KABUL—On a recent Sunday morning, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani spent hours inside the fortresslike presidential palace mulling plans to expand the capital’s water supply and install fiber-optic cable in a remote region, scrutinizing grainy slides projected on a meeting-room wall.
Outside, new two-story blast walls and checkpoints have further restricted access to Kabul’s diplomatic enclave after a May truck bomb near the German embassy killed over 150 people, prompting an exodus of diplomats.
Mr. Ghani faces growing opposition in his fragile unity government and Taliban insurgents are inflicting mounting casualties on civilians and security forces. But he says he is determined to stay focused on building the machinery of a functioning state in a country plagued by chaos and corruption.
“My task is to create a system that my successor can run,” Mr. Ghani said in an interview. “The new generation demands a different voice, accountability and responsibility.”
Mr. Ghani invited reporters with The Wall Street Journal to observe his daily routine one day earlier this month. Over nearly 14 hours, Mr. Ghani immersed himself in the minutiae of governance and showed his impatience with the pace of progress nearly three years into his five-year term.
During a series of meetings, the 66-year-old former World Bank official and ex-finance minister berated a senior United Nations envoy over plans to fund parliamentary elections and threatened to fire about half a dozen senior government officials for incompetence.
Critics say Mr. Ghani is mired in details and missing the big picture, including deteriorating security and rising ethnic tension. The Taliban claimed responsibility for a Monday bomb attack on a minibus carrying government workers in Kabul, which killed at least 31 people.
His long-promised plan to revamp the country’s armed forces is still under review. Meanwhile, U.S. airstrikes have quadrupled in recent months, to levels last seen in 2012, in an effort to keep the Taliban at bay.
Weeks after May’s truck bombing, leading members of Afghanistan’s three main ethnic minorities announced a new coalition against Mr. Ghani, who is a Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group. Coalition members include Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister and the exiled vice president, who is under investigation for kidnap and rape.
The Afghan state “is collapsing on itself,” said Mohammad Mohaqiq, a senior government official who helped start the coalition.
Mr. Ghani argues that providing effective public services, stamping out corruption and imposing order and discipline on the bureaucracy, far from being a distraction, are critical to tackling Afghanistan’s security challenges. That view is a central thesis of a book he co-wrote, titled “Fixing Failed States.”
Mr. Ghani stuck to his schedule the day of the truck bomb even though it shattered palace windows, rushing to find a room to meet a visiting foreign dignitary and complaining when an economic council meeting was canceled, said an aide, describing Mr. Ghani’s ability to focus.
The president dismisses his opponents, saying they are motivated by a fear of losing out in a transparent system. “You think people that lose hundreds of millions in contracts are going to come praising us?” he asked.
Mr. Ghani, who gave up U.S. citizenship to run for president in 2009, said his efforts to build a competent bureaucracy have persuaded foreign backers, predominantly the U.S., to stick with Afghanistan after 16 years of war.
The Trump administration is weighing sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and Washington and its allies have pledged more than $15 billion in reconstruction aid over the next four years.
“Winning our foundational partnership with the United States has been fundamental,” Mr. Ghani said. “This has taken intense work.”
A veteran Western diplomat in Kabul said Mr. Ghani’s pro-American stance was welcome in Washington, but that concerns remain.
“The risk is that he will anger so many political factions that he may not limp his way to the 2019 presidential elections,” the diplomat said.
Mr. Ghani describes himself as a workaholic who skips both lunch and dinner and eschews lavish official entertaining. Aides describe him as an energetic but intimidating presence, with a propensity to lose his temper and fire officials on the spot.
On the day Journal reporters observed him, Mr. Ghani met with foreign ambassadors, the U.N. and Afghan officials in the afternoon to review plans for next year’s parliamentary elections.
After participants had spoken, Mr. Ghani turned to the deputy head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Pernille Dahler Kardel.
“With enormous respect, it seems that the discussion has not moved very far. You are still raising the issues that you were raising six months ago,” he said, demanding to know the amount and type of funding available.
Ms. Kardel in a written statement to the Journal said that “decisions have been taken that will allow funding to flow” without providing details.
He then turned to officials with Afghanistan’s election commission, demanding to know its plan for holding the elections on time next July 7.
“You must have worked backwards!” he exclaimed.
In the evening, Mr. Ghani oversaw a meeting of the National Procurement Council which, at his insistence, reviews every government contract valued at more than $1 million. There were more than a dozen items, including deals to build walls at remote military bases and acquire three armored vehicles for a ministry.
Two officials who had failed to provide requested documents for a contract to provide vaccinations to Afghans attending the annual pilgrimage to Mecca hung their heads after Mr. Ghani demanded to know which one was at fault.
“Who was responsible for the vaccinations? Please?” Mr. Ghani shouted. “Right now go to the office, and within two hours bring the document! Otherwise, you are suspended tomorrow. Understood?”
The officials fled. Mr. Ghani’s office said they returned the next day with the documents and the contract was approved.
As the clock ticked toward 10 p.m., Mr. Ghani turned on officials from the national electric company for failing to fulfill a contract in time. “I want written resignations from you,” he exclaimed.
U.S. officials who attend the weekly council said it was a standard Sunday night for the president.
Afterward, a modest Afghan dinner was offered in the dining room, but Mr. Ghani didn’t join. He smiled, thanked everyone for attending and left the room.