Afghanistan’s President Clings to Power as Taliban Close In

Afghanistan’s President Clings to Power as Taliban Close In

Several of his close political associates have surrendered to the Taliban without a fight, or fled into exile. His army has all but collapsed and the warlords he was counting on have proved ineffectual, or are bargaining for their lives.

Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, is more isolated than ever, facing pressure to step aside — and not just from the Taliban. His dominion is shrinking by the day. He rules the capital, Kabul, two other cities in the north and east, and pockets in the interior.

Yet Mr. Ghani is stubbornly clinging to power.

On Wednesday he flew to one of his loyalist redoubts, the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in attempts to rally pro-government forces. On Thursday, officials said he spoke by phone with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III. On Friday he was said to be leading a national security meeting in the Kabul presidential palace.

The Afghan president’s options appear limited. He has little discernible support at home or from his former foreign backers. Street demonstrations supporting his army quickly fizzled out.

Thousands of his soldiers, surrendering en masse, have decided Mr. Ghani is not “worth fighting for,” Omar Zakhilwal, a former finance minister, tweeted Friday.

Far from hinting at resignation, the president has only suggested that he would not run for re-election if the Taliban agreed to elections. Their battlefield rampage appears to have made the offer irrelevant. As his country slips away and provincial capitals fall, Mr. Ghani and his advisers have said little, sometimes even refusing to acknowledge the losses.

Even Mr. Ghani’s substantial corps of bodyguards, said to number in the thousands, poses a potential threat. Many are from villages now controlled by the Taliban.

Leading Afghanistan is a dangerous business. For more than a century, most Afghan rulers have either been killed or died in exile, the Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield points out.

Still, if — as seems increasingly likely — Mr. Ghani is deposed by the Taliban, he can lay claim to a singular distinction. “This will be the first insurgency that has ever driven a Kabul government from power, that has also had the backing of a foreign power,” said Mr. Barfield.

The last time the Taliban seized control, in 1996, one former ruler wound up swinging from a lamppost in downtown Kabul and the other fled hundreds of miles to the north to govern a postage-stamp rump state for five years.

Mr. Ghani shows no signs that the cruel lessons of the past sway him any more than the uncertain present and fearful future.

“He’s hunkering down,” said Torhek Farhadi, a former Afghan presidential adviser. “He’s refusing to admit the reality. The news is relayed to him through a filter.”

“Trusted lieutenants surrendered just this morning,” said Mr. Farhadi, referring to the recent capitulations of governors Mr. Ghani appointed in Ghazni and Logar provinces.

“He’s at risk from his own bodyguards,” said Mr. Farhadi. “This is how it happens in Afghanistan. The last days of any leader are like this.”

Mr. Ghazni’s youthful finance minister, Khalid Payenda, fled the country several days ago.

Leadership characteristics that in the past merely aggravated his fellow citizens — Mr. Ghani’s refusal to delegate authority or listen to others more knowledgeable than himself, especially on military matters — are now proving lethal to the Afghan state.

“He is isolated, confused, and deeply mistrustful of everyone,” said Tamim Asey, a former deputy minister of defense. “He doesn’t know how to reverse this. I don’t see signs that he has a program.”

Unless a compromise can be reached, Mr. Asey said, “I would say that Kabul could become a blood bath very soon.”

The Taliban have said that the fighting will not end unless Mr. Ghani is removed. As the “polarizing figure” in Mr. Farhadi’s words, Mr. Ghani has “demeaned the Taliban time and time again, saying, ‘you are the stooges of the Pakistanis.’” In return, the Taliban see him as the “stooge” of the Americans.

Analysts place much of the blame for the current disaster on the head of Mr. Ghani, a former World Bank anthropologist and published author with an outsized faith in his own intellect.

The Americans tried to construct republican institutions on Afghan soil, but they proved to be a flimsy facade. Instead, Mr. Ghani personalized power to disastrous effect.

“He needed the militias in the north and west,” yet showed contempt for their leaders. On Friday a key militia leader in the western city of Herat, Ismail Khan, surrendered to the Taliban.

Mr. Ghani “did not take advice from anybody,” said Mr. Barfield, of Boston University. “If he had delegated power to the military, it might have been saved. Now, it’s a case of reality biting.”

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