Afghan president sets all-business tone as he aims to steady nation

Is Afghan President Ashraf Ghani willing to share power with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah?

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's trip to China in October was notable not only for being his first state visit, but also for what his delegation brought back to Kabul: unspent money.

Officials in the presidential palace were caught off-guard when a member of the delegation returned most of the several thousand dollars he was given for the journey. They described it as a stark change in attitude from former President Hamid Karzai's tenure, when senior officials routinely requested — and were granted — large spending allowances to travel abroad, often for routine medical treatment.

In two months in office, Ghani has established an all-business tone, eschewing ostentation and even instilling fear as he seeks to stabilize Afghanistan.

Ghani has made unannounced nighttime inspections at prisons and hospitals, in some cases reprimanding employees who were away from their posts. He also reportedly insisted on undergoing the pat-downs and security checks that travelers endure at Kabul's international airport.

In a country where the powerful often enjoy impunity, the moves have won Ghani — who took office after a bitter, drawn-out election marred by fraud allegations — the support of a weary public. One recent poll said 84% of Afghans were satisfied with his leadership, a surprisingly high figure given initial skepticism of the national unity government he formed as a compromise with rival Abdullah Abdullah.

"I think he's doing a pretty good job in getting started," said Ahmad Shuja, cofounder of Impassion Afghanistan, an Afghan digital media company. "There's a sense he remembers the promises he made during the campaign."

But Ghani's blunt, forceful style has also earned detractors. He referred to Taliban insurgents as "political opposition," which aides said was part of an effort to jump-start moribund peace talks. The comments — which recalled Karzai's references to the Taliban as "brothers" — struck many Afghans and Westerners as tone-deaf, particularly after recent suicide bombings in Kabul that killed civilians and injured a prominent lawmaker and women's rights advocate, Shukria Barakzai.

After Ghani reopened an investigation of Kabul Bank stemming from a scandal in which nearly $1 billion disappeared from the nation's largest private financial institution from 2010 to 2013, an appellate court in early November tripled the prison sentences of the bank's former chairman, Sherkhan Farnood, and former chief executive, Khalilullah Ferozi, to 15 years each.

Some Afghans thought the two were scapegoats for a larger cabal of bank conspirators, including former Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal. Ghani named Zakhilwal his chief economic advisor on the same day he called for the Kabul Bank case to be reopened.

Some also questioned whether Afghanistan's justice system is ready to handle a case that involves some of the nation's most powerful and well-connected individuals.

In his inauguration speech, Ghani referred to "accusations of corruption in the judiciary" and said all court employees should be investigated for fraud. Then, just before the Kabul Bank decision, Ghani reportedly summoned Atty. Gen. Mohammad Ishaq Aloko to ask how he came to acquire a $3-million house in Germany on his government salary.

Questions also remain about Ghani's willingness to share power with Abdullah, whose appointment to the new post of chief executive was the linchpin of the U.S.-brokered unity government.

Ghani, who during the campaign repeatedly rejected the idea of a coalition government, has yet to sign a presidential decree spelling out the powers of Abdullah's office, leaving his onetime rival grasping for a role and even office space. Abdullah's aides have set up shop in a lavish house originally designed as a post-presidential residence for Karzai, but which lacks basic office amenities.

"When he started, there was no legal or physical infrastructure for him to really participate in the government," said Said T. Jawad, a former Afghan ambassador to Washington who is serving as an advisor to Abdullah. "We are still waiting for equipment and supplies to be delivered to the chief executive's office."

Ghani failed to fulfill one campaign pledge when he did not name a Cabinet within 45 days of taking office, a delay that several sources attributed to the unresolved questions over Abdullah's authority and the challenge of finding positions for the powerful figures who supported both men during the election.

At a joint news conference Sunday, Ghani and Abdullah said they had reached agreement on a Cabinet but would not announce it for two to four more weeks.

Abdullah's advisors were said to have drawn up a list of every significant political appointment in the government, from Cabinet ministers to provincial governors and ambassadors, and demanded control of 50% of the posts.

Some sources say Abdullah has also insisted on using half the buildings in the presidential palace compound and a seat next to Ghani at gatherings of top officials.

Still, Western officials who have spoken with both men say they get along well and are meeting regularly.

A conference in London that begins Thursday will offer Ghani and Abdullah the chance to convince the international allies that fund most of Afghanistan's budget that the unity government can hold together and avoid the massive corruption scandals that beset the Karzai administration.

It will not be easy. No less a figure than Ghani's first vice president, ex-militia leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, is reported to owe the national energy company more than $200,000 in back payments.

Afghanistan's allies "have to believe things are different this time around," said a Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity, following diplomatic protocol.

Digital entrepreneur Shuja's company is tracking the Ghani administration's progress on scores of campaign promises on a website called Sadroz, which means "100 days."

"The Afghan people have come to expect a lot from the government," he said, "even if they didn't vote."

Latifi is a special correspondent.

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