In an unexpected show of defiance, Afghan lawmakers Saturday rejected 17 of President Hamid Karzai’s 24 nominees for Cabinet posts, including a powerful warlord.
Afghanistan’s political scene has been in a state of shambles for months, as the Obama administration prepares for one of the biggest and fastest troop buildups of the conflict, which is in its ninth year. About 30,000 more U.S. troops are to be deployed in Afghanistan this year, and senior commanders have said the buildup will be crucial in 2010 to halt the growing momentum of the Taliban-led insurgency.
Karzai, embarking on a second five-year term in office, had named his Cabinet picks last month. After several weeks of delays, his choices finally came up for a confirmation vote Saturday. When Karzai first unveiled his lineup, it drew a disappointed reaction from lawmakers who believed that the Afghan leader had missed a chance for sweeping reforms, retaining many old faces from his previous government.
However, Western diplomats had refrained from strong public objections, in part because they approved of some of Karzai nominations for positions considered crucial to the war effort and to the disbursement of millions of dollars in development aid. Under heavy international pressure over corruption in his government, Karzai also jettisoned two ministers who were embroiled in major money scandals.
Of the nominees rejected by parliament in complicated, daylong secret balloting, the most prominent was Ismail Khan, a onetime militia leader who runs what amounts to a fiefdom in the west of the country. He had been tapped by Karzai to serve a second term as energy minister.
Khan, whose nomination was opposed by Western diplomats and human rights organizations, was one of a group of rival warlords who fought a bloody civil war in the early 1990s. The chaos helped pave the way for the rise of the Taliban movement.
Saturday’s rebuke by lawmakers deepens the political disarray that took hold in August in the wake of a fraud-marred presidential vote. Karzai was eventually declared the winner, but it was a drawn-out and bruising battle.
Ultimately, about one-third of the ballots cast for him were invalidated, but he avoided a runoff vote when his main competitor, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out, declaring that he did not believe the vote would be fair.
Karzai, increasingly unpopular in recent years as public anger has grown over government fraud and incompetence, emerged from the electoral contest beholden to a number of warlord-like figures such as Khan, who could deliver votes in parts of the country where they hold sway.
The battle over the Cabinet coincides with another thorny political problem. Karzai appears to be on a collision course with the international community over the timing of parliamentary elections. The Afghan Constitution mandates that the vote be held before the end of May, and the country’s election commission -- whose head is appointed by Karzai -- on Saturday set May 22 as the election date.
But Western officials and election monitoring groups, still reeling from the disastrous August vote, have suggested that the international community will refuse to help pay for the parliamentary vote unless fundamental electoral reforms take place first. The presidential election cost about $220 million, with virtually the entire cost borne by foreign donors.