Karzai’s Cabinet list balances conflicting demands

The Cabinet nominees announced by President Hamid Karzai on Saturday underscore the competing demands the Afghan leader confronts as he embarks on a troubled second term in office.

Karzai, inaugurated last month after a fraud-tainted election, is trying to simultaneously placate restive Western backers, woo his disillusioned public and pacify powerful warlords who have helped keep him in power.

The Cabinet list, leaked by presidential aides a day before being presented to lawmakers Saturday, retained some well-regarded ministers in posts considered crucial to rebuilding Afghanistan and fighting the Taliban.

And Karzai, under international pressure to institute reforms as the United States and its allies prepare to widen the war effort, dismissed at least two scandal-tainted members of his previous Cabinet.


But his list includes Ismail Khan, a former warlord who served in the outgoing Cabinet. Western diplomats had hoped he would be sidelined.

Lawmakers, who will vote on the picks, generally appeared less than impressed. For many, the list was a reminder that political patronage remains a crucial force.

“It is like a cake that everyone wants a piece of,” said Fauzia Kofi, a lawmaker from Badakhshan province, in the remote north. “With all our problems -- security, the economy, corruption -- the gap between the people and the government is growing every day.”

Still, the verdict in many quarters appeared to be that though things could have been better, they also could have been much worse.


The list “is certainly a step in the right direction,” said Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the U.N. mission here. “The signs are encouraging.”

Western diplomats spoke guardedly about Karzai’s Cabinet choices, not wanting to preempt the parliamentary confirmation still to come. But the embassies of the United States, Britain and Canada issued statements taking a cautious but generally positive tone.

“We look forward to [lawmakers] carrying out their duty to vet and approve candidates who will contribute to Afghanistan’s progress toward institutional reform, security and prosperity,” said Caitlin Hayden, a U.S. spokeswoman.

The new list retains some ministers the Obama administration has publicly praised, including Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. Their ministries will be chiefly responsible for an envisioned buildup of the Afghan police and army that is pivotal to plans for an eventual drawdown of Western forces.

The inclusion of former warlord Khan, continuing in his post as energy minister, was a disappointment to rights groups, who have accused him of large-scale abuses.

Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar defended Khan as a competent minister. “The only standard for those who remain is proficiency,” he said.

Women’s rights activists also expressed dismay that the 23-member Cabinet has only one woman: the minister for women’s affairs.

“It’s really a mixed bag,” said lawmaker Daoud Sultanzoy from Ghazni province who is a frequent critic of Karzai. “What the new ministers need to think about is how they will solve all the many, many problems they are inheriting.”