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Afghanistan: New Cabinet Faces Major Challenges

President Karzai (center) at his 7 December inauguration Afghan President Hamid Karzai presided over the first meeting of his new cabinet yesterday. Karzai urged the 27 ministers, including two women, to avoid intrigue and work together for the future of Afghanistan. Karzai swore in the cabinet on 24 December, leaving out some rivals and warlords in favor of professionals. Analysts have hailed that move as a step in the right direction, but the government faces major challenges. It must still win approval from parliament next spring as well as find a way to wean the Afghan economy off the drug business and improve the rights of women.

Prague, 28 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Karzai told the cabinet yesterday that it holds the key to reconstructing and stabilizing the war-torn country.

"The people of Afghanistan have big expectations from all of us, and in your faces I see the desire to realize the hope of the Afghan people for a better Afghanistan," Karzai said. "I'm sure with our efforts we will make our country a better place to live."

Karzai's hope is that the government can make discernable progress on the economy, education and security. But the reality, experts said, is that the cabinet has mountains to climb in the coming months, starting with winning approval from the new parliament due to be elected in April.
"The presence of some people with expertise and knowledge in the cabinet shows that they can be effective for the executive organ of Afghanistan." -- Shukria Barekzai, editor of the women's-issues weekly "Ayne Zan"

Parliament's support is unclear, however. Karzai's chief presidential rival, Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, has announced his intention to form a new party to run in April's election.

"The main challenge they will face is to receive a vote of confidence from Afghanistan's [future] parliament after its formation," said Shukria Barekzai, the editor of "Ayne Zan," a weekly publication on women's issues. "We have to wait and see if the members of the parliament will give a vote of confidence to the people appointed by President Karzai."

For now, experts give Karzai's cabinet a vote of confidence. Karzai left out several influential warlords -- such as former Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim -- in favor of professionals. Barekzai noted that many of them have university degrees and studied abroad.

"It is too early to comment on the work and achievements of the cabinet," Barekzai said. "But the presence of some people with expertise and knowledge in the cabinet shows that they can be effective for the executive organ of Afghanistan."

But Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch's Asia, noted that the cabinet does include Ismail Khan. The powerful warlord, whom Karzai removed as Herat governor earlier this year, is now in charge of the energy ministry.

"It was a relief to see some of the more obvious warlords not in (the cabinet). The one major disappointment is that Ismail Khan is in the cabinet, although he has a portfolio that would not necessarily allow him to project his military strength and its possible that he's in the cabinet simply to neutralize him."

Neutralizing the many other private militias across Afghanistan may prove harder.

"Although there has been some progress in the disarmament process in Afghanistan, there is still a big number of arms in the hands of irresponsible people and there are still private armies in Afghanistan," said Dadfar Sepanta, a guest lecturer at Kabul University and a professor of politics in Germany at Aachen University.

Afghanistan is still reeling from more than two decades of conflict. Most of the country's infrastructure is destroyed. A large portion of the population, including some 80 percent of women, is illiterate. And the drug business is booming, with Afghanistan the world's leading producer of opium.

Karzai recently declared a "holy war" on drugs, saying their cultivation and trafficking is a greater threat than the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

The president has appointed Habibullah Qaderi, a relatively unknown figure, to head the newly created anti-narcotic ministry. But whether Qaderi can have an impact is far from clear, said HRW's Adams.

"That's possibly a step forward. It's not probably a question of bureaucracy," Adams said. "The question is one of political will and confronting the people who are profiting most off of this. And then of course at the other end, it is making sure that there is some viable economic alternative the small farmers who are growing it. And no one has come with very good ideas about how to address that in the short term."

The other major issue facing the cabinet is women's rights.

Massoudeh Jalal, the only woman candidate in the recent presidential elections, has been chosen to head a new ministry of women's affairs. She has reportedly said she needs the cooperation of the public health and education ministries in order to deal effectively with the problems women face.

But Barekzai, the editor, noted that it will be a major challenge for Jalal to turn her new ministry into a veritable force for change.

"Right now, the women's ministry is not in a position to have any achievements. With regard to the many problems Afghan women face, the ministry is right now something between a charity organization, an NGO and a government ministry," Barekzai said. "We have to see if she can convince other cabinet members that the women's affairs ministry is part of the executive branch [and] should therefore have executive power."

Karzai says security and prosperity -- elusive for nearly three decades -- are his main goals. His has given the new ministers one week to report back with plans on how to achieving them.