KABUL, Afghanistan — He attends international conferences, meets with diplomats, recently inaugurated a dam and delivers patriotic speeches vowing to defend his country against the Taliban.
But how much control President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has over his imperiled country’s future and his own has become a matter of debate among politicians, analysts and citizens. Or rather, the question has been largely resolved: not much.
From most vantage points, Mr. Ghani — well qualified for his job and deeply credentialed, with Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Columbia, the World Bank and the United Nations in his background — is thoroughly isolated. A serious author with a first-class intellect, he is dependent on the counsel of a handful, unwilling to even watch television news, those who know him say, and losing allies fast.
That spells trouble for a country where a hard-line Islamist insurgency has the upper hand militarily, where nearly half the population faces hunger at crisis levels, according to the United Nations, where the overwhelming balance of government money comes from abroad and where weak governance and widespread corruption are endemic.
Meanwhile, the Americans are preparing to pull out their last remaining troops, a prospect expected to lead to the medium-term collapse of the Afghan forces they now support.
“He is in a desperate situation,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former head of the country’s intelligence services. “We’re getting weaker. Security is weak, everything is getting weaker, and the Taliban are taking advantage.”
The United States has steadily distanced itself from Mr. Ghani, 71, and has frequently worked around him to deal with the Taliban and regional power brokers. Afghan warlords, potent centers of alternative power, openly condemn or flout him.
The country’s Parliament twice rejected his budget and distrusts him. His principal adversaries, the Taliban, refuse to entertain the idea of a deal with Mr. Ghani. His mandate, weak from the outset — voter turnout was around 18.7 percent in his sharply contested 2019 victory, according to Afghanistan’ Independent Election Commission — appears to have shrunk.
American officials have mostly lost patience with him. Many are fed up with what they see as his obstinacy in refusing to make concessions to adversaries, or his condescending style. “Dead man walking,” is the term some civil society members use to describe his political standing.
In language more likely to be used with an unruly schoolboy than a head of state, the letter repeated the phrase “I urge you” three times. “I must also make clear to you, Mr. President,” Mr. Blinken continued, “that as our policy process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any option.” The unspoken subtext was clear: Your influence is minimal.
“As an Afghan, a sense of humiliation comes over you,” said Hekmat Khalil Karzai, the head of an Afghan think tank and a cousin of the former president, Hamid Karzai. “But I also feel Ghani deserves it,” Mr. Karzai said. “He’s dealing with the kiss of death from his own closest partner.”
The Biden administration is banking on multinational talks, tentatively set for later this month in Istanbul, to establish a plan for moving forward. At the heart of the U.S. proposal is a temporary government to hold power until elections can be held.
In this interim body, the Taliban and the current government would share power, according to a leaked draft. Such a setup could require Mr. Ghani to step down, a move he has repeatedly refused to consider.
Mr. Ghani has come up with a counterproposal that he plans to release soon, which calls for a cease-fire, a temporary “government of peace” whose potential makeup remains unclear, and then early elections in which he promises not to run.
Both the American plan and Mr. Ghani’s could be non-starters, as the Taliban have never said they would agree to elections, nor have they indicated that they would go along with any sort of government plan or be content with power-sharing.
“From what we’re seeing, they want absolute power, and they are waiting to take power by force,” Mr. Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, said in an interview.
While Mr. Ghani is steadily losing political capital in Kabul and with international partners, the country’s military position is deteriorating. Each day brings news of security force members blown up or gunned down.
“They can’t keep doing that,” said a senior Western diplomat in Kabul, commenting on the steady attrition. “The toll on the government, and the credibility and legitimacy it has, it’s not sustainable.”
Visions of September 1996, when the Taliban rolled into Kabul virtually unopposed and proceeded to establish their harsh regime, haunt the capital.
Deep inside the presidential palace compound, an 83-acre parklike campus protected by seven layers of security, Mr. Ghani’s inner circle of close aides is small and shrinking. He fired his respected interior minister, an army general, after a military helicopter was shot down by one of the country’s numerous militias last month. His attorney general, who had a rare reputation for integrity, stepped down. He pushed out his short-tenured finance minister.
One senior former official argued that he was cut off from reality and what is going on on the ground.
Mr. Mohib, however, pushed back on this assessment. “This criticism comes from a political elite which thinks it has been marginalized,” he said.
Some former officials characterized Mr. Ghani as being compelled to micromanage, including involving himself in the details of military matters and personnel decisions even down to the local police chief level. “He likes that, because he feels he’s the only one,” said Mr. Karzai, meaning the only one competent to make serious decisions.
Mr. Mohib called the micromanagement accusation “a huge exaggeration,” saying that the president had not attended a security meeting “in weeks,” adding that “he is aware of the strategic picture.”
Mr. Ghani’s communications office did not agree to a request for an interview with the president. A senior aide did not respond to an interview request.
The consequences of Mr. Ghani’s isolation appear to be unfolding in real time. The president has a potent vision for the country, but selling it and making it work politically is not his strong suit, and it shows up in the nation’s divisions, said the senior Western diplomat in Kabul. That’s not good for Afghan unity, the diplomat argued.
These divisions echo out from Kabul into the country’s fractious regions, where independent militias and other longstanding power-brokers have either rearmed themselves or are preparing to do so.
In the center of the country, a low-intensity fight between government forces and the militia of a minority Shiite warlord has been smoldering for months, fueled by the downing of an Afghan forces helicopter in March. Mr. Ghani and his aides have taken an active role in managing the conflict, to the dismay of the Afghan military.
“This is what we wanted to avoid. We are already stretched,” said a senior Afghan security official. “And here, you want to start another war?”
The upcoming talks in Turkey could well end up like the recent ones in Moscow and Dushanbe, Tajikistan — with bland communiqués deploring violence and hoping for peace. The American idea — to substitute new talks in a new locale for the old talks in Qatar that have gone nowhere — is not necessarily a winning bet. Indeed, the early signs are not promising, with Mr. Ghani once again rejecting preliminary American proposals, and the Taliban aggressively noncommittal about the ideas currently on the table.
“If the U.S. pulls out, and there is no political agreement, then we are in deep trouble,” said the senior Afghan security official.
“Militarily, we don’t have much hope,” he said. “If we don’t get something, the Taliban are going to march. It’s going to be a severe battle.”
Fahim Abed contributed reporting.