After almost fifty days of delays and speculations, when President Karzai announced his new cabinet on December 19, he largely gave in to pressure by international donors who demanded a clean and effectual cabinet to tackle corruption. On the other hand, he neglected his reciprocal promise of government positions to the main warlords and other political power-brokers who helped him get elected; who took vengeance in the form of Parliament’s recent rejection of 17 of Karzai’s proposed 24 cabinet ministers a few days ago.
A closer look at Karzai's cabinet composition since 2001 helps explain the present crisis of elite disunity and fragmentation. Their actions have had serious implications concerning the direction and nature of state-building in the country.
The Bonn Agreement of 2001 de jure agreed to a "broad-based, multi-ethnic, politically balanced" government. However, de facto power was largely dominated by the Northern Alliance (NA), and within that by a small Military Wing of Jamiat Tanzim who were predominantly from Panjshir valley. NA took 17 of the 30 government positions, which included most the important ministries: Defence, Interior, Foreign, Intelligence, Planning and Commerce. Two main Chairman and Finance positions went to Rome Group.
This was a "winner-takes-all" scenario in which the Northern Alliance, who had liberated Kabul and were in possession of the city, took the most. It was an imbalanced cabinet, over-representing some groups and under-representing others. The failure to codify de facto power-sharing relations at Bonn brought about a fierce internal struggle between different elites within the Afghan government.
From 2003, Karzai pursued a policy of repression where he attempted to eliminate the main NA elites from his cabinet. The period between 2002 to 2005 became a fierce internal power struggle and contestation between different government elites, in which president Karzai and his Afghan Millet – with strong pro-Pashtun nationalist ideology – and close allies Jalili and Ahadi stood on one side, and the Northern Alliance Jihadis, mainly Panjshiris on the other.
By 2004 there was only one more NA member left in the cabinet, Dr Abdullah. However, he was eventually replaced by Dadfar Spanta, a Hirati, in 2006. The NA Jihadi elites were effectively replaced with predominantly Southern Pashtun and Western educated technocrats: Defense (Wardak), Finance (Abdul Haq Ahadi), Interior (Jalali), Reconstruction (Arsala), Economy (Farhang) and Rehabilitation and Rural Development (Hanif Atmar). Karzai's repression policy went beyond this. By 2004 he managed to coercively co-opt Ismail Khan, Rashid Dostum and Gul Aga Shirzai, three of the country's most powerful warlords, through the offer of positions in the central government.
Since 2006, Karzai has complemented his policy of repression with the policy of accommodation in creating a complex network of relationships with commanders, tribal leaders, and other power brokers. The 2009 election was a reflection of this policy, when Karzai struck deals with the main power-brokers such as Dostum, Mohaqeq, and others in exchange for promises of cabinet positions, further status and privileges. The interesting question is whether Karzai has given in to the interests of these power-brokers or not?
Karzai's proposed cabinet, overall, can hardly be characterised as a significant change. Half of the cabinet consists of the key ministries is Karzai's old boy network, who have been around him since 2005. These are also mainly Western-educated technocrats who are strongly favored by donor countries. He has kept thirteen out of twenty four ministers including Ministers of Defense Abdul Rahim Wardak, Interior Hanif Atmar, and Finance Omar Zakhilwal. There are only eight new faces appointed to the second-ranking ministries of Social Security, Trade, Border and Tribal Affair, etc. However, it is interesting to observe that these new appointees are not backed by the main ethnic-regional power-brokers and warlords who got Karzai elected in the first place. Therefore, the recent rejection by parliament of 17 cabinet ministers was a reaction from these main power-brokers who are either themselves an MP in the parliament or have influential party members inside.
It seems that once again these powerful elites have illustrated and exercised their direct and indirect power over the president. It will be interesting to see how president Karzai can balance international pressure on one hand, and these ethnic-regional power-brokers on the other.
Timor Sharan is a British-Afghan and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Exeter focusing on post-conflict intervention and state-building in Afghanistan.
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