KABUL Western officials are cautiously hopeful President Hamid Karzai will keep technocrats in key posts when he names his Afghan cabinet this week, a decisive moment for the newly re-elected leader whose standing has slid in the West.
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said the government list would most likely be announced on Wednesday. Other palace officials have suggested it could come later in the week.
Karzai, who was re-elected in an August 20 poll that was marred by widespread fraud, promised at his inauguration last month that he would appoint competent and honest ministers. Western leaders have publicly said the cabinet lineup is a first vital test to show whether he is serious about combating corruption.
Karzai won the election in part by receiving the support of powerful regional chieftains, and diplomats say there is no doubt he promised cabinet posts in return -- more in fact than he may actually have to offer.
"Karzai can't find where to put everybody. He promised a lot more positions than exist," said one of several diplomats who spoke about the cabinet under condition they not be identified.
A result has been weeks of rumor and speculation, with putative lists circulating around Kabul.
In his eight years in office, Karzai has consistently ruled through consensus, keeping former guerrillas and ethnic power brokers inside his government, a tactic he says helps keep the peace but critics say allows a free rein to warlords and crooks.
Several Western diplomats said they expect a certain number of allies of former warlords in the new government, but expect them to be kept out of key ministries.
"It's not just who is on the list but in which portfolios," one diplomat said this week. "I think we'll see a list that has acceptable people in the most important positions."
First and foremost for the West are the security ministries -- interior and defense -- whose incumbents were praised last week by visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and will be difficult to remove without Washington's support.
Also vital are the big spending ministries such as health, education and agriculture, that receive billions in Western aid.
Washington in particular says it will not give money to ministries unless it trusts the minister in charge, probably the single most direct way it can exert leverage over Karzai's picks.
Almost as important, but where the West has far less control, are ministries such as mines or energy, which have the potential to earn Afghanistan's own revenue in the future.
"Those are the ones where it is necessary to have good people so that the revenue doesn't get stolen," said a diplomat.
Excluding warlords altogether will be impossible. Two powerful ex-guerrilla chiefs -- Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalili, leaders of former Tajik and Hazara ethnic minority militias -- are already Karzai's two vice presidents.
Western diplomats would like to see Karzai sideline outgoing energy minister Ismail Khan, a once-mighty guerrilla leader, but expect he may stay on in some capacity.
Other ex-militia bosses with human rights records that alarm the west, such as Abdul Rashid Dostum and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, will not expect seats of their own but will want them for allies. So will leaders of the former anti-Taliban movement known as the northern alliance, which mainly backed Karzai's rival Abdullah Abdullah in the election.
In what would be a notable structural change, Karzai's allies have discussed giving a handful of ministers responsibility for clusters of ministries. The idea has support among Western countries, who see it as a way of improving oversight and giving more authority to those ministers they see as capable and honest.
The idea seems to have replaced a concept floated in Western capitals of a single "chief executive" below Karzai to improve day-to-day functioning of the government, which Karzai rejected.
Karzai's patronage powers extend far beyond the cabinet. He also has 34 governorships to hand out, which will probably not be named until early in the new year. Many governors have made clear they would consider a move to the cabinet to be a step down.
Those who lose out in the race for cabinet posts can also hope to be named deputy ministers, government advisors, heads of agencies or members of the upper house of parliament, jobs that all come with expensive perks and proximity to power.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)