KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai plans to keep most of his top technocrat ministers favored by the West in a new cabinet presented to parliament on Saturday.
Western diplomats have generally welcomed the list of 23 cabinet nominees, which keeps the heads of the key interior and finance ministries unchanged along with other technocrats.
But some Afghan lawmakers and citizens who were hoping for a refreshing change in a government dogged by corruption said Karzai’s lineup was a list of recycled figures that would lead to a lackluster cabinet unable to take assertive decisions.
Karzai is under intense pressure from Western countries whose funds and troops support his government to show he is serious about clamping down on corruption. They see the cabinet as the first vital test of his commitment to fighting graft.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Anwar Jigdalak presented the list to lawmakers for their approval, one month after Karzai’s re-election was confirmed after an August 20 poll marred by rampant fraud.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the 30,000 extra troops Washington is sending to Afghanistan will not be effective against the growing Taliban insurgency if the Afghan government cannot win the loyalty of its own people.
In the first official comment from the West, Canada welcomed Karzai’s proposed list, which must be approved by parliament.
“We are pleased to see that the list of candidates includes competent individuals, some of whom we have worked with in the past,” said ambassador William Crosbie, whose country has 2,800 troops in Afghanistan, mainly in southern Taliban strongholds.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement that he welcomed Karzai’s partial list of cabinet candidates and shared his view that his people deserved “an effective government characterized by integrity and professionalism...”
He also welcomed Karzai’s “stated commitment to fighting corruption.”
Karzai did not attend the parliamentary session. Speaker Younus Qanuni said the chamber would meet on Sunday to discuss his nominations.
Wahid Omar, Karzai’s spokesman, defended Karzai’s nomination of old faces from his previous administration.
“The only standard for those who remain in the cabinet has been their efficiency, effectiveness and proficiency,” Omar said.
“Our interpretation of change is that those who are effective, who have had achievements in the past, should be kept,” he told a news conference.
Some Western diplomats said before Karzai’s list was given to parliament the retention of top ministers showed he had a limited pool of qualified candidates to take on big portfolios. Afghan lawmakers lamented there were not enough new faces.
“My opinion is that there won’t be any major change and it won’t be a very good start for Afghanistan,” said lawmaker Alam Gul Kochai.
Kabul resident Najmuddin Khan agreed: “We don’t have new faces in the new cabinet. The old ones will not do anything. In the past eight years, they haven’t served the country.”
Surprisingly, no nominations for the foreign affairs and urban development portfolios were named.
Officials earlier told Reuters that Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, a technocrat seen by Western leaders as competent, would stay on until a London conference on Afghanistan in January.
They did not say why he would leave after that. Spanta’s senior adviser, Davood Moradian, said Spanta remained foreign minister as far as Karzai was concerned.
Only one woman, the minister of women’s affairs, was chosen.
Almost half the ministers will be replaced or reshuffled, but for the most part they will not be the cabinet’s top figures. The cabinet does not include any figures from the opposition.
All three security offices, including the head of the intelligence agency, are unchanged. Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who the West has praised, kept his post.
Those portfolios are crucial at a time when new police and army recruits are being trained and deployed, with Afghan leaders hopeful they can take the lead in security in five years.
Western leaders, who are also pumping billions of dollars of aid into Afghanistan, want Karzai to make widespread reforms to improve the way funds are spent and contracts are tendered.
In an apparent yielding to pressure from the West on corruption, Karzai replaced two ministers who media reports have accused in the past few weeks of bribery or graft.
Karzai replaced Religious Affairs Minister Sadiq Chakari, who had two officials at his ministry under investigation for corruption. The mines minister has also been replaced.
Ministries such as education, health and agriculture, which absorb the most foreign aid, are not changing.
Some analysts said they were concerned the large size of the cabinet would hamper fast decision-making and create unnecessary overlaps, increasing bureaucratic red tape.
“The process of decision making will be very difficult in all these ministries. Instead of collaborating, they will fight over resources,” said Kabul-based political analyst Haroun Mir.
Washington and its allies may be disappointed to see Ismail Khan, a once powerful guerrilla leader, keeping his energy post. This is seen as a delicate balancing act by Karzai, who needs to appease political allies at home as well as answer Western demands.
A strong plus is the appointment of reform-minded Commerce Minister Wahidullah Shahrani to the mines post, a sector with the potential to earn Afghanistan massive revenue in the future.
Karzai did not nominate any of the most powerful former warlords, except Khan, who threw their weight behind his election campaign. But they could yet make gains when deputy ministerial appointments or governorships are decided.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Samar Zwak; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by Tim Pearce