April 16, 2015 / 10:09 PM / 2 years ago

Rivals row over top Afghan defense posts as Taliban goes on attack

KABUL (Reuters) - Seven months after rival leaders finally agreed to share power, Afghanistan has no permanent defense minister and cannot decide who should run the army, threatening to weaken the war against Taliban militants on the offensive after foreign troops left.

Deadlock over choosing the minister and army chief of staff is the latest sign of tension in the government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who fought a bitterly contested presidential election last year.

The president’s office said the delay in new leadership was not hurting the war effort, and that the last administration’s chain of command was handling military operations.

“We are sure there’s not a problem with morale in the armed forces personnel,” said Ajmal Abidy, Ghani’s spokesman.

But critics including General Zafar, until recently an army division commander who now works at the ministry’s recruitment department, said the absence of promised new leaders would undermine armed forces’ ability to contain the insurgency.

“When security ministries are divided politically and inexperienced individuals are installed in senior command posts as part of agreements and not on merit, problems are going to be unavoidable,” he told Reuters.

That could prove costly as the Taliban launches a spring offensive against Afghan forces who, for the first time since the hardline Islamist movement was ousted from power in 2001, are fighting with little support from NATO troops.

NATO, which at its peak had 130,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, has only a few thousand left, involved mainly in training and special operations.

This month, Taliban fighters overran Afghan army and police checkpoints in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, traditionally one of the country’s safer areas, killing at least 18 personnel, eight of them beheaded.

TEMPERS FLARE

Anger at the government’s inability to agree on key security posts flared up this week in parliament, where lawmakers called a special meeting to look into the Badakhshan attack.

“President Ghani! For God’s sake, if you cannot lead this country, resign together with the chief executive,” said Mohammad Iqbal Kohistani, a parliamentarian from Kapisa province in the east.

Ghani and Abdullah, who agreed to share power in September after their election tussle, are locked in a new battle over senior defense posts.

According to aides in both camps, Abdullah insists that former deputy defense minister, Atiqullah Baryalai, be made army chief of staff. But Ghani will not agree.

“Baryalai will never become the chief of staff, and that is the president’s final decision,” said a senior government official with direct knowledge of the dispute.

Abdullah in turn last month rejected Ghani’s choice of defense minister, who subsequently withdrew his candidacy. The Abdullah camp said they were enraged because Ghani made the choice without consulting the chief executive.

So far Ghani has not named a new defense minister candidate. The eventual pick will be his third nominee for the post: his first choice, currently army chief of staff General Sher Mohammad Karimi, was rejected by parliament.

For now, day-to-day affairs at the defense ministry are being run by an acting minister, Enayatullah Nazari.

Abdullah’s office declined to comment about the deadlock, as did Baryalai.

During his testimony to parliament this week, Karimi acknowledged the armed forces needed to undergo change.

“There is no problem with soldiers and lieutenants,” he said. “They are brave and patriotic, but we have some problems at the officer level. We have tried our best to bring reforms.”

ETHNIC DIVIDE

The dispute over powerful security posts reflects ethnic differences at the heart of Afghan politics.

The country’s largest ethnic group, Pashtuns, mainly supported Ghani in the election, while the smaller yet sizeable Tajik population strongly backed Abdullah.

Baryalai is a Tajik from Panjshir province, stronghold of the Northern Alliance resistance which fought the Taliban regime in the 1990s and helped the United States topple it in 2001.

Many Abdullah supporters believe Ghani is trying to put Pashtuns in key positions to sideline Tajiks who held most security posts for the decade after the Taliban’s fall.

The president’s aides, however, say his reluctance to appoint former Northern Alliance “mujahideen” to top posts is part of a commitment to name a cabinet based on merit, not connections.

The deadlock also stems from disagreement over the interpretation of the power-sharing pact, which promises “parity” in key appointments between Ghani and Abdullah but gives no more detail.

The system means only eight out of a cabinet of 24 ministers have been confirmed, although 15 more are nominated for parliamentary approval.

Graeme Smith, senior analyst for International Crisis Group and author of a book on the Afghan war, said the armed forces faced declining funds from international donors, a drastic reduction in NATO support and internal problems.

Despite the challenges, the Afghan army has tried to remain on the offensive, with the number of attacks launched against insurgents holding steady over the last few years.

“Unfortunately, they’re not keeping pace with the Taliban, whose attacks are getting bigger, deadlier and more frequent,” Smith said.

Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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