Afghan fishmongers prepares their fish for the customers at a roadside market in Kabul. The Taliban insurgency may still be raging but the poor state of the economy could pose a bigger threat to Afghanistan’s long-term viability, and huge mineral reserves are unlikely to offer a quick fix. Image Credit: AFP

Kabul: As Afghanistan begins an uncertain new era of coalition governance and self-defence against Taliban insurgents, protracted delays in forming a cabinet and filling most top posts in the 3-month-old administration have left public agencies in disarray and Afghans wondering who is in charge.

This week, as Western combat troops left Afghanistan for good, President Ashraf Gani hailed a new era of national pride and independence in a televised speech from his palace. He said that the country has “passed two difficult tests” with transitions to a new civilian government and military control and that the next challenge is to build a solid economy.

But Gani said nothing about the high-level vacancies in the government he heads in partnership with his former rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah — an issue that has left the nation in a state of anxiety and the wheels of the nascent national unity government wobbling. Most senior federal and provincial posts are empty and many projects are on hold, leaving a growing impression that no one is at the helm just as the country needs a strong leadership team to fend off a resurgent Taliban and grapple with corruption.

In one province, police officials have been fired and not replaced despite a rash of violent crime. In another, frustrated parents are calling their legislators to get copies of school records. In the capital, no phones were answered at one federal ministry last week — an unusual occurrence even by lax Afghan standards. In another ministry, idle office workers made a video of one another dancing in the halls, which was later shown to a reporter.

“Everything is stuck. There is no framework, no direction, no one setting priorities or making decisions,” said Fawzia Koofi, one of many national legislators who have expressed similar concerns. “In a country like ours with a weak political system, you need strong ministers and governors to provide leadership, but we still don’t have any. So those below are either doing nothing or they are using the chance to do wrong things.”

Public concern over the lack of appointed leaders, especially in the Defence Ministry and other security agencies, has been exacerbated by a spate of recent insurgent attacks across the capital in which militants bombed or opened fire on foreign compounds, police facilities and even a live theatre performance.

But Gani and several security aides who spoke at the palace ceremony this week stressed the government’s determination and capacity to confront Afghanistan’s enemies without continued foreign combat support.

“Your sons went home, but our sons will continue to sacrifice for Afghanistan,” Gani said, referring to the departed US and Nato troops. “Today our forces take full responsibility for the entire country, and Afghanistan’s security will lead to world security.”

Gani and his advisers have continued to ask for patience after failing to meet several previous deadlines to form a cabinet. Last week, the president met with a group of legislators and promised to announce the first group of nominees by next week, but several parliamentary leaders said they were so fed up that they might refuse to ratify his choices.

Palace aides say the appointment process has been delayed by conflicting demands for professional competence, ethnic balance and political rewards, as Gani and Abdullah have divided key agencies and negotiated over candidates.

By all accounts, the crucial pending decision in this Rubik’s Cube of interlocking scenarios and deals is who will head the Interior Ministry, a powerful ethnic fiefdom awash in weapons and riddled with graft. Gani and Abdullah are believed to have agreed on most other ministries, but both leaders face continued pressure from their respective allies to appoint different individuals to the high-stakes post.

Meanwhile, the stalemate has affected services and morale at numerous other public agencies — some of which have been adrift for much of the past year because of the prolonged presidential campaign and election. Legislators, analysts and former officials say routine bureaucratic functions are being neglected, “acting” ministers are reluctant to sign orders, lower-level jobs are going unfilled and projects are stalled.

The paralysis extends to newly created, high-level government offices. This week, the Tolo TV news channel reported that the Office of the Chief Executive remains largely unstuffed, despite being allocated about 500 positions, because the president has not signed decrees authorising its funding. It also said a special agency announced by Gani to promote reform and good governance, with about 200 positions, has remained unstuffed for the same reason. The channel quoted spokesmen for both agencies confirming that the funding had not yet been approved.

Some Afghans who supported Gani’s presidential bid and reformist agenda said the delays have resulted in part from excessively strict conditions he placed on all senior jobs. By banning former ministers, parliamentarians and dual nationals from heading agencies, they said, he cut out many members of the country’s small professional elite.

One former cabinet minister, who was dismissed by Gani in November along with all other ministers, blamed the paralysis on a different problem: the political conflict inherent in what he called the “two-headed” government that was brokered by US officials after last year’s elections — which included a runoff between Gani and Abdullah — collapsed amid charges of fraud.

“The problem is not technical deficiency, it is the lack of political will,” said the ex-minister, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk frankly. “In my ministry, there are two or three people from both the Gani and Abdullah camps who are well qualified to take over my job. We are responsible for many thousands of employees and a huge budget. There is no reason this should be taking so long.”

The prolonged absence of senior managers has had both annoying and worrisome effects. At the Ministry of Education, some teachers have gone without pay for months, and routine paperwork, such as changing a child’s school enrolment, is taking weeks. At the Ministry of Refugees, no one answered telephones in several management offices last week, and no one at the reception desk knew the whereabouts of the acting minister.

The independent Afghan Anti-Corruption Network warned recently that the ongoing delay in cabinet appointments has “created gaps of power and legitimacy within the government and has given ... opportunity to corrupt officials to loot Afghans and Afghanistan.”