Karzai faces discord over new cabinet

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Same faces, different jobs, say critics As Afghanistan's president prepares to reveal his ministers, MPs say a prolonged dispute over choices could severely impede progress Chris Sands Foreign Correspondent KABUL // As Afghanistan threatens to plunge deep into another period of political turmoil, MPs are divided over the best way to resolve widespread disagreements concerning the make up of the country's new government.

This week the lower house of parliament rejected 17 of the 24 ministers chosen by the president Hamid Karzai to form his cabinet. A second list of nominees is due to be announced tomorrow amid fears about the potential impact a prolonged dispute could have. Shaja-ul-Molk Jalala, an MP for the eastern province of Kunar, said too many of the original choices were allies of warlords and there was no guarantee that a similar selection process would not be repeated.

"We had a meeting with Mr Karzai and told him we will give you enough time to select fair faces for these chairs. But he will bring some of the same faces in different positions and it will be the same case again for us," he said. "We told him we can give you enough time to think of good people, don't hurry." The approval of the president's cabinet was largely seen as a formality after weeks of negotiations and backroom deals to come up with the list. But on a day when Mr Karzai was on a rare trip to the Taliban's southern heartland, MPs issued another significant blow to his authority following last summer's controversial elections.

It came at the start of what has been billed as a pivotal year for the country. Security is rapidly deteriorating and 30,000 extra US troops are due to arrive in coming months in an effort to quell the insurgency. An international conference on Afghanistan will also take place in London on January 28. Many MPs appear to have mixed feelings about the disagreement over the cabinet. They often expressed sympathy for Mr Karzai, saying he is a good man surrounded by bad people. But there is also a sense that he has failed to take parliament seriously.

Mawlawi Abdul Khabir Achqoon, an MP for the northern province of Sar-i-Pul, said, "Our success is not that we have rejected 17 ministers of the government, it is that we have worked very clearly and very honestly. "It was a very good lesson for the state that he [Mr Karzai] should never again play political games with people who are not respectable. He will learn that he should not cheat MPs anymore to make them vote for his ministers."

Each cabinet nominee had been scrutinised by parliament before the vote occurred last Saturday. They were asked to present their plans for the next five years and their backgrounds were scrutinised. Those rejected included the only female on the list, Husn Bano Ghazanfar, who was set to continue in her role as minister of women's affairs. Ismail Khan, a former Mujahideen commander who had been serving as minister of energy, was another surprise casualty.

According to Roshanak Wardak, an MP for Maidan Wardak province, votes had been cast based on four criteria: the candidate's knowledge, honesty and popularity and whether or not they had dual citizenship - an issue described as "useless". She said she had supported 40 per cent of the nominess, including Ms Ghazanfar and Mr Khan. However, she did not agree with the fact that just one female was put forward, claiming the president had promised that three or four would be given cabinet positions.

Like a number of her colleagues, Ms Wardak was sure the original list had been formed under pressure from warlords - many of whom provided crucial backing to Mr Karzai's re-election campaign. "If you think the president made this cabinet without the influence of warlords, it's impossible. For anybody, it's impossible," she said. Ms Wardak added that she hoped the mass rejections would now allow Mr Karzai to select candidates he genuinely wants.

"I know in the parliament there are some MPs with democratic ideas but they are not successful. Still we have time for democracy in Afghanistan and slowly, slowly we should go ahead until we reach the stage the West is at," she said. Parliament had been set to go on a recess, but the dispute over the cabinet means Mr Karzai invoked the constitution to ensure the break is delayed until new ministers have been approved. That decision has angered some MPs. Under the constitution, the president was also meant to have unveiled his nominations soon after he was sworn in for a second term. Instead, his original announcement was repeatedly put back.

Abdul Khaliq Mujahid, an MP for Uruzgan, supported the decision to postpone the recess. "New troops are coming, the weather is getting hotter day by day so the Taliban will rise up and we also have the London conference. It's very shameful for all Afghans, not just Mr Karzai, if we go to the London conference without approved ministers. We should stop our vacation and continue our work in parliament," he said.