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Do Afghan Cabinet Rejections Mark Decline Of Warlord Power?

Is Hamid Karzai (right) ready to turn down the demands of powerful warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum?
Is Hamid Karzai (right) ready to turn down the demands of powerful warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum?
When Afghan President Hamid Karzai held a detailed session with Afghan academics, journalists, and civil-society leaders today, he primarily sought to gain their perspectives on the situation in the country ahead of a major international conference on Afghanistan scheduled for later this month in London.

Kabul-based analyst Ahmad Sayedi was among those in attendance. He tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he advised Karzai that aside from his Western allies, he must have good relations with neighbors who have a major influence inside Afghanistan.

But according to Sayedi, his comments on domestic affairs had more bite. "I told him that in domestic affairs you always prefer deal-making," he says.

"And I told President Karzai that you always consult only people who consider themselves the proprietors of ethnic groups and jihad, and that you have not consulted the intellectual and political minds of the nation."

Sayedi says that he told Karzai that his disagreements with the West "are not in our national interest."

This highlights the bind Karzai finds himself in just two months into his new term as he tries to appease both foreign and domestic critics.

One example is the parliament's rejection on January 2 of two-thirds of his cabinet nominees.

With his Western allies, and the majority of Afghan lawmakers and their constituents looking for Karzai to form a "clean" and technocratic government, he must propose new candidates to fill 17 ministerial posts by the end of this week.

But the warlords and regional strongmen who helped him win the controversial presidential election in August are urging him to fulfill his preelection promises by including their preferred nominees in his cabinet.

In press statements and interviews, former militia commanders Abdul Rashid Dostum and Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq have urged Karzai to either renominate their preferred candidates or appoint their second choices as he cobbles together a list of new names to send to the parliament.

Losing Their Pull?

There are also early signs that sizeable segments of the former mujahedin factions are charting out a new political strategy in the event Karzai does not honor his campaign promises to them.

The term "mujahedin" refers loosely to militia members who fought against or alongside the Red Army in the 1980s. They then fought a bitter civil war among themselves or against the Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies in the 1990s. Many of them grabbed power as they sided with the U.S.-led coalition as it attacked the Taliban after September 11, 2001.

But Kabul University law and political science professor Nasrullah Stanekzai suggests that these warlords and militia commanders might have lost the leverage they once enjoyed as a disruptive force in Afghanistan.

As an example, he points to the 2009 presidential elections, when they assured Karzai that they could deliver the support of certain ethnic blocs, but failed.

"It would not be politically expedient for these [militia] leaders to tell the president to include their nominees from their factions in the cabinet, because they won't be able to forge a good working relationship with the president," Stanekzai says.

"I believe that they cannot cause fundamental problems. I don't think it is such a big issue if the Afghan president and the [Western] coalition want to create an effective team, because that is also demanded by the Afghan people."

Nothing's Changed

Thomas Ruttig, a former United Nations and European diplomat, has a different take, however. He says that Karzai never intended for nominees of the warlord parties to be rejected.

Based on his deliberations with sources in Kabul, Ruttig does not discount the possibility that Karzai will renominate four rejected ministerial candidates, including Mohammad Ismail Khan, a former energy minister and militia commander who controlled the western Herat Province.

However, Ruttig notes, the parliament's rejections do give Karzai an opportunity to demand more competent nominees from his allies. "It has increased Karzai's room to maneuver. So he can say, 'I did my best, the parliament rejected it, and now you can hopefully come up with better nominees,'" he says.

"That was also the yardstick the international community wanted to use at the London conference. Let's see what the next batch of nominees look like."

Unlike many Afghan analysts, Ruttig does not see the warlords' power declining. He points to the influence they have in Afghan society, on the economy, and in politics, and suggests that renewed Western support for forming anti-Taliban community militias could offer a new opportunity for the powerbrokers to strengthen their political and military roles.

"I do not see really substantial change in the circumstances -- not in Karzai's position and also not in other parts of power politics in Afghanistan," Ruttig says.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Jan Aka Alekozai and Faizullah Qardash contributed to this report
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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