The Afghan president’s ill-fated trip to the country’s tribal heartland began with the best of intentions. It ended, however, in a brawl.
Ashraf Ghani, whose war on the Taliban is failing on many fronts, flew south this week from Kabul to Kandahar to appease tribal elders. On arrival at Kandahar, his entourage quickly transferred to helicopters, past a guard of honour, for the short journey to the centre of Afghanistan’s second-largest city. The road was thought too dangerous.
Once within the governor’s compound, Mr Ghani met the elders, men whose support is vital for his campaign against the Taliban. Underneath chandeliers, and surrounded by pictures of Afghan war heroes, dozens of men, women and children had turned out to see the president.
“You are my uncles,” Mr Ghani told the elders, “because my mother is from Kandahar”.
Haji Sayed Jan Khakrezwal, the 54-year-old head of Kandahar provincial council, joked: “Since we are your uncles, you are supposed to be kind to us – I hope you brought projects for Kandahar with you.”
Mr Ghani managed a thin smile. A voice shouted from the back of the room: “Mr President, you can’t just come here for a few hours then leave us.” Flanked by Naseem Sharifi, his head of protocol, the president replied: “I am not going anywhere.”
Mr Sharifi has a long-standing feud with Mr Khakrezwal. It erupted over who could, and who could not, address the president. To shouts of “motherf***er” Mr Khakrezwal and Mr Sharifi began fighting. The brawl was said to have been started by Mr Sharifi punching the tribal elder on the nose. It was quickly over.
President Ghani, who remained calm throughout, was given a turban and the speeches continued. “When I go back to Kabul I will deal with him,” he said of Mr Sharifi.
On Thursday, it was announced that Mr Ghani had indeed dealt with Mr Sharifi - he had been removed from his post. “Punching a tribal elder is a big no,” said a source close to the presidency. Amid a fierce debate among Afghans, Mr Ghani’s dismissal of a long-term ally was seen as “brave” in some quarters.
But his attempt to bring the elders of Kandahar around to his side in the war on the Taliban had almost failed with the first punch thrown.