FROM behind the counter of his optician’s shop on the north bank of the Kabul river, Noorullah looks anxiously at his ten-year-old son. He fears for the boy’s education under the current government and—worse—for his life. In the past month terrorists from Islamic State and the Taliban have run amok in the city, killing 150 civilians. Police recently found a suicide vest at a nearby checkpoint. “These attacks are good for the government,” he says bitterly. “They are the only reason it is still surviving. People are afraid to go on the streets and protest.”
Pressure is building on the government of President Ashraf Ghani nonetheless. He has labelled a recent suicide bombing, which killed 105 civilians, as his “9/11”. But the government does not seem capable of stopping the attacks. Its haplessness is emboldening critics. Mr Ghani remains in a stand-off with the governor of the northern province of Balkh, Atta Muhammad Noor, who in December refused his order to resign. On February 25th Mr Noor blamed the “irresponsible” and “narcissistic” government for the attacks.
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The foundations of this administration were flimsy to begin with. When the presidential election of 2014 produced a stalemate between Mr Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, America brokered a vague “power-sharing agreement” by which Mr Abdullah became chief executive (a post invented to mollify him). This staved off the threat of civil war. But it left the government in chaos as the pair vied for control, blocking or duplicating one another’s appointments. It did not help that the two-headed administration emerged just after the departure of 125,000 foreign troops, an exodus that caused the economy to slow dramatically and prompted the Taliban to redouble their efforts to topple the government.
Mr Ghani’s theoretical training for his job is unparalleled. In 2008, the thin, combustible academic co-authored “Fixing Failed States”, a summary of his life’s research into the construction of institutions in war-torn countries. The former World Bank official has since put some of his theories into action, stabilising the economy, opening up new trade routes with Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and recruiting a cadre of spreadsheet-friendly ministers.
The president is now trying to reduce bloodshed by offering to negotiate with the Taliban. This week he said he would be willing to recognise them as a political party and allow them to contest elections if they agreed to a ceasefire and worked within the constitution. The Taliban, who recently called for negotiations with America, have not yet responded to the offer.
In the meantime Mr Ghani is seeking to free Afghan politics from the half-nelson of strongmen. Whereas his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, used to entertain former warlords in the presidential palace, Mr Ghani has shunned them. His disdain is understandable. They treat state revenues as their own and consider themselves above the law. Among those he has sidelined is the vice-president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was accused last year of ordering henchmen to sodomise a political rival with an AK-47 rifle.
But the face-off with Mr Noor shows how difficult such figures are to dislodge, and how easily they can stir up trouble. Mr Noor has refused to surrender control of the main border crossing with Uzbekistan, from which he is thought to be earning around $90m a year. Instead, he is stoking divisions between Pushtuns like Mr Ghani and the country’s many smaller ethnic groups, who formed the bulk of Mr Abdullah’s voters in 2014. He has also joined an alliance of peeved strongmen, the grandly named Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan. At best the row is a distraction from the president’s reforms, says Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Centre, a think-tank. If it turns into a more concerted rebellion, he says, it will pose a grave threat to the country’s stability.
Institutional reforms might help to defuse some of the political tensions. Under the power-sharing agreement, Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah were supposed to have agreed on various constitutional amendments within two years, in part to formalise the position of chief executive (or prime minister). But it is not possible to amend the constitution without holding elections for local district councils, because the councils select delegates to a loya jirga, or constitutional convention. Local elections have, in turn, become mired in a dispute between the president and the legislature.
Another helpful step would be to allow candidates for the national parliament to run as representatives of a party, rather than as individuals. This could help Mr Ghani subdue the strongmen, says Tabish Forugh, a former official at the Independent Election Commission, by offering voters the chance to pick a platform, rather than a personality. Institutionalising parties would also make it possible to adopt a system of proportional representation, which might give those excluded from power under the current first-past-the-post system more of a stake in electoral politics.
“The next administration, with more credibility, can deal with these issues,” says one official, who points out that it will be a tall order to hold the parliamentary election on time, under any electoral system. Plans to produce a proper electoral roll are well behind schedule, even though the vote is due in July.
Meanwhile, ordinary Afghans see little improvement in their daily lives. Outside his tyre shop in central Kabul, Hassan Ali nervously wipes a knife against his knee. “Even in the civil war I could eat,” he says, “but now I go hungry most nights.” According to a survey conducted last year by the Asia Foundation, a think-tank, 33% of Afghans feel optimistic about the country’s future; 61% are pessimistic. When Mr Ghani took office in 2014, the optimists outnumbered the pessimists by 55% to 40%.