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President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan stands in front of his nation's flag during a press conference at the White House, Mar. 24, 2015.

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan stands in front of his nation's flag during a press conference at the White House, Mar. 24, 2015. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The massive protests that spread from Kabul to cities across the country Thursday are further undermining the unity government, formed a year ago after U.S. intervention, as anger over the increasingly deadly insurgency grows.

Wednesday’s protest was one of the largest to hit the Afghan capital in years. Thousands of people from all ethnic groups took to the streets, chanting “Death to Ghani, death to Taliban,” as they denounced militants for fomenting conflict and aimed sharp criticism at President Ashraf Ghani for failing to quell the escalating bloodshed.

Calls for Ghani’s resignation have increased since the Taliban briefly captured the northern city of Kunduz in September.

“If the nation does not make its voice heard now, they are going to suffer more in the future,” said Shahla Farid, professor of law and political science at Kabul University. The rising popular backlash against the government’s handling of the war has serious implications for future stability, she warned.

“If the government does not take these issues seriously, experience shows that governments have collapsed due to such movements by the people. This can happen in Afghanistan, too.”

Wednesday’s protests were sparked by the discovery of the bodies of seven ethnic Hazaras — four men, two women and a nine-year-old girl — in an area of Zabul province that has been the scene of recent infighting between militant groups. The circumstances surrounding the deaths remain unclear.

Protesters carried the seven coffins six miles to the city center. A handful tried to storm the presidential palace, where police fired into the air to stop them.

By Thursday the protests in Kabul had died down under heavy rain, but the sense of discontent is widespread, with demonstrations occurring in major cities around the country throughout the day.

Ghani has struggled to root out corruption, consolidate power, and tamp down the violent insurgency since he came to power last year after a disputed election. That ballot led to a spike in optimism, but many Afghans became quickly disillusioned by the ensuing political controversy — which led the U.S. to draw up the plan for the unity government — lingering government corruption and territorial gains by militants around the country.

Ghani has been stymied in part by opposition from parliament, which has rejected two proposed candidates for defense minister, leaving that post under a caretaker just when the Afgans have faced a nationwide Taliban offensive.

In response to the protests, Ghani took to national television Wednesday to try to reassure the nation. He and the unity government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, held a televised meeting with protest leaders and the victims’ families, who complained of deteriorating security, especially along key highways that many Afghans rely on.

“The enemy is trying to damage our unity,” Ghani said in an address, adding that he shares the pain of his citizens. “We must avoid reactions that end in anarchy,” he said.

In a series of posts on Twitter, Abdullah praised the protesters but urged them to remain peaceful.

“Civilian protection is the primary job of the government,” he said. “Our stance against extremism is clear.” Still, he acknowledged that the government could be better at “listening more to the people and working together with them to overcome our common challenges.”

The killing of the seven ethnic Hazaras, a Shiite minority in Afghanistan, has sparked fears of ethnic violence. But those deaths are just the latest in a seemingly never-ending string of violence that has sent Afghans fleeing from their homes, with thousands leaving the country.

“People are educated enough now and are ready to react to such issues,” said Mustafa Sediqi, a civil society activist who traveled to Kabul from Bamyan province to participate in Wednesday’s protest. Afghans see the security situation as getting worse, and are increasingly skeptical of the government’s ability to keep them safe, he said.

“People are impatient now, they do not want to remain calm anymore,” Sediqi said.

Protests previously erupted over Ghani’s response to the fall of Kunduz as some lawmakers called for his resignation in the wake of the militants’ most significant battlefield victory in the 14 years since the Taliban were ousted from power.

On Thursday, violence was reported around the country. In Faryab province, 40 policemen were under siege by Taliban fighters. Seven police officers were reportedly captured in Sar-e-Pul province. And groups of civilians were reported kidnapped in Paktika and Herat provinces.

According to United Nations statistics, Afghan civilians have been killed and injured in record numbers since the NATO-led military coalition began to withdraw its forces.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

smith.josh@stripes.com

Twitter: @joshjonsmith

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