KABUL, Afghanistan – A second governor of a northern Afghan province defied an order by the U.S.-backed central government to step down Sunday, deepening a political schism between President Ashraf Ghani and regional leaders.
The defiant governors and the Afghan president all oppose the Taliban, but their infighting has added to complications for the United States as it struggles to make headway against the insurgents, even as President Donald Trump has stepped up a bombing campaign against them.
A shift in the U.S. strategy toward more bombing and greater pressure on Pakistan was announced over the summer. But so far, it has done nothing to roll back areas under Taliban control, a report issued Friday by the Office of Inspector General at the Defense Department showed.
Seventeen years into the war, the Kabul government controls 18 percent of the country's districts and has influence over an additional 38 percent, the report says.
"U.S. and NATO commanders stated that this revised strategy changed the momentum in Afghanistan," the report said. "However, one of the few unclassified metrics available to assess this progress, government control of population centers, showed no change."
The political infighting in the government-controlled area is posing another challenge. In December, Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh Province, on the border with Uzbekistan, refused to step down when Ghani fired him.
Noor had antagonized the U.S. military by stopping truck shipments of fuel intended for U.S.-led international forces traveling through the region.
Noor, a former mujahedeen commander turned businessman who has profited from trade with Central Asian states, among other things, said the president had reneged on an agreement to offer more government seats to members of his political party, Jamiat-e-Islami, in exchange for stepping down.
Talks to ease him out have stalled, and Noor has announced that his supporters are planning protests around the country, including in Kabul, the capital, this month.
The political dispute within the Washington-backed government deepened Sunday when another governor and ally of Noor in the north, Abdul Karim Khadam, refused an order from Ghani that he resign as governor of Samangan Province.
"The government's decision is unjust and unfair," Khadam said in a telephone interview, adding that it goes against a power-sharing agreement reached last spring between the Jamiat party and the president.
Khadam took pains to emphasize that his refusal to obey the order did not amount to an armed rebellion. "Our opposition to the government does not mean we are rebelling," he said.