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The Afghan Government's Crisis Of (No) Confidence

Which other ministers might Afghan President Hamid Karzai (center, presiding over a cabinet meeting) be forced to sacrifice?
Afghanistan's parliament has moved to address cracks in the main pillars of national security. Now President Hamid Karzai is left to make sure his fragile government is not undermined.

The legislature's votes of no confidence in Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismullah Mohammadi on August 4 were unexpected, and have the potential to cause far-reaching upheaval.

The two officials, who had assumed responsibility over the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP), have been demoted to "acting" status until replacements are found. Discontent over security lapses and perceived inaction by the two ministers in the face of a spate of cross-border rockets fired from Pakistan was the main reason for the no-confidence measure.

A change in leadership could send shock waves through the prominent ministries, says Jeffrey Dressler, a senior analyst and team leader for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.

The jobs of hundreds of officials are dependent on patronage networks overseen by the two men, and a major overhaul within the ministries would likely extend to the ANA and ANP -- the main forces being groomed to take over security duties as foreign troops draw down.

Dressler says the Afghan president, who has final say on all ministerial appointments and can veto parliament's no-confidence decision, maintains a precarious balance of power between the country's rival ethnic, religious, and political groups.

Delicate Balancing Act

The latest action requires Karzai to tread carefully to ensure that his proposed replacements for Wardak and Mohammadi maintain the delicate status quo.

Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak faced questions over his handling of security.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak faced questions over his handling of security.
Wardak, who enjoys strong ties with Kabul's Western allies, has served as defense minister since 2004. An ethnic Pashtun, he holds sway in eastern Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Mohammadi, a powerful ethnic Tajik leader, was appointed interior minister by Karzai in 2010. A leader in the former Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban coalition, Mohammadi served as chief of staff of the ANA since 2002.

"Parliament forcing, or at least insisting, that Karzai make this change will force him to relook how he has structured his political landscape," Dressler says. "And that is not always an easy, clean process. It can sometimes be dirty and it can sometimes be corrupt. There is also a lot of risk involved and uncertainty into how that works out."

Dressler adds that the dismissals of Wardak and Mohammadi would have to be seen in the context of the country's upcoming presidential elections in 2014, when the scheduled withdrawal of foreign forces is expected to be completed.

Although Karzai is barred from seeking a third term in office under the constitution, the president and his inner circle may be freeing up possible vacancies in the cabinet to feed an entrenched patronage system.

"Part of this could be recalibrating the political arrangements ahead of the elections in 2014 and creating space for more accommodation that either Karzai or other powerful individuals want to rejiggle the system and create some new patronage arrangements with individuals who Karzai and others might need in the system," Dressler notes.

Tainted By Corruption

The ouster of two prominent ministers could also signal a larger shake-up within the halls of power, says Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Center For Strategic Studies, a Kabul-based think tank.

Karzai's government is under mounting pressure both domestically and from the international community to tackle rampant corruption.

Donor nations pledged some $16 billion in aid to Kabul last month at a Tokyo conference. But that money is tied to a new monitoring process that seeks to ensure aid money is not mismanaged by corrupt officials.

Could Finance Minister Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal be next?
Could Finance Minister Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal be next?
In response, Karzai last month issued a 23-page decree of proposed anticorruption measures that affects every ministry. Unlike previous pledges, the decree orders every ministry to take specific measures to eliminate corruption and to report back to the president within a fixed deadline.

While the initiative has been labeled by some lawmakers as "ridiculous," Karzai may be acting on his decree by playing a silent hand in the shake-up at the top of the country's two most powerful ministries.

"What Karzai might have wanted was that these two politicians should go in order to honor his wide range of [anticorruption] reforms," Rahmani says. "I think his intention was to give momentum to these reforms, while convincing the public that he wants to bring change."

The Next Head To Roll?

The Wardak and Mohammadi cases might be just the precursor to a broader government reshuffle, Rahmani adds, with Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal also coming under intense scrutiny amid allegations of corruption.

Corruption allegations against Zakhilwal recently surfaced after bank account statements leaked by the media revealed that he had accumulated more than $1.5 million.

Zakhilwal, who says the allegations against him are politically motivated, claims that the money comes from his private business ventures before he took office in 2009.

Afghanistan's anticorruption body, the High Office of Oversight and Anticorruption, has sent a letter to the president urging him to suspend Zakhilwal until an investigation into his alleged wrongdoing is completed. Afghan lawmakers have thrown in their support, with some calling for no-confidence proceedings to be brought against the embattled finance minister.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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