Karzai again rebuffed over new cabinet

by Matthew Green in Islamabad and Fazel Reshad in Kabul

Published: January 16 2010 16:33 | Last updated: January 18 2010 00:28

Afghan Members of Parliament take a public vote on Hamid Karzai's cabinet nominees
Parliament votes to begin a recess after once again rejecting many of Hamid Karzai’s cabinet nominees

Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, will attend an important conference in London backed by only a partial cabinet, underscoring his political weakness at a time when the west is pushing for a greater Afghan role in fighting the Taliban.

Parliament voted on Sunday to begin a recess after once again rejecting many of Mr Karzai’s ministerial nominees, meaning almost half the cabinet posts will remain empty until after the London gathering on January 28.

Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, has called the meeting of more than 60 countries to encourage Mr Karzai to lay out his agenda for securing Afghanistan against a backdrop of mounting disquiet in Europe and the US over the war’s toll and purpose.

But Mr Karzai’s failure to muster a full cabinet after months of manoeuvring following flawed polls in August will rekindle doubts over his ability to energise a lacklustre administration in what could be a decisive year for international engagement in his country.

Critics say controversial picks for the foreign affairs and counter-narcotics portfolios suggest Mr Karzai’s team has been shaped primarily by his need to reward power-brokers who backed his re-election.

“They will all be yes men,” said Daoud Sultanzoy, a MP who took part in the vetting of the ministers. “That will not bode well for overall performance.”

The US and UK are pushing for demonstrable progress in fighting corruption and improving governance in return for an additional commitment of 30,000 troops ordered by Barack Obama, the US president, and smaller pledges by Nato allies.

Hopes that Mr Karzai would finalise his team ahead of the London meeting faded at the weekend when parliament vetoed 10 out of a new list of 17 ministerial nominees he had submitted for their approval.

The session was held two weeks after lawmakers rejected two-thirds of his initial slate in a rare show of defiance. Barring any last-minute moves to delay the recess, Mr Karzai will go to London with 14 ministers in a cabinet of 25 posts.

Drone kills 15

At least 15 suspected pro-Taliban militants were killed on Sunday in a US drone attack in Pakistan’s south Waziristan region, prompting talk of a rapidly growing US hunt for Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, writes Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad.

Mr Mehsud was not thought to be at the targeted site, but at least four of the militants killed were thought to be close to him, said a Pakistani intelligence official.

The Taliban leader has emerged as a key US target since a December 30 suicide attack killed seven CIA employees in eastern Afghanistan.

Western diplomats have drawn encouragement from parliament’s decision this month to endorse key incumbents in the important finance, agriculture, education, defence and interior ministries who are widely regarded as among his most effective operators.

Several candidates endorsed by parliament on Saturday provided less cause for optimism. Zarar Ahmad Muqbel, the new minister of counter-narcotics, was removed as interior minister amid international pressure spurred by concerns over the growth of rampant corruption in the police under his watch.

Mr Muqbel is now in charge of combating Afghanistan’s opium industry, the world’s biggest, and a source of funding for the insurgency.

Mr Karzai’s choice as foreign minister, Zalmay Rasoul, has also been met with surprise. A taciturn figure during the years he served Mr Karzai as national security adviser, the former doctor has yet to exhibit the kind of charisma that might help champion Afghanistan's case for continued support abroad.

Mr Karzai can count on another ally in the form of Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, endorsed at the weekend as economy minister. Mr Arghandiwal is a leader of a pro-government faction of Hezb-e-Islami, a moderate Islamist party.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.