Leaked memo fuels accusations of ethnic bias in Afghan government

KABUL (Reuters) - A leaked memo from an staff member in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office this week has set off a storm of criticism and accusations that the note lays bare systematic favoritism to Ghani’s own Pashtun ethnic group.

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The undated memo, about appointments in the Administrative Office of the President (AOP), appeared to show jobs being awarded with an eye to keeping control in the hands of Pashtuns while giving the appearance of diversity.

The leak has caused severe embarrassment to Ghani’s fragile government, which has long faced criticism that it favors Pashtuns, traditionally the most powerful among a patchwork of different ethnic groups in Afghanistan, including Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.

“The leak may well be the tip of the iceberg,” wrote Amrullah Saleh, a former head of the National Directorate for Security who is close to Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah from the mainly Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami party.

In a post on Facebook, Saleh said the memo showed how a “clique” was consolidating power through a “soft purge” involving “indirect intimidation, faking identities and the marginalization of ‘others’”.

The memo, by a senior staff member at the AOP, was initially shared with a limited number of people on a messaging platform, apparently by mistake before finding its way to the daily newspaper Etilaat Roz this week.

“Tajiks and Uzbeks, who work completely under us, should be appointed symbolically so that people think every ethnicity is represented here,” it said.

At another point it mentions an official, saying he is “a good person but he brings in Hazaras and appoints them to top positions. We have to look for Pashtuns who are fluent in all languages.”

The official who posted the memo on the messaging platform has resigned and the AOP issued a statement saying it was “a personal document sent by one of its staff and does not represent the overall policy of the office.”

Shah Hussain Mortazawi, a spokesman for Ghani, also rejected the memo, saying there was no place for ethnic discrimination in the government.

However it set off a storm of angry comment on social media and from influential figures like Saleh and another former intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, highlighting simmering resentments within the government camp less than a year before parliamentary elections due in July.

The administration Ghani heads was painstakingly put together after disputed elections in 2014 when both he and his main opponent Abdullah claimed victory amid accusations of massive cheating on both sides.

A U.S.-brokered power sharing deal left Ghani as President with Abdullah alongside as Chief Executive. But from the start the government has been beset by disputes over appointments being carved up on ethnic lines.

Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and James Mackenzie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore