Karzai set to sacrifice lambs, not wolves

Foreign and defence ministers expected to go as embattled President hangs on to crucial power-brokers

Afghanistan's beleaguered President Hamid Karzai makes his inauguration speech tomorrow, acutely aware that his disgruntled international backers will be poring over it for signs that he intends to mend his ways. But while he may carry out a cull of ministers, diplomats are expecting them to be minor sacrificial lambs rather than the worst offenders.

Mr Karzai's two running mates are expected to be confirmed as his vice-presidents: Muhammed Qasim Fahim, accused of drug trafficking, and Abdul Karim Khalili, charged in a human rights report with alleged war crimes.

When Mr Karzai made his victory speech earlier this month, following an election win mired in allegations of massive fraud, he signalled his defiance by choosing to be flanked by the two men. Diplomats described the choreography as deliberately provocative towards the US and Nato powers pressing for the removal of warlords and power-brokers who have been accused of flouting the rule of law and undermining governance.

Neither Mr Fahim nor Mr Khalili are expected to lose their places in the new cabinet. Instead, the widespread expectation is that foreign minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, and defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, will be booted out as the President seeks to consolidate his power base for his second term. The two ministers do not have reputations for corruption nor are they considered to have been particularly bad at their jobs. But they do not control large vote banks, or enjoy powerful tribal followings.

Mr Spanta was promoted from presidential foreign policy advisor to foreign minister four years ago. A former Marxist, he has irritated Washington with his sometimes caustic criticism of Western policy in his country, but US officials acknowledge that in comparison to many others in Afghan public life, he is "relatively" clean.

While Gen Wardak has built up a good working relationship with Western commanders, in Kabul it is felt that he may be moved, using the excuse that a fresh mind is needed to revamp the Afghan security forces.

If they do go, both men are likely to be replaced by figures approved by Abdullah Abdullah – the man whose strong showing forced a second round, only for him to pull out citing unsatisfactory polling conditions – and Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president.

But Mr Karzai would not risk angering Messrs Fahim or Khalili, even if he did feel like trying to placate the West or his former adversary. Mr Fahim brought in the Tajik vote in the August polls and Mr Khalili pulled in the Hazara ballots, thus ensuring that Mr Abdullah did not gain as much of the non-Pashtun vote as he might have hoped.

Similarly, Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum, who US President Barack Obama has declared should be investigated over the killings of thousands of Taliban prisoners, is unlikely to face any charges as he delivered a large portion of the Uzbek vote to Mr Karzai. Indeed, the former Northern Alliance commander, who once reportedly killed opponents by crushing them with his tanks, felt confident enough about his position to return from semi-exile in Turkey to congratulate the Afghan president on his victory.

Critics point out that Mr Karzai will be annointed president in the same week that a new report showed Afghanistan slipping down the corruption ranks to second from bottom. According to the corruption watchdog, Transparency International, Afghanistan is now 179th, with only the lawless state of Somalia below it.

With almost 110,000 Western troops in Afghanistan, and pleas from military chiefs for more to be sent, Mr Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown are keen to prove to voters at home – who are seeing an increasing number of coffins returning – that the eight-year-old mission to defend Mr Karzai's government is worth fighting.

Kabul will be under lockdown tomorrow, with the airport closed and Afghans given a public holiday and advised to avoid "unnecessary movements". Journalists have been banned from the ceremony but 800 guests will throng the presidential palace. There is still speculation in some circles that Mr Obama himself might swing by at the end of his week-long tour of Asia.

In a speech yesterday, Mr Miliband said he expected Mr Karzai's speech to lay out a positive agenda for the Afghan people. "We shall be there to act as witnesses to what should be a new contract between President Karzai and people," he told delegates at the Nato Parliamentary Assembly in Edinburgh. "In the eyes of the Afghan people and the wider world, this means addressing the corrosive fear of corruption."

However, the feeling among Western diplomats is that while Mr Karzai is likely to pledge to take a more robust line against corruption, following on from this week's announcement of an anti-graft unit – none of the heads of the prime corruption suspects are likely to roll.

Deputies in disgrace

*MUHAMMED QASIM FAHIM

The West has long had trouble deciding how to deal with perhaps the most influential of President Hamid Karzai's supporters.

Mr Fahim worked closely with the CIA when they toppled the Taliban in 2001, pocketing millions of dollars.

He was appointed defence minister in 2002, but failed to curb his involvement in the drugs trade, routinely flying heroin north to Russia.

Karzai nominated the ethnic Tajik as his running mate, to curry support among former opponents, even though US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned him that doing so would undermine his relations with the US.

The prospect of Fahim as vice-president provoked outrage among human right groups, who said any return to power for Fahim would be a "terrible step backwards for Afghanistan". They pointed to his role in the Afshar Massacre, in which about 800 members of the Hazara ethnic group were murdered in a bout of rape and killing in 1993.

Fahim is reported to have tortured Karzai soon after the massacre and would have had him killed had a rocket not landed, allowing him to escape. But all that bad blood appears to have been forgotten.

*KARIM KHALILI

Ethnic Hazara warlord Karim Khalili is Mr Karzai's second vice-presidential running mate.

During much of the 1990s he was leader of the Hezbe Wahdat party, operating out of his stronghold in Afghanistan's central highlands. Human rights activists have published extensive evidence suggesting his militia, thought to number as many as 30,000 fighters, was responsible for pillaging, murder and abducting ethnic rivals.

Eventually defeated and driven out of Afghanistan by the Taliban, Khalili returned a few months before 9/11 to take up arms against them.

In November 2001 his troops led the assault on the town of Bamiyan where months before the Taliban had blown up giant statues of the Buddha.

Witnesses quoted in a 2003 Human Rights Watch report claimed that Mr Khalili's subordinates were continuing to kidnap, rape and forcibly recruit. Khalili became vice president in Afghanistan's transitional government and was sworn in again after the 2004 elections. He is reportedly the only major Hazara warlord to take a job in the transitional government and still be alive.

Reporting by Julius Cavendish in Kabul

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