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Karzai's New Cabinet Likely To Appease West

All eyes are on Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he unveils his new cabinet.
KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai will retain technocrats in key ministries when he unveils his new cabinet, parliamentary officials said today, a move likely to appease Western backers who want him to clamp down on corruption.

A list obtained by Reuters from the parliamentary sources, who declined to be named, showed almost half the ministers will be replaced or reshuffled, but for the most part they will not be the cabinet's top figures.

Karzai, due to announce his new government on December 19, has faced intense pressure from the West to appoint honest technocrats after being reelected in an August 20 vote marred by widespread fraud, damaging his credibility.

The U.S. State Department cautiously welcomed news of the new assignments.

"We are awaiting an official announcement and want to see that the nominations put forward reflect President Karzai's stated commitment to good governance and integrity and professionalism within his cabinet," department spokesman Darby Holladay said in a statement.

Karzai's proposed government lineup, which still needs to be debated and endorsed by parliament, does not include any figures from the opposition.

The interior and finance ministers will keep their jobs, according to the list obtained by Reuters, as had been expected. Both are considered technocrats and liked by Washington.

But the parliamentary officials said another in that category, Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, would stay in his post only until a London conference on Afghanistan in January. They did not give a reason why he would leave.

Defense Minister Abdulrahim Wardak, who NATO-led forces and most recently U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates have praised, will stay, the list from parliamentary sources said.

Western leaders who have troops in Afghanistan and are pumping millions of dollars of aid into the war-ravaged country are keen to see Karzai make widespread reforms to improve the way funds are spent and contracts are tendered.

Ministries such as education, health, and agriculture which absorb the most foreign money are not changing.

Some Disappointment

But Washington and its allies may be disappointed to see Ismael Khan, a once powerful guerrilla leader viewed by critics as a warlord and throwback to Afgahnistan's violent mujahedin war, keeping his energy post.

A strong plus for the West may be the appointment of outgoing Commerce Minister Wahidullah Shahrani to take on the portfolio on mines, which have the potential to earn Afghanistan significant revenue in the future. The outgoing minister for mines has been a subject of some media criticism.

During his tenure at the commerce ministry, Shahrani adopted a vigorous privatization campaign and has doggedly rooted out corruption. He fired corrupt people working in his ministry and appointed department heads he described as more educated and transparent in their operations.

He also fired 180 people at the government-owned petroleum enterprise, including the director general, whom he has described as "one of the most corrupt individuals in the country."

Almost all the names on the list are supporters of Karzai, despite the fact that after the disputed August poll, Western diplomats said they hoped his opponents would be involved in the future government in some capacity.

Karzai's main opponent during the election, Abdullah Abdullah, who led a strong campaign on an anticorruption ticket and refused to take part in a second round citing vote tampering as the main reason, has refused to join the new government.

Some members of parliament said the new list does not go far enough in creating a cabinet that is politically diverse and represents Afghanistan's competing factions.

"The problem is everybody who has supported President Karzai, they have got their share in the cabinet...The cabinet should be [a] coalition and reflect all factions," said Mir Ahmed Joyenda, an outspoken member of parliament for Kabul.

"The cabinet is like a limited company, all the members have a share in it," he added.

The United States is sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to try to turn the tide on the insurgency which has killed record numbers of foreign troops so far this year.

Western leaders need Karzai to act against corruption and impose reforms to show he is a worthy partner as public support in the West for the war has waned.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said July 2011 will mark the beginning of a drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, provided it is in a position to take care of its security.

All three security ministers, including the head of the National Directorate of Security which handles intelligence, will remain the same at a crucial time when thousands of new police and army recruits are being trained and deployed.

Karzai's patronage powers extend far beyond the cabinet. He also has 34 governorships to hand out, which will probably not be named until early in the new year. Many governors have made clear they would consider a move to the cabinet to be a step down.