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In wartime, Ghani assumes role of comforting Afghans

KABUL, Afghanistan >> The first condolence call was to the brother of a dead police officer, struck down in a Taliban ambush last month. President Ashraf Ghani spoke gently, offering a short prayer for the dead and words of gratitude for the family’s sacrifice. “We will not forget anyone,” he vowed.

It would be impossible, though, for the president to remember everyone.

Calls to the families of the fallen are a dreaded burden of national leaders everywhere, but Ghani, who has occasionally had to make dozens of calls in a day, shoulders a heavier weight than most.

In 2015, his first full year in office, Afghan security forces sustained their highest death toll in years, losing an estimated 6,000 soldiers, police officers and other security personnel. And the casualty numbers this year are higher than in the same period last year, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

When Ghani began making condolence calls several months ago, it was a rare display of respect for soldiers and officers long mistreated by the government and now battered by the resurgent Taliban. The president’s outreach also contrasts with the practices of his immediate predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who showed solidarity with civilian victims of the conflict but had a more ambivalent relationship with his own security forces.

But each call is also a tacit acknowledgment of the government’s struggles on the battlefield and the steep challenge Ghani faces: the unrelenting violence raging across Afghanistan’s embattled provinces, crowding out all other concerns, including the president’s pledges to transform Afghanistan into a prosperous, or at least viable, state.

“The job that I least wanted was to be the war president,” Ghani said in a recent interview, lamenting the four or more hours a day he spends on security matters and not on economic development.

“We want to break out of the vicious cycle,” he said. “Our culture, unfortunately, has made loss a routine.”

This month, President Barack Obama delayed a planned drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, citing the continued threat from the Taliban and Afghanistan’s “precarious” security. Pentagon officials have also recently relaxed the military’s rules of engagement to allow them to provide support, including airstrikes, to Afghan security forces struggling to roll back the Taliban’s recent gains.

The Taliban briefly captured the northern city of Kunduz last year, the first time they had captured a major city in more than a dozen years. Afghan security forces have faced their bloodiest challenge in southern Helmand province, where half of all the security deaths last year occurred.

Afghanistan’s unity government, plagued by internal bickering, has been unable to stem the loss of soldiers or persuade the Taliban to enter into peace talks. And the climbing death toll has undercut Ghani’s assertions, nearly two years into his presidency, that Afghanistan’s catalog of woes are mainly inherited from his predecessor.

On the cruelest day, Ghani called relatives of 43 men, his office said. Reporters from The New York Times were invited to watch Ghani late last month as he made calls to the families of six police officers and soldiers who were killed over two days.

The president is in some ways an unlikely consoler in chief. A longtime academic who spent years in exile from Afghanistan, he is given more to policy debates than to populism. He is also known for bursts of temper.

But sitting at his glass-topped desk recently, he was soothing as he spoke to the relatives, praising the “martyrs” and promising financial support. Between calls, he sat placidly, occasionally checking a name off the list of the dead in front of him, before pushing a buzzer that signaled to his aides to send the next call through.

“He sacrificed himself to secure the country,” the president told the uncle of Rahmi Khoda, a police officer who had been killed by a roadside bomb in Laghman province, east of Kabul. “I wish you patience,” he said to the uncle of a soldier named Habibullah, killed in the far western province of Herat, near the border with Iran.

Ghani had a soft spot for the uncles, he said, having lost two of his own on a single day decades ago, in an earlier era of war. “There is still a hole in my heart,” he said.

The president spoke to the relatives privately, rather than on speaker phone, so their reactions were hard to gauge. Ghani said the complaints he heard were mostly related to money. The death benefit of about $2,300, or a year’s salary, is small, he conceded. The bureaucracy also makes it hard for families to receive the funds quickly.

“If the president doesn’t pay attention, unfortunately the system doesn’t pay attention,” he said.

Contacted later, several of the relatives said they were grateful for a show of high-level concern. Mahmud, the brother of the police officer killed in the Taliban ambush, sobbed on the phone as recalled the president’s call, saying he felt he had been given the attention of the “whole country and the whole government.”

But after the call, the family’s headaches remained, waiting to be solved only by a benevolent, high official, rather than an efficiently operating state. “We are a poor family. We do not have any assets or land,” said Mahmud, who uses a single name. So far, the family had received only about $440 in compensation, along with rice, flour and cooking oil.

“If the government wants to, they will help us,” he said. “If they don’t want to, we cannot do anything.”

But there is no letup in the flood of casualties from the war. Hours after the president completed his condolence calls, he visited Dawood National Military Hospital in Kabul, where most of the patients he saw had been wounded in the fighting in Helmand.

The hospital itself is a stark reminder of the government’s past negligence: In 2010, U.S. officials discovered injured soldiers dying in their beds from starvation or medical neglect.

As he walked the wards, the president hailed the bravery of a soldier who said his unit had cleared a highway and told Mohamed Dawood, who had been wounded in the city of Kunduz, “The country is breathing because of you.”

Another soldier, Abdul-Jalil, needed more than a minute of the president’s time. “I have not yet been promoted,” he complained. “I don’t know the reason.”

Ghani promised to do something about it and asked an aide to take a note.

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