Cutting Into Afghan Patronage: A Struggle to Make Government Younger

President Ghani read some of the writings and, in the spring of 2016, asked Mr. Habibzai to meet with him. After a brief conversation, the president appointed him to be Kabul’s deputy mayor, and within a month Mr. Habibzai was promoted to acting mayor.

With Mr. Ghani’s blessing, Mr. Habibzai started revamping the mayor’s office, which employs about 8,000 people and tens of thousands of contractors. He replaced 80 percent of the top officials with Western-educated Afghans 25 to 35 years old who, in one of the country’s oldest and most corrupt institutions, operate the city government like a start-up enterprise.

“Being Kabul mayor is not an easy task — this city has problems that no other capital has,” said Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, a former minister of culture. “The people expect overnight change, and they have the right to. They have been pained and slapped by misfortunes. But I see the future of this city as bright with a young mayor who understands the challenges.”

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Cutting Into Afghan Patronage: A Struggle to Make Government Younger
Cutting Into Afghan Patronage: A Struggle to Make Government Younger

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But Mr. Habibzai said that he underestimated the political resistance he would face, and has found himself pleading with the president and Kabul’s residents for more time to carry out his promised changes.

At city meetings Mr. Habibzai clicks through PowerPoint presentations, his soft voice barely audible above the screeching of chairs. He explains how he has increased the city’s revenue by about $14 million, designed new roads and a bus system to ease congestion, and developed plans to transform the traffic police, now equipped with only whistles and paddles, into a force with body cameras and tablet computers.

The struggles faced by young women in the government have been even more formidable.

Last year, Mr. Ghani asked Nargis Nehan, 37, to run, and clean up, the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, a crucial institution if Afghanistan is to ever tap into its natural resources. Years earlier, when Mr. Ghani served as finance minister, he appointed Ms. Nehan as the director of revenue collection when she was only 23. He trusted her incorruptibility in the face of pressures from criminal networks.

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