Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Old Faces for Karzai's New Cabinet?

Some observers worry that the newly-elected president will include former regional commanders in his new government.
By Hafizullah Gardesh

With his inauguration behind him, rumours are now swirling about who President Hamed Karzai will pick for his new cabinet.

Much speculation centres on whether two regional powerbrokers – former Herat governor Ismail Khan and Karzai’s election rival Mohammad Yunus Qanuni - will have seats in the new government.

Qanuni, who received 16.5 per cent of the vote in the October 9 presidential poll, has signalled that he is confident he will get a post, while Ismail Khan recently travelled to Kabul to meet Karzai.

Observers fear that naming either Ismail Khan or Qanuni to the cabinet would signal that the central government still feels it has to cut deals with powerful provincial strongmen and their political allies.

With Karzai's new cabinet due to be named in a matter of days, many Afghans are watching with great concern.

Qanuni is a prominent figure in the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e-Islami party and the Shura-e-Nezar, its Panjsher-based faction.

A close friend and advisor of Panjshiri guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated in 2001, Qanuni was part of the mujahedin government that many people blame for the destruction of Kabul. After the mujahedin took power in 1992, Qanuni was given a senior foreign ministry post. In 1993 he was the target of an assassination attempt by another faction, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami. He survived the bombing – but still has to use a walking stick.

In an interview with IWPR, Qanuni said he is keeping the door open to working with the new cabinet.

"I have been invited unofficially several times, but my participation in the new cabinet depends on the will of the people who voted for me," he said.

Ismail Khan, also a major figure from Jamiat-e-Islami, was for many years the ruler of prosperous western city of Herat, which he ran as a private fiefdom.

However, his grip on power slipped after an outbreak of fighting this summer and he was formally dismissed from his position as provincial governor in September.

After his dismissal, Ismail Khan's enraged followers - chanting "Death to Karzai" and "Death to America" - burned down United Nations and other international offices in Herat.

Once known by the less exalted title of Captain Ismail - he was a junior Afghan army officer when the jihad against Soviet occupation began - Ismail Khan took power in the western provinces of Herat, Ghor, Farah and Nimroz after the collapse of the Russian-backed government of Najibullah and awarded himself the title of Amir.

Imprisoned by the Taleban for three years, he escaped and eventually regained control of his traditional stronghold. He maintained a distance from Karzai’s interim administration, and particularly irked Kabul by holding on to the substantial customs revenues earned on the border with Iran.

On November 20 this year, Ismail Khan made the trip to Kabul to talk to the people who had sacked him as governor two months before. In an interview with IWPR, he said he was there at Karzai's invitation to discuss a possible position in the government. He did not say what job he might be offered, but analysts are speculating that it could be a post in the interior ministry, or the ministry of tourism and civil aviation.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about that prospect. While around 600 Herat citizens demonstrated in support of appointing Ismail Khan to the new government, thousands of residents of Shindand, a district in Herat province, protested against the same possibility.

Political analysts agree that including either Ismail Khan or Qanuni in the cabinet could signal that the Karzai administration is weak. But they have differing views on what the fallout would be if either man were named to the cabinet.

Qaim Babak, chief editor of the Jahan magazine in Mazar-e-Sharif, said that the inclusion of either man would be perceived as a betrayal of public trust.

According to Babak, the Afghan people demonstrated in October 9 elections that they no longer wanted an Afghanistan under the sway of powerful commanders and their proxies.

"I don't believe that the international community and Karzai would commit such a treacherous act," he said.

Mohammad Qasim Akhgar, a prominent political analyst, agreed, saying figures like Qanuni and Ismail Khan are too much associated with Afghanistan's past of factional fighting and warlords.

"If we have a cabinet based on the compromises of the past, than we will have a cabinet that has no authority," he said.

The Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium, a group of Afghan and international rights monitors, recently conducted a survey that showed Afghans have a strong desire to see militia groups disarmed. The grouping - which includes CARE International, Oxfam and Save the Children - concluded in a report that the time has come for the Karzai administration to stop making deals with the commanders.

The US-based advocacy group Humans Rights Watch sent an open letter to Karzai on December 3, congratulating him for dismissing Ismail Khan and another provincial governor, Gul Agha Shirzai, and welcoming the removal of Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim as defence minister.

The group urged Karzai to take advantage of an opportunity to create a new cabinet of well-qualified, professional individuals who were not tainted by participation in factional warfare.

Many ordinary Afghans are just as worried about the new cabinet.

Mahboba, a teacher at the Fatima Balkhi high school in Mazar-e-Sharif, said, "We want Hamed Karzai to name a professional cabinet, not bring back the old familiar faces."

Rauf Khoram, a student at the city’s Balkh university, agreed, "Ismail Khan, Mohammad Younis Qanuni and other people have [already] received more than they deserved from the people of Afghanistan for the services they performed during the jihad years.”

Khoram added he feared Qanuni and Ismail Khan might revert to old habits from Afghanistan's decade of civil war.

Wahidullah Shams, another resident of Mazar-e-Sharif, said the mujahedin had performed a valuable service during the war against the Soviets, but the time had come to pass the baton to others.

"The Afghan government once required figures like Qanuni and Ismail Khan, because they performed holy war and liberated the country from the Russians," he said. "But now the time has come to name experts to the cabinet; they [Qanuni and Ismail Khan] must not be in the cabinet," he said.

Shamila, a student in Balkh university, said she feared for women's rights under any government that included Ismail Khan.

"People like Ismail Khan are the enemies of women," she said. "Ismail Khan violated women's rights during his rule, and if he participates in the cabinet, what will happen then?"

Mohammad Asghar, a resident of Kabul, said Qanuni's record during the civil war should disqualify him from office, "Qanuni is responsible for killing people, and he should not be in the cabinet.”

Dr Kamran, a doctor in Jalalabad hospital in eastern Afghanistan, put it in stark terms.

"Karzai plus the nation equals success and construction," he said. "Karzai plus warlords equals failure and destruction."

Hafizullah Gardesh is an editor with IWPR in Kabul. Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif, and Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada and Suhaila Mohseni in Kabul contributed to this report.