New Afghan Cabinet Configuration Source of Discontent for Many Pashtuns
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's new cabinet configuration should yield even greater political and military powers to the already dominating faction of Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley, as well as to other warlords. Pashtuns the majority ethnic group in the country seem to have been relegated to minor positions, although they retain key economic and financial ministries through which Western donor aid may flow.
Karzai's appointments have created widespread disappointment amongst many Afghans and Western and UN diplomats who believed that after the massive endorsement he received at the mid-June Loya Jirga (LJ) and the widespread criticism of the warlords, he would be strong enough to distance himself from them.
"By these appointments Karzai and the Panjshiris have made more enemies than they had before," a senior European diplomat in Kabul said in a telephone interview. "Karzai has only demonstrated his weakness and his inability to take hard decisions, which will increase instability outside Kabul and infuriate the Pashtuns," the diplomat added. A former Pashtun minister said Pashtuns were angry at the decisions, because they show that "Karzai is still a hostage to the Panjshiris."
Some observers say Pashtun frustration could rise, fostering greater sympathy for hard-line Pashtun nationalists and Islamic radicals, including the remnants of the Taliban, who see the Panjshiri Tajiks as a threat. Many Pashtuns also perceive Karzai, himself a Pashtun, as being too close to the Americans.
As a result, Karzai's cabinet selections could cause greater instability in Afghanistan, thus undermining Washington's goals as it continues its war against terrorism. Some Afghan experts believe the central government will continue to have difficulties in extending its writ across the country. They also fear ethnic rifts may widen and some Western donor countries may balk at extending funds for reconstruction of the country.
On June 22, Karzai announced additional cabinet appointments, adding to the ministers he declared at the end of the Loya Jirga on June 19. The new transitional government is now made up of 29 ministers, three vice presidents and 1 special adviser will rule the country for the next 18 months until general elections are held.
The Panjshiri Tajik trio that controlled influential posts in Karzai's interim administration has retained top-level jobs in the transitional administration. General Mohammed Fahim remains defense minister and head of the army and he also becomes a vice president. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah remains foreign minister, while Yunus Qanooni, the former interior minister, becomes a special presidential adviser for internal security, as well as education minister. The Fahim-Abdullah-Qanooni team traces its influence back to the Taliban era, when the trio held prominent posts in the Panjshiri-dominated Northern Alliance.
In addition, Karzai gave several key posts to warlords. Karzai failed to convince the two most powerful warlords, the Uzbek General Rashid Dostum in the North, and General Ismail Khan in the West, to accept posts in Kabul. But he accommodated their representatives in the cabinet, including the son of Ismail Khan. [See related EurasiaNet story]. Senior aides said Karzai is hoping that bringing warlords into government will encourage them to adopt a more national, rather than regional, outlook. Yet a few advisers privately are disappointed by Karzai's cabinet picks. "The popular will expressed in the LJ was an end to warlordism and the demotion of the Panjshiris, but Karzai has done just the opposite," said one adviser to Karzai.
The most controversial decision is the appointment of Qanooni, who resigned as interior minister June 11, saying he wanted to pave "the way for national unity." To replace Qanooni, Karzai tapped Taj Mohammed Wardak, a Pashtun, but the police and intelligence service controlled by the Interior Ministry protested the appointment. Meanwhile, Qanooni declined to accept the Education Ministry until he got something better, according to sources in Kabul.
Ultimately Karzai succumbed to pressure and gave Qanooni a new role as security adviser, ensuring that Qanooni will retain his influence over the law-enforcement apparatus, running the police and intelligence gathering from behind the scenes. Wardak, aged 80, is a naturalized American who lived in California before moving back to Afghanistan earlier this year. He is unlikely to command much authority from the largely Panjshiri Interior Ministry staff and police. He has vowed to work for the creation of a professional police force and recruit from all ethnic groups. "If in seven months the police force is not a professional one, I will leave," Wardak told reporters in Kabul on June 21.
There is widespread public mistrust of the police in Kabul, largely because of the fact that Panjshiri Tajiks control many leadership positions in law enforcement. For example, 12 of Kabul's 15 police stations are headed by Panjshiris. Moreover, Mohammed Arif, a Panjshiri, has retained his position as head of the Amanyat, or the intelligence service, which was harshly criticized at the Loya Jirga for trying to intimidate delegates.
Despite Karzai's conciliatory move, Qanooni expressed dissatisfaction with the Loya Jirga's outcome. He was especially critical of the 16 new ministers that Karzai appointed June 22 without Loya Jirga approval. The first 13 cabinet picks received the Loya Jirga's endorsement. ``Hamid Karzai as head of state enjoys full legitimacy but part of the cabinet does not have the confirmation of the Loya Jirga and so is not legitimate," Qanooni said. "The legitimacy of the cabinet is dependent on the formation of a parliament and its decisions." Qanooni also publicly mulled the idea of establishing a multi-ethnic opposition party.
Meanwhile, Karzai seems to have distanced himself from supporters of former King Mohammed Zahir Shah, dumping all the ministers in the former interim administration who were loyal to the ex-monarch except for one. (Karzai kept on the royalist Mohammed Amin Farhang as Minister of Reconstruction). This snub has served to further anger Pashtuns. "We put our trust in God, the important thing is to look into the future and have faith in our country and the Afghan people," a subdued General Abdul Wali, the former king's chief adviser and son-in-law said in a telephone interview from Kabul.
However, Pashtun technocrats retain the key ministries of finance, communications, mining and reconstruction. Senior aides to the Pashtun Ashraf Ghani, a senior adviser to Karzai and now finance minister, say that by controlling the purse strings Pashtuns in the cabinet will be able to effectively control the government. But it will take time for Pashtuns in the cabinet to exert their influence, and much will depend on the flow of foreign reconstruction aid. Although Western donors have committed US $1.8 billion to Afghanistan this year, the money has been painfully slow in arriving.
In the near term, ongoing Pashtun discontent with the Panjshiri domination of the military and security establishments could create a serious situation for US forces, which are largely based in eastern Pashtun regions. Many Pashtun warlords including some who are armed and funded by the US military to hunt for al Qaeda fighters are deeply bitter. They claim that US diplomats in Kabul have blocked any political role for Zahir Shah in the new government, and also have continued to support the Panjshiris at the expense of Pashtun influence. "The Americans and Karzai are pushing the Pashtuns to once again seek support from Pakistan," said a nationalist Pashtun delegate to the LJ, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence has long supported the Afghan Pashtuns including the Pashtun-dominated former Taliban regime, while Iran and Russia have backed the Northern Alliance. Although all three regional neighbors are presently supporting Karzai, the regional dynamics could now change.
In a move that some in Kabul see as linked to the heightened political tensions, on June 23, Suleiman Abu Gheith, a known spokesman for Osama bin Laden, claimed that the terrorist mastermind was alive and would soon deliver a speech to the Muslim world. The taped message, whose authenticity cannot be verified, was aired by al Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV station. Gheith also claimed that al Qaeda was behind the bloody attack on a Jewish synagogue in Tunis in April which killed 17 people, 12 of them German tourists.
Already, Karzai is facing a crisis in northern Afghanistan, where clashes between forces loyal to Dostum's and those led by Fahim's representative, Gen. Mohamed Atta, are destabilizing northern Afghanistan. In a June 20 letter, 70 international relief agencies under the umbrella of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) appealed to the UN Security Council for the deployment of international peacekeeping forces in Mazar-i-Sharif. The letter warned that dozens of relief agencies have already pulled out of the country and "others are seriously considering withdrawal," according to UN officials and media reports. "Our workers have been attacked and sexually assaulted, our property has been repeatedly looted and our convoys carrying life-saving goods have been shot at, hijacked and stolen," the letter read.
The threat of further fighting in northern Afghanistan coupled with the pullout of relief agencies and a reemergence of al Qaeda backed terrorism in the Pashtun south would place an enormous strain on Karzai's government, as well as potentially widening the ethnic rift between the Tajik Panjshiris and Pashtuns.
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