Karzai ousts 2 ministers U.S. wanted gone over corruption

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 19, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai took a step on Saturday towards reassuring wary Western allies by appointing a new cabinet that sheds two prominent politicians accused of corruption and retains pro-American leaders in key posts.

After weeks of consultation with Western diplomats, Karzai selected a new political team that seeks to mollify American officials who have pressed him to crack down on corruption and assuage Afghan warlords who backed him during the fraud-tainted presidential election.

Karzai opted to retain the ministers of finance, defense, and interior, all of whom will play central roles in building a credible Afghan security force capable of eventually replacing U.S. and other NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The Afghan president also sidelined the current minister of mines and minister of religious affairs, both of whom have been accused of political corruption.

While American officials worked intensively with Karzai, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a guarded statement.

“We look forward to the lower house of parliament carrying out their duty to vet and approve candidates who will contribute to Afghanistan’s progress towards institutional reform, security, and prosperity,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy.

Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for Kai Eide, the United Nations special representative in Afghanistan, said: “This certainly represents a step in the right direction.”

Karzai’s cabinet choices were viewed as a critical test for the Afghan leader whose declining international stature took a severe hit earlier this year when he was declared the winner of a fraud-tainted election.

While Karzai eventually acceded to a runoff with political rival Abdullah Abdullah, his challenger accused the president of rigging the second-round and abruptly dropped out of the race in the final days of the campaign.

While President Barack Obama is sending between 30,000 and 35,000 more troops to Afghanistan in the coming year, there are ongoing concerns that the military campaign will be undercut unless Karzai regains the confidence of jaded Afghan citizens.

In a bid to address those concerns, Karzai opted to jettison the two most prominent ministers tainted by scandal.

He is replacing Muhammad Ibrahim Adel, the minister of mines who is being investigated for allegedly taking more than $20 million in bribes to help a Chinese firm win a lucrative contract, and Sadiq Chakari, the religious affairs minister who has denied allegations that he took part in a kickback scam involving Afghan pilgrims to Mecca.

Karzai may have won tentative backing from some Western leaders with his new cabinet choices, but his selections drew the ire of several Afghan lawmakers who are being asked to approve the list.

Khalid Pashtoon, a lawmaker from Afghanistan’s embattled Kandahar province, called the list unacceptable because it includes several ministers allied with powerful warlords.

“These ministers will work as puppets for these warlords,” said Pashtoon.

Perhaps the most controversial minister to be reappointed for second term was Ismail Khan, the conservative former guerilla leader who has been accused of human rights abuses.

Along with Khan, Karzai’s new team includes Vice President Marshal Mohammed Qasim Fahim, the Tajik warlord who has been accused of war crimes and suspected links to the Afghan drug trade.

Karzai also opted to delay naming a foreign minister until an after an international conference on Afghanistan in London at the end of January.

Fatima Aziz, a lawmaker from Kunduz, called the list a mixed bag and said that Karzai still faces competing pressures that will be difficult to balance.

“I don’t think that this will be a successful cabinet,” Aziz said. “Karzai is under pressure from the international community, warlords and other people who are trying to broker a deal.”

Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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