Saturday, January 2, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan — A chastened President Hamid Karzai must submit new Cabinet picks after defiant lawmakers rejected 17 of his 24 nominees Saturday, including a powerful warlord and the country’s only female 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 U.S. 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 rife with ballot-box stuffing.

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

Karzai has defended his choices, which he announced late last month after several delays. 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: Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak; Interior Minister Hanif Atmar; Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal; Agriculture Minister Muhammad Asif Rahimi; and Education Minister Ghulam Farooq Wardak.

Karzai had wanted to keep 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. Khan’s nomination was narrowly defeated.

Had he been seated, Khan would not have been the only warlord in Karzai’s government. The two vice presidents — Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalili — are both former warlords widely believed to have looted Afghanistan for years. Karzai likely put them on his ticket to win votes from their minority ethnic communities.

The parliament’s rejection of the only woman on Karzai’s current team — Minister of Women’s Affairs Husn Bano Ghazanfar — 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 the 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, the analyst.

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

The Karzai administration had no immediate comment on the voting, which took more than 10 hours. Each of the 232 members of parliament present for the vote marked paper ballots for each Cabinet nominee. After the votes were cast, two secretariats of parliament took turns reading the more than 5,500 votes of confidence or no confidence.

Wahid Majzhda, an independent political analyst in Kabul, said he was happy to see that the lawmakers did not rubber-stamp Karzai’s selections.

“I appreciated the work of the parliament today because they didn’t just think about their region,” he said. “They didn’t just think about their language. They were voting for the nation today.”

He too suggested that Karzai might have expected the rebuke.

“Maybe Karzai has already selected other people for these ministries, knowing these would not be approved,” he said.

Karzai has said he will make new nominations for any unfilled posts, but it is unclear when he will submit new nominees or when a parliamentary vote will be held.

Also Saturday, the Afghan election commission chief said parliamentary elections would be held as scheduled on May 22 despite widespread international concern that the country’s electoral system needs reform.

Ali Najafi told a news conference that Afghanistan needs about $50 million from the international community to meet the election’s estimated budget of $120 million. It was not clear whether the vote would or could be held if donor countries do not provide the money.

In the wake of last August’s disputed presidential election, many critics have pushed Karzai and his government to delay the parliamentary vote. Karzai has insisted the constitution, which specifies the elections be held by May, must be observed.

A visiting U.S. congressional delegation said it warned Karzai last week that holding the election without substantive electoral reform could undermine support for U.S. aid to the country.


Associated Press Writer Dusan Stojanovic in Kabul contributed to this report.

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