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Afghanistan: New Foreign Minister Steps Out Of Obscurity

Afghanistan's People's Council in session (file photo) (AFP) The lower house of Afghanistan's young parliament has approved the first of President Hamid Karzai's 25 cabinet nominees -- filling the top posts at the Foreign, Defense, and Interior ministries. Voting in the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) continues in a process seen as an important barometer of future relations between the administration and the fractured opposition. The most controversial of the president's nominees is Foreign Minister-designate Rangin Dadar Spanta. Unlike his predecessor at the Foreign Ministry, Abdullah Abdullah, Spanta is a relative newcomer to Afghan politics and, indeed, to Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON, April 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign Minister-designate Spanta won approval today on the strength of 150 votes in the 248-member parliament.

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."

Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta (file photo)

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.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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