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In Afghanistan, Cabinet Fight Clouds Reform Efforts

January 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Afghanistan's parliament delivered a stinging rebuke to President Hamid Karzai on Saturday after rejecting 17 or his 24 cabinet nominees. Margaret Warner speaks with Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., Said Jawad, about what the vote means for his country's already cloudy political future.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a political storm in Afghanistan. And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Saturday’s vote in the Afghan parliament was a stinging rebuke to President Hamid Karzai, rejecting 17 of his 24 cabinet nominees. The surprise move caused new disarray two months after Karzai was declared winner of a presidential election plagued by fraud. Today, Karzai ordered parliament to cancel its winter break, so it can vote on a new list of nominees that he’s now preparing. He’s under pressure to show progress in governing by January 28, when an international conference on the Afghan mission convenes in London. Among the rejected nominees was influential warlord Ismail Khan and the only woman Karzai had named. Lawmakers criticized many on the list as unqualified political cronies.

Several holdovers in vital posts were approved, among them, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, and the minister of interior, Hanif Atmar, along with the ministers of finance, education, and agriculture.

I spoke to Afghan Ambassador Said Jawad today and asked him how big a setback this was to Karzai.

SAID JAWAD, Afghan ambassador to the United States: It may be a temporary setback for the president, but it’s a step forward for the democracy in Afghanistan. I’m — it’s really happy for the parliament of Afghanistan to do their job the way they are supposed to be doing.

MARGARET WARNER: That seems like a strange reaction. Setback for the president, but you actually think it’s a good thing?

SAID JAWAD: We are building institutions. We are building a state in Afghanistan. We have to keep focus on the long-term prospects of democracy and pluralism in Afghanistan. We will have setbacks in our way forward, both for the president and for the parliament. But, if you keep focus and have the institutions do their job the way they are supposed to be doing, the country will be better off.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think so many were rejected? What message was parliament trying to send?

SAID JAWAD: Frankly, I was surprised at the rejections, because a number of the ministers who were rejected belong to individuals or powerful fractions that has also a strong presence in the parliament of Afghanistan. The message that the parliament is sending is that they would like to see qualified Afghans occupy these jobs in the Afghan cabinet.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think some of them were in fact unqualified, and just chosen because they were either of President Karzai’s political base or were essentially, some have said, puppets of other powerful figures that had helped him in the election or whose support he thinks he needs now?

SAID JAWAD: The nomination of those ministers to the parliament wasn’t different from anywhere in the world. We had people who are truly qualified for these jobs and we had people who had strong political influence, or have contributed to the campaign, like anywhere in the world. This is the standard case in Afghanistan or anywhere else. But the parliament chose to be strict and approve only those who met the criteria of merit, which is a good step for Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there is a theory that President Karzai is actually relieved, that he went ahead and made these appointments that he felt he had to, — to pay off people who had helped him. The parliament then essentially did the dirty work of rejecting the unqualified ones, and now he can go back and appoint others.

SAID JAWAD: This is the reality of Afghanistan, as I mentioned. Now the president once again has a chance to introduce those who are considered to be better qualified to do the job.

MARGARET WARNER: So, where does this leave the government in the meantime? Kai Eide, the departing head of the U.N. mission, said it leaves Afghanistan still without a functioning government, which has been going on for way too long.

SAID JAWAD: I think the key ministers of — that are in charge of the security, defense, agriculture, education, and finance have been approved. So, they will carry on their duties. As far as the other line ministries, these are more technical jobs that could be carried out by the vice ministers or deputy ministers. I do relate to the concern that Kai Eide has indicated. He would like to see things moving much faster. But I think, if we started the right way, even if it takes a bit longer, in the end, we will be better off.

MARGARET WARNER: So, the president is now working on a new list?

SAID JAWAD: Yes, he is. And that list will be ready by Sunday.

MARGARET WARNER: And what kinds of people is he going to name this time? Will they be a new sort, or will he just reshuffle the old names?

SAID JAWAD: It will be the same way as it’s been done everywhere in the world. There will be people appointed based on merits, but the political realities of Afghanistan are also something that the president and the rest of the international community in Afghanistan has to deal with it. So, there will be people that will be probably renominated or newly nominated because of their political influence. And it will be up to the parliament to decide which way they want to take the country.

MARGARET WARNER: So, people who are expecting a radically new approach in the next list are going to be disappointed?

SAID JAWAD: No. No, absolutely not. It is easy to come up with a very radical list, put it forward, but it will not be effective in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, we’re not dealing with — to revolutionize the states in Afghanistan. We are building the state institutions in Afghanistan, with the limited constraint, with the constraint that we face as far as shortage of human capital, limited enforcement capability against undesirable elements, so that all of that will be part of the equation that we will be dealing with in Afghanistan for many years to come.

MARGARET WARNER: The president is — President Karzai is going to this London-Afghanistan conference at the end of this month. The international donors of troops and money were hoping that he would come with a new team with plans, and, in fact, progress already under way in making this a more competent and effective government. What are they going to see now?

SAID JAWAD: That Afghan people, parliament of Afghanistan, is serious about seeing reform being implemented in Afghanistan. And I think this is the kind of message that they would like to hear.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, thank you.

SAID JAWAD: Thank you. My pleasure.