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Afghanistan: Karzai Insists All Well In Interim Cabinet Despite Faction's Role In Minister's Death

Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai says his administration remains strongly united -- despite the alleged involvement of senior government officials in the killing of the aviation minister last week. But arrests in the case already have weakened the clout of at least one Northern Alliance leader in the administration -- and perhaps strengthened the position of another.

Kabul, 18 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai is describing the killing of his civil aviation minister last week as a case of personal vendetta, saying that there were no political motives involved.

The Afghan interim leader insists his cabinet remains firmly united. But doubts linger following Karzai's allegations that Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman's death was the result of a plot by high-ranking individuals within the interim Interior and Defense ministries.

The accused are all members of Jamiat-i-Islami -- the powerful Northern Alliance faction of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud that forms the core of the interim administration. That party's most powerful members in the interim administration are Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni, and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. The former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, also is a member of the party leadership, having founded Jamiat-i-Islami in 1973.

Karzai, a member of the so-called Rome Group that supports former King Zahir Shah, explained yesterday how his cabinet functioned in the hours immediately after Rahman's death. He said Fahim and Qanooni had acted responsibly and provided information implicating their own party members.

"[The killing of Abdul Rahman] didn't have any political motives behind it. And the minister of defense and the minister of interior, they came to see me the day [after the killing]. And they told me, 'Look. We'd like to tell you something -- that those guys that did the murder were people in the interior and defense and intelligence departments.'"

Karzai said Fahim and Qanooni then asked him for instructions on what they should do next.

"I said I want to raise this in the cabinet. They said, 'Wonderful.' So we convened an emergency session of the cabinet in which the minister of defense came out and [said] that these were the [guilty] people, and that the cabinet should decide about it. The cabinet decided that [the names of the suspects] would be announced, and they would be arrested and they would be delivered to justice. So the cabinet is fully, fully united. Every member of the cabinet acted exactly as an Afghan minister. Not as a party minister."

Karzai also confirmed that the key suspects in the killing are close personal friends of Fahim and Qanooni.

"The people that the minister of defense and the minister of the interior announced [as the primary suspects] were basically people who were their friends for many years. So they brought those people forward. It was a very committed act of patriotism for Afghanistan that the ministers [demonstrated] in the cabinet meeting there. So there are no political implications [of a cover-up]. The cabinet is very, very much united in an Afghan straight way. I'm glad for that."

Indeed, the interim administration put on an impressive display of unity during the weekend. At Rahman's funeral on 16 February, Karzai stood side by side with Fahim, Qanooni, Abdullah, and Rabbani. It was the first time the five had been seen together at a public event since the inauguration of the interim administration in December.

But tension and uneasiness between Karzai and the others was clear to all who attended the funeral.

Anatol Lieven, an analyst from the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who is in Kabul this month to observe political developments, told RFE/RL today that Karzai had no choice but to project an image of cabinet unity on the issue of bringing Rahman's killers to justice.

"Otherwise, his own credibility and, indeed, the whole idea of the interim administration would have been simply been in tatters. You can't have a group of senior police and security officers murdering a minister and simply ignore it or treat it as of minor importance."

Lieven says the killing has been a disaster for the image of the interim administration, but adds that Karzai so far has succeeded, at least, in minimizing negative backlash from abroad. He says a vital part of that effort has been to get the Defense Ministry to arrest those involved.

"For the moment, things are sticking together. But of course, it's a very worrying sign of what could happen when rivalries -- personal rivalries, ethnic rivalries -- really come to the fore at the time [when a transitional government is named by] the Loya Jirga in June."

In fact, control of the transitional government is the political prize that all factions in the interim administration are now striving for. Lieven says the position of the ethnic Panshiris in Jamiat-i-Islami as a whole has been weakened because of the involvement of some members in last week's attack.

"Within the Panshiri group, it would appear that the defense minister, General Fahim, has emerged somewhat stronger than his rather more moderate rivals [Qanooni and Abdullah]. Apparently, most of the people involved were members of the Interior Ministry rather than the Defense Ministry -- though there were a couple of Defense Ministry people as well. And so the position of the interior minister, Yunus Qanooni, has clearly been even more weakened by what has happened."

Lieven says the revelations about instability in Afghanistan that Rahman's killing has provided to Western leaders also may strengthen Karzai's position in terms of international support. But he added that Karzai still must be careful to maintain some kind of consensus with the Panshiris. Without any real security forces of his own in Afghanistan, Lieven says an outbreak of armed hostility against Karzai by the Northern Alliance would spell the end of his role as a political leader.