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Afghan Government Scrambles To Respond To Growing Opposition

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani making a speech in Kandahar in February.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani making a speech in Kandahar in February.

President Ashraf Ghani recently called the previous Afghan calendar year, which ended late last month, the "survival year for Afghanistan."

But questions are being raised about how the Afghan leader -- along with his national unity government -- will weather plummeting approval ratings and a series of schemes by rival politicians to challenge his legitimacy amid a growing Taliban insurgency.

Ghani’s closest confidants, however, refute the pessimistic prognosis often painted by the media and public discourse in Afghanistan as the country emerges from nearly four decades of war and faces dwindling Western support and donor funding. They say they are frustrated by media reports that place more emphasis on uncertainty in the landlocked, mountainous nation of an estimated 30 million people without mentioning the strides that have been made.

They highlight his efforts to jump-start a comprehensive peace plan acceptable to all Afghans and backed by regional powers, a noticeable increase in Afghan revenues, greater steps toward transparency and an emphasis on empowering women as some of his achievements.

And with a major political hurdle looming later this year, Ghani will need all the support he can find.

Under a 2014 power-sharing agreement, Ghani and his then election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, agreed to hold a constitutional assembly within two years. This Loya Jirga -- a grand assembly of the Afghan elite -- is expected to debate amending the supreme law to create a post of executive prime minister, which would formalize Abdullah's current role as chief executive officer. Soon after taking oath in September 2014, Ghani signed a decree to delegate specific executive authority to Abdullah as the CEO of their national unity government.

A loosely coordinated opposition movement based around senior figures of former President Hamid Karzai's administration is now projecting the September deadline for the Loya Jirga as a major test for the national unity government's legitimacy. They argue that missing the deadline will create a power vacuum because Ghani's administration will forfeit its mandate to govern.

Ghani's supporters, however, suggest their administration is looking into alternatives to holding the Loya Jirga.

"The only people demanding the Loya Jirga are our political opposition who are out of power. They want to use this to create a political crisis," a source privy to his administration's thinking on the issue told RFE/RL's Gandhara website. "Inside the national unity government, we don’t see the same kind of pressure."

The source said Kabul is focusing instead on pinning down commitments for long-term security and development assistance at major international conferences in Warsaw and Brussels in July and October. "There is no hope for the Loya Jirga to happen on time," the source said, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to brief media on government deliberations.

The source emphasized that Abdullah's CEO position was created through a presidential decree, which enables his administration to handle it in many ways.

"The same decree can be extended or amended and issued again. It is also possible that a new post could be created [by merely issuing a decree]," he said. "[Holding a Loya Jirga] is not as big an issue as often portrayed [in the media]."

The source said Kabul is determined to hold parliamentary and district council elections -- now slated for mid-October -- in order to end the tug-of-war between Ghani and Abdullah supporters over electoral reforms. Afghanistan’s top election official, however, recently resigned.

"The president believes in reforms," he said. "Our only condition is that the reforms benefit all of Afghanistan and do not only result in enhancing the power and privileges of a select few."

Another official said the government is likely to survive through this fall and could even complete its five-year term in office.

"It's not easy to bring down this government, whether one likes it or not. The main reason it will most likely survive its term is the fact that there's no viable alternative to it now or in the foreseeable future," the source said. "[The two government] partners could also work out a modification to their arrangement that could ensure its continuity."

Ghani’s supporters may have to learn to compromise, too. They acknowledge that ignoring the need to reach out to Afghanistan's burgeoning media and their distaste for traditional politics have cost them dearly in Afghan public opinion.

But they insist that the media overlooks the administration’s focus on building institutions, nurturing a delicate peace process, and keeping the fragile national unity government intact.

"Perceptions about Afghanistan are markedly different from its realities. Progress is being made, but it is not being explained to the people," one source said. "Even positive achievements are often portrayed negatively."

Indeed, Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, delivered a similar message in Washington last week.

"Repeated half-truths take on a life of their own and suddenly become conventional wisdom," she told a think tank audience.