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January 17th, 2015

The new old cabinet in Afghanistan


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


January 17th, 2015

The new old cabinet in Afghanistan


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

img40834On 12th January the new Afghan government announced the list of nominations for the cabinet. Massoumeh Torfeh assesses the nominees and the more controversial moves in the process, such as the decision to offer posts to former Taliban members. She argues that only by doing away with the old power networks can Afghanistan be brought closer to stability.

After weeks of waiting and under intense pressure from parliament, the national unity government of Afghanistan led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah has announced the list of its nominations for the cabinet. The president has asked all acting ministers to remain in their posts until the parliament approves the new nominations.

At first glance, the cabinet looks mediocre with many unknown faces and some repeats of the previous Karzai cabinet. In comparison, it is a more representative cabinet evenly divided between the various political groups that make up the unity government. It is, however, questionable whether it can deliver the ambitious plans set by the president.

The cabinet list tallies with the two lists that were leaked by Shamshad TV and Arman Melli newspaper. They had correctly named Sher Mohammad Karimi as the nominee for defence minister, and Salahuddin Rabbani as foreign minister.

General Karimi, the current Chief of Army Staff, is 70 and an ethnic Pashtun from Khost province. Rabbani, 44 and an ethnic Tajik, is the current chairman of the High Peace Council and the eldest son of former President Burhanudin Rabbani who was killed by a suicide bomber in 2011. The current Head of Nation Security Directorate (NDS), Rahmatullah Nabil, remains in his position. He returned to the post when the former head of NDS, Asadullah Khalid, was badly injured in a Taliban attack in December 2012.

Point of contention

The key post of interior minister, the main point of contention between the president and the chief executive, appeared differently in the two leaked lists. While Arman Melli had named Fazl Ahmad Manavi, Shamshad TV’s list did not include any names for that position.

Manavi, who was the head of the Independent Election Commission, was a fierce critique of Ghani’s camp during the presidential elections accusing it of extensive fraud.

The criticism has clearly cost him dearly with Nur-ul-haq Ulumi, who is a former communist party member and a former general of Afghanistan’s army during the Soviet era in the 1980s, being named the nominee.

Among the more controversial moves it was confirmed by a source close to the president that he had invited two former Taliban members, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef and Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, to join his cabinet. Although they have reportedly refused the posts, it is important to ask why the president invited such figures and whether he is likely in the near future to call them back for governorship posts.

Some may argue that it is essential to bring Taliban members on board to help the process of peace and reconciliation. The opposite could also be argued that in view of the rising threat from the Taliban and the recent video released showing Pakistani and Afghan Taliban joining forces with ISIL, it may pose a serious risk to have Taliban in the cabinet privy to national security decisions. The video is a stark reminder of the years of Taliban rule when they joined hands with al-Qaeda, turning Afghanistan into a training ground which churned out thousands of terrorists from around the world.

Ghani’s invitation to Taliban members does not make sense especially when considering a recent poll conducted by Tolo News to mark his first 100 days in office which showed that one-fifth of those asked view the Taliban as “enemies of the state” rather than “political opposition”, which is a title Ghani prefers.

Among other controversial names reportedly invited to the cabinet is Ghairat Baheer, a close relative of the notorious Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, with very close connections to Pakistan’s military intelligence, ISI.

It is believed that in the newly rekindled relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is a better atmosphere of cooperation and that the recent visit of ISI director general, General Rizwan Akhtar to Kabul on Sunday, has meant they will cooperate more “to check terrorism and extremism and restore peace in Afghanistan”.

Strategy for radical reform

Perhaps the submission of the cabinet list was the easiest of Ghani’s problems. He now faces the hurdle of parliamentary approval and, most importantly, the challenge of bringing a non-homogenous cabinet up to speed with his ambitious strategy for radical reform and good governance.

Many of the ministers have been chosen out of quotas allocated to power brokers and strongmen who helped Ghani and Abdullah to power. They will not necessarily be responsive to policy or strategy requirements.

Every member of the new cabinet would have to be tough on fighting corruption and the three security ministries need strong leadership as they face the dangers of a robust Taliban insurgency without the benefit of international backing.

“We cannot expect miracles,” said Fahim Dashty, a prominent journalist in Afghanistan.

“The fact that in comparison to Karzai’s government there are fewer ministers tainted with corruption and the cabinet appears to be more nationally representative is sufficient for cautious optimism at this stage,” he said.

Endemic internal, regional and international power games have entrenched Afghanistan for decades and it is true we cannot expect miracles from a national unity government that carries much of that narrative with it.

However, the sooner the president and the chief executive can shift the power structure away from those old power networks, away from the culture of strongmen and the Taliban towards their political and economic reform agenda, the closer they would be to bringing stability to Afghanistan. It would take much more than the lifetime of one cabinet.

This article was originally posted 13th January 2015 on Aljazeera American.

Cover image credit: flickr/isafmedia

About the Author

img40834Massoumeh Torfeh is former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

See previous posts by Dr Torfeh here.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the India at LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

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