January 15, 2015 / 11:12 PM / 3 years ago

Afghan leader seeks to sideline powerful bloc in break with past

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (C) speaks during celebrations to commemorate Afghanistan's 95th anniversary of independence as he is flanked by presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah (R) and Ashraf Ghani in Kabul in this August 19, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/Files

KABUL (Reuters) - The Afghan cabinet, finalised this week after months of haggling, leaves a powerful faction that helped oust the Taliban in 2001 significantly weakened, in a bold but risky break from the past by President Ashraf Ghani.

Known as “mujahideen” because many also fought the Soviets in the 1980s, the group is angry at being overlooked for key security posts and is threatening to block nominees when they are presented to parliament in the coming days.

The outcome of that process is difficult to predict, but Ghani, faced with the daunting task of dragging Afghanistan out of war and poverty, appeared to believe his predecessor Hamid Karzai had been held back by factional rivalries.

“President Ghani didn’t want to repeat past mistakes during Karzai’s time,” said a close aide to the leader, who, like his top security choices, is from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

“He wants to give a message to the international community and his people that the cabinet will be a different one,” added the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The main loser is the ethnic Tajik wing of the former Northern Alliance, a group of fighters mainly from the north of the country who have long been criticized for carving out local fiefdoms and putting personal above national interests.

Afghanistan is listed as the world’s fourth most corrupt nation by the watchdog group Transparency International, although accusations of graft have been leveled at officials across the ethnic and political spectrum.

Even under Karzai, a Pashtun, former Alliance members, particularly from the smaller ethnic Tajik community from the province of Panjshir, enjoyed sweeping powers.

ABDULLAH CALLED A “TRAITOR”

The ex-mujahideen’s exclusion has prompted criticism of Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s election rival-turned-government partner who draws his support mainly from the north.

He was branded a “traitor” on social media after the cabinet was unveiled on Monday.

During last year’s bitterly contested election, Ghani and Abdullah, who is a Tajik, both promoted themselves as candidates who aimed to put aside ethnic-based patronage.

But the outcry over the nominations shows it will not be easy to break with Afghanistan’s recent past.

“Right now, 80 percent of influential and powerful people around the country are former mujahideen commanders, and they don’t want to give up their power,” said Farhad Sediqi, a parliamentarian from the north.

Hazrat Ali, a former mujahideen and now lawmaker, said there was a risk that parliament could scupper the lengthy nomination process that has paralyzed parts of Afghan government.

“The parliament is dominated by mujahideen figures, and I don’t think they will vote for many of these nominees,” he said.

Each nominee needs a simple majority, and parliament is expected to decide on the appointments as early as Jan. 24.

“TRUST MY CHOICES”

An ethnic Tajik was put forward as foreign minister, but the defense and interior ministries have gone to Pashtuns, as did the top post at the National Directorate of Security.

Other Tajiks among cabinet nominees had little connection to the mujahideen and Northern Alliance.

It is not immediately clear whether the nominations will affect Ghani’s push to re-start peace talks with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.

The Islamist militants have waged war on foreign and Afghan forces since 2001, and their campaign has become increasingly deadly over the last year, killing hundreds of civilians and thousands of security personnel.

Shahzada Shahid, a lawmaker close to Abdullah, said Abdullah was under pressure from his traditional power base.

“It is not possible to include all those prominent figures in the cabinet, but there should have been a balance.”

Mujib Rahimi, a spokesman for Abdullah, said his office had no immediate comment on criticism of the nominations.

During three months of negotiations over the cabinet, Abdullah nominated two ex-mujahideen leaders, both Tajiks from Panjshir, for interior minister, said sources in both camps.

However, Ghani used his veto to reject the candidates because he said they lacked the necessary education and represented the old guard, the aides added.

The disagreement over the key post was the final tussle in a protracted tug-of-war. Eventually, Abdullah put forward an ally who is Pashtun, Nur ul-Haq Ulumi, and Ghani accepted.

For Panjshiris, the choice of Ulumi was especially contentious, since he was a general in the Soviet-backed army that fought the mujahideen in the 1980s.

Abdullah met disgruntled Panjshiri allies on Wednesday evening to reassure them, saying that he was confident in his cabinet picks, according to one participant at the meeting.

Abdullah was quoted as telling them: “If you trust me, you have to trust my choices.”

Additional reporting by Abdul Saboor; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Maria Golovnina

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