implement the power-sharing deal.

"The problem is that they have different views of the relative powers of the presidency and the CEO position, the ideal qualifications for cabinet positions, and about how to resolve these differences," underlined Smith.

Losing trust

But that is not all. Ghani and Abdullah also both have camps of followers who backed them in the election and expect some reward, thus making it difficult to achieve a mutually agreeable balance. "By essentially splitting the government in two, neither politician can fully deliver on his promises, said Smith.

Afghanistan Taliban Kämpfer Waffe
Experts say the political vacuum also threatens to hamper the fight against a resurgent Taliban insurgencyImage: T.White/AFP/Getty Images

Furthermore, the Afghanistan expert argues that Ghani's go-it-alone style puts Abdullah in a difficult position: "Either he could protest Ghani's popular decisions, complaining that they were made without due consultation, or he could passively endorse them. Both postures made him look small."

While the power-sharing deal may have rescued the country from possible civil unrest, the prolonged disagreement over senior cabinet positions seems to be affecting the Afghan people's trust in the government and even the concept of democracy at large.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the new government has coincided not only with the end of NATO's ISAF combat mission, but also with a wave violence which has swept across the South Asian nation, claiming the lives of several dozen people. "The Taliban pose a major threat to both the new Afghan administration and people as well as the new NATO mission, said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

"The spate of recent security incidents has highlighted that no one is at the helm of the key security ministries - interior, which oversees the police, and the defense ministry that should command the military," noted Smith.

A high price

Moreover, the country is facing a looming fiscal crisis that reflects worsening domestic revenue shortfalls since 2011. Averting this crisis will require strong leadership from the new Afghan government, but analysts believe it is unlikely that things will get better the longer the political uncertainty persists. "It is important that the ministries remain functional and able to provide at least basic services or public confidence will quickly be negatively impacted," said Campbell.

Afghanistan ISAF Truppe
The BSA ensured that US and NATO troops could remain in AfghanistanImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Smith believes that while neither Ghani nor Abdullah is currently benefitting from this situation, it is likely that Ghani will pay the higher price: "Afghans want to know who is in charge of their economy and their security -- as both continue to worsen -- and they want a president who inspires confidence in his ability to lead. So far, these recent news reports suggest, they do not have the former and are losing hope about the latter," said Smith.

Nevertheless, Campbell points out that even with a fully appointed cabinet, the challenges ahead for the government remain daunting. The analyst argues that on the political side, it will be important that those supporters who miss out on a desired appointment not become withdrawn and react in a way that compromises stability.

For now, it seems that maintaining stability in Afghanistan will require persistent international aid for the foreseeable future. "If the Afghan government cannot convince donors that it is a reliable agent of these funds, its prolonged survival will be placed in great doubt," said Campbell.