Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai announced his new cabinet on December 23, almost 50 days after his election as president. His new roster reflects bold steps to exclude the powerful warlords from his government while also appointing new and hitherto unknown technocrats and professionals to the cabinet.
Only five ministers remain from the previous government, the rest are fresh faces chosen from different ethnic groups. The powerful posts of defense, interior, and finance went to ethnic Pashtuns (Pajhwok Afghan News, January 4). Of the three Panjshiri Tajiks in Karzai’s last government, only Dr. Abdullah kept his post as foreign minister. Qasim Fahim, the power warlord and former defense minister, was not only removed from the government but also from the army. He has been replaced by his former deputy, mujahideen commander General Rahim Wardak. Younos Qanooni, the former education minister and Karzai’s chief rival in the presidential election, is also out of the government.
All three former cabinet ministers who are were regarded as warlords controlling private militia have also been excluded. However, two of them, Gul Aqa Shairzai, former minister of public work and Sayed Hussain Anwari, the former agriculture minister, were appointed governors of Kandahar and Kabul, respectively. While the new constitution stipulates that ministers be university graduates, Anwari is known to have barely a high-school education.
The only warlord in the cabinet is Ismail Khan, the former governor and strongman of Herat, who was ousted from his power base. He now has very little power — if any — in Kabul. In an unprecedented move, Karzai appointed Sarwar Danish, a Shia religious and legal scholar, as minister of justice, yet Afghanistan is a country with a population that is more than 70% Sunni and has a Sunni-dominant judicial system.
He also kept Sebghatullah Mojaddadi and Burhanuddin Rabbani, the first and second Presidents after the collapse of Najibullah regime, out of government. Likewise excluded was Abdur Rab Sayyaf, the pro-Saudi fundamentalist factional leader who wielded his imposing presence in the two grand assemblies convened after the collapse of the Taliban, (Payamemojahed, January 1).
In another bold move, Karzai appointed Dr. Masouda Jalal, his only female opponent in the presidential election, as minister for Women’s Affairs, a move many observers considered appropriate.
Perhaps one of Karzai’s most significant steps was to restructure the ministries. He combined the Ministry of Irrigation and Environment and the Ministry of Water and Power to form a new Ministry of Energy. The Ministry of Light Industry and Food Stuffs joined the Ministry of Planning and Reconstruction to form the Ministry of the Economy; while the separate Ministries of Transportation and Aviation combined to form one ministry containing both names. He also created a new Ministry for Combating Illegal Drugs.
The ethnic composition of the cabinet is relatively balanced, although there are complaints about the choice of individual ministers and their posts. For the first time, a Brahui Baloch has been chosen as the minister of frontiers. He is Karim Brahui, a former mujahideen commander and the governor of Nimroze province.
Karzai’s choice of ministers seems designed to please the foreign donors that provide much of the country’s reconstruction aid and stability (Agence France Press, December 25). However, there are two main problems that Karzai will face in the coming years. One is the population’s insistence that the basic problems of security, disarmament, and drug eradication be addressed immediately. At the moment, the government does not seem able to face these challenges head on. The second and rather long-term problem is avoiding ethnic conflict.
Karzai’s three principal ethnic rivals, namely, Qanooni of the Tajiks, Mohammad Mohaqqeq of the Hazaras, and Abdur Rashid Dostum of the Uzbeks, are not in the cabinet, although their ethnic groups are represented. It is expected that they — either themselves or their appointed representatives — would take part in the parliamentary elections and local elections in April. Already, Mr. Qanooni has announced his intention to form a political party, New Afghanistan, to act as the parliamentary opposition (VOA, December 25).
If the three ethnic leaders form some kind of an alliance in the parliament, they could scrutinize and even reject many of the initiatives that Karzai considers to be his achievements. Given the past experience of ethnic rivalry and even animosity, cooperation is easier said than done. Yet an alliance of the non-Pashtun ethnic groups could claim a majority in the assembly, effectively making Karzai a lame duck.