MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A second Afghan provincial governor defied an attempt by President Ashraf Ghani to remove him on Sunday, deepening a political crisis that has underlined the weakness of the Western-backed government in Kabul.
Abdulkarim Khaddam, governor of the northern province of Samangan, followed the leader of neighboring Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor, in rejecting an order to step down, issued last week as part of a shakeup of regional governors.
“I do not accept my removal because it is political,” Khaddam said in a televised statement. “I have served Samangan well and my people won’t let me go,” he said.
Ghani has been struggling for weeks to resolve the conflict with Atta Noor, who has refused to cede the governorship of Balkh, a province straddling key trade routes into Central Asia that includes Afghanistan’s second-biggest city Mazar-i Sharif.
With Taliban fighters active across much of the country and the capital Kabul regularly hit by devastating suicide attacks, the disputes have added to a picture of weakness and division that has undermined support for Ghani’s government ahead of elections scheduled for this year.
It was unclear whether the dispute would threaten Ghani’s government and Samangan, a mountainous and largely undeveloped region has little of the strategic importance of Balkh, one of the richest provinces in the country.
But the standoff has underlined the fractious political climate, marked by increasingly open divisions between Afghanistan’s mix of different ethnicities.
Khaddam is an ethnic Turkman but both he and Atta Noor are from Jamiat-i Islami, a party mainly supported by Persian-speaking ethnic Tajiks that has been increasingly hostile to Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun.
Although Ghani nominally shares power with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah from Jamiat, the two sides have become more and more alienated, with Jamiat accusing Ghani of monopolizing power and favoring his own Pashtun supporters.
Formed in the wake of the disputed 2014 election that forced the two rival candidates Ghani and Abdullah into an uneasy partnership, the government has struggled to present a united front amid growing criticism of its handling of the insurgency.
The splits have been thrown into sharp relief by a row over new electronic ID cards, which have drawn bitter opposition as they register national identity as “Afghan”, a term used in the past for Pashtuns, traditionally the most powerful ethnic group.
Many Tajiks see the term as a means of entrenching longstanding Pashtun dominance and refuse to accept the cards.
In a symbolic move to build support for the new so-called “e-tazkiras”, Ghani and his wife, were among the first to take their new cards last week.
However the move only underlined divisions in the government, with Jamiat leaders refusing to follow suit and declaring that the issue required a national consensus to be developed through further debate.
Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Keith Weir