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Afghanistan's Unity Government Takes Shape

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

The proposed Afghan cabinet features many new faces, but stays true to the old guard. How is Kabul's unity government shaping up?

New Faces, Established Ties

President Ashraf Ghani pledged to bring in a reformist team made up of technocrats unhampered by Kabul's well established system of patronage.

In announcing his share of cabinet nominees, Ghani partly met his promise by leaving out former government ministers and current members of parliament. But his choices -- as well as those of political rival Abdullah Abdullah, the government chief executive with whom he was tasked with forming a "unity government" -- also show the old guard could not be left out completely.

"The names have changed, but the dynamics of power are the same," says Abdul Waheed Wafa, the director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. "Part of this cabinet is people who are related to the big families or political factions."

The most prominent of the new faces that still have connections to the old guard is Foreign Minister-designate Salahuddin Rabbani, who was nominated by Abdullah. Rabbani is the former head of the country's High Peace Council but is perhaps best known as the son of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed by a suicide bomber in 2011.

"You would expect both a need to balance political forces and to in some way reward backers and strive to have some good people there," says Kate Clark, country director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul.

The list, which has to be approved by parliament, also includes three women -- for the ministries of women's affairs, higher education, and information and culture.

Overall the proposed cabinet is full of relative unknowns -- young, uncontroversial figures nominated for posts such as public health, telecommunication, and religious affairs.

How well can Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani work together?
How well can Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani work together?

Strongmen Out

Unlike previous cabinets, there is a distinct absence of political strongmen, including prominent former warlords and factional leaders.

The exception is former General Noor-ur-Haq Ulumi, who was nominated for the powerful post of interior minister by Abdullah. Ulumi, a former Communist Party member, was a major figure in the 1980s, when he was a general in the Afghan army.

Under former President Hamid Karzai, former warlord Mohammad Ismail Khan was water and electricity minister and Bismillah Khan, who was a senior commander in the anti-Taliban former Northern Alliance group, served as interior and defense minister.

Clark says the decreasing number of political and military strongmen in the government continues a trend that began after 2002, when Karzai's first official cabinet was dominated by figures involved in the fighting during the Soviet occupation and ensuing civil war.

Finely Balanced

The main sticking point to the announcement of the cabinet nominees was over the powerful posts of interior, defense, foreign affairs, finance, and the non-cabinet position of chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's spy agency.

Current NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil was nominated by President Ghani to retain his position. But the four most prominent ministries were evenly divided between the president and Abdullah.

Defense Ministry nominee Sher Mohammad Karimi, chief of staff of the Afghan National Army, is a Ghani ally, as is the nominee for finance minister, Ghulam Jilani Popal.

Foreign Ministry nominee Rabbani has close ties to Abdullah's camp. The nominee for the Interior Ministry, Ulumi, endorsed Abdullah during the campaign.

Ulumi's nomination has raised some eyebrows. A Pashtun from the southern province of Kandahar, he seems to be an odd choice for Abdullah, who is closely affiliated with the country's ethnic Tajik community.

Abdullah was reported to have put forward former NDS chiefs Aref Sarwari and Amrullah Saleh, closely affiliated with Abdullah's Jamiat-e Islami political group, for the post of interior minister. But his preferred choices were apparently rejected by Ghani, leading to Ulumi emerging as the compromise nominee.

Some commentators have suggested, however, that the nomination of Ulumi shifted the ethnic balance in favor of Ghani, also a Pashtun. Together with Nabil, Karimi, and Popal, it means all the security posts are filled by Pashtuns.

This exposes one potentially unbalanced aspect of a proposed cabinet that includes Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, among others. "In terms of Abdullah's and Ghani's share of power we can say it's balanced," Wafa says. "But there are a lot of noises about the cabinet being unbalanced in terms of ethnicity."

Concerns Over Inexperience

The number of new, inexperienced nominees has raised concerns among analysts over whether they are equipped to successfully meet the enormous challenges facing the new government.

The Taliban has stepped up its attacks around the country, with Afghan security forces facing their stiffest test yet after the end of NATO's combat mission. The economy has stalled and foreign investment has dried up. Civil servants have also complained that they are only getting paid sporadically.

"The biggest fear among all these names is that none of them has got experience in governance," Wafa says.

He adds that to many Afghans the announcement of the nominees is a huge relief, coming after months of anxiety over Ghani and Abdullah's apparent inability to finalize the list of nominees.

Clark says that there are some strong choices in the list, but she is concerned that some of the nominees are not "obvious ministerial material," although she says it is too early to judge how they will fare. "I'm a little concerned that sometimes compromises mean that weak people slip in. You can end up with the lowest common denominator rather than the strongest candidate."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.