Afghan president unlikely to form Cabinet before key international aid conference


The Afghan parliament’s decision Sunday to recess for several weeks made it unlikely that President Hamid Karzai would be able to meet Washington’s goal to have a complete government in place ahead of a crucial international aid conference in London at the end of the month.

More than 60 countries will send delegations to that conference, where nations are expected to pledge billions of dollars in economic and security aid to bolster the government of the Afghan leader, now in his second five-year term.

Washington and its allies want Karzai’s Cabinet in place so that donor nations know which ministers will be responsible for handling the aid. One of the international community’s biggest concerns about Karzai’s administration has been its inability to safeguard incoming financial support from rampant corruption.

In votes in early January and on Saturday, Afghan lawmakers rejected a majority of the Cabinet nominees Karzai presented. The votes have left the Afghan leader with 11 Cabinet posts unfilled. On Sunday, Karzai’s spokesman said it was doubtful the Cabinet lineup could be completed in time for the Jan. 28 conference.

“As far as the completion of the Cabinet before the London conference is concerned, our understanding is that we may not be able to do so, and that the parliament might go to its recess,” Karzai’s spokesman, Waheed Omar, said at a news conference in Kabul, the capital. “We will introduce new members after they come back from their recess.”

One of the most crucial issues on the agenda in London will be Afghanistan’s effort to bring Taliban militants, particularly lower-tier fighters, back into society through a variety of incentives, including jobs and vocational training.

Karzai, who has yet to unveil the specifics of that plan, has been roundly criticized for a previous Taliban reintegration effort widely regarded as a badly conceived, failed program. Former Taliban fighters who surrendered later complained they never received the money or land they were promised in exchange for their renunciation of the militancy.

Western governments have been helping the Karzai administration craft what they hope will be a more successful reintegration program. At a forum in Kabul on Sunday, President Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan said the U.S. backs the program being developed.

“The majority of the people fighting with the Taliban are not supporters” of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Associated Press quoted Richard C. Holbrooke, the envoy, as saying. “They’re not supporters of the ideology of Al Qaeda. They don’t even know who Al Qaeda is and yet they fight because they’ve been misled by false information.”

Karzai’s spokesman would not discuss details of the government’s new reintegration plan, saying only that “we are learning from the past to try to come up with the proper program that will allow [former Taliban fighters] to start a normal life in Afghanistan.”

Early today, the Associated Press reported that a gun battle was raging between militants and Afghan security forces in the heart of Kabul.

The fighting broke out near the Afghanistan Central Bank, the Justice and Finance ministries and the luxury Serena Hotel, which is frequented by Westerners. Behind the bank is the heavily secured presidential compound.

Mohib Safi, deputy governor of the central bank, told the AP that employees heard an explosion followed by gunfire.

An AP reporter said Afghan security forces had surrounded the area, and that fighting was continuing. Ambulances evacuated the wounded.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said coalition forces were working with Afghan troops to secure the area.

Meanwhile, NATO said it was investigating two incidents on Sunday in which coalition troops fired upon vehicles said to be speeding toward them.

Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez contributed to this report.