KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's trip to China in October was notable not only for being his first state visit, but also for what his delegation brought back to Kabul: unspent money.
Officials in the presidential palace were caught off-guard when a member of the delegation returned most of the several thousand dollars he was given for the journey. They described it as a stark change in attitude from former President Hamid Karzai's tenure, when senior officials routinely requested - and were granted - large spending allowances to travel abroad, often for routine medical treatment.
In two months in office, Ghani has established an all-business tone, eschewing ostentation and even instilling fear as he seeks to stabilize Afghanistan.
Ghani has made unannounced nighttime inspections at prisons and hospitals, in some cases reprimanding employees who were away from their posts. He also reportedly insisted on undergoing the pat-downs and security checks that travelers endure at Kabul's international airport.
In a country where the powerful often enjoy impunity, the moves have won Ghani - who took office after a bitter, drawn-out election marred by fraud allegations - the support of a weary public. One recent poll said 84 percent of Afghans were satisfied with his leadership, a surprisingly high figure given initial skepticism of the national unity government he formed as a compromise with rival Abdullah Abdullah.
"I think he's doing a pretty good job in getting started," said Ahmad Shuja, cofounder of Impassion Afghanistan, an Afghan digital media company. "There's a sense he remembers the promises he made during the campaign."
But Ghani's blunt, forceful style has also earned detractors. He referred to Taliban insurgents as "political opposition," which aides said was part of an effort to jump-start moribund peace talks. The comments - which recalled Karzai's references to the Taliban as "brothers" - struck many Afghans and Westerners as tone-deaf, particularly after recent suicide bombings in Kabul that killed civilians and injured a prominent lawmaker and women's rights advocate, Shukria Barakzai.
Questions also remain about Ghani's willingness to share power with Abdullah, whose appointment to the new post of chief executive was the linchpin of the U.S.-brokered unity government.
Ghani, who during the campaign repeatedly rejected the idea of a coalition government, has yet to sign a presidential decree spelling out the powers of Abdullah's office, leaving his onetime rival grasping for a role and even office space. Abdullah's aides have set up shop in a lavish house originally designed as a post-presidential residence for Karzai, but which lacks basic office amenities.