Afghan lawmakers reject most Cabinet picks

Some nominees called corrupt, Karzai cronies

By Rahim Faiez and Deb Riechmann
Associated Press / January 3, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan - A chastened President Hamid Karzai must submit new Cabinet picks after defiant lawmakers rejected 17 of his 24 nominees yesterday, including a powerful warlord and the country’s only woman minister.

The Afghan Parliament rejected nominees viewed as Karzai’s political cronies, those believed to be under the influence of warlords, and others deemed unqualified.

“I think, unfortunately, that the criteria were either ethnicity or bribery or money,’’ lawmaker Fawzia Kufi said of Karzai’s picks.

The vote was a setback to Karzai, though one political analyst in Kabul speculated that it could free up the president to appoint qualified professionals rather than settle political debts.

“There were lots of demands on Karzai from people asking for Cabinet positions because they campaigned for him,’’ Mohammad Qasim Akhgar said. “This was the only way he could reward them and if Parliament didn’t approve them, it wasn’t his fault. Very soon, Karzai will come out with a new list with the names of people he really wants to have in his Cabinet.’’

The new Cabinet is a bellwether for the United States and other nations hoping a stronger government will keep disenchanted Afghans from siding with the Taliban after Karzai won a second five-year term last year in a disputed election.

The lawmakers approved a handful of incumbent ministers favored by the West and instrumental to the war effort.

Karzai has defended his choices. He said his proposed Cabinet represented a balance of the nation’s ethnic factions.

But parliamentarians weren’t happy. They complained the list looked too much like the existing Cabinet and spelled another five years of business as usual for the Karzai government, which has been criticized as being corrupt and ineffective.

Of the 12 incumbent ministers Karzai sought to retain, the Parliament approved only five: General Abdul Rahim Wardak, defense minister; Hanif Atmar, interior minister; Omar Zakhilwal, finance minister; Muhammad Asif Rahimi, agriculture minister; and Ghulam Farooq Wardak, education minister.

Karzai had wanted to keep the water and power minister, Ismail Khan, a warlord in Herat Province during the civil war of the 1990s who retains considerable local power. Critics said keeping Khan proved Karzai remained beholden to regional power brokers at the expense of the country’s national interests.

The rejection of the only woman on Karzai’s current team - Husn Bano Ghazanfar, minister of women’s affairs - was an awkward blow to the president, who has pledged to place more women in high government posts in the traditionally male-dominated society.

Recently, Karzai said he would appoint women to sub-Cabinet level positions and hinted he had a woman in mind as head of the new Ministry of Literacy, one of two new ministries he has asked Parliament to create.

Despite their demand for fresh blood in the Cabinet, the lawmakers approved only two of 12 new names Karzai submitted.

“I’m sure that Karzai used a trick here by introducing some unknown people - completely new faces - that nobody knew anything about,’’ said Akhgar.

Karzai did not propose a nominee for foreign minister. He has asked incumbent Rangin Dadfar Spanta to stay in the post until after a Jan. 28 international conference in London, which will focus on security and other issues as 37,000 more US and NATO troops arrive in the country.

The Karzai administration had no immediate comment on the voting. Karzai has said he will make new nominations for any unfilled posts, but it is unclear when he will submit new nominees.