Afghan interim foreign minister assesses first five months

Abdullah Abdullah envisions a smaller cabinet in the new government, whose biggest task will be to rein in warlords.

By , Staff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If Afghanistan has begun to look settled, look again. By mid-June, the country could have a different cast of characters calling the shots after a 1,500-member loya jirga, or national assembly, convenes to decide who should rule Afghanistan and how, says Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Dr. Abdullah, in an interview with the Monitor, says that there will be changes in the cabinet – an administration with a six-month mandate. Abdullah expects interim chairman Hamid Karzai to be chosen as their leader, but he thinks that the government will have to be downsized.

"I think that Chairman Karzai will lead the next government," says Abdullah. "I believe I will be there. For me, a much smaller-sized cabinet is preferred. We don't need 30 ministries with overlapping duties trying to do the same things."

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The role of warlords needs to be minimized, Abdullah says, running his fingers over a pair of amber prayer beads. "If you ask me what the main issue to be solved in Afghanistan is, it is the warlords. They are our most difficult problem to address."

The interim government has been trying anew to affirm its authority over areas where old-school strongmen are the main power brokers. Last week, for example, Mr. Karzai replaced eastern Afghanistan's Badsha Khan, whom the government blames for ongoing violence in Khost and Gardez.

Abdullah's pedigree makes him particularly apt for playing a role in a country where ethnic divisions are still so pronounced that Tajik drivers avoid venturing into Pashtun areas, and Pashtuns in mostly Tajik-run Kabul are viewed with deep suspicion. Abdullah's father is Pashtun from the south; his mother is Tajik from the north.

But not everyone here agrees with Abdullah's forecast for the next government. Amanullah Zadran, the Minister of Frontiers and Tribal Affairs – who is also Badsha Khan's brother – says that most Afghans want Mohammed Zaher Shah, the former king of Afghanistan who has just returned from decades of exile, to be their leader.

"Ninety-nine percent of people will support the king, unless they will be forced not to vote for him," says Mr. Zadran.

Pashtuns such as Zadran, who are the country's largest ethnic group, say that the current makeup of the government doesn't give enough power to Pashtuns, reserving most important positions for Tajiks. Karzai's expansive cabinet was created in part to include all major ethnic groups, and to take away the incentive of some warlords to play the role of spoilers in the interim period. It may be difficult to satisfy all of Afghanistan's players with an even smaller cabinet.

Still, some of the cabinet positions Karzai assigned in an attempt to build a large coalition have turned out to be primarily symbolic. For instance, Gen. Abd al-Rashid Dostum, the leader of the Uzbek northeast, was appointed deputy defense minister, but is almost never in Kabul.

Perhaps the most difficult task Abdullah has carved out for himself is his mission to mend fences with Afghanistan's neighbors after decades of war. Afghans harbor deep distrust toward Pakistan, which they blame for fueling the Taliban and sending thousands of "holy warriors" to fight here.

But he says Afghanistan has "opened a new page" in relations with Pakistan. A healthy working relationship could become more important as the US-led campaign shifts its focus to the porous border between the two countries.

Relations with Iran are also complex. Although Afghanistan sees Tehran's role leading up to inauguration of Karzai's government as constructive, US and many Afghan military officials accuse Iran of continuing to send funds and weapons to militias that oppose the interim authority's rule.

"[Iran's] support for resistance against Al Qaeda and the Taliban was crucial and very positive," Abdullah says, declining comment on reports of Iranian support for opposition groups here. Washington, he adds, understands Afghanistan's need to have better ties with its neighbors.

"US interests should be that Afghanistan has strong relations with Iran," he says. "But so far, it is an ideal."

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