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Afghan Report: April 28, 2006

28 April 2006, Volume 5, Number 12
The lower house of the Afghan parliament approved 20 of President Hamid Karzai's 25 cabinet nominees on April 20. The outcome illustrates that the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) can function as an effective democratic forum. It also suggests that -- for now -- Karzai supporters in the lower house outnumber detractors. But two rejections -- of the only female nominee and of the long-serving culture minister -- could hint at trouble to come.

The confirmations of three key nominees -- at the Defense (General Abdul Rahim Wardak), Foreign (Rangin Dadfar Spanta -- see feature below) and Finance (Anwar al-Haq Ahadi) ministries -- represent a significant achievement for President Karzai.

They also signal a clear defeat for the fractured opposition led by lower-house speaker and former presidential candidate Mohammad Yunos Qanuni.

Fundamental Differences

But Karzai's broader victory might bring unforeseen consequences in the longer term, as he appears to have received the backing of conservative religious elements in the National Assembly.

While not unified under any single party, lawmakers in this fundamentalist bloc tend to focus on issues related to religion -- as opposed to ethnicity, language, or national origin. Many regard themselves as part of a united front to guard and interpret Afghanistan's Islamic identity.

Legislators dismissed five of the president's choices -- including Women's Affairs nominee Soraya Rahim-Sobhrang and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin. The other rejections were Gol Husayn Ahmadi (Transport and Aviation), Mohammad Amin Farhang (Economy and Labor), and Mohammad Haidar Reza (Commerce and Industry).

Vote counts suggest Rahim-Sobhrang and Rahin met with Islamist hostility.

Women's Affairs

Rahim-Sobhrang was the only woman on Karzai's list of nominees. Karzai told RFE/RL in early April that he felt women were well represented in Afghan political life -- pointing specifically to the bicameral legislature, the National Assembly. As a result, he suggested, his cabinet was recruited "for practical reasons" and "not political reasons." Karzai claimed the "place of women in Afghanistan has been secured, and women have the support of the people."

It is true that more than one in four National Assembly members is a woman. But it is also true that -- with a few exceptions -- none of those women would have reached parliament without the constitutional quota for female representation.

Karzai is likely to nominate another woman to be the next women's affairs minister. But the voting on April 20 illustrated how the conservatives feel about the status of women in Afghan society.

Guardians Of Culture

The rejection of nominee and current Culture and Youth Minister Rahin was arguably a serious blow to the cause of individual rights and freedoms in Afghanistan (see interview with Rahin below). A cultural battle has raged in the country since the early post-Taliban period between Islamists -- led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Mawlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari -- and Rahin's Culture Ministry over proper constraints on the media and cultural activities.

Karzai's choice to replace Rahin will say much about the future of Afghan culture. The committee in the lower house that oversees culture and media is solidly in the hands of conservatives, who are likely to push for a like-minded minister.

An 80-percent success rate -- including key ministries -- will probably have pleased Karzai and his administration. But the first major showdown between the country's young parliament and its powerful presidency is not over. Karzai said before the confirmation process that the legislature should be obliged to defend publicly its rejection of nominees.

Afghanistan would be well served by explanations from the People's Council as to why those five ministerial nominees were unacceptable. That is particularly the case with Rahim-Sobhrang and Rahin, two ministers who have worked with Karzai from the outset and have a record on which their rejections might be based. (Amin Tarzi)

Unlike his predecessor at the Foreign Ministry, Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's new Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta is a relative newcomer to Afghan politics and, indeed, to Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister-designate Spanta won approval by the People's Council on April 20 on the strength of 150 votes in favor, 75 against and 20 abstentions. From the 249-seat lower house, 244 cast their votes.

Spanta has sought to portray himself as a force for moderation and pragmatism in the proposed government -- a self-described "Muslim democrat" who wants to stay the course in Afghan foreign policy.

On April 17, in an interview for Pajhwak Afghan News agency, he accused those saying he wants to redirect Afghan foreign policy of "spreading disinformation." But while his main emphasis has been on a balanced foreign policy, specifics are few and far between.

Pakistan And Neighbors

Pakistan has been Kabul's most difficult foreign-policy challenge of late. In questioning during his confirmation hearing on April 13, Spanta touted the virtues of cultivating "reciprocal and multilateral interests" with Pakistan and other neighboring states. That, he said, would help "avert conflicts, differences and dangers."

But Spanta sidestepped a question regarding his stance on the Durand Line -- the disputed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- saying that it was beyond his authority to comment on the topic. And in January, responding to accusations by a provincial governor in a Tolu Television report suggesting that Pakistan was directly involved in terrorist activities in Afghanistan, Spanta had stated that "terrorism in Afghanistan has a behind-the-scenes supporter." Without naming that "supporter," Spanta said that there "is undeniable and viable evidence that such sources [of support for terrorism] come from over the Afghan borders."

Iran And The Middle East

On neighbor Iran -- whose officials are concerned by the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- Spanta has maintained that Kabul can achieve balance with respect to Tehran and Washington. On Iran's stance toward Israel, Spanta was clearer -- telling news agency Pajhwak that Afghanistan does not involve itself in "others' problems." But he also appeared to distance himself from Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's statements suggesting that Israel should be "wiped off the map," saying he opposes wiping out any people irrespective of their religious beliefs or national origins. It was consistent with the position he espoused in an RFE/RL interview in October, when he said such a policy "helps neither regional peace nor international stability." Israel, he added, is "a reality" that has "the right to live in peace with their neighbors, just as the Islamic Republic of Iran has the right to live without any foreign threat."

In questioning from People's Council representatives in early April, Spanta said that Afghanistan's policy toward official recognition of Israel was that a Palestinian state including East Jerusalem should be established before Kabul grants recognition to Israel. It represented a slight departure from the precondition suggested by President Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah -- they had only called for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Spanta's test before the lower house hinges on the strength of Karzai's plan to remove a pivotal member of the United Front (aka Northern Alliance) in favor of a qualified but unknown Afghan with only a peripheral involvement in a quarter of a century of tumult in the country. His approval would also strike a political blow to lower-house speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni and his aspirations to use the People's Council as an instrument of the opposition. In policy terms, Spanta's confirmation could provide solid footing for President Karzai to take direct charge of the Foreign Ministry and give it a fresh start.

Leftist Leanings

In a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan taped in late March, Spanta responds obliquely to a question about his youthful leftist leanings. As a 14-year-old, he says, his quest for "social justice" led him to support the views of a pro-Chinese weekly, "Shu'la-ye Jawed" (Eternal Flame). The publication was an organ of the Afghan New Democratic Society (Jami'at-e Demokrati-ye Nawin), generally regarded as comprising Maoist revolutionaries.

Spanta recalls that the majority of his movement's leaders paid for their early loyalties -- killed by governments led by the pro-Moscow People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), or by "extremist, fundamentalist" Afghan parties.

He says most of those still alive have espoused new ideologies, adding darkly that he has not "become a democrat through the power of American B-52s nor through the power of the [Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence] nor any other source." But he notes that many of his ideological brethren throughout the world have gone on to contribute significantly to their societies.

Sparta holds dual German and Afghan citizenship, but adds quickly that he is prepared to forego his German citizenship to comply with Afghan law banning foreign citizens from holding government posts. He notes that he was an active member of Germany's Green Party during his immigrant years there -- attracted early on to the party's support of immigrants' rights.

Spanta's Background

Rangin Dadar Spanta was born in the Karokh district of Herat Province in 1954 to a wealthy landowning family. His father was an elected representative in the National Assembly in the mid-1960s during the reign of King Mohammad Zaher. Spanta finished his primary and secondary schooling in his native Herat before enrolling at Kabul University. In the mid-1970s, he went to Turkey to continue his studies. According to his own account, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (December 1979), Spanta traveled to Iran, joining the Afghan resistance movement and becoming involved in a publication called the "Sada-ye Afghanistan" (Voice of Afghanistan). From Iran, Spanta traveled to Pakistan, where he further participated in resistance activities. Spanta says that in 1982, he was "forced" to settle in West Germany. For the first four years in Germany, he was in charge of a student association and continued to be part of the Afghan resistance movement. (Spanta emphasizes that he was part of the "democratic" orientation of the movement -- in Afghan political nomenclature, the term "democratic" until the post-Taliban period denoted left-wing.)

In 1991, Spanta earned a doctorate, writing his dissertation on the causes of Afghanistan's underdevelopment and the resistance movement in that country. From 1992 to 2005, he was a professor at Aachen University as well as director of that university's Third World studies institute. In January 2005, Spanta returned to Afghanistan to become an adviser on foreign affairs to President Karzai. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan lawmakers have refused to let two sitting cabinet ministers return to their posts. Parliamentarians voted to reject President Hamid Karzai's nomination of Economy Minister Amin Farhang and Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin to hold the same posts in the country's new cabinet. RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Darius Rajabian asked Rahin on April 21 how he felt after his candidacy was rejected by parliamentarians.

Rahin: I have to tell you that regardless of the vote of the friends [members of parliament], I feel proud of my very valuable service to Afghanistan's mass media, culture, and art.

RFE/RL: So, why did the lawmakers refuse to allow you back to your office? Do you have some shortcoming?

Rahin: I think all tribal and nontribal extremists from different ethnic groups probably do not agree with me because I took a very sober yet strict path regarding all ethnic and religious issues.

RFE/RL: Could you recall the successful things you accomplished during your ministerial term?

Rahin: I will summarize my activities in one sentence: the things that occurred during the last four and a half years in the Afghan Information and Culture Ministry are unprecedented in the last half a century.

RFE/RL: What exactly have you done?

Rahin: To be precise, I have to tell you that the steps taken by the ministry towards the freedom of expression and its institutionalization -- even if we had to take some risky moves -- are unprecedented for this country.

RFE/RL: What are your plans for the future now that you are no longer a minister?

Rahin: I teach at Kabul University and will keep working there. And my cultural and media activities will not be interrupted as they have been ongoing for the last 20 years.

Afghan authorities have launched a poppy-eradication campaign in the western province of Herat as part of the government's attempts to wipe out opium cultivation. But the project has angered poor Afghan farmers who depend on the illegal income that poppy harvests generate. Afghan troops with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers have been deployed to protect police as they slash down the blooming flowers.

Afghan police chop down poppy plants in Herat Province as the pink flowers have reached the point where they could be harvested for opium.

Heroin and morphine are derived from the plants. But the income generated by such crops is illegal. And the funds empower warlords who use the money to pay salaries to their illegal militias.

The Afghan government says Taliban fighters also are using money from illegal poppy farming to fund their insurgency.

Indeed, the illegal narcotics trade continues to dominate Afghanistan's economy. According to the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime, illegal drugs account for an estimated 60 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product and about 87 percent of the world's opium supply. More than 350,000 Afghan families -- roughly 10 percent of the population -- are thought to be dependent on opium production for their livelihood.

'We Are Poor People'

Among them is Abdul Ghafar, a poppy farmer in the province's Shendand district, about 130 kilometers south of the city of Herat. Tears of rage swelled from his eyes on April 16 as he shouted at the Afghan police who were chopping down his entire crop.

"This field feeds 20 members of my family," he said. "They all rely on this crop. Why are you destroying it? We are poor people. What should I do after this? I want the government to compensate this. You are Muslims. Why are you doing this? For God's sake, please don't destroy my field. I am happy to be killed. But don't destroy my field."

In 2002, the Afghan government offered poppy farmers up to $500 per acre of destroyed poppies. According to UN estimates, that same acre can earn a poppy farmer more than $6,000. Another offer included seeds for alternate crops. But many farmers have complained to RFE/RL that they have never received any compensation.

Jamal Husayn, another poppy farmer in Herat Province, says the Afghan government should keep its promise and compensate those whose crops are destroyed as part of the antinarcotics campaign.

"The government hasn't given us anything," he said. "Why do they have to destroy this? They should go somewhere else. We are poor people. This is the only income for my family."

But Herat Province Governor Sayyed Husayn Anwari says the eradication campaign is necessary to break the stranglehold that drug lords have on the Afghan economy.

"We are here to destroy the poppy fields," Anwari said. "This is the policy of our government -- to eradicate all the field-planted poppies. We will succeed with the help of God."

Prices On The Rise

Falling prices on the black market for raw opium last year due to a large harvest has helped the international community to discourage Afghan farmers from planting this year.

But United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan says that U.S.- led efforts to eradicate opium cultivation in Afghanistan have caused raw opium prices to nearly double -- from about $100 per kilogram last October to a current black market price of about $180 per kilogram. That price level has encouraged some Afghan farmers to continuing planting opium poppies.

A recent U.S. State Department report describes Afghan heroin production as an "enormous threat to world stability."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has vowed to destroy the country's illegal drug trade to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a narco-state.

The United States and Britain are leading the effort. Washington reportedly has earmarked about $700 million for the campaign. Britain already has contributed about $100 million and is seeking another $300 million from other countries in the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. (RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this story.)