Afghan government: Karzai scrambles to form cabinet as deadline looms

Afghan President Hamid Karzai presented a second list of cabinet nominees over the weekend after Parliament rejected most of his initial picks. Karzai wants to lock down his cabinet before a key Jan. 28 conference in London.

Farzana Wahidy/AP
Afghan parliament members vote during a debate in Kabul, Afghanistan on Jan. 2, rejecting many of President Hamid Karzai's picks.

The Afghan government is trying to settle a simmering political dispute ahead of a key international conference designed to win more European support for the country.

After the Parliament rejected most of his cabinet nominations, President Hamid Karzai quickly put forth a new list this weekend and succeeded in keeping the legislature from leaving for a scheduled six-week recess.

Analysts credit Mr. Karzai with putting forth a new roster that has a chance of meeting with greater success. But if Karzai cannot clear this latest political hurdle, doubts could deepen in European capitals about the prospects for stabilizing the country.

“Various donor governments have been looking towards [the London conference] as a landmark after which they will make decisions about sending more troops,” says Anna Larson, a researcher on governance with the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul. This can be seen in the case of Germany, she says, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has used the conference, which starts Jan. 28, as a decisionmaking point for future contributions, military or otherwise.

Karzai gives ground

Karzai offered his new slate of 16 cabinet picks on Saturday, a week after Parliament rejected two-thirds of his initial choices. Three are women (the sole female nominee in the first group was rejected). Nominations for two ministries – energy and telecommunications – are expected in the coming days.
Members of Parliament had warned Karzai that it would be unconstitutional to rename any of those who had been rejected the first time. Technically, that’s a gray area of the law, but Karzai did not press the point.

“By complying to the MPs requests, Karzai has made an unwritten rule a little bit more solid. So I think it’s quite a good thing that he put different names forward,” says Larson.

New picks: Less famous, but more likely to win approval

MPs have complained that the new nominees are mostly obscure, leading some to question if they have the chops.

But while they may be less qualified, these picks stand a better chance at winning support, argues Saleh Mohammad Registani, a former MP and leading figure in the country’s opposition.

The Parliament is divided along ethnic lines, he explains. Of the 232 MPs who voted in the first round, roughly 100 were Pashtun, 70 Tajik, and the rest from other minorities. The Tajiks – after rallying around Karzai’s rival Abdullah Abdullah during the presidential election – stuck together during the first vote on the cabinet. Their 'no' votes combined with votes from a segment of Karzai’s base: MPs in and around Kandahar and Paktia Provinces who felt their choices were overlooked.

“The numbers of the opposition MPs affected the decisions in Parliament that day. So because of that, Mr. Karzai has put some new names on the lists” from opposition communities, says Mr. Registani. Now, he adds, the Tajiks and others have more of a reason to horse-trade with the Pashtuns to get more of the cabinet picks passed.

"If this new list is rejected by Parliament, it would be very bad news politically for Mr. Karzai heading into the conference," he says.

The leader of the Parliament Yunus Qanooni told Reuters that he expects a vote on the second-round picks could come as early as Thursday.

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