- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai chose a new Cabinet yesterday, heeding calls to keep warlords out of top positions — including the defense minister — and creating a new post to oversee the fight against opium production.

Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, a prominent Tajik warlord and the head of the Northern Alliance that helped the United States drive the Taliban from power in 2001, was replaced by his deputy, Abdul Rahim Wardak, according to a decree announced by Mr. Karzai on Afghan state television.

Mr. Wardak is a Pashtun who made a name for himself as a commander in the 1980s fighting Soviet occupation, then fled abroad as the country descended into civil war.

Southern warlord Gul Agha Sherzai also was removed from the Cabinet, where he was public works minister.

Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official credited with securing large commitments of foreign aid, was replaced by Central Bank Governor Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, a longtime Karzai ally. Mr. Ghani was likely to take over as chief of Kabul University, according to government officials.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, both popular in the West, kept their jobs in Mr. Karzai’s Cabinet.

However, at least one regional strongman is joining the government.

Ismail Khan, the powerful western warlord who Mr. Karzai removed as governor of Herat earlier this year, was given the position of water and energy minister.

The post is not considered a top-tier position, but Mr. Khan’s selection is likely to prompt criticism from human rights groups, who want Mr. Karzai to crack down on the influence of warlords and build a more professional political class.

Mr. Khan was accused of torture while governor of Herat, but also was credited with bringing stability and relative prosperity to the region.

In addition to the top spots, a new Counternarcotics Ministry was created, with relatively unknown Habibullah Qadari chosen to run it. The position will be watched closely to see if Mr. Karzai makes good on a pledge to wipe out opium production. Mr. Karzai recently called for a “holy war” against the multibillion-dollar drug trade, and said it is a greater threat to the nation than the Taliban or al Qaeda.

Mr. Karzai also created the new post of economics minister, naming Amin Farhang, the former reconstruction chief.

The Cabinet selections are seen as crucial to how this war-ravaged nation will deal with its myriad problems, including a destroyed infrastructure, a stubborn Taliban and al Qaeda insurgency, and a booming opium trade that accounts for three-quarters of the world’s market.

The announcement had been delayed several times since Mr. Karzai was sworn in Dec. 7 to a five-year term as Afghanistan’s first popularly elected president.

Mr. Karzai has pledged to honor constitutional requirements that all Cabinet members have at least an undergraduate degree and that they renounce their citizenship in any other countries, complicating the process, the officials said.

Many of Afghanistan’s political elite have acquired U.S. or British nationalities while living abroad during more than two decades of near-constant warfare. Some have been reluctant to give up their status, drawing criticism that they lack faith in Afghanistan’s future.

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