On March 23 Afghan President Hamid Karzai offered his newly reconstituted cabinet to the new Afghan parliament for a vote of confidence. After days of wrangling, the parliament unanimously approved the formation of the new cabinet on Saturday, April 1. However, the process to approve the portfolios of each minister still requires a thorough study of his or her biography, citizenship documents, qualification certificates, and professional experience. All ministers must submit their paperwork to the parliament, and the approval process is estimated to take at least two weeks.
Legislators agreed to keep the current number of ministers, arguing that reducing the number of ministries would render hundreds of people jobless. The vote of confidence is scheduled to be conducted through a secret ballot, and each minister will be evaluated and voted on individually. Each minister will have 15 minutes to present his ministry’s priorities, and he will also answer 18 questions from the parliamentarians. After this exchange of opinions, the MPs will cast their vote for or against the candidate (Pajhwok, April 3).
The new cabinet, announced one day after the March 22 Afghan New Year, contains some rather major changes. The most surprising development is the removal of Dr. Abdulah, one of the three Panjshiri Tajik ministers who had been in the government since the Bonn Agreements of late 2001. He was the last strongman from the Northern Alliance, the group that toppled the Taliban regime with the help of the coalition forces.
The other significant change is the reduction of the number of women in the cabinet. Previously there were at least two female ministers, but now there is only one woman, Dr. Suraya Raheem Sabarang, who heads the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, a post traditionally reserved for a female since its creation. The new minister is unknown to most Afghans. She replaces Dr. Masouda Jalal, who was the only female candidate in the 2004 presidential election.
Some ministers have been “demoted” from their previous positions, including Noor M. Qarqin, the former minister of education who is now the minister of the disabled and martyrs, a rather symbolic ministry with no real power or influence. Qarqin, the only minister of Turkmen origin in the cabinet, was rumored to be incompetent. Some other ministers were “promoted,” such as the former minister of commerce, Hedayat Amin Arsala, who has been appointed “senior minister.” President Karzai created this position to accommodate Arsala. Another minister to receive a “promotion” is Azam Dadfar, who moved from minister of refugees, a relatively minor post, to minister of higher education. Dadfar, one of two Uzbek members of cabinet, is a close associate of Karzai. There also are some new faces in the cabinet; prominent among them is Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, a political affair advisor to President Karzai. He has been appointed minister of foreign affairs. His Maoist past makes him a rather controversial figure, given his new claim of being a liberal democrat (New Kerala, March 24).
The most important feature of this cabinet is the predominance of professionals and technocrats. More than half of the cabinet is made up of doctors and engineers, and the balance all have college or university degrees. There are fewer alleged warlords in the cabinet, with the exception of Ismael Khan, the former governor of Herat who is now minister of water and power. There are only three former Mujahideen commanders to hold portfolios now. Most, if not all, of the ministers are considered non-fundamentalists who opposed the Taliban regime and favor the coalition forces in Afghanistan. They have either studied or lived in the West during the last twenty-five years of war in Afghanistan.
President Karzai faces a few obstacles in gaining parliamentary approval of his new appointees, particularly regarding the candidate for foreign minister. The majority of the MPs are either former Mujahideen or Mujahideen commanders who fiercely oppose communism. Spanta, although a former Maoist, may still stir negative emotions among the Islamists. The reduction of the number of women in the cabinet may bring criticism from the 68 or so women members of the parliament. Already there are complaints expressed both inside and outside of the parliament.
Some parliamentarians, such as Ramazan Bashardost, plan to reject most of the cabinet appointees for not being qualified for their jobs. In December 2004 Karzai sacked Bashardost from his post as minister of planning in a dispute over non-governmental organizations (Kabul Press, April 4).
The real test for the new cabinet will be its ability to steer Afghanistan toward economic development and reconstruction. President Karzai’s track record in stemming corruption, the drug trade, and violence has been abysmal. Few ordinary Afghans have seen improvements in their day-to-day lives. Many of the shortcomings of the Karzai administration have been blamed on the absence of a watchdog that would hold it accountable. The election of a new parliament in 2005, although itself plagued with shortcomings, should rectify this. Approving Karzai’s cabinet is a first step in that direction.