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Afghan Report: April 15, 2006

15 April 2006, Volume 5, Number 10
By Amin Tarzi
The lower house of the Afghan National Assembly, the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), began the confirmation debate over President Hamid Karzai's proposed 25-member cabinet on April 4. The process is expected to take about two week, and marks the first major cohabitation test for Afghanistan's elected legislature vis-a-vis the executive branch. The process also provides a litmus test of relations between Karzai's administration and the fractured opposition led by lower-house speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni.

The fact that the People's Council is questioning each proposed minister individually is in itself a defeat for President Karzai, whose preference was for a single, up-or-down vote on the entire cabinet.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on April 5 (see below), Karzai stressed his desire for a transparent confirmation process. He expressed his hope "that our deputies will accept or reject these choices according to professional standards, their patriotism, and their integrity; and that no other criteria should determine their decisions." Karzai expressly rejected possible objections based on "any regional or ethnic bias" and said, "If a minister is rejected, I hope that the reasons given for the rejection will be enunciated so that we know why our proposed ministers were not acceptable."

Article 74 of the Afghan Constitution approved in January 2004 stipulates that if the People's Council wants to reject a nominee, it should do so explicitly and "on basis of well-founded reasons." A simple majority of those lawmakers must then express no confidence in that nominee in a plenary vote.

Rejections Expected Speaker Qanuni and his allies appear to be ready and willing to flex their muscle and challenge Karzai's dominance in the Afghan power structure. Some in Qanuni's camp regard the cabinet-confirmation process as a chance to demand that opposition members be included in the government (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," January 16, 2006).

The president clearly disagrees with that interpretation. Karzai challenged the Qanuni camp by reshuffling his cabinet in March -- days before his proposed government was presented to the National Assembly. The most obvious change was at the Foreign Ministry. Karzai gave that portfolio -- led for four years by Abdullah Abdullah -- to a former foreign-affairs adviser, Rangin Dadfar Spanta.

Abdullah was the last of the Shura-ye Nezar (Supervisory Council) triumvirate that was considered a strong power base in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. (The other two members of that "triumvirate" were former Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Qanuni himself, who served initially as Karzai's interior and later as education minister.)

Karzai stressed to Radio Free Afghanistan that Abdullah was not excluded, but rather chose to stay out of the new government. He emphasized that the makeup of the new cabinet is founded on "practical reasons...[not] political reasons," suggesting Karzai no longer regards Abdullah as a political asset.

'Historic' Opportunity

Parliamentary speaker Qanuni called April 4 a "historic day" following a quarter of a century of pain. He said Afghans had finally arrived at a point where they were choosing their own cabinet. What Qanuni meant by the nation choosing its own cabinet will become clear as the confirmation hearings continue.

Qanuni might use the scrutiny of Karzai's choices to showcase the power of the opposition that he informally leads. That scenario would require generating enough votes to reject nominees who are seen as the president's main allies.

If Qanuni opts to flex opposition muscle -- and garners enough opposition to vote down few major nominees -- Karzai will be forced to recognize that an effective opposition exists in the People's Council. That would presumably lead him to either tailor his policies accordingly, or seek to incorporate the opposition into his own government.

But if Qanuni tries -- and fails -- to block nominees for political reasons, then his standing in the parliament and as the unofficial leader of the opposition could be in grave danger.

Alternatively -- and particularly if he cannot garner enough votes to reject major nominees -- Qanuni might try to portray himself as above partisan politics. That would dictate that he conspicuously seek to rally lawmakers by touting the merits and qualifications of nominees -- without regard to his stated agenda. Such an approach would leave the burden of demonstrating that his choices were the best for the country on Karzai's shoulders. But it would also allow the president to maintain virtually all political initiative -- ensuring there is no proactive opposition.

Whatever the outcome, the current confirmation process is -- to borrow Qanuni's characterization -- a "historic" event. Much of this debate is being heard by the Afghan public. What Afghans do with this opportunity will profoundly affect their march toward a democratic society.

By Breshna Nazari
In an exclusive interview on April 5, Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks about his choices for a new cabinet and the confirmation hearings under way in the Afghan parliament. From his office in Kabul, Karzai tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that his cabinet choices were based on qualifications rather than trying to reflect the ethnic composition of the country. Karzai also says that outgoing Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah refused an offer to head a new ministry. Karzai also defends his decision to have only one woman in his cabinet, saying that women have been politically empowered with a strong presence in the parliament.

RFE/RL: The important story these days in Afghanistan is the proposed cabinet that you have submitted to the lower chamber of parliament -- the Wolesi Jirga -- for approval. Are you following the details of this parliamentary process through the media?

Karzai: Unfortunately, I don't really have time to follow all the details. However, I do receive reports from my media department. The other day, as I was on my way to the celebrations of the birth of the Prophet [Muhammad], I saw a short clip of the procedures on television. They were discussing the selection of the defense minister. It made me happy that we have representatives of the people and a good structure of political discourse. This is a great psychological source of strength. "Every person in Afghanistan, regardless of their ethnicity, has a right to the ministries of Afghanistan. No ministry in Afghanistan belongs to any particular group and every ministry in Afghanistan belongs to all groups."

RFE/RL: How sure are you that the cabinet you have proposed will be approved by the parliament?

Karzai: According to Afghanistan's Constitution, it is the duty of the president to choose the members of his cabinet. It is the job of the parliament to accept or reject those choices. It has the full power for such decisions. My hope, as an ordinary person as well as the president, is that our deputies will accept or reject these choices according to professional standards, their patriotism, and their integrity; and that no other criteria should determine their decisions. I have also done the same as the president of Afghanistan. And those who have advised me on the matter also followed the same line without any regional or ethnic bias. And I would like to hear the reasons why they were accepted or rejected. If a minister is rejected, I hope that the reasons given for the rejection will be enunciated so that we know why our proposed ministers were not acceptable.

RFE/RL: If the parliament rejects some of your cabinet proposals for any reason, do you have alternative proposals in mind?

Karzai: Yes, of course I do. It is the right of the parliament to reject these names. If the reasons are acceptable to me -- and if the reasons are clear so that the people of Afghanistan can see where things stand -- then, of course, we will accept them. But I do hope to have clear reasons. The most important issue is that the reasons should be very clearly spelled out.

RFE/RL: Did you choose your proposed cabinet independently? That is, did you consult representatives of different ethnic groups? Or did you make these choices personally by yourself?

Karzai: Yes, yes. Of course I consulted. I consulted a lot. In the past four years of my [term in] office, I have been accused of consulting too much. But luckily it has been proven that this is very positive because it has yielded good results. I have talked to all of my advisers, my deputies, with other brothers. We have had some very difficult discussions, too. After a lot of discussion and consultations which have been -- at times -- very difficult, we came to these conclusions. And this is a very positive thing -- to be able to discuss issues as a part of the decision-making process. Yes, my decisions have passed through the different layers of consultations. In all democracies of the world, it is the same. People discuss the issues. People consult. And once they have made a decision, they stand by it. Yes we have made our decisions based on consultations.

RFE/RL: One of the most striking elements in your proposals is the fact that Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has been removed from the post of foreign minister and Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta has been nominated to replace him. This follows your earlier decision to remove Marshall [Mohammad Qasim] Fahim from the post of Afghan defense minister. And in some media and political circles, it is said that this is an open move to sideline a certain military-political group. What is your response to this?

Karzai: Marshal Fahim is one of the sons of our [mujahedin], a patriot and [a man who loves] his country. I have a great deal of respect for Marshall Fahim. He has been my close friend and confidant. He has his own unique place in Afghanistan. He has been a respectable military man. He is a five-star general. And he is a senator. I hope that officially as my adviser, he will continue to cooperate with me. He comes to all of the National Security Council meetings. His is my dear brother. No one can ever reduce the respect that Marshal Fahim has earned for himself.

Dr. Abdullah is a mujahedin of Afghanistan. He has served this nation and we have great respect for that. He is my friend and I have a great deal of respect for him. He has served the cabinet for four years. And I have been very happy with his service as foreign minister. He has not been dropped from the cabinet at all. I have suggested to him that since we are restructuring the cabinet and creating an important new ministry -- the Ministry of Trade and Industry -- he should be in charge of that. He did not accept that. When he was in America [in March], I phoned him personally three times and requested that he become the minister of trade and industry before I made the decision. But he turned down my offer every time, saying that he thought he was more qualified for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But I wanted to create changes in the cabinet.

I also did the same with Hanif Atmar, who was a very successful minister of rural development. I requested that he take up another ministry -- the Ministry of Education. But similarly, I have made changes which are based upon my wish to change the structure of the cabinet.

Reshuffling is quite a normal step taken with any cabinet. This helps change the approach. It is possible I will not be a candidate [in the next election]. And even if I am a candidate for the presidency in the next election and people don't choose me, I will be happy to leave office. No post should be considered as a permanent position in politics. None of the positions of the Afghan government are permanent.

RFE/RL: There is one more point being made about your proposed cabinet. It is the fact that there is only one woman on your list. Some say this is not sufficient.

Karzai: That's a very good question. In the past three or four years, the cabinet has been the main representative of the people from various segments of Afghan society. It has operated as a cabinet. It has operated as the law-making power of the country. It also had executive roles. After the National Assembly was formed -- with lower and upper chambers of a legislative branch of government -- then the separation of powers became possible. There we saw that women had a lot of support in society. Some 27 or 28 percent of the parliamentary seats are held by women. So as you can see, their place is secured. Now that the cabinet is being proposed, it has more of an executive function. We have one woman in the cabinet. And it is possible that in the future there will be more women. Perhaps there will be three or four women.

[But] the cabinet is formed for practical reasons. This is not for political reasons. Today there may be one woman. Tomorrow there may be more. Likewise, today we may have so many representatives from Herat or Jalalabad and tomorrow that may change. Change is always possible in a cabinet. But one thing has been proven. That the place of women in Afghanistan has been secured and women have the support of the people.

RFE/RL: There has been commentary in the media -- and also within political circles in Kabul -- about ethnic representation within your proposed cabinet. The claim being made is that your proposals are based on ethnic preferences [that are not representative of the nation]. Some say you have been persuaded by advisers. What is your reaction to such remarks?

Karzai: Well, every ethnic group has a right to have a place in the government of Afghanistan. But no official position belongs to any one ethnic group. Today I am the president. And I am from Kandahar. In the past, we had my brother (eds. Not his biological brother), the honorable Ustad Rabbani, who is from Badakhshan Province. Tomorrow we may have someone from Parwan, Panjsher, Faryab, Nuristan, and so on. We must strive for a system in which any person in Afghanistan would feel they could reach the highest office. The government of Afghanistan is not just for the main large ethnic groups or main provinces of Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan is a place for all people of Afghanistan. We cannot have four or five main ethnic groups -- Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, or Hazaras -- claiming a right to all posts. We cannot have the Pashtuns say we are a large ethnic group and must have the Ministry of Defense or Foreign Affairs, and the Tajiks saying we must have the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Education. [We cannot have] Hazara claiming this ministry and Uzbek brothers claiming something else. Every person in Afghanistan, regardless of their ethnicity, has a right to the ministries of Afghanistan. No ministry in Afghanistan belongs to any particular group and every ministry in Afghanistan belongs to all groups.

Abdul Rahman, the Afghan Christian convert, is now safely in Italy. But the international controversy over religious freedom in Afghanistan continues (see RFE/RL Afghanistan Report" April 3, 2006).

The Afghan Christian convert who faced possibly execution in Kabul has arrived in Italy and is under the protection of police while his appeal for political asylum is processed, according to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The Italian premier refused to say where Abdul Rahman now is in Italy.

Italian news reports suggest that Abdul Rahman is staying at an undisclosed location near Rome.

"If you are not a Muslim in an Islamic country like mine, they kill you, no doubt about it," the Milan-based daily "Giornale" quoted Abdul Rahman on March 31. Vowing never to return to Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman said he has decided to change his name to Joel, saying that he read that name in the Bible and it "fits" him well.

The Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" on March 31 quoted 41-year-old Abdul Rahman as saying that he suffered in Afghanistan because of his Christian views. But Abdul Rahman told the newspaper that his religious beliefs helped him face the threat of death without fear.

His departure for Italy came swiftly after an Afghan court dropped charges of apostasy against him because of suspected mental illness.

Afghan lawmakers -- including Yunos Qanuni, speaker of the lower chamber of parliament -- on March 29 sent a letter to Afghanistan's interior minister demanding that Abdul Rahman be prevented from leaving Afghanistan.

"The release of Abdul Rahman was contrary to the existing laws of Afghanistan," said Qanuni, emphasizing that the Afghan parliament on March 29 had voted that the apostate should not be allowed to leave the country.

A self-declared spokesman for the neo-Taliban, Mohammad Hanif, on March 30 denounced the Afghan government for allowing Abdul Rahman to leave Afghanistan, saying that the case shows that the Afghan judiciary, parliament, and executive branch of government are under foreign influence.

Mohammad Hanif, like many conservative Afghans, believes Abdul Rahman should have been put to death.

Under a strict interpretation of the Shari'a law in force in Afghanistan, other converts who remain in Afghanistan could still face the death penalty if discovered.

That possibility prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a resolution that says it is not enough for Abdul Rahman to be freed on grounds that he is mentally unfit to stand trial. The U.S. Congress is now calling for Afghanistan to remove the death penalty for apostasy.

Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental group, says thousands of Afghans converted to Christianity abroad after fleeing the fighting that wracked Afghanistan for three decades. The group's Asia director, Brad Adams, told RFE/RL there are probably more than 10,000 Christian converts living in Afghanistan today.

In his first public comments concerning the case of Abdul Rahman, President Hamid Karzai told members of Afghanistan's Supreme Court in Kabul on April 4 that the decision by the court to release Abdul Rahman on the grounds that he is mentally unfit to stand trial was correct. Karzai said he is "very happy that our court...made a decision which is proved correct today," according to AFP on April 4. Karzai explained that an article in the German weekly "Der Spiegel" "proved" that the Afghan court was right in declaring Abdul Rahman unfit.

In his April 5 interview with RFE/RL, Karzai saying that the case of Abdul Rahman is closed added that Afghan laws does not allow conversion of Muslims to other religions.

By Ron Synovitz
An Afghan border-police chief who claimed that his officers killed 16 Taliban fighters in southern Kandahar Province last week is now under investigation for allegedly using the war on terrorism as an excuse to settle a personal blood feud.

Afghan authorities have detained a border-police commander from the southern province of Kandahar who is accused of ordering the killing of 16 Pakistani residents near the border town of Spin Boldak.

Kandahar's governor, Assadullah Khaled, said commander Abdul Razaq has been temporarily replaced at his post while the Afghan Interior Ministry investigates the killings.

Razaq claimed last week that the 16 men were Taliban fighters who attacked border police post near Spin Boldak on March 21 after crossing illegally from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

But Saqib Aziz, an official in the Pakistani border town of Chaman, said the 16 men were from the Nurzai tribe who were traveling to a Nawruz festival in Afghanistan. Aziz alleged that Razaq ordered the men to be killed as part of an ongoing blood feud.

Commander Razaq had reportedly been involved in a blood feud with the men since his brother was killed in a dispute with the Nurzai clan two years ago.

Some reports say the 16 men managed to travel all the way to Kabul to celebrate Nawruz. Those reports claim that information about their arrival in Kabul was sent to Razaq by an informant who was aware of the blood feud. The reports also allege that Razaq's men detained all 16 men at a house in Kabul -- then took them back to an isolated spot near Spin Boldak, where they were killed.

In an interview with RFE/RL on March 31, Kandahar Governor Khaled confirmed that the Afghan Interior Ministry's investigation is focusing on all of those allegations. However, he said that "at this point, before the investigation is completed, we can neither confirm nor reject these claims."

But Khaled also noted that the 16 men killed by Razaq's police officers had criminal records in both Afghanistan and Pakistan -- as well as suspected ties to an organized criminal group.

A senior Interior Ministry official in Kabul, General Abdul Rahman, said today that Razaq was taken into custody in Kandahar last week. He said Razaq was not fired, but has been suspended from his post until the investigation is completed. (Sultan Sarwar of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)