Kabuki in Kabul

Wait, did Hamid Karzai actually want the Afghan parliament to reject his cabinet?


Hamid Karzai will be heading to the international London conference later this month with a full cabinet, albeit not an entirely legitimate one. The Afghan president has decided to ignore his testy parliament for the moment and simply install the ministers he wants, whether the lawmakers agree or not. What seemed like a defeat for Karzai — having parliament reject his nominees — might now become at least a short-term victory. But the whole shabby incident bodes ill for Afghanistan’s attempt to clean up for the world stage in London.

The formation of the government has been a lengthy and contentious process. Karzai’s first roster of nominees was roundly rejected by the legislature, which on Jan. 2 confirmed just seven out of the 24 names the president had suggested. A second vote two weeks later yielded another seven confirmations, leaving Karzai with 10 empty slots. This came less than two weeks before the important Jan. 28 meeting in London, which will set the tone for the Afghan president’s relations with the international community over the coming months. Karzai then asked the rejects to fill in anyway, becoming acting ministers at least until after the conference.

The inability to confirm a cabinet was just another mess on top of the general shambles of the Afghan political scene. Karzai came to his second term in office after a badly flawed election, in which the fraud was so glaring and well-documented that nearly one-third of the votes had to be annulled.

Worse still, the president gained his pyrrhic victory by forming alliances with some of the country’s most detested figures, men like Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord who has been widely accused of human rights abuses.

The wrangling over the cabinet has done little to raise Karzai’s standing in the eyes of the international community, whose enthusiasm for the Afghan president has waned markedly over the past 18 months.

But, as with most things in Afghanistan, there is much more to the story than meets the eye. While the parliament’s firm "no" to almost half of Karzai’s picks looks like a major defeat for the Afghan president, some observers are convinced that Karzai is not at all unhappy about the outcome.

"President Karzai is not concerned about his rejected nominees," Qaseem Akhgar, editor of the Asht-e-Sobh daily, said in an earlier interview. "In fact, he used this opportunity … to rid himself of the pressure exerted by his electoral allies to place their people in the government."

In other words, Karzai owed political favors to Dostum and others who helped him engineer his election; he had promised to place such supporters in important cabinet positions. But parliament rejected all of Dostum’s allies, relieving Karzai of the burden.

"The rejection of … his cabinet [was] no ‘slap in the face for Hamid Karzai.’ On the contrary, it is a success for him," wrote Thomas Ruttig, a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network.  "Karzai can tell them: I did my best, but parliament did not play ball." 

During the second round of voting, on Jan. 16, most political analysts thought Karzai would have an easier time of it. But again, parliament rejected 10 out of 17 nominees.

It might have been a flexing of political muscle in advance of the still-controversial parliamentary elections, slated for the spring. Parliament has been largely sidelined in the political process, say analysts, and lawmakers might have been trying to demonstrate that they still have power.

"Parliament wants to show what it is capable of, since elections are just over the horizon," Wahid Muzhda, a political analyst in Kabul, said in an interview after the first round of voting.

One of those who earned parliamentary disfavor was the proposed minister for women’s affairs, Palwasha Hassan, a dynamic women’s rights advocate who came to her confirmation hearings wearing a headscarf issued by the Five Million Women Campaign, a major event in Afghanistan. She was subjected to an extended examination by some of the more conservative lawmakers, one of whom asked her how she would ensure that women did not have "too much freedom" in Afghanistan.

Hassan was one of three women on Karzai’s list, only one of whom, Amina Afzali, was confirmed.

Parliament also rejected five nominees from the Hazara ethnic group and three Uzbeks, leaving the lawmakers open to charges of ethnic prejudice. There were protests in a predominantly Hazara neighborhood the day after the vote.

So the president got kudos for supporting women and trying to form an inclusive, multi ethnic cabinet, while the parliament emerged as a hotbed of fundamentalists.

Those who have been confirmed will control the most powerful ministries. Hanif Atmar, a technocrat popular in Britain, retains his position at the Ministry of the Interior, while Abdul Rahim Wardak holds on to the defense portfolio. Longtime National Security Advisor Zalmay Rassoul becomes foreign minister, and Zarar Ahmad Moqbel, a former interior minister who was dismissed last year amid widespread allegations of corruption, returns to the government as minister for counternarcotics. Insiders say that Moqbel is a favorite of the Americans, who value his firm grip on the militias of the north.

The most well-known of those rejected in the first round is Ismail Khan, whom Karzai nominated to retain his post as minister of water and energy. But it seems that Karzai has no intention of replacing him — he did not supply parliament with a second choice.

It will not be the first time Karzai has flouted the wishes of his legislature. His outgoing foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, was handed a vote of no confidence by the parliament in 2007. He has remained in place as acting minister ever since.

But while Karzai may be a round or two ahead in his scuffle with Kabul lawmakers, he is losing ground with the international community.

"The failure of 70 percent of Karzai’s nominees to gain confirmation has undermined his international reputation," said Mahmoud Saiqal, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs, in an interview after the first round of voting. "They may think about bringing changes in the leadership of Afghanistan."

This is not the ideal situation for Karzai ahead of the London conference, during which he has to convince his foreign backers that he can deliver on his promises to clean up Afghan governance. High on the agenda for the meeting will be the question of corruption. U.S. President Barack Obama has given his Afghan counterpart six months to make a start on putting to rights one of the shadiest governments on the planet (Transparency International rated Afghanistan second only to Somalia on its 2009 corruption index).

But Obama will most likely be disappointed.

"The government could certainly do more on corruption if only it really wanted to," said Ruttig said in an interview. "But some of Karzai’s appointments show that he apparently does not pay too much attention to criticism."

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