The streets are clogged with yellow taxis again. Peddlers are back pushing carts of shampoo and socks, sidewalk juice sellers are crushing pomegranates, and pigeons are pecking at corn outside a riverside shrine. The evidence of the Afghan capital’s bloodiest week in eight months has been scrubbed away.
But the city still has not fully recovered.
It is not only the shock of triple terrorist attacks that took 150 lives within 10 days last month — an ambulance-borne suicide bomb, a hilltop raid on a luxury hotel and a commando attack on a military academy. It is not only the visible heightening of security that followed — armed men on corners, roads blocked for official convoys and turreted military vehicles parked outside foreign and government compounds.
It is something else in the frigid winter air — a deeper sense of anxiety that things are out of control, that the government is failing to serve the public and consumed by political power struggles. People fear the destructive menace of the Taliban and the Islamic State, but their anger is directed at leaders, especially President Ashraf Ghani, who many feel have abandoned them.
“People did not suddenly become afraid, but this time the violence has added to their frustrations with the government. It showed a total failure of institutions and leadership,” said Haroun Mir, an independent analyst and former government security adviser.
Like several observers, Mir said Afghans feel increasingly frustrated with the National Unity Government, which they see as preoccupied with combating domestic political opponents and courting international favor, while many ordinary citizens can’t find jobs or feel safe walking the streets.
“Security has become the privilege of the elite,” he said. “The rest of us are in the hands of God.”
The insurgents have continued to gain far-flung territory and launch devastating urban attacks, even as the U.S. government embarks on a new initiative to strengthen and expand the Afghan defense forces, bringing in thousands of new U.S. military trainers in close cooperation with Ghani and his security advisers.
In west Kabul, where so many mosques have been attacked in the past year that some are now guarded by local militiamen and others have closed, people are especially nervous and disillusioned.
“This government is destroying itself and the country,” said Khudadad Allahyar, 65, a resident of Dasht-e-Barchi, a district of west Kabul dominated by Shiite ethnic Hazaras. “When we leave home to go and pray, we are not sure we will come back safely.”
Ghani has responded swiftly to the recent spate of terrorist attacks, although with mixed results. He visited survivors in hospital wards and announced the removal of numerous police and military officials. But he also offered contradictory remarks by giving an emotional speech at a mosque about “avenging” the violence followed by a televised lecture about the urgency of seeking reconciliation with the Taliban.
Several of Ghani’s aides said he remains focused on his other top priorities as well as the insurgent threat. One priority is reforming a public sector known for bloat and corruption; another is preparing for local, parliamentary and then presidential elections in the coming months. But that process has been marred by technical and political problems, and last week officials announced that the first polls slated for July probably will be delayed until October.
“The brutality and lives lost in the Kabul attacks created a psychosis of fear, and people are full of anxiety, but this has not distracted the president and his team from the broader agenda,” said a senior aide to Ghani, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk freely. “If we can pass through this crisis, the government will be back on track, and the electoral season will be healthier.”
The other issue challenging Ghani’s authority is public fights between the president and current and former officials that have dominated headlines for weeks. Such power struggles, instead of being handled through negotiations, have threatened to politicize intelligence agencies, pit regional strongmen against the central government and potentially divide the national defense forces.
“These political distractions are becoming more dangerous than the Taliban,” said Javid Faisal, a senior aide to the government’s chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, who ran against Ghani in 2014 but later agreed to share power with him after a fraud-plagued and inconclusive election. “You expect the Taliban to act like terrorists, but you don’t expect friends to behave like enemies.”
The most potentially destabilizing quarrel is with Atta Mohammad Noor, a wealthy former militia leader and longtime governor of Balkh province in the north. After months of negotiations in which Atta demanded more official perks and power, Ghani abruptly fired him in December. Atta refused to resign, and the president threatened to dislodge him by force until he was dissuaded by the White House.
Now, a tense stalemate reigns. Atta remains at his post, and his political party — which dominates the security forces and backed Abdullah for president — is vacillating between the two camps.
Critics blame Ghani for needlessly humiliating a powerful and vengeful rival whom he could have appeased with blandishments, while his supporters blame Atta — who threatened to lead violent protests when Ghani claimed victory in 2014 — for behaving like a warlord while reaping the benefits of a modern democratic order.
“This situation sucked the energy out of the government for a couple of weeks, but it also indicates that the state is slowly hardening,” said the senior aide to Ghani. “The governor was scared he would lose the wealth and power he had acquired illegally.” Only several wrong signals from the United States, the aide said, made Atta feel he could tough things out, but the de facto governor has lost crucial popular support and may now be fatally weakened.
The second, newer brouhaha is between Ghani and another high-profile opponent, Rahmatullah Nabil, who quit as head of the national intelligence agency two years ago in a policy dispute with Ghani and since then has co-founded an opposition party. Nabil, who recently accused Ghani of fraudulently manipulating the 2014 election, suddenly was barred from returning to Afghanistan while visiting the United States last month. Since then, officials have denied imposing such a bar, but Nabil has extended his trip abroad, and aides said his plans are not decided.
These fights, while providing endless talk show fodder, also have added to concern that Afghan leaders are more worried about undermining each other as potential electoral rivals than about restoring public confidence and strengthening a democratic system that still is floundering badly after 17 years. Many Afghans fear presidential elections will not be held at all by next year, defying the constitution and public demand.
“The government is not sincere about reforms. The elite officials live in fortresses and have families and houses abroad. They don’t feel what real people do,” said Mir, the analyst. The Ghani administration, he charged, is more concerned with placating its Western backers and consolidating power than addressing public concerns. “Ghani is trying to divide and rule, when what Afghanistan needs is to be united. It might help him for now, but it could destroy the country.”