When Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived in Kabul on an unannounced visit over the weekend, many Afghans hoped he would address deepening popular concerns over the national unity government he helped create in 2014.
Instead, Kerry’s statements endorsing the troubled government angered many of its opponents and, to a large number of Afghans, looked like continued U.S. interference in Afghanistan’s political system more than 14 years after it invaded the country.
In remarks alongside President Ashraf Ghani, Kerry said the compromise government formed to end a bitter election dispute in 2014 should last for a full five-year term. That appeared to mark a departure from the agreement that said a loya jirga, or grand assembly, would be called after two years to decide on the future of the government — as such assemblies have done at key points in Afghanistan’s recent history.
The U.S.-brokered agreement signed by Ghani and his election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, made Ghani the president and installed Abdullah in the newly created post of chief executive. The text said Ghani was “committed” to convening a loya jirga by September 2016 to decide if the chief executive position should be changed to a prime ministership and made permanent, which would require amending the constitution.
In response to a question from an Afghan journalist about the government’s term ending in roughly six months, Kerry said Saturday: “There is no end to this agreement at the end of two years or in six months from now.… This is an agreement for a unity government, the duration of which is five years.”
Kerry said a loya jirga was “a goal,” not a requirement — upsetting many critics of Ghani’s government who say the assembly is needed to resolve frustrations at the government’s handling of political, economic and security affairs.
Mohammad Umer Daudzai, a former interior minister who has become a vocal critic of the unity government, said the loya jirga was needed immediately to bring reforms to an administration he called “unhealthy.”
“The durability of the national unity government depends on … its popularity with the Afghan people,” Daudzai said in a series of tweets Monday.
The Afghan government is facing a series of crises as the economy flatlines and Taliban insurgents battle government forces for control of parts of northern and southern Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled the country last year, demonstrating a widespread lack of confidence in a government that many view as having been foisted upon them by the United States.
Violence continues. On Monday, a military bus transporting recruits outside the eastern city of Jalalabad was struck by a bomb for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, killing 12 and wounding 38. Earlier in the day, a bus belonging to the education ministry struck a roadside bomb in Kabul, killing two.
Critics say the compromise that mashed two former political rivals and their teams together has produced an unwieldy administration that is prone to bickering and has been unable to hold parliamentary elections, institute electoral reforms or distribute computerized identity cards — all reform measures spelled out in the agreement.
While Obama administration officials in private conversations have urged Ghani and Abdullah to end the infighting and carry out the reforms, they have refrained from publicly criticizing the government they helped create. About 9,800 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, mainly serving as advisors to Afghan forces. But for many Afghans, Kerry’s statements seemed to go over the line.
“We strongly reject the message by John Kerry and call it a clear interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs,” the chairman of Afghanistan’s senate, Fazel Hadi Muslimyar, said Sunday.
One former official who was not authorized to speak to the media said, “The people right now are asking Kerry: ‘Who are you to decide our fates — you couldn’t even bring peace and security after 15 years.’”
Many milestones in the September 2014 agreement have not been met. Chief among them was holding elections for district council members, which was to pave the way for the loya jirga.
In January, the Independent Election Commission announced Oct. 15 as the date for simultaneous parliamentary and district council elections — which would already have missed the two-year deadline in the agreement. But this month, election commissioner Yusuf Nuristani — who had been accused of complicity in election fraud in 2014 — announced his resignation, casting the polls into question.
Abdullah on Monday rejected the criticisms of the government, saying opposition politicians misunderstood the 2014 agreement.
“I wish those people who think of becoming part of the political future for Afghanistan could read the agreement,” he said. “This agreement is vital for the future of the country and our politicians were supposed to read it carefully and know what is in there.”
Latifi is a special correspondent.