Karzai unveils new cabinet though little changes

Afghan President Hamid Harzai plans to keep most of his top ministers, mainly technocrats favoured by the West, in a new cabinet presented to parliament today, one of his ministers said.

Western diplomats have generally welcomed the list of 23 cabinet nominees, which keeps the heads of the key interior and finance ministries unchanged along with other technocrats, but others were concerned Karzai's lineup simply recycled old names.

Karzai is under intense pressure from Western leaders who have troops fighting a growing Afghan insurgency to show he is serious about clamping down on corruption. They see the cabinet as the first vital test of his commitment to fighting graft.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Anwar Jigdalak presented the list to a sitting of about 200 lawmakers in the Afghan capital, exactly one month after Karzai's re-election was confirmed following an August 20 poll marred by widespread fraud.

"You esteemed delegates of the people are asked to take another positive step by giving a vote of confidence to the above mentioned nominees," Jigdalak told the parliament, which Karzai did not attend.

Surprisingly, no nominations for the foreign affairs and urban development portfolios were named.

Officials earlier told Reuters Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, a technocrat seen by Western leaders as competent, would stay until a London conference on Afghanistan in January.

They did not give a reason why he would leave after that.

"The president had decided not to introduce the minister of foreign affairs to parliament for the time being ... (Spanta) will stay foreign minister, as far as the president is concerned he is the foreign minister," Spanta's senior adviser, Davood Moradian, told Reuters.

Only one woman, the minister of women's affairs, was nominated. The list still must be debated and endorsed by parliament before it becomes official.

With Washington sending 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban while public support for the war wanes, U.S. President Barack Obama is keen to show Karzai as a credible and trustworthy partner.

The US Embassy in Kabul said it wanted to see the nominations put forward reflect Karzai's commitment "to good governance and integrity and professionalism within his cabinet".

Almost half the ministers will be replaced or reshuffled, but for the most part they will not be the cabinet's top figures. The cabinet does not include any figures from the opposition.

All three security offices, including the head of the intelligence agency, are unchanged. Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has praised, keeps his post.

Those three portfolios are crucial at a time when tens of thousands of new police and army recruits are being trained and deployed, with Afghan leaders hopeful domestic forces can take over full security responsibility within five years.

The interior and finance ministers will also stay, as had been expected. Both are technocrats liked by Washington.

Some Western diplomats said the retention of top ministers reflected the difficulty Karzai faces in recruiting people who are qualified to take on big portfolios.

"It's recycling ministers from the last five years, there's hardly a sign of a renewed commitment to tackle some of the major challenges this country faces ... but the reality is the pool from which the president has to choose from is extremely limited," said a Western diplomat who declined to be identified.

Western leaders, who are also pumping billions of dollars of aid into Afghanistan, want Karzai to 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.

Washington and its allies may be disappointed to see Ismael Khan, a once powerful guerrilla leader viewed by critics as a warlord and a throwback to Afghanistan's violent mujahideen war, keeping his energy post.

But a strong plus is the appointment of Commerce Minister Wahidullah Shahrani to the mines portfolio, a sector with the potential to earn Afghanistan significant revenue in the future.

In his current post Shahrani adopted a vigorous privatisation campaign and doggedly rooted out corruption.

Karzai did not nominate any of the most powerful former warlords, with the exception of Khan, who threw their weight behind his election campaign. But they could yet make gains when deputy ministerial appointments or governorships are decided.