Afghans are being treated to the unfamiliar spectacle of their leaders trying to outdo one another in good governance even as they remain hopelessly deadlocked on forming a new government.
When an early morning suicide bomber struck at a residential camp for foreign workers on November 18th, the first vice-president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, showed up straight from his morning workout, still in his tracksuit, complaining in a kerbside news conference about Taliban infiltration of the government.
President Ashraf Ghani made a surprise 2am visit to a military hospital to make sure doctors were really on duty, visited war wounded, and has already travelled to at least three countries.
Despite an active schedule, Ghani has also earned the gratitude of his capital city by keeping his motorcades small, especially compared with those of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, whose convoys paralysed the city for hours.
On Monday Abdullah Abdullah, the national unity government's chief executive, flew to the site of a Taliban atrocity the day after it occurred, braving the anger of the locals over years of government neglect.
And on Wednesday, when the United Nations rolled out its annual appeal for international humanitarian assistance in 2015, Abdullah served as chairman for the event – the first time a top Afghan official had done so.
This is all in sharp contrast to the past 12 years of Karzai, whose public appearances were increasingly infrequent and carefully restricted. But while the nation’s top officials are certainly getting a lot done, and looking good on Afghan television while doing it, none of it is the main task at hand.
That would be the getting to the crux of forming a new government, already weeks past Ghani’s self-imposed deadline amid lasting disagreements between the president’s and Abdullah’s camps.
Other than the top elected officials and their immediate aides, the government is still being run by holdovers from the previous administration along with a hodge-podge of temporary appointees. This is true even in critical posts such as the ministries of defence and interior, responsible for running the war effort, and the ministries of economy and finance, which must deal with a catastrophic budget shortfall and a deepening economic crisis.
“Both sides have supporters expecting to receive a share of the power, and both sides are negotiating to maximise their position,” said a senior Afghan official familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential. No breakthrough was in sight, the official said.
The national unity government was brokered by the US and the UN as a way out of a protracted crisis over a fraudulent election, giving Ghani the presidency and Abdullah the prime minister-like post of chief executive.
They agreed on an equitable allocation of cabinet choices and other government positions, but the details of who would fill the jobs were left until inauguration – and those talks are now dragging on.
The uncertainty over a new government, coupled with the economic crisis and a wave of recent bombings in Kabul, has driven the normally stable currency, the Afghani, to plunge in value, to 59 to the dollar (50 was the long-term normal, and on Wednesday it was about 58).
“Businessmen are worried that the disagreement on a new government will continue until the end of the national unity government’s term,” said Hajji Najeebullah Akhtary, who until recently was the president of the Moneychangers Union in Kabul.
Some Afghans see the PR activity by their government executives at least in part as a distraction from the impasse.
“With the bottleneck, the government has no real activities to perform, and by visiting bomb sites and other minor stuff, they’re trying to make it look like they’re busy doing something,” said Waheed (26) an inventory manager for a charitable agency here who goes by just one name.
Said Hajji Janan, a former council member from Wardak province: “Since all the ministers and governors are acting employees, none of them are taking their responsibilities seriously anymore, and the country is going through a very hard time.”
Still, even those who are critical see positives to the one-upmanship at the top, given that the usual complaint against the government is that it is unresponsive to everyday Afghans.
“The election created competition between them, and now they are competing to prove who is more proactive and has got more popular support,” Waheed said.
At the UN aid drive, Mark Bowden, the agency’s humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, was appreciative: “We’ve never had such a stellar cast from the government side attending this event.”
The United Nations is attempting to get foreign donors to contribute toward its $405 million (€324 million) goal for aid to refugees, disaster victims and malnourished Afghans.
Dostum, in particular, has taken every possible opportunity to burnish his own image, which suffers from his history as a warlord during the country’s brutal civil war. As recently as 2013, he set his private gunmen on a governor who had displeased him. Years before courting Dostum to be his first vice-president, Ghani criticised him as a “known killer.”
Last week Dostum publicly donated blood for the military and made sure that 300 of his guards and followers did so also (Ghani donated a month earlier). And after years of rarely, if ever, meeting journalists, Dostum on Monday gathered a group of them in honour of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.
He spoke about how he supported women’s rights and a free press, and even announced plans to start a fund with his own money to provide for needy or ailing journalists.
But journalists who desecrate religion will get no mercy, he added. "I will strangle such a person myself." – (New York Times service)