Afghanistan: Cabinet Nominations – A New-Look Effective Government?

After much delay, Afghan president Abdul Salam Rahimi and co-leader chief executive Abdullah Abdullah have announced their full list of cabinet nominees for their ‘national unity’ government. 

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s chief of staff, Abdul Salam Rahimi, announced on 12 January the joint nominations of Ghani and co-leader chief executive Abdullah Abdullah to fill the 25 cabinet positions in their ‘government of national unity’. Rahimi also announced nominees to the non-cabinet appointments of governor of the Central Bank and head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The nominations were submitted to Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament on 13 January, where each must be approved by a majority of members before they can take effect legally.

The nominations end an extended period of intense negotiation between Ghani and Abdullah to reach an agreement on the suitability of individual nominees for office while still striking the necessary balance between traditional tribal and political affiliations. Ghani in particular has reportedly sought to break with the past, creating a cabinet that is not stained with indelible corruption nor one that is perceived as a reshuffle of the same old warlords and factional power brokers. As a consequence (and in a situation without precedence) no nominee has had any previous cabinet experience, although all have had past experience working for government, often as technocrats.

According to media reports, the long delay in finalising cabinet nominations was largely due to Ghani and Abdullah struggling to reach an agreement over nominees for the posts of defence, finance, interior and foreign minister. The final nominations were a balanced and interesting mix. Ghani supporters filled the first two and Abdullah supporters the latter:

  • Army chief of staff General Sher Mohammad Karimi was the nominee for defence minister;
  • Ghulam Jilani Popal was the nominee for finance minister;
  • Former general and Kandahar province politician Noor ul-Haq Ulumni was the nominee for interior minister and;
  • Salahuddin Rabbini, son of a former president and a former head of the High Peace Council (who led the unsuccessful ‘unity’ talks with the Taliban in 2014), was the nominee for foreign minister.

Three women, compared to two under former President Karzai, were also nominated to cabinet posts to head the cultural affairs, higher education and information and culture ministries. Rahmatullah Nabil, a former Karzai appointee as head of the NDS, was the only person nominated to retain his post.

How many of the nominees ultimately make it to cabinet remains to be seen. The media reported on 19 January the withdrawal of Ghulam Popal as the finance minister nominee for undisclosed ‘personal reasons’. It was reported, however, that his withdrawal derived from his refusal to revoke dual citizenship. According to Afghanistan’s Constitution, the prime minister and cabinet ministers must hold Afghan citizenship, but the latter may also hold dual citizenship at the discretion of the parliament. There was a strong push by some parliamentarians for all ministers to hold only Afghan citizenship  in order to demonstrate their national loyalty and commitment. At least eleven of the nominees are known to be dual citizens of, variously, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey and Australia. Specifically, this will affect the nominations of Ulumni (a dual citizen of the Netherlands), Rabbini (a dual citizen of the UK), and Mahmood Saiqal (a dual citizen of Australia) who is the nominee for the energy and water portfolio. Ghani himself was a dual Afghan/US citizen and revoked the latter to comply with constitutional requirements before standing for president.

The media also revealed that the nominee for minister of agriculture, irrigation and livestock, Mohammad Yaqub Haidari, was on Interpol’s wanted list for alleged tax evasion associated with business deals in Estonia over a decade ago. How long it takes the parliament to review the nominations, how diligently they apply the dual citizenship test and how willing those with dual citizenship are to revoke it, is not known. For those who don’t make it, Ghani and Abdullah will have to agree on replacements that retain the integrity of their initial selection criteria.

While the media has claimed many Afghan and foreign observers were encouraged by the potential of the cabinet nominees to implement the reforms necessary to advance national unity and development, others reserved their judgement, seeing many of the nominations as simply the repackaging of old interests with new faces. But the real drivers for unity and basic development reside at the provincial and district levels in the appointment of ‘suitable’ governors. These have yet to be finalised. Time will tell whether the national government can reach these levels.

One of the major challenges for the new government will continue to be national security, relating directly to social and economic development. At the end of 2014 the mandate including the conduct of combat operations of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) came to an end. The primary responsibility for domestic security transitioned fully to the Afghan Security Forces (ASF). The ASF will continue to receive support from NATO and other affiliated nations, including Australia, until at least 2016/17. This will include funding the ASF and the continuing deployment of up to 16 000 foreign troops to Afghanistan, the majority of whom are from the US. Nevertheless, members of the ADF will be deployed to provide advice, training and other non-combat support. In addition, a relatively small number of US armed forces, mostly Special Forces, will also remain under a separate, renegotiated, Bilateral Security Agreement. The role of these forces will include combat support to the ASF in operations against the Taliban.

The Taliban did not make any major inroads against larger population areas during the run-down of the ISAF in late 2014 as this coincided with the traditional lull in fighting during winter in Afghanistan. However, this has not stopped the Taliban targeting government and foreign targets, especially in Kabul, using suicide bombers or other small-scale strike teams. How aggressive the Taliban will be when winter concludes (and how effective the ASF will be in containing the Taliban) remains to be seen.

The Ghani government is committed to continuing unification talks with the Taliban and their affiliates, but there is no evidence yet of any genuine Taliban interest. The government also has and will continue to explore joint cooperation with the Pakistan government to combat and reduce operational and logistic support to the Taliban from Pakistan. The tragic attack on 14 December at Pakistan’s Army Public School in Peshawar by terrorist elements affiliated with Pakistan’s Taliban may facilitate that cooperation in both the short and longer term. Some of those involved directly or indirectly in the attack fled to Afghanistan and, in response to requests for assistance by Pakistan to bring the guilty to justice, Afghanistan has reportedly arrested a number of those believed to be involved in the attacks, demonstrating their willingness to work together with Pakistan against the common threat of terrorism.

The steps taken by the Ghani and Abdullah ‘unity’ government to gain domestic and international respectability, and to begin to deliver real progress in social development, economic development, national unification, stability and security, will be observed closely by the West and other major stakeholders. The West can be expected to wait to see how the new government performs before making any new commitments to Afghanistan in the medium to longer term. The new Afghan government will be under great pressure, domestically and internationally, to perform.

Ian Dudgeon is a Presidential Associate of the AIIA ACT. He is a Canberra-based consultant and previously served in the Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence portfolios. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.