November 13, 2014 / 9:04 AM / in 3 years

Afghan power struggle seen delaying formation of new government

KABUL (Reuters) - Weeks after a new Afghan president was sworn in, a tussle for power means it could be weeks - if not months - before a cabinet is in place, the last thing his government needs as it gears for foreign troops to leave after 13 years of war.

Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani gestures during a news conference in Kabul November 6, 2014. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

President Ashraf Ghani took office in September after a bitter row with rival Abdullah Abdullah, who initially claimed victory in the presidential election but later agreed to form a unity government.

As part of a U.S.-backed deal, the two agreed to work together, with former foreign minister Abdullah as chief executive, but several weeks on there is still no agreement on the make-up of the government.

Ghani is aiming to assemble a functioning government before a British-sponsored conference in London in early December, where he will seek to convince donors to continue bankrolling Afghanistan with billions of dollars in aid.

But he appears increasingly unlikely to meet that deadline.

Aides to both teams say there is a tussle over 26 positions, with no agreement on who leads the army and police, who heads the intelligence agency and who controls the country’s finances.

“It is impossible for the whole cabinet to be set up before the London conference because of the contradicting views between both camps,” said Ahmad Sayedi, a Kabul-based analyst. “We expect the new cabinet to be in place by the spring next year.”

The deadlock is a worry for Afghanistan’s foreign backers who spent more than a decade encouraging democratic governance while U.S.-led troops battled the Taliban.

Ghani, seeking to strike a balance in a country long divided along ethnic lines, wants to be seen as a new leader who can honor a pledge to appoint officials based on merit.

But at the same time, he cannot risk making dramatic changes that could upset a fragile balance of interests holding the government together.

AT ODDS OVER POWER-SHARING DEAL

The contest for positions is fuelling rivalry among supporters and frustrating plans to tackle a looming fiscal crisis and a culture of corruption that is crippling institutions.

“Personalities are not being talked about right now. It’s too early to talk about names,” said Daud Sultanzoy, an adviser to Ghani.

Abdullah’s spokesman said the two sides were at odds over how to interpret the terms of their power-sharing deal.

“President Ashraf Ghani’s team has a different understanding of the deal to share power equally and that’s why forming a new cabinet hasn’t yielded results yet,” said Mujeeb Rahimi.

Hoping to accelerate the process, Abdullah’s backers have proposed dividing appointments equally between the president and the chief executive. That was flatly rejected by Ghani’s team.

“It is impossible to do that, because neither the president nor the chief executive has a monopoly over everything,” said Sultanzoy. “We cannot divide this government as a private ownership.”

Ghani has succeeded in making at least one key appointment, despite objections from some in Abdullah’s camp, nominating Hanif Atmar, one of the most trusted members of his team, to the position of National Security Adviser.

The stand-off has dampened the optimism of the early weeks of Ghani’s presidency, when public shows of a crackdown on corruption and inefficiency won him praise.

“It’s been almost two months since the unity government was formed and there is still no cabinet,” said parliament speaker Abdul Rahoof Ibrahimi. “The current caretakers of the ministries have little interest in taking care of their jobs.”

Editing by Maria Golovnina, John Chalmers, Robert Birsel

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