KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai will keep technocrats in key ministries when he unveils his new cabinet, parliamentary officials said on Friday, a move likely to appease Western backers who want a clampdown 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 Saturday, has faced intense pressure from the West to appoint honest technocrats after being re-elected in an August 20 vote marred by widespread fraud that damaged 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 line-up, 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 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.
Defence Minister Abdulrahim Wardak, who NATO-led forces and most recently U.S. Defence 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.
“There’s a great deal of continuity and that may have been pushed by people from outside, including the donors,” said Brian Katulis, an Afghanistan expert at the Centre for American Progress, a Washington think-tank.
“Whether it is security force assistance or development of the key sectors like agriculture or health, a lot of that is coordinated through the ministries,” he added.
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 Afghanistan’s violent mujahedin war, keeping his energy post.
A strong plus for the West may be the appointment of the outgoing commerce minister, Wahidullah Shahrani, to take on the portfolio on mines, a sector that has 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 privatisation 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 ran a strong campaign on an anti-corruption 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 Taliban 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.
“With the corruption issue, it will be important for Karzai to make institutional changes in how the ministries are run, and put processes in place to take on corruption, so I don’t think we should focus so much on personalities,” said Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
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 up 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.
Writing and additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli and Yara Bayoumy; additional reporting by Andrew Quinn and Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Jerry Norton and Paul Simao