KABUL - Afghanistan’s parliament Saturday approved 16 more ministerial nominees, including four women, nearly completing President Ashraf Ghani’s cabinet after months of stalemate - leaving only the crucial post of defence minister to be filled.

Only eight out of 25 ministerial posts had been filled nearly eight months after Ghani’s inauguration and the formation of a ‘national unity government’ with his poll rival Abdullah Abdullah. The rest were rejected by parliament in late January over technicalities, despite a power-sharing deal agreed between Ghani and Abdullah.

Though the deal was seen as staving off the threat of civil war, the delays stoked fears of instability in the troubled nation as NATO troops pull back from the frontlines after 13 years of conflict against the Taliban. Public criticism over the failure to appoint a defence minister - reportedly due to differences between Ghani and Abdullah over their choice of candidate - has been especially fierce, with many linking the leadership vacuum with a recent uptick in deadly insurgent attacks.

On Saturday a suicide bomber tore through a crowd of people, including government employees outside a bank in eastern city of Jalalabad, killing at least 33 people and wounding more than 100 others. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a attack, Ghani said, in what appears to be the first major attack by the jihadists in the country.

And last week militants killed 18 Afghan soldiers - including some who were beheaded - after storming army outposts in the remote mountainous province of Badakhshan, in a major attack before the Taliban’s traditional spring offensive. Among the 16 cabinet nominees endorsed Saturday were four women, leading the ministries of education, counter-narcotics, labour and women’s affairs.

‘Congratulation to the nation. All 16 ministerial candidates introduced by the government were approved after voting in Saturday’s session,’ said Lower House Speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) welcomed the decision, saying ‘it is imperative in the interests of effective governance that a full cabinet be in office’.

While on the other hand, seven months after rival leaders finally agreed to share power, Afghanistan has no permanent defence minister and cannot decide who should run the army, threatening to weaken the war against Taliban militants on the offensive after foreign troops left.

Deadlock over choosing the minister and army chief of staff is the latest sign of tension in the government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who fought a bitterly contested presidential election last year. The president’s office said the delay in new leadership was not hurting the war effort, and that the last administration’s chain of command was handling military operations.

‘We are sure there’s not a problem with morale in the armed forces personnel,’ said Ajmal Abidy, Ghani’s spokesman. But critics including General Zafar, until recently an army division commander who now works at the ministry’s recruitment department, said the absence of promised new leaders would undermine armed forces’ ability to contain the insurgency.

‘When security ministries are divided politically and inexperienced individuals are installed in senior command posts as part of agreements and not on merit, problems are going to be unavoidable,’ he told Reuters. That could prove costly as the Taliban launches a spring offensive against Afghan forces who, for the first time since the hardline Islamist movement was ousted from power in 2001, are fighting with little support from NATO troops.

NATO, which at its peak had 130,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, has only a few thousand left, involved mainly in training and special operations. This month, Taliban fighters overran Afghan army and police checkpoints in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, traditionally one of the country’s safer areas, killing at least 18 personnel, eight of them beheaded.

Anger at the government’s inability to agree on key security posts flared up this week in parliament, where lawmakers called a special meeting to look into the Badakhshan attack. ‘President Ghani! For God’s sake, if you cannot lead this country, resign together with the chief executive,’ said Mohammad Iqbal Kohistani, a parliamentarian from Kapisa province in the east.

Ghani and Abdullah, who agreed to share power in September after their election tussle, are locked in a new battle over senior defence posts. According to aides in both camps, Abdullah insists that former deputy defence minister, Atiqullah Baryalai, be made army chief of staff. But Ghani will not agree. ‘Baryalai will never become the chief of staff, and that is the president’s final decision,’ said a senior government official with direct knowledge of the dispute.

Abdullah in turn last month rejected Ghani’s choice of defence minister, who subsequently withdrew his candidacy. The Abdullah camp said they were enraged because Ghani made the choice without consulting the chief executive. So far Ghani has not named a new defence minister candidate. The eventual pick will be his third nominee for the post: his first choice, currently army chief of staff General Sher Mohammad Karimi, was rejected by parliament.

For now, day-to-day affairs at the defence ministry are being run by an acting minister, Enayatullah Nazari. Abdullah’s office declined to comment about the deadlock, as did Baryalai. During his testimony to parliament this week, Karimi acknowledged the armed forces needed to undergo change. ‘There is no problem with soldiers and lieutenants,’ he said. ‘They are brave and patriotic, but we have some problems at the officer level. We have tried our best to bring reforms.’

The dispute over powerful security posts reflects ethnic differences at the heart of Afghan politics. The country’s largest ethnic group, Pashtuns, mainly supported Ghani in the election, while the smaller yet sizeable Tajik population strongly backed Abdullah. Baryalai is a Tajik from Panjshir province, stronghold of the Northern Alliance resistance which fought the Taliban regime in the 1990s and helped the United States topple it in 2001.

Many Abdullah supporters believe Ghani is trying to put Pashtuns in key positions to sideline Tajiks who held most security posts for the decade after the Taliban’s fall. The president’s aides, however, say his reluctance to appoint former Northern Alliance ‘mujahideen’ to top posts is part of a commitment to name a cabinet based on merit, not connections.

The deadlock also stems from disagreement over the interpretation of the power-sharing pact, which promises ‘parity’ in key appointments between Ghani and Abdullah but gives no more detail. The system means only eight out of a cabinet of 24 ministers have been confirmed, although 15 more are nominated for parliamentary approval. Graeme Smith, senior analyst for International Crisis Group and author of a book on the Afghan war, said the armed forces faced declining funds from international donors, a drastic reduction in NATO support and internal problems. Despite the challenges, the Afghan army has tried to remain on the offensive, with the number of attacks launched against insurgents holding steady over the last few years. ‘Unfortunately, they’re not keeping pace with the Taliban, whose attacks are getting bigger, deadlier and more frequent,’ Smith said.